Round the World – SE Asia Days 22 to 24

Round the World – SE Asia Days 22 to 24

I had arranged with the water-sports crew for a ride to the airport; they offered many services. The price mysteriously quadrupled between the original agreement and the pick-up, but I managed to negotiate it down again. I arrived at the airport at 0730, for my 0800 take-off; this was in line with the suggestions of my handling agent given that fueling was done. Unfortunately, the agent didn’t appear until 0800, and then immigration were nowhere to be found. They took my passport off to try and find someone to deal with it, while I prepared the airplane.

Flying to Australia requires a few strict procedures around bio-security. They are very, very serious about keeping unwanted pests out of the country. I had made sure that no disallowed food items were in the aircraft (the “Scooby Snacks” that Jason had given me before departure were OK), and then sprayed the inside of the aircraft generously with a special pre-departure insecticide. I had obtained this Australia-approved can, as well as the second “top-of-descent” can, from the Wings Over Asia FBO in Singapore. I closed the aircraft up for the prescribed 5 minutes, to let the insecticide do its job. A little before 0900 one of the agents came wobbling across the apron on a bicycle, passport in hand, and I was good to go.

I was given a backtrack to the end of the southerly facing runway. Near the threshold I came across a large snake, which was suspiciously flat in the middle; it seemed to have been run over by the airliner that landed a few minutes before, and large birds were already here and feasting on it. I reported it to ATC, given that hitting dead snakes and large birds can be a risk for aircraft, and they had me hold position while they called a team to remove it. It was taking a while so I reassured them I could take off without risk, and they sent me on my way.

I climbed out, and a slight turn to the right put me on course direct for Broome, Australia. Ahead of me, more than 700 miles of nothing but open ocean. I had my lifejacket on, survival gear stashed on and within it, and the life-raft on the seat next to me. I hoped very strongly that I wouldn’t need any of it! About 50 miles out, Lombok tried to switch me onto an HF radio channel for crossing the ocean; given my lack of HF radio, this wasn’t going to happen, and I headed out into radio silence on the long crossing, alone over the Timor Sea.

The skies were almost clear, with just the occasional fluffy cloud slipping past below me. I didn’t see a single ship; this was seriously empty ocean. Every now and then I’d call on the emergency frequency and try for a message relay, to let Bali and then Broome know that I was still in the air. Jetstar 110 was the first to help me out, and as I approached halfway Air New Zealand 281 stepped up and passed messages for me. A few miles further on, and “Border Force 11” called me up on frequency. Try as I might, despite being able to hear them, they were not able to hear my responses; eventually NZ281 stepped in to let Border Force know that I could hear them. It turned out they’d just been wanting to give me a courtesy call to say welcome!

The long ocean crossing to Australia

A couple of hours later, and I was in radio contact with Brisbane control. Despite Brisbane being clear across the other side of the continent, they apparently still control this part of the airspace. They gave me a new IFR clearance, directly to Broome, which was handy as that’s what I’d been flying anyway. As I drew closer I was handed over to Broome, and began my descent, spraying the second can of insecticide, the “top of descent” can, in the cabin in accordance with the instructions. I had noted down the details of the spraying, and the can serial numbers, on the special form that’s designed this.

Weather conditions were perfect, and the water off the beaches north of Broome was clear and sparkling. It looked idyllic! I was given a visual approach, flying a right downwind and turning back towards the northwest for my landing. A “follow-me” truck was waiting, and led me to the international arrivals pad where immigration were waiting; bio-security, however, were not. Opening the doors or windows of an aircraft is not permitted without clearance from bio-security, and it was very hot; luckily, immigration took initiative and after I held up the insecticide cans and completed form to show them, signaled that I could open up.

They had a quick look through the aircraft, showing interest only in the “Pilot’s nut powder” that Tom Claytor had given me in Thailand. It does not contain any nut products. We then retired to a nearby table under some shade and they had me fill in numerous forms, and chatted a little bit about my trip and my visit to Australia. They were very warm and welcoming, and before too long I was free to proceed. The follow-me truck returned and led me to a parking space, after which I decided to organise some fuel. This is where the trouble began.

