Round the World – Australia 3, Part 2

Round the World – Australia 3, Part 2

There was heavy rain all through the night, loud on the tin roof of AJ’s home. I didn’t sleep well, worrying about the state of the runway and whether I’d be able to depart as planned. By the time I arrived at Luskintyre on the Monday morning Rhys already had the cowls off and the oil draining for the oil change. Water was running down the taxiway, but the ground was firm and Rhys told me the surface should be fine for operations. With the new oil filter fitted, I refilled the engine with Aeroshell 100 – this is a specific oil used to help engine break-in, and needed to be used for a little longer. It was time to head out on the next Australian adventure.

The runway was wet but manageable, and I departed to the north along the inland low-level route. It was a windy day; very windy, in fact, and I had to stay low beneath Newcastle’s airspace. The wind blowing over the hills caused significant turbulence, and even once I was clear of Newcastle and able to climb, the height of the mountains climbed with me. I still needed to stay below about 5,000ft of altitude; above this height, the lower air pressure means that the engine can’t make enough power to stay in the high-power band that’s desirable for running in a new engine. I resigned myself to bouncing along in some of the worst turbulence I’ve had to put up with, as well as threading my way through plenty of rain showers and clouds.

After a very tedious hour and a half I approached my fuel stop, Armidale. The cloud base was getting steadily lower but luckily so was the terrain and I was able to stay comfortably “VFR” on my way in. The wind was strong, and blowing across the runway from the north, leading to a challenging crosswind landing; there is a grass runway which was better aligned with the wind direction but it was “NOTAMed” as closed due to the wet weather and a soft surface.

I parked up near the terminal and called the fueler, who turned up a few minutes later with the AVGAS truck, and a trainee. The wind was blowing cold and hard enough for me to put on a jacket. The fueler talked the new employee through the process for confirming the correct fuel type and quantity, and how to properly fuel a small aircraft like mine. As Planey was being fueled, a small tail-dragger arrived at the airport, landing on the grass runway. “Looks like somebody hasn’t read his NOTAMs”, commented the fueler. Apparently he was light enough, or the surface dry enough, that he got away with it.

The day’s flights, from Luskintyre north to Gatton

As soon as fueling was complete, I was on my way again. I had originally planned to stay over the hills as I headed north but I was thoroughly fed up of the turbulence, and decided instead to track closer to the coast and the low ground; perhaps I could get out of the worst of it. The first part of the journey was as bumpy as ever, with the same low cloud and rain showers hanging over the hills. One benefit of needing to stay low was that I had an excellent view, and gazed down on dramatic waterfalls and canyons as I passed. After some time the terrain lowered and the ride smoothed out a little, to my great relief.

One of the peculiarities of flying in Australia is that there seems to be excellent mobile phone service across almost the entire country, even in the outback. As I neared Brisbane, I received a message from Gerard suggesting that I stop at Boonah. I hadn’t heard of this airfield but quickly looked it up, and it seemed like a pleasant place to visit, so I made use of the Bluetooth function on Planey’s audio panel and phoned the manager for landing permission. It was given, no questions asked, and not long later I was touching down on their grass runway and parking up.

The gentleman that I had spoken to on the phone, Nigel, also turned out to be the owner of the maintenance shop, “Ultimate Aero”. Their hangar was filled with interesting and unusual aircraft, and they seemed to be quite similar to Luskintyre in specialising in more unusual ‘planes. Before I had a chance to look through the hangar, though, Nigel whisked me away to a home situated a short walk down the runway, owned by Bill Finlen. The reason for this introduction was that Bill had flown his own aircraft, a Beech Bonanza, around the world in 2002! He did it rather quicker than I did, in less than 2 months.

Bill welcomed me and Nigel into his home for a chat about our respective adventures over a cup of tea. Coincidentally, he told me he had a phone call scheduled with Barry Payne, another earthrounder from New Zealand who I had met a couple of times while over there. I asked him to pass on my best regards! Tea complete, we moved over to Bill’s hangar. Although he has now sold his Bonanza he still has a little fleet in his hangar, as his hobby is restoring old DeHavilland aircraft. He had 4 in the hangar, 3 restored and one being worked on.

Nigel and I walked back to the Unlimited Aero hangar, chatting about the history of the business along the way. Apparently the airport was council-owned, and every now and then an effort would arise to shut it down. Thankfully so far all had failed, but they had to keep vigilant; closure of the strip would destroy the value of the businesses and homes built around it, and ruin the aviation lifestyle of those residing there.

