The taxi pulled up right as we walked out the door of the inn, with 2 smiling faces already inside. We set off to collect Ollie and were soon back at the airport, which was unfortunately closed. Luckily, the fence was not high, and the gate opened from the inside.
Pre-flight was quick now that we’d all fallen into our assigned roles. Ollie checked the aircraft, I removed the tie-downs and checked the fuel, and Rowan loaded the luggage. Jen took down the sunshades and was in charge of snacks! We took off as quietly as possible, given that it still wasn’t 6am, and turned on course for our first destination of Charters Towers.
The flight was just over an hour, across early morning scattered cloud and mist. The departure gave a great view of Airlie Beach, before taking us up and over the coastal hills. At this time of morning the air was beautifully smooth. When we arrived at Charters Towers the field was deserted, but the self serve fuel was available, and the bathrooms unlocked; that’s all we needed! We fueled up and headed out.
Our next flight leg was almost 400 nautical miles, to Mount Isa. We climbed up to 8,500ft to be above the thermals that would be developing through the morning. The terrain was turning into real Australian outback, with hardly any sign of human activity. A slight headwind slowed us down, but we were on the ground at Mount Isa not long after 10, and fueling up. This airport was significantly bigger, with security staff and all!
We departed from Mount Isa for what we expected to be the final flight of the day, just over 30 minutes to Barkly Roadhouse. The airstrip wasn’t in the GPS so Ollie directed me in using his aviation app. It seemed like a very short flight, compared to what I had been expecting. As we came overhead, my skepticism deepened. Things didn’t look quite as I’d pictured them from the website; for one thing, the buildings were laid out differently, and there was no highway or fuel pumps, strange for a roadhouse. I questioned Ollie again. “Nah, no worries mate, it’s all good, this is Barkly” said Ollie (possibly in a less stereotypically Australian way, but that’s how it is in my memory). So, we landed. I did a horrible job of it as we were trying the full 40 degrees of flaps for the first time. After the screaming from the back had died down, we parked up next to an open hangar that had a Cessna 182 parked inside.
We secured the aircraft and headed off to investigate. The whole place seemed deserted, with lawn sprinklers going and more dead birds lying around than we were used to seeing. We found an unlocked building that seemed like a recreation room, that happily had a mobile phone picocell, so Ollie called Barkly Roadhouse reception to investigate. They were very confused that we couldn’t find them, but the reason for this soon became clear as I checked Google Maps. We were indeed at Barkly, but the wrong one; this was effectively just somebody’s house. We decided to get out of there quick and make our way to the other Barkly, nearly 200 miles to the west, in a different state.
Before we managed to slip away, the only resident found us. Luckily he was friendly and quite amused by the situation. He told us he’d heard the airplane land but hadn’t really though anything of it – a bit odd if you’re the only person on a remote homestead! We packed everything up, took off, and headed west.
The flight was just over an hour, and the terrain soon started looking much more like we’d expected. Desert, with a long highway stretching ahead of us. We flew a left downwind past a facility that looked a lot more like the one from the website, and touched down on the dirt runway, taxiing down a dirt track to the parking area near the main facility. This time, the route to reception was very obvious.
After checking into our cabins, we relaxed in the restaurant for a bit, the only place with wifi albeit slow. We looked ahead at the plan for the next few days, including the long, long run out to Perth and beyond. The unanimous feeling was that this was going to be just too much flying, with no real opportunity to enjoy Perth after such a long slog, so we revised the plan. After Ayers Rock, we’d head southeast to Coober Pedy, instead of west to Perth. Much more manageable.
We had dinner at 5:30pm, as soon as the kitchen opened, and turned in early as usual after pausing to admire some of the giant road trains that had rolled in.
We departed just after 6:30am, in the relative cool of the early morning. Our first flight would be to Alice Springs for a breakfast stop, and was about a two and a half hour leg over yet more barren outback. As we approached Alice Springs, the terrain became a little more interesting with long ridges; it was very familiar too, as I’d flown directly over here without landing on my way down from Broome.
Alice Springs is a pretty big airport with proper security, so we had to follow strict procedures. We couldn’t even leave the airside area without a security officer coming and letting us through the gate. It wasn’t too much of a hassle though, and soon we’d walked the 350m to the main terminal and were enjoying breakfast in the cafe. The cafe was actually on the secure side of the security checkpoint, but no boarding pass was needed to get through.
As we ate, we realised that we’d not spotted the “24 hours prior notice required” note on the Ayers Rock airport info. As we planned to be arriving there in about 2 hours, this was an issue. Ollie called up and worked some verbal magic, and we were given the permission after a gentle chiding.
We walked around to the GA area and had to wait for a while for the airport security to come and let us back in. Refueling was quick and we climbed out following the VFR route to Ayers Rock. Things were a little bumpy at first as the day was warming up and we’d been restricted to 4’500 by air traffic control due to arriving traffic. We bumped our way out 30 miles or so, and were then cleared to climb up to the much cooler and smoother altitude of 8,500.
50 miles out, a bump could be seen on the horizon. As we drew closer, it turned out not to be Ayers Rock itself, but the nearby taller formation of Kata Tjuṯa, also known as the Olgas. The most famous rock itself was soon in sight as well. It was now afternoon, and getting very bumpy, so we decided to land straight away and save the scenic flight for the morning. We touched down just ahead of a sightseeing 172, with a Qantas airliner waiting for us before it departed. We tied down, picked up the rental car, and headed to grab some water and icecream before entering the park.
We didn’t need a map to tell us which way to turn out of the resort area gates. The rock makes a compelling landmark. It was about a four kilometer drive to the park entrance, and then another fifteen to the cultural center, which showcased all kinds of information about aboriginal life there, as well as giving us some good advice about the best activities for an afternoon where the temperature was in the mid 40s Celsius.
Just weeks before our visit, climbing the rock had been permanently banned; this didn’t worry us too much as it was far too hot to even think about doing that. Anyway, as someone had said to me, if you climb the rock then you’re now standing on top of the only interesting thing that there is to look at.
We first drove out towards the rock, and parked the car up near its base to hike along the Mala walk. This walk took us along a section of the rock and into the Kantju gorge, where a water hole fills up when the rains come, and is a vital source of water for animals in the area, as well as an ancient site for the Aboriginal people. Along the walk there were a number of caves, set into the rocks base, and signs explained the uses that each had been put to by the Aboriginals; cooking, schooling and so on.
It was blisteringly hot and we were soon relieved to be back in the car, having filled up our water bottles at one of the drinking water stations provided by the park. We drove along around the perimeter of the rock, parking this time at the head of the Kuniya walk, to take us to the Mutitjulu water hole. This walk, to our great relief, was shaded. The gorge had a surprising amount of vegetation at its base, supported by the water that is funneled in here; one particular species of tree apparently had roots that go down 60 – 70 meters, seeking water from the dry desert.
We contemplated a drive out to see Kata Tjuta, but it was clear that it would be too long a round trip, and instead we returned to the resort complex and our small 6-person cabin at the campsite. The small air conditioner unit was not keeping up with the 44 degree heat. We relaxed for a while before heading for dinner, and then back out to the sunset viewing area to watch as the evening light drew in across the rock. After that, an early night; we’d be off again before 7 for our flight south.
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