Round the World – Australia 2, Part 2

Round the World – Australia 2, Part 2

Ollie collected me bright and early, and we drove out to Cambridge to meet up with the others. Mitch already had the Cub and the Maule out of the hangar, and I opened up the next door hangar and brought Planey out to join them. It was looking like a perfect day with light winds, and clear skies. Ollie pre-flighted the Maule on Paul’s behalf, as he hadn’t shown up yet, and once he did we were ready to go. Ollie and I let the other two depart first; their plan was to fly direct to our first destination, Bathurst Harbour, and we would depart a little after them and fly the long way round along the coast. We were rather faster than they were…

A few minutes after they took off, we taxied out. Ollie took care of the radios for me, as he was fluent in Australian. We set off along the coast, checking out the large number of fish farms that were situated in bays south of Hobart as we climbed. As we continued around the coastline the landscape became much more rugged and remote, and we saw very little evidence of human activity. A strong wind was blowing in from the forbidding looking Southern Ocean.

There was a cloud layer at about 2,500ft over the southern part of Tasmania which was giving the others some problems. As we neared the area of Bathurst harbour, we came into radio range of Mitch and Paul. Chatting to them over the radio, we found that while Mitch had managed to find a hole in the clouds to drop down through, Paul had not been so lucky. We could see a few gaps from below, and Ollie tried to direct Paul towards them but it was not to be; eventually, he gave up and headed for home.

We flew a circuit at Bathurst Harbour, and could see Mitch already parked up on the sand below us. Bathurst Harbour airstrip has a restriction, limiting landing rights to those with a commercial pilots licence only (luckily, I have this!) – this is apparently as a result of some significant landing accidents involving private pilots who seemed to be operating somewhat outside of the limits of their licence by taking paying passengers down to this popular national park. Ollie also confided in me that a reliable way to achieve a warm welcome by the resident parks staff was to show up with today’s newspaper, and some chocolate; we did this, and it worked like a charm!

Adjacent to the airstrip, only accessible by air or boat, is the tiny settlement of Melaleuca. Originally established for tin-mining by the King family, Melaleuca is now a significant stopping point on the South Coast and Port Davey hiking tracks, as well as a popular spot for birdwatchers hoping to catch a glimpse of the critically endangered orange-bellied parrot. We did not see any parrots, but we did enjoy a walk along the Needwonnee Walk. Along this 1.2 km boardwalk visitors can view the living and changing sculptural installations, made from natural materials, and share the stories of the aboriginal Needwonnee people, as well as viewing the natural beauty of the Melaleuca river and lagoon.

Walk complete, we made our way back to the strip. Mitch and his friend would be taking the Cub back to Cambridge, while Ollie and I continued to visit a number of other airstrips around Tasmania. We said our goodbyes and took off first, heading out into what Ollie referred to as “Tiger country” across the rugged center of the island.

This territory was certainly forbidding, and I was glad to be carrying my satellite locater beacon just in case. The southwest and center of Tasmania feature large, tree covered mountains divided by deep gorges and valleys, with basically no ground access. The scenery was spectacular but I did breathe a slight sigh of relief as we approached the edge of the central plateau began a descent towards our next destination, a private strip close to the town of Launceston.

Ollie’s aviation network reached far and wide across Tasmania and beyond, and he’d been able to text the strip owner as we flew and get permission to drop in. He was mowing the strip as we arrived, and came over to say hello. We chatted for a while before jumping back in the plane and making the short flight over to the main Launceston airport for some fuel.

We parked up next to the flying club at Launceston, and Ollie called the fuel truck. While we waited we wandered inside the club, and were greeted by an instructor and his student who were preparing for a lesson. Before long, the refueler turned up and we were able to fill up the wing tanks and get going once more.

Touring Tasmania

We continued to the northeast across Tasmania, on our way to Flinders Island. This is the largest of a group of islands known as the Furneaux group, which sit in the Bass Strait to the northeast of Tasmania’s mainland. The islands were first inhabited about 35,000 years ago by people making their way over from the Australian mainland, but this population died out about 4,500 years ago. The islands remained uninhabited until European settlement in the 18th century. These days a little over 800 people reside on the island group.

We flew all the way to the northern end of Flinders Island, and landed at the private strip of Killiecrankie. There wasn’t anybody there, and there was nothing to do, so we departed straight away and headed towards the other end of the island and the town of Lady Barron. Lady Barron has two airstrips, right next to each other; Lady Barron grass (which we landed at) and Lady Barron tarmac. The settlement is believed to be named after Clara, wife of Major General Sir Harry Barron, who was Governor of Tasmania from 1909 to 1913. The reason for our visit, touching down in the warm midday sun, was lunch! It was about a 15 minute walk to an excellent pub.

