Round the World – Australia 2, Part 4

Round the World – Australia 2, Part 4

The next morning I was up shortly after dawn, and took an Uber back to Parafield airport. Today I’d be leaving the coast and heading inland, with a final destination of Arkaroola in the South Australian desert. I had been invited to visit by the owners of this beautiful fly-in destination, and they’d arranged a 4×4 tour for me that afternoon; I couldn’t be late! However, there was one thing I needed to do along the way; since encountering “The Big Lobster” I had been curious about what other Big Things were easily accessible, and had discovered that the town of Kimba was home to “The Big Gallah”. This was clearly worth a stop.

Conditions that morning were borderline for VFR, with low cloud and showers around. A planned visit to a private strip northeast of Adelaide had to be cancelled; my contact there was texting me to let me know that conditions were even worse than they were in my area. Instead, I headed straight out to the northwest in the direction of Kimba .

I landed first at the town of Kadina, to add another airport to my logbook. While on the ground I donned my life jacket for the next leg, over water across the Spencer Gulf. I coasted in a little to the south of Whyalla, which we’d visited the previous December; conditions were very different today, compared to the heatwave of last year which had seen temperatures in the high 40s!

Flights to Arkaroola

There was a light breeze blowing at Kimba, under a relatively low overcast. I touched down on the long paved runway and taxied in to parking, making sure to avoid the “Royal Australian Flying Doctor” parking area that was marked on the tarmac. I chocked the tires and headed over to the airport gate, entering the Big Galah into my GPS as I did. A problem reared its ugly head; it was a 90 minute walk, one-way, to the Galah. I had not built this into my schedule.

I decided to set out anyway, and catch a lift from passing traffic. After a while it became clear that not a lot of traffic comes down the Kimba airport road, and that my plan might not be destined for success. It was time for plan B – I phoned the airport manager listed in the ERSA flight guide, and asked him for his advice. “No worries”, he told me, “I’ll come pick ya up!”

Just a few minutes later a dust plume was visible ahead, which soon resolved into an SUV driven by the town facilities manager. I hopped in, and we headed for town. Along the way he told me a bit about the town; not surprisingly, it was primarily a farming town, but also notable for being exactly half way across Australia (by some particular definition of half way), on highway 1. Looking at the map I would not have pegged it as being half way across, but who am I to argue? The other significant feature about the town is that it has been chosen as the site for a future National Radioactive Waste Management Facility for low level waste.

He dropped me off at the Galah, and told me to give him a call when I was done; he’d pick me up, and drop me back off at the airport. Very kind! He drove off, and I gazed at the Galah. It was indeed very big; 8 meters (26ft) tall in fact. I looked at it for a while. After a minute or two I had exhausted the excitement of the Galah and headed inside the service station/gift shop to pick up a Galah shirt and have a bite to eat.

This done, I walked up the road to check out the silo art which I’d spotted on the drive in. Some enterprising artist had noticed that the giant grain silos that dot the Australian landscape could be put to good use as an outdoor canvas and interesting art had started springing up on them. The silo art website describes the piece:

Kimba is a pioneering town that was established in 1915. It’s located at the hallway mark across Australia on the Eyre Highway right at the top of the Eyre Peninsula. It’s surrounded by endless wheat farms growing golden in the sunlight; which was the inspiration behind the concept for the silo art.

The Viterra Silos at Kimba were painted by artist Cam Scale in September 2017. The mural stretches over five and a half silos, standing proudly at over 60m wide and 25m high and depicts a young girl standing in a wheat field. She is overlooking a magnificent purple sunset viewed through endless wheat fields which blend into the real thing behind the silos.

It took the artist 26 days to complete using 200 litres of paint.