Some rather over-zealous interpretation of sanctions law by the man in the BP office meant that they, the only AVGAS supplier, would not sell fuel to a foreign aircraft without clearance from head office. Head office was, at this time of day (and a couple of time zones ahead), closed. They took my details and promised to email the out of hours service, in the hope that they might be able to fuel me the following morning. This was a bit of a nonsense, and I still had a lot of fuel, so I phone up the fueler at Halls Creek. This location was also BP, and about 3 hours flight east of Broome; they reported that of course they could fill me up, no worries, too easy! With Plan B in hand, I set off to walk to the nearby “Maccas” to enjoy some wifi and a bite to eat.

Parked up at Broome immigration

Over a cheeseburger, I got the laptop out and managed to secure the last remaining private room at the nearby Kimberley Travelers Lodge, a backpacker place near the airport. After settling in to my room I hung out in the common area, planning my upcoming crossing of the Australian continent, and chatting to a few of the other guests about our travels and the best places to see. One of the guys, a French tourist, had just crossed about half of the continent on dirt roads only, which sounded like quite an adventure! Another, a Japanese lady on a long term working holiday, wanted to go to Sydney, and was quick to claim my spare copilot seat. We had the hostel arrange a taxi for the following morning (she had more luggage than I wanted to try and carry), and settled in before yet another early start the following day.

We were up and outside the hotel a little before our scheduled pick-up time of 0630. The guy at the Kimberley Lodge had warned us that “all taxis in this town are terrible” and, sure enough, our ride never turned up. We set out to lug the bags on the 30 minute walk to the private side of the airport; meaning we were a little late for the appointment that I’d made late the previous night with BP. They had emailed their head office, copying me, and head office had replied with words to the effect of “of course you can fuel them, you plonkers”. We topped up the wings, shoe-horned Hiyo’s bags in, and started up.

Before 8am, the control tower at Broome is not open, so the field was operating as an uncontrolled field. I followed another aircraft and just copied him while getting my head around the procedures, which seemed very similar to those used in the US. Not everybody wanted to use the runway in the same direction, so after the aircraft in front of us departed we waited while another took off from the other end, and set off on our way. I turned left on course, and climbed to 3,500ft. It was calm this morning, and I wanted to enjoy the views!

Covering plenty of ground on Australia, day 1

When planning for this section of the trip, I had seen arrival in Australia as the end of the main “challenging bits”, at least regarding bureaucracy and hassle. This turned out to be correct; the Australian regulatory agency and politicians do seem to be doing their best to cause problems for pilots in general, but flying here is still much better than in most parts of the world. What I had not quite wrapped my head around, however, was the sheer size of the place; my brother helpfully sent me a picture showing Australia superimposed over the moon (Australia is bigger) to illustrate my oversight. In order to catch my 10am flight out of Sydney on Thursday morning (it was now Tuesday) I’d need to fly 18 hours over 2 days. Luckily, long distance flying is something of a specialty!

Within just a few miles, the landscape had turned arid and barren. There was very little sign of human activity, much less habitation, something that would continue with few exceptions to within a few hundred miles of the east coast. Eyes peeled in vain for kangaroos, we droned on towards Halls Creek. We could hear a King Air on frequency, announcing his progress from Broome to Fitzroy Crossing, and before long he appeared on my ADS-B screen as he overhauled us 15,000ft above. He descended ahead of us, and as we passed Fitzroy Crossing we could see him on the ground, unloading.

The day was heating up fast and it started to get bumpy during the last hour towards Halls Creek. My decision to keep a couple of air sickness bags staged in the glove compartment proved prescient, as Hiyo made use of both of them; a slightly concerning start as we still had more than 15 flying hours to go. Landing direction at Halls Creek was almost in line with my existing heading, so we came straight in and rolled to a stop in front of the BP fuel pump. The attendant came out to greet us and I topped the tanks again; with vast distances between airports out here, and even vaster distances between fuel stops, the more fuel in the tanks the better.

Filling up at Halls Creek

The attendant was kind enough to drive us the few blocks into town, where we bought a few snacks, and some air-sickness tablets. The town had only about 1,500 people; he was here on a few year assignment while his wife taught at the local school. Apparently life was decent, but usually very quiet! He dropped us back at the aircraft and after the essential bathroom break, we were on our way.