Now well fed, we returned to the airfield. A man was hanging out near the open-sided hangar with a carry-on bag, and approached us as we neared Planey. “Hi guys”, he said, “I think I’m flying with you today”. We assured him that he probably wasn’t, and suggested that he wait for the commercial flight that would be operating a little later. Winds were light, and we took off back down the opposite runway from that which we’d landed on, minimising the taxi time. It was time to start heading back to Hobart.

Our first stop was the airstrip at Cape Barren, just for the fun of stopping there, before we continued south towards the Tasmanian mainland again. Before long we were crossing Swan Island and coasting in over Musselroe Bay. We continued down the coastline, admiring the beautiful azure waters as we flew. We landed briefly at St Helens airport, a long tarmac strip, before continuing down the coast towards Friendly Beaches.

Friendly Beaches is a dirt/gravel strip, nestled on a strip of land between the Tasman Sea and the Moulting Lagoon. Hangars are scattered either side of the runway, among the trees. A small commercial operator flies out of here; Ollie informed me that the lone pilot was rather starved for company, and would eagerly pounce on any visitor for conversation. Sadly we didn’t have time to stop and chat, so we taxied back to the threshold and departed again, turning south over the coastline.

Our final stop before arriving back in Hobart was the National Parks strip on Maria Island. This island was named in 1642 by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman after Maria van Diemen, wife of Anthony van Diemen, the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies in Batavia. The island is uninhabited other than a few parks staff, but can have visitor numbers of up to a few hundred at a time at the height of the season.

Sealing, farming, and several industries have found a home on the island over the last couple of years, and there were also a couple of historical periods where convicts were held there. Historical buildings and other evidence of these past activities can be found around the island, and form part of the tourist attraction of the national park. The runway seems to be particularly attractive to kangaroos, and we had to pick our way between a few of them as we performed a lazy touch and go, departing again over the sea cliffs and turning in the direction of Hobart.

We had to be back at Hobart in good time, because Ollie had invited me to ride along with him in the Beaver amphibious floatplane which he would be piloting back from the harbour to Cambridge. We parked Planey up at Cambridge, and drove into town to the Beaver. This was the same kind of airplane which Elsa and I had ridden in back in 2018, when we went bear watching in Alaska. The size of these beasts was always impressive, and it was particularly cool to be flown by a good friend!

Ollie guided me on board without falling in the water (he’d earlier regaled me with a particularly entertaining story about him falling in the harbour) and we set off, taxiing out into the middle of the channel before pushing in the power and skipping over the waves before lifting off. It was only a few minutes flight, and all at a very low level, so the views were exceptional. Landing was a weird feeling, with the amphibious floats leaving us still far above the ground even after we had left the runway and were taxiing in! We parked up near Planey, and spent a while emptying water from the floats and hosing away the saltwater.

Our two rides for the day

That evening, my last in Hobart, was celebrated with an excellent meal down on the Hobart waterfront. The next day it would be time to set out and explore some more of Australia!

Sunday morning dawned bright and clear. Ollie had been trying to convince me all week that the amazing weather which had coincided with my whole stay was not at all normal, but I didn’t believe him. The Tasmanians were clearly just trying to keep everyone else away so they could enjoy Tassie all by themselves. I therefore decided to make the most of the conditions to see a bit more of Tasmania before making the jump back to the big sandy island to the north. I had submitted my travel notification form to the South Australian government and received permission to enter (a necessity in this time of COVID), so I was all ready to go.

I flew outbound over Hobart, in communication with Hobart Tower; those snippets of the Australian language which I had managed to pick up proved to be adequate to understand them. I climbed at a good rate, keen to get high enough to have decent options for emergency landing areas should the situation arise; the first flight would have me passing over a great deal of “Tiger country”.

My first planned destination was the airstrip at Strahan (pronounced “Straaawn”), on Tasmania’s east coast. The town was originally developed as a port of access for the mining settlements in the area, being known as Long Bay or Regatta Point until 1877 when it was formally named after the colony’s Governor, Sir George Cumine Strahan. As well as mining, the port supported a regional timber industry and small fishing fleet; today it is mainly a tourist destination with a population of around 650.

After a brief stop, I took off again and headed for a touch and go at the local airport of Queenstown. This mining settlement was founded around the 1890s to exploit nearby copper deposits, expanding to a population of over 5,000 by 1900. Today, this has fallen back to less than 2,000 after a brief boom in the 1980s supported by construction of several nearby dams for hydropower. After touching the wheels on Queenstown’s tarmac, I powered up again and climbed out over the hills to the east.

Back over central Tassie once again, I was glad that I had elected to see some more of the state. The combination of rugged mountains and lakes tucked away between them was gorgeous, and quite evocative of New Zealand’s South Island. My flight took me directly over the impressive Cradle Mountain, before it was time to begin a gentle descent towards The Vale.