My facilities manager hero picked me up from the silo, and before dropping me back at the airport he took me to check out a viewpoint and art installation just outside of town. These two statues commemorate Edward John Eyre, an English land explorer of the Australian continent, colonial administrator, and a controversial Governor of Jamaica. In 1839, Eyre went on two separate expeditions: north to the Flinders Ranges and west to beyond Ceduna. The northern-most point of the first expedition was Mount Eyre; it was named by Governor Gawler on 11 July 1839. In 1840, Eyre went on a third expedition, reaching a lake that was later named Lake Eyre, in his honor.

Eyre, together with his Aboriginal companion Wylie (who are the two figures depicted by the statues), was the first European to traverse the coastline of the Great Australian Bight and the Nullarbor Plain by land in 1840 and 1841, on an almost 3218 kilometre trip to Albany, Western Australia. He had originally led the expedition with John Baxter and three aborigines. However, on 29 April 1841 two of the aborigines killed Baxter and left with most of the supplies. Eyre and Wylie were only able to survive because they chanced to encounter a French whaling ship Mississippi, under the command of an Englishman (Captain Thomas Rossiter) for whom Eyre named the location Rossiter Bay.

Back at the airport, I carried out my pre-flight checks and departed to the northeast into the interior of South Australia. It didn’t take long before I was out over the desolate outback. The most notable features on this leg were the salt lakes, particularly the enormous dry lake bed of Lake Torrens. This lake is 250km (155 miles) long, making it the second largest lake in Australia when full. At this time it was dry.

I descended into the circuit at Leigh Creek, stopping here for a few minutes to refuel from the credit-card bowser, and then took off again for the final hop over the Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges, part of the northern Flinders mountain range. The hills reared dramatically out of the flat landscape, and the clear views of tilted geological strata made it very clear why so many geologists and other natural scientists had been attracted to this area over the years. It was only a short hop, and soon I was approaching the private gravel strip at Arkaroola. I circled a couple of times to try and get a handle on the shifting winds before choosing a landing direction and touching down smoothly on the gravel, watched by Mark Sprigg and his friend who had come to meet me. They helped me push the aircraft into a hangar next to their Cessna 172, before giving me a lift to the main settlement area of the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary.

Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary is a 610 square kilometer preserve in the Northern Flinders Ranges. It was founded by Mark’s grandfather, Reg Sprigg, who was actually introduced to the area by Sir Douglas Mawson (whose replica hut I had seen in Hobart) in the late 1930s. The family continue to manage it to this day. The sanctuary boasts “unique geological monuments, rugged mountains, towering granite peaks, magnificent gorges and mysterious waterholes” – after touring the property, I can agree with this! It is also home to a huge range of species of birds, reptiles and mammals including the shy and endangered Yellow-Footed Rock-Wallaby.

We ate lunch at the main building before Mark brought the 4×4 around for the afternoon ridgetop tour. Originally no tour had been scheduled, but after I asked about a visit Mark had been kind enough to organise to fly up and drive it himself, with his dad Doug narrating! A couple of other guests at the sanctuary took the opportunity to sign up, and after we all gathered and received a briefing from the Spriggs we set off down the dirt road towards the back country.

The Ridgetop Tour is one of the flagship tours offered by the sanctuary, and Mark had told me it was by far the best one to take. It takes guests through the oldest part of the Flinders Ranges, a mixture of granite and ancient sedimentary rock laid down up to 1.6 billion years ago. An interesting feature of this area, found nowhere else in the world, is how the granites were fractured and impregnated with uranium and thorium around 440 million years ago. These radioactive elements heated the overlying 12km rock blanket until some of it melted to form another granite body, the Mawson Plateau. The heat also caused an enormous geyser explosion about 299 million years ago during an Ice Age, forming hot pools in the ice and quartz crystals at Mount Gee.

Much of the uranium that once was in Arkaroola has since been dissolved from the rocks and dumped on the eastern plains where it is recovered at the Beverley uranium mine a few kilometres out on the plains below Sillers Lookout; the rock promontory that marks the end of the ridgetop track, and where we stopped for tea and cake. A stiff wind was blowing up off the plain below, but was still not enough to keep the tenacious Australian flies away.