I climbed steadily, to try and get above the turbulence. We eventually did; at 13,500ft! High above the outback, we cruised onward, enjoying the scenery unrolling below us. While conforming entirely to the “outback” category, it was endlessly changing, much as the deserts of Saudi Arabia had been; sand dunes, river beds, rocky plateaus, hill ranges, the list goes on. My route took us direct to Alice Springs; one of very few airports along this route; the plan was to get close, and then make a decision about whether to stop, or carry on.

In the event, we were both feeling fine, and decided to keep flying another few hours to the town of Birdsville. This town has a population of about 150, although in the first weekend of September about 7,000 people descend upon it for the famous “Birdsville Races”. Given that it wasn’t the first weekend in September, we were hopeful that there’d be rooms available to stay. I used the Garmin InReach to message my father, and ask him to investigate accommodation options; he found the Birdsville Hotel, right next to the airport, but wasn’t able to confirm space. We figured we’d land and try our luck.

The sun set slowly over the desert, and we droned onwards in the darkness. Hiyo took the opportunity to fill up a couple more air sickness bags, despite the calm air. As we approached Birdsville, I flew the GPS approach in visual conditions, to make it easier to find and line up on the airport. It was at this stage that a serious deficiency in my pre-flight preparation became apparent; in the US, one clicks the microphone 7 times on the airport frequency to remotely turn on the lights. In Australia, things are apparently different; and it was a very dark night.

My Stene Aviation Quasar wing tips came into their own here. With both of the high intensity LED landing lights on full, complementing the hull mounted LED landing lights, the ground was just about visible from minimums on the GPS approach! This allowed us to land safely, and we rolled out to the end of the runway and parked up at the end of a long line of Cessna 210s, securing the aircraft for the night.

We headed straight to the hotel. The bad news was, they had no rooms remaining. The good news, the kitchen was open for another ten minutes, and there was another place that might be able to accommodate us. As there were two of us, we were able to divide forces; Hiyo stayed in the bar to receive the food, while I went off and secured rooms at the Birdsville Lodge (which turned out to be very similar to the pre-fab accommodation that we have in Iraq.) On my return, the food was waiting. I later reflected that perhaps ordering fish 1,000+km from the coast, in a desert, was not the best choice, but it turned out to be very good.

It was while eating that I received some bad news. The hangar space that I had been promised in Cessnock, from now until early December, was no longer available; and I didn’t exactly have a lot of time available to find an alternative. I threw out the question to a couple of the major Australian pilot groups and was inundated with responses; although my preference for “close to Cessnock” was interpreted by some in Australian terms, which seems to mean “within about a day’s travel”.

The other occupants of this part of the bar were a big group of Australians who turned out to be celebrating no fewer than 3 birthdays. They insisted we join them for a bit, and seemed interested to hear about the round the world flight. As we were chatting, another man walked into the bar and loudly inquired “Which one of you is Ross?” To my amazement, he was a pilot who was spending the night and had seen my online plea for help, and figured out somehow that I was in this bar. A friend of his had a space to offer, south of Sydney; added to the potential hangar space available at the airport next door to Cessnock, I was suddenly back in good shape on the hangar front. We made our excuses before it got too late, and went to bed; yet another early start was coming.

We woke at 0630, and were at the airfield (a mere 2 block walk) for 0700. There were a couple of other pilots there preparing their aircraft, including my new friend from the previous night. The fuel attendant helped us to top off, and after some chatting about the flight and some photographs, we back-taxied and took off in the direction of Sydney. As we climbed out over the town, it was clear just how tiny it was – just a couple of blocks from side to side and end to end.

At this time of day the air was still fairly calm, and I climbed up to 7,500ft. The first planned stop of the day was Bourke, a little more than half way between Birdsville and the Cessnock area. I still didn’t know where I’d be parking the aircraft, and was hoping that news would have come in by the time I reached this stop. The landscape was red and desolate, with barely a sign of human influence, although we did pass one huge mine that had its own long, paved air strip. This was apparently quite busy as we heard two flights coming in just during the time we were monitoring the traffic frequency.

As we drew closer to Bourke, the occasional splash of green started to appear, and by the time we neared the airport it was noticeably more developed and arable; still a far cry from the UK or any of the lush Asian landscape I had been crossing recently, though. The first things we noticed on arrival were the flies; they were numerous and incredibly aggressive about getting into our faces. The existence of Australian hats with corks hanging for the brim was suddenly made clear! We jogged to the little terminal building, swatting at our heads, and managed to get inside without taking too many of them with us.

