Frontier Flying: Exploring the Australian Outback by Air

Lane with an Aussie Skyhawk.

Somewhere beyond our Cessna 172's windscreen, the world must still exist. Somewhere out there must be a sky, a horizon, stars, and-a few thousand feet below us-an arid landscape dotted with spinifex grass, red sand ridges and dry river beds winding their way across the vast, uninhabited stretches of the Simpson Desert. At the moment, however, I have to take all that on faith, because the only thing I can see beyond the dimly-lit instrument panel is an impenetrable ocean of moonless black, with no lights, depth, color or contrast to differentiate ground from sky, or even give us any sense of movement. It all feels slightly surreal, in fact, as if I've suddenly been transported from an actual airplane into a simulator chamber where I could simply push the "pause" button and step outside for a quick break.

Of course, even if I could see the stars here, they wouldn't be much use to me in terms of navigation. Because the North Star and all the constellations I know are buried far beneath the horizon, along with the rest of the northern hemisphere. And if the night surrounding me is blacker than any sky I've ever even imagined, it's because I'm flying over one of the more remote places in the world-the wild, rugged landscape of the Australian Outback.

I'd always dreamed of exploring the Outback one day. But the impetus to actually make the trip happen occurred this past September when a couple of Australian pilot friends invited me to come to Australia and fly with them to the Birdsville races in southwest Queensland-a legendary annual Aussie event (and fly-in) that combines an Outback beer-fest with formal, Kentucky Derby-style thoroughbred horse racing. And then one of them, who happens to be a CFII, offered to accompany me if I wanted to do some more flying around the Outback after that. It was too good an offer to refuse. So I packed up my duffel bag, a sleeping bag and some sturdy desert boots and headed off to see how the reality of the Australian Outback compared with the fantasy land of my teenage dreams.

The Birdsville horse races attract not only the entire town (a population of about 50), but several thousand people from all across Australia. That attendance figure is especially impressive because getting to Birdsville from any of Australia's population centers requires a journey of two to three days over muddy, rutted, and otherwise unimproved dirt roads. Unless, of course, you have an airplane. The Birdsville races are also Australia's biggest fly-in, attracting up to 350 aircraft each year. And one look at all the mud-covered road vehicles that straggled into the dusty campgrounds there was enough to convince me all over again of how valuable a pilot's license can be-especially in a part of the world where the number of paved roads can still be counted on one hand, and towns are spaced several hundred miles apart.

Of course, the remote nature of the Outback means that travel there is always something of an adventure, no matter how you do it. The good news about the area's arid climate is that the skies are generally wide open and clear, and both air traffic and controlled airspace are almost non-existent. On the other hand, ATC services are also scarce, and airports in the Outback-many of which are only dirt or gravel strips-are as far apart as the towns and don't always offer fuel. As a result, some careful pre-flight planning is essential, and your fuel gauge can quickly become one of your primary flight instruments.

Navigation is also a bit challenging in a land where there are few radio navigation aids and even fewer distinct landmarks to differentiate one section of desert from another-for hundreds of miles in any direction. Local pilots assured me that it is, in fact, possible to successfully navigate across the Outback using only WAC charts, as long as you start tracking your progress as soon as you take off and never take your finger off the chart. But as far as I'm concerned, central Australia is one of those places in the world where a pilot should consider some kind of handheld GPS a go/no go item on the checklist. It's also a place where pilots should plan to fly only in daylight, unless they have an instrument-rated pilot on board.

And yet, the rewards of flying in the Outback stem from the very same sources as its challenges. For its vast stretches of uncluttered land and sky offer an opportunity to leave civilization far behind and experience a mix of unusual sights, colorful characters and frontier adventure that could never be found closer to home.

Take, for example, the tiny desert outpost of William Creek, along the Oodnadatta Track, at the southern end of the Simpson Desert. William Creek has 14 people, two pubs, Australia's first solar-powered, satellite pay phone, a single parking meter-and, in my estimation, at least half the world's population of flies. The dirt airstrip there is also crooked in every axis-it varies in width, curves to the right and is something less than level. When I arrived there in the 172, there was also about a 25-knot crosswind blowing straight across the runway-which, since there are few unicom or FBO services in the Outback, I discovered only when I flew overhead and saw the windsock sticking straight out to the right. And which, given the fact that alternate airports are few and far between, meant only that I then knew the landing was going to be a lively one.