With the cake all finished, we mounted the 4×4 once again and reversed our route back to the Arkaroola village.

That evening I was invited to join the night sky viewing tour. Arkaroola skies boast a world class atmospheric transparency index and sharpness, thanks to the dry air and relatively high elevation. The remoteness also means that light pollution is not a problem. I had expected us to met in a group outside and gaze at the stars, maybe with the guide using a laser pointer to point out various constellations; this was only partially correct.

We did indeed start off outside, gazing upward while our guide talked through a little of the background about Arkaroola’s role in astronomy. Arkaroola has three professional-grade observatories, two of them quite far from the buildings but one of them located right outside the main buildings. This dual telescope is hooked up to a high quality digital camera; before long, we headed inside to some comfortable seating facing several giant screens where the live images could be displayed. This was much more comfortable than standing around in the cold! We were shown a variety of different nebula, planets including Jupiter and Saturn, and some of our closest stars among many other celestial sights.

The next morning I was up early. It was to be yet another long day. Doug had arranged a scenic flight for a couple of Arkaroola guests in the morning over the Flinders ranges, so I caught a lift with them out to the air strip. Doug invited me to fly along with them as he gave the scenic tour, and he’d give me the commentary over the radio! I quickly accepted, and after pre-flighting both Planey and Doug’s C172 we set off; he took off first, and I followed, quickly catching up and positioning myself a little behind and off to his starboard side. This position gave me a perfect view of his aircraft making it easy for me to keep clear, not that I was intending on flying very close!

Doug led me up the Flinders Range towards Sillers lookout, giving a running commentary about the geology and history of the land below and pointing out notable features. It was a pleasure to receive the tour from such a local expert, and all the more so to be doing it inter-plane! We reached the northern limit of the tour and peeled off in different directions, him turning right to head out to the east, and my turning the other way to head northwest. I was bound for the town of Marree.

I crossed back over the northern end of the Flinders Ranges, from east to west, and soon passed over the foothills and onto the plain beyond. I was really into the proper outback now; miles and miles of almost featureless dirt, broken by the occasional dirt track.

Before long I began my descent towards the town of Marree. This town has a population of a little over 600, and is a service centre for the large sheep and cattle stations in northeast South Australia as well as a stopover destination for tourists traveling along the Birdsville or Oodnadatta Tracks. It is also home to the clubhouse of the “Lake Eyre Yacht Club” (motto: “Ya gotta be jokin’ – No we’re not!”) Apparently there are significant challenges associated with sailing on a vast, shallow seasonal lake; such as the fact that wind can cause “tides” of up to 60cm by moving water from one part of the basin to another, dramatically altering the navigable areas. Their website tells of this effect.

We arrived late afternoon and were pleased to find the Lake lapping within 20m of the “edge” in a light northerly breeze. It appeared fuller than expected and tomorrows launch looked like an easy task compared to other trips. We retired thinking we will be sailing the next day.

During the night one of those southerly changes blew up and by morning it was a constant stiff breeze. A walk from the camp to the Lake edge dune revealed – shock horror – no water at all. The southerly had blown the water out about 2 kilometres over night! It could barely be seen on the horizon.

When conditions allow, the club holds an annual regatta. After a short ground stop, I continued past the town itself, headed for Muloorina station.

Doug had recommended Muloorina as a stop; he often dropped in there with tourists on his scenic flights, for tea and biscuits. Unfortunately, their welcoming reputation appeared to be out of date. I parked and shut down, and slowly made my way in the direction of what appeared to be the office. I was met by a lady who was polite, but informed me that they didn’t want any outsiders at all on the station this year due to COVID. Given the fact that there was basically no COVID anywhere in Australia this seemed extreme, but who’s to say how one’s thought processes work when you live somewhere so remote. I returned to the aircraft and headed out to see the Lake Eyre, and the Marree man.