I checked my phone, and received some good news; a hangar had been located at Maitland airport, just a short hop from Cessnock. This had been organised by two of the leaders of AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) Australia, Ben and Gerard. A couple of phone calls, and all was arranged; it was a huge relief to have this taken care of, and to know the airplane would be in the best possible hands during its long stay there.

The final flights of section 3

Some map checking revealed that there was very little within walking distance, so we decided to simply refuel and head on. We ran back to the aircraft and Hiyo dug some bug spray out of her bag, which had very little effect. I attempted to fuel one handed, leaving the remaining hand free to wave around at the flies, and soon we were on our way; keeping the windows closed until the engine was running, and the air flow too intense to allow any flies through. Their concentration in this area may well have been due to what looked like an entirely unexplained severed kangaroo’s tail lying by the fuel pump; very odd.

We climbed to 9,500ft, well clear of the bumps, and set off over what was now unmistakably cultivated and developed land. As we drew closer to civilization, I got in contact with Brisbane Control, and they provided me with whatever the Australian equivalent of Flight Following is as we headed towards Maitland. The previous day, and this morning, the area had apparently been hit by torrential rain, and the contacts I had been talking to did not expect that I’d be able to make it in. Indeed, as we crossed the ranges of hills that separate the dry interior from the coastal region, there was fairly thick cloud; but it never became so thick that we had to switch to instruments.

As we closed in on Maitland, we flew over vast open mines, being worked by equally vast machines. The countryside was lush and green and well developed; after what seemed like endless outback and desert, this was a hugely welcome sight. There was a stiff breeze, but conditions were otherwise lovely as we approached Maitland, setting up for final approach to the shorter and narrower tarmac runway, as it was mostly into the wind. We touched down and rolled out; section 3 was complete at last! I backtracked on the runway to the fuel pumps; there were grass taxiways but they appeared to be mostly underwater. Clearly they’d had serious rain here.

My aunt, Gerard from AOPA, and another gentleman from Cessnock called Harry were all there to meet and assist. Harry helped me fuel the aircraft, and then led me over to Gerard’s hangar where Planey would be staying. After saying our hellos, I took care of a quick oil change; best to leave the aircraft with clean fresh oil whenever possible if it’s going to sit for a while, and the new oil I put in had anti-corrosion additives to help keep it in good condition. We re-positioned the airplane to perform an engine run-up and leak check, which is where the danger of being in a hurry presented itself. In my rush to get things finished up, and get on the road to Sydney, I entirely forgot to put the oil filler cap back on. Just as I was thinking to myself “Did I put the filler cap on…?” Harry made the symbol to cut the engine; that would be a “yes”, then. We did learn, at least, that oil won’t blow out the filler if you leave the cap off, at least when stationary on the ground.

After meeting Dave, the owner of the maintenance shop, and running through some preventative work and inspections that I wanted done while I was away, we jumped in my aunt’s car and headed for Sydney. Along the way I received a call from Ben, from AOPA Australia, and he spent a while interviewing me for an article about the flight for their magazine. We drove on through the darkness and occasional torrential rain, crossing the Sydney harbour bridge, which was an exciting way to arrive in the city! We stayed that night at the Sofitel in Darling Harbour, and had an incredible dinner at Cafe Sydney, overlooking the bridge and opera house. The next morning it would be back to work, and what would be a 12 week break in the trip in total.

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4 thoughts on “Round the World – SE Asia Days 22 to 24

  1. Great Trip across Australia. Enjoyed the blog & pics, glad things worked out in Maitland. Learning lots about adventure flying! Looking forward to the next leg.
    Clear skies!

  2. First, I want to get my pre-order in for the new book when it comes out, to go with my greatly cherished Africa one.

    Second, on the day you crossed the Equator at 104East, I was also on the equator, very close to the exact opposite side of the globe from you. B and I were at 00 and 090West, amongst some big turtles and marine Iguanas.

  3. I’ve been following your trip since you left Pittsburg. It is one heck of an adventure. Looking forward to your postings when you start your trip across the Pacific in 3 months. If you decide to cross the southern US after your stop in California, I am at KAVQ (in Tucson, AZ).

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