But William Creek is also a place where you can taxi almost right up to the local pub door. And John, who runs the pub, and Trevor, who runs the airport operation, are two of the friendliest and most helpful people you'd ever want to meet. Trevor even managed to hook me up with a local cattle drive while I was in town, giving me a renewed appreciation for modern horsepower, and got me a tour of a local cattle station that covers a staggering 6.5 million acres of central Australian real estate. One thing's for sure. Whether it's beer, flies, multi-trailer "road trains" or cattle station-nothing in the Outback exists on a small scale.

After departing William Creek, we headed out over nearby Lake Eyre-which sits below sea level and is dry for most of the year, but has a salt base so white that flying across it felt a bit like flying across Antarctica. While we were there, we also hunted down and flew over an icon of local folklore-the fuselage of a Cessna 210 left there by a pilot who was apparently trying to impress his passengers with his ability to fly below sea level…and wound up impressing them right into the lakebed. We then flew over the remnants of the old Ghan Railway line, where spikes, or "dogs" from the 1800s still lie undisturbed in the sand, and "Marree Man"-a prehistoric-petroglyph-looking figure stretching some seven miles in length that locals actually suspect Australian army engineers of creating about eight years ago. In between, we passed over huge stretches of open land where camels, kangaroos, wallabies and even brumbies, or wild horses, can still be found running free.

But while there are all sorts of quirky and memorable people and sights to be found in the Outback, the most powerful lure of the place is simply the land itself. Flying over such a vast expanse of red sand dunes and multicolored rock ridges that snake across the landscape like the vertebrae of prehistoric earth lizards, it's impossible not to sense the power of the geologic forces that worked their magic here long before any humans set foot on the land. Australia never had the violent tectonic plate shifts and other eruptive events that have repeatedly changed the surface terrain in most of the rest of the world. For the past few million years, the strongest geologic force in Australia has been erosion. Consequently, the Outback contains some of the world's oldest rock formations and mountain ranges, offering one of the best windows back in time of any place on the planet.

Just a half day's flight south of William Creek, in fact, lies the oldest mountain range in the world-a stretch of mountains known as the Flinders Ranges. We flew into two separate, rustic resorts tucked away there-Wilpena Pound, which is a stunning, natural enclosure of multicolored rock that looks exactly like a meteor crater, even though it was formed through simple erosion of the surrounding mountain ridgelines, and Arkaroola, which offers a breathtaking collection of ridges, valleys and rock formations equal to anything the American Southwest has to offer.

Both resorts have gravel runways and are run by gregarious and energetic pilots who talk about the Flinders the way Scarlett O'Hara talked about Tara. But after spending a couple of nights gazing through Arkaroola's 14-inch telescopes at the southern hemisphere sky, and waking up to the sun peeking over Wilpena Pound's rainbow rock ridgelines, I began to understand their enthusiasm for the place.

And yet, the Flinders are just one of the geologic wonders the Outback has to offer. Just a day's flight west of there lies Ayers Rock, which-along with its companion outcrop, Kata Tjuta - reigns as Australia's best-known geologic tourist attraction. Ayers Rock, or "Uluru", as the Aborigines call it, is a massive monolith of arkose that's more than eight miles in circumference and rises up some 1,200 feet from the flat desert floor. It's a sacred place of great spiritual significance and power to the Australian Aborigines…and standing at its base, looking up at enormous, smooth-edged caves and rust-colored rock walls so powerful and expansive that I couldn't even begin to capture their grandeur in my camera lens, I understood why.

But it was flying over the Outback landscape that I found perhaps the most stunning link between the Aboriginal people and the land they've called home for more than 50,000 years. Looking down on waves of ochre sandstone, serpentine ridgelines and lizard shapes of dry river beds on a sand canvas dotted with circles of spinifex grass, I realized I was gazing at a real-life model for the Aboriginal dreamtime paintings I'd seen in local art galleries. Their characteristic artwork truly reflects the nature of the land, as seen from the sky. How could they have known? But that's the mystery of Australia and this ancient desert land.

The Australian Outback may not be the most comfortable vacation spot in the world. But what it lacks in creature comforts, it more than makes up for in adventure. It's a place of history, power and beauty, where the ancient world, a frontier culture and modern-day conveniences all come together, and where a pilot can find welcoming, friendly people, abundant laughter and beer, wide open skies, and memorable sights-on the ground and in the air.

In retrospect, my teenage dreams didn't even begin to cover it.


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