Zigzagging across the South Australia interior

The Marree Man, (also know as Stuart’s Giant), is a modern “geoglyph” created in 1998. It appears to depict an Indigenous Australian man hunting with a boomerang or stick. Despite being the second largest geoglyph in the world, its origin remains a mystery, with no one claiming responsibility for its creation nor any eye-witness having been found. The figure is almost two miles tall, with a perimeter of 17 miles. From the air, it’s a most impressive sight! One of the local aboriginal tribes tried to shut down visits to the site, and were partially successful; the man can no longer be toured from the ground, but their attempt to ban overflights were unsurprisingly not successful.

From the Marree Man I continued west, landing at the renowned William Creek Hotel, founded as a boarding house in 1886. It sits on the Oodnadatta track, a 400 mile unsealed track which follows an old aboriginal trading route across the state. The now-defunct Central Australian Railway also followed this route for part of its distance. The hamlet of William Creek is something of a halfway stop along the track, and features a petrol station, a campground, and a pub; it was the pub to which I headed immediately after landing. I pulled up a seat at the bar and ordered a cold drink and a toasted sandwich. The temperature outside was comfortably into the 40s (105f+ for my readers in the USA, Belize, or Palau).

It didn’t take long before I was chatting to the gentleman next to me who turned out to be the owner of the hotel, pub, and air service. He told me all about flying in this area, much of which revolves around tourist flights to Lake Eyre; these are significantly more popular when the lake has water in it. He also told me about the Painted Hills, and the small dirt airstrip which he had set up there for visitors. That was on my route, and sounded like a good stop!

Trevor and his staff helped me to refuel. I taxied out just behind him, as he departed in a microlight aircraft, and left the circuit on a left downwind heading west. It was a short hop to Anna Creek Station, just along the highway from William Creek. Anna Creek Station is the world’s largest working cattle station; at 9,142 square miles (5,851,000 acres) it is a little bigger than the country of Israel. The property was originally established in 1863 but moved to its current location in 1872. It was originally used for sheep, but due to losses from dingo attacks, they switched to cattle. Despite its size, the arid country has in recent years only supported between 1,500 and 17,000 head of cattle.

Anna Creek Station is not a friendly place. A young office administrator came over as I parked, and complained that I shouldn’t be there as it was a private airstrip. I pointed out that the ERSA (the official airstrip guide) made no such mention, and that the default status is that one can land at a strip listed in ERSA unless it says otherwise. She seemed surprised by this, and couldn’t really understand the idea of an aircraft landing somewhere just for the sake of it. Perhaps she was new to the outback.

I took off again and headed south to the Painted Hills. These are described by WrightsAir:

Anna Creek Painted Hills is a rocky outcrop of large and small hills, which emerge suddenly out of a flat, desert landscape. The hills are approximately 20 kilometres x 18 kilometres in size. It is believed that the Anna Creek Painted Hills are the leftover effects of 50 million years of climate change, with the climate going from glacial to wet and semi-tropical over million of years.

The changing colours of the hills are believed to be a result of oxidisation. The deep red is due to the oxidation of iron in the rocks, while the white sections are where iron has leached away.

Trevor had recommended a visit, and I was glad that he had! The colours were certainly striking. It didn’t take long to locate the dirt airstrip, and I set the wheels gently down on the dust and parked up at one end to admire the views.

After a while I continued south across the outback. My next stop would be Mount Eba Station, another recommendation from Trevor. I’d spoken to the owner before leaving and although he wasn’t around, he told me his parents were looking after the station right now and would be happy to greet me and show me around. As I flew, I noticed a very big hole off to the right.

This was the Prominent Hill copper, silver and gold mine, opened in 2009. The mine consists of an enormous open cast pit and two underground mines (the Malu and Ankata mines), accessed through said pit, and in the last year produced 96,000 tonnes of copper, 700,000 oz of silver, and 220,000 oz of gold. I don’t know much about mining, but this seems like a lot to me! Circling above the mine, it was clearly a big deal, with all kinds of massive hardware visible and even its own airport.