En-route to Gatton

I departed and turned northwest for the final short hop of the day, with a destination of Gatton Airpark. I had selected this airport for a night stop because of its proximity to two “Big Things” – an orange, and an elephant. The strip was marked as requiring permission to land and park, so I had sent a message requesting this. I received a reply from a lovely lady by the name of Ray, inviting me to stay the night with them and also offering to drive me to see the “Big Things”. Yet another example of the warm welcome that so many people in the aviation community offer! I parked up at the eastern end of the field in the visitor area, and secured the aircraft before Ray arrived to pick me up.

From town we headed east towards Brisbane to see the local “Big Things”. The first was the Big Red Elephant. One of my favourite features of many of Australia’s Big Things is the somewhat amateurish nature; they are the kind of thing which you think you could probably have made yourself given a few friends to help out, and access to a DIY store. The elephant was no disappointment. The trip adviser reviews speak for themselves.

“Utter Garbage – Part of a rundown old travel centre, do yourself a favour, don’t stop, surprised this has not been demolished yet”

“This elephant represents the QLD Spirit. Why is it here? Why is it red? Who knows! That’s the wonderful part!”

“…technically it is not a big elephant. It’s pretty much normal size, for an elephant. Just the head is a bit disproportionate and the features somewhat distorted, red and ugly as the devil…”

Tripadviser reviews

After a few photos, we continued on our way, to the “Big Orange”. To be honest, the orange was disappointingly small; yes, it was bigger than a real orange, but not overwhelming. Nonetheless, we took the requisite photos before hitting the road again and returning to the airpark.

That afternoon we relocated Planey to some tie-downs, which had been hard to spot, and I spent a little time sorting out and tidying the interior. Ray’s husband, Steve, then gave a tour of his own hangar at the airpark, before an evening social event at the house. Ray had arranged for what she described as “a few friends” to come over for drinks; to my surprise, this turned out to be about 15 or more residents of the airpark who had all come to say hello! They were an extremely friendly and welcoming bunch, a combination of retirees, airline pilots, flying farmers and others. Everyone eventually drifted away and we enjoyed a delicious home-cooked meal of lamb and roast vegetables courtesy of Ray.

Another dinner guest

The next day dawned bright, and much less windy than the day before. Thank goodness! Ray prepared a light breakfast, and even a packed lunch! After thanking her profusely for her hospitality, we headed back to Planey and loaded up. Waving goodbye to Ray, I started up the engine and taxied the short distance to the departure end of the runway.

The turbulence associated with the previous day’s winds had subsided, and it was a smooth ride northeast to Gympie. The weather was perfect, early summer weather; warm (in fact, pretty hot to a Brit like me), with a little cloud and a light breeze. This was a far cry from my previous couple of circuits around Australia in 2019 and 2020, when temperatures in some locations had been as high as 50C (122f)!

I banked Planey onto a downwind departure and set course for the first stop, Gympie. This town is home to Matilda, the Big Kangaroo, who is located much too far from the airport to walk to. I was hoping to meet some airport locals, get chatting, and secure a lift to see the kangaroo which was just a few minutes drive away. After refueling, I moved the airplane to parking and wandered over to an open hangar, from within which were emanating snippets of conversation and noises of work.

Inside were Brett and Ralph, who were working on an instrument panel for Ralph’s new Jabiru aircraft, and Gypsy the dog, who was not. They were engrossed in a pretty major project with the Jabiru; a retrofit with an entirely new engine which turned the opposite direction, and therefore required a new engine mount, new fuel system (including addition of a fuel return line), and control system. The aircraft was registered as “recreational”, which is similar to the US’s experimental category and provides much more flexibility in what you’re allowed to modify. Once complete, he planned to use it to commute back and forth to Melbourne, currently a two-day drive. Ralph was kind enough to take a bit of time out and provide a lift to see Matilda.

Matilda the kangaroo was constructed as the mascot for the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane. Standing over 13 metres tall and weighing six tonnes, she could turn its head, wiggle her ears, and her eyes could wink and blink. Her pouch doubled as a door, which opened during the opening ceremony to let out 20 children dressed as joeys who ran out two by two for a trampoline display. After the games Matilda was installed at a water park until 2009, and was then bought by Puma Energy who eventually installed it at their travel plaza on the Bruce Highway, where she stands today. After the elephant and the orange, Matilda was a real treat!

The next stop after Gympie was Gayndah, further inland and home of extensive citrus orchards. Sitting on the Burnett River, the town is in fact the center of Queensland’s citrus growing region and hence it was no surprise that the “Big Thing” here was another orange. As I parked Planey on the apron, a “Men’s Shed” was visible across the car park, with a few people coming and going. Lucky timing – this was one of the few time periods in the week that they were open! With thoughts of another lift running through my head, I went to say hello.

Flying around Queensland to see “Big Things”

Mark, the President of the Men’s Shed, was most welcoming and offered a cold drink and a ride around town. We climbed into his farm truck and headed out of the airport and across the Burnett River into the town itself, first taking a track up to Archer’s Lookout which offers commanding views of the town. Mark was a retired High School maths and physics teacher, and now lived outside of town on a 160 acre farm with 10 cattle as pets, and was a wealth of information about the town’s background. The first European settlers arrived in 1848, with the town being established the following year.

These days the town is supported almost exclusively by the agriculture and grazing industries. In the 1940s it hosted an important RAAF fuel depot, and the town has also been the home to a couple of famous Australian hoaxes; the “Ompax spatuloides” hoax fish, and the Gayndah Bear, a black bear supposedly sighted around the town on several occasions. These days, about 2,000 people live in the town.

We drove back down the hill to the main event; the Big Orange. Happily, this was a much more impressive fruit than the orange near Gatton from the night before. In fact, the orange is big enough to walk inside, where there is a small historic display about the region and its citrus industry. Next door is a small store, usually offering fresh orange juice; sadly today they had run out so I settled for an ice cream. Out the front of the orange is a smaller orange, with a body. This character is the town mascot, and is known as “Gay Dan”, a name which fell out of style for a while but which has now been restored.

Mark provided a lift back to the airport before he waved goodbye and headed back to his farm. The next leg was a very short one, just a few minutes west to the town of Mundubbera further up the Burnett River. Departure from Gayndah offered superb views of the river, including the impressive bridge and weir. A few minutes later Mundubbera came into view, and a flyover of the town revealed the mandarin clearly visible from the air.

Mundubbera airport was deserted, and the heat was really picking up now as the middle of the day approached. This town is the home of the “Big Mandarin” – arguably very similar to a big orange but still worth a visit! It was a 30 minute walk, so I made sure to take plenty of water and a hat, and set out. The walk led past a few industrial facilities – fruit processing, unsurprisingly, and then along the main road towards the mandarin. This is located in a caravan park, and is in fact the park office! It was a relief to arrive, and collapse onto the shady lawn in front of the mandarin for a rest. I’d been hoping to find somewhere to buy a cold drink, but it was not to be. This, at least, would be a perfect spot to enjoy the packed lunch.

After buying a cold drink at the BP “servo” (petrol station), it was another thirty minutes walk back to the airport. On the walk to the mandarin, all the vehicles that passed had been going in the opposite direction, eliminating any chance of a lift. On the return journey, the same was true! At least I had a good hat. A truck was being unloaded at the fruit processing facility outside the airport, with forklifts running back and forth, but the airport itself was still deserted and after a few minutes I was pushing in the throttle and roaring off down the runway, bound for the town of Chinchilla.

There was a slight headwind on the way to Chinchilla, but the distance was not long, and soon Planey was touching down on the airport runway and taxiing to the fuel pumps. At this point a problem emerged; the pump refused to accept any of my payment cards. After a futile few minutes I gave up and phoned the “help” number on the fuel station. The gentleman who answered let me know that I was the third one this day with the same problem, and promised to be there to refuel me in ten minutes or so. He turned up as promised, and all was well. As he left, I extended my hopes to him that he wouldn’t need to come out a fourth time and could now relax. “Not bloody likely!” was his reply.

It was much too far to walk in the heat, especially given the fact that the day was drawing on, but this town was luckily large enough to have a taxi service. As we drove into town I asked the driver about the background of the name “Chinchilla”. He had no idea! Subsequent searching reveals that it has nothing at all to do with the cute fluffy animals of the same name, and is in fact a corruption of the Aboriginal word “tintinchilla” or “jinchilla” indicating cypress pine.

The “Big Thing” in Chinchilla was sadly not a giant furry animal, but instead a big watermelon slice. Much like the other towns in the area, agriculture is the mainstay of the town’s economy. The town hosts what it describes as “the world’s largest melon festival” every second year, with more than 20,000 people arriving from all over the world (apparently) to celebrate. The festival offers activities such as a “Street Parade, Markets, Beach Party, Free Family Activities, Farm Tours, an arena full of melon related activities such as