The Vale is a beautiful, lifestyle-farming block in north central Tasmania, raising high quality lamb as well as holding a very high quality grass runway which has even been frequented by private jets. The approach was good fun, low over the trees on the mountainside on downwind before dropping down into the valley for final approach. The owner was out mowing the runway as I landed and came over to say hi and chat about the flight. He was kind enough to invite me back any time, an offer I probably won’t be able to accept any time soon, but maybe one day!

Heading to South Australia

Fuel was starting to get a little low, and much like in New Zealand it was sometimes hard to find somewhere to refuel in Australia without being the owner of a domestic fuel card. To be fair, there were significantly more credit-card self serve machines than in New Zealand, but still few enough that one had to think carefully about where to fill up, especially given the distances involved in Australia! I headed up to Devonport, which advertised a self-serve machine that accepted credit cards; on arrival, this was determined to be a lie. Luckily the owner of the maintenance shop next door, who was just preparing his helicopter to go out for a spin, was kind enough to lend me his BP card so I wasn’t stranded.

From here I set out east towards Barnbougle Dunes, an area of giant sand dunes on Tasmania’s north coast. There’s a gravel strip sitting at the base of the largest dune and this seemed like a fun place to land. Along the way I stopped in for a brief landing at Cranbourn, a deserted grass strip which was somewhat difficult to spot. Soon, though, I was touching down at Barnbougle and ready to turn tail and head west towards the day’s final destination- South Australia.

Shortly after leaving Barnbougle I dropped into the strip at Bridport. This is operated by Flinders Island Aviation, the commercial operator running flights primarily to Flinders Island (the clue is in the name) and presumably the carrier that picked up the wayward passenger who’d attempted to hitch a lift with Ollie and I the previous day. I’d called ahead for permission, but they were quite surprised to see a foreign registered aircraft show up and came out to greet me. They were very welcoming and we spent a good while chatting about Australian aviation and flying around the world before it was time to continue. As I taxied out, a couple of GA8 Airvans came taxiing in from the islands; I pulled off to one side of the long taxiway to let them past, and then took off on the reciprocal runway. The wind was pretty light!

I continued along the north coast of Tasmania, dropping in for touch and goes or brief stops at a few airports along the way; Georgetown, Wynyard, and Smithton. I’d been in touch with a pilot at Wynyard and was hoping to meet up, but sadly the timing didn’t work out. Apparently they did see me fly overhead on departure, at least! From Smithton I turned to the north, coasting out over Robbins Island and making my way to Three Hummock Island. The island is named after its three most prominent hills, North, Middle and South Hummock, the latter being the highest. Farming took place on the island from the mid-1800s to at least the mid-1970s; the focus of human settlement on the island is now the homestead at Chimney Corner at the westernmost point, primarily supporting tourist trips out to the island for hiking in the national park.

There was a strong breeze from the east, so I landed on the easterly runway and taxied in to park by the welcome sign. I spent a while poking around at the strip, unearthing some antique maintenance gear for keeping the strip clear and level. The main strip which I had landed on is quite a way down the island from the homestead, so saying hello was not on the cards. After a while I headed out, having not seen any of the kangaroos which I had been warned might be on the runway, and flew north into the Bass Strait.

Halfway across the Bass Strait sits King Island. The third largest island of the Tasmania group, King Island was uninhabited until settlement by Europeans, with evidence of only transient passage by anyone before that. The island was inhabited mainly by sealers through the first half of the 1800s; from 1850 when the sealing declined very few people lived there, until it was opened up for grazing in the 1880s. These days a little over 1,500 people live there, and the airport is the main link to the rest of Australia.

I parked and shut down near the terminal, to one side of the two small commercial aircraft that were unloading. Moments later a pick-up truck pulled up, with the “ramp manager” who clearly thought himself to be very important and was about to give a thorough dressing down for leaving an airplane in this spot. After explaining to him that I’d only be there for a few minutes he was much more amenable and pointed me in the direction of the exit gate; I needed to buy some batteries for my headset, so I took a walk across the apron and round into the terminal to see if they had a little shop. They did not.

A few minutes later I was donning my lifejacket again and taxiing out for the final flight. Across the water from King Island sits the state of Victoria, but at this point in history the main city of Melbourne was dealing with the tail end of a COVID outbreak. Most other states had shut their borders to Victoria, meaning 14 days quarantine if I wanted to stop there and then move on. This would be a huge pain, so I set course directly for the town of Mount Gambier, just across the border in South Australia. That would be a safe bet, surely…

A short taxi ride took me into town, and to a local motel. After a long day of flying, I was pretty tired, so my evening consisted of relaxing in my simple motel room, planning the next day’s flying and dining on Dominos pizza!

Click here to read the next part of the story.

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