Mount Eba Station sits a little way south of here (the mine is in fact on their land). The station is a little over 1,300 square miles (832,00 acres) and supports about 20,000 Merino sheep as well as some cattle. It’s located 43km from the Stuart’s Highway, along dirt road that results in access being cut off after big rains. I was met on landing by the owner’s father, who invited me into his truck for a tour around the homestead area.

Mount Eba Station was established in 1874 and is renowned for being the geographical centre of South Australia. It was once a stopover for fuel and food stores on the Old Stuart Highway. Mount Eba is an authentic homestead with the original homestead still standing and operational today as shearer’s quarters. The airstrip at the station has a fascinating past, having been used during the Second World War and by the Trans-Tasman Airlines. Today the Royal Flying Doctors Service uses Mount Eba Homestead for Bush Clinics.

My guide showed me around the shearing shed, which was also the original and still in use today, before taking me over to the main homestead. As well as a shed full of motorbikes, used for the muster, there was a gyrocopter! Apparently this was used as something of an aerial jeep, to head out to any part of the station for inspection and light maintenance. Tour completed, my host and his wife invited me into the homestead building for tea and biscuits, before running me back to the airstrip for my next flight.

It was a couple of hour’s flight to my next stop, Emu Junction. This was the site of “Operation Totem”, a pair of nuclear tests carried out by the British in 1953. A village was built to support the test program, along with an airstrip; this strip, on a dry lakebed, is still usable today. I carried out a low fly-by to check the surface condition and was surprised to see a lone camel trotting along the lakebed (camels were introduced to Australia in the 1800s, and today there are thought to be several hundred thousand of them roaming the continent). He disappeared before I landed.

It was too far to walk to see any of the ruins from the nuclear testing era, so I contented myself with the views from the air and a quick walk up and down the runway to try and find the camel. I took off and headed south towards Maralinga. After Emu Junction was abandoned due to nuclear contamination, the test program moved south to this new location in the late 1950s, with testing continuing into the 1960s. A total of seven tests were carried out across two programs. The first program in 1956 consisted of two tower-top detonations, one at ground level, and one from a Royal Air Force Vickers Valiant bomber – this was the first ever air launch of a nuclear weapon by the British. The remaining three tests were carried out the following year, with two more bombs detonated on tower tops and one suspended from balloons.

Most of the test locations had had the topsoil bulldozed away and buried, and little of them was left to see. However there was one remaining location visible, which had not been used, clearly showing the layout of symmetrical guy lines with the tower at the middle. One can fly into the Maralinga airport and take ground tours, but at this time of year nothing was running so once again I contented myself with aerial views, and a stop at the giant Maralinga airstrip.

The runway at Maralinga is big enough that I didn’t have to backtrack, and could simply take off straight ahead from where I’d come to a halt after landing. I flew across the Yellabinna and Nullarbor as the sun neared the horizon, bound for the Nullarbor Roadhouse.

This location started off as Nullarbor Station. In 1956, the proprietor started to sell petrol to make some extra money, hand pumped out of drums to customers. A small shop was established selling food for travelers, and in 1976 the Nullarbor Roadhouse was officially established. Today the roadhouse offers café food, as well as a proper restaurant and bar, along with motel-style accommodation, a campsite, and of course fuel! There is a dirt airstrip for visitors from the air.

I parked Planey up next to the camp site, where a young couple were erecting their tent, and took advantage of the tie-downs to secure him. There was a stiff wind blowing. I narrowed my eyes against the blowing dust and made my way over to reception to check in. That evening I ate in the bar, chatting with a few heavy vehicle inspectors who’d been assigned out to Nullarbor for a few days to inspect the giant road trains and other commercial trucks heading back and forth across the desert.

Click here to read the next part of the story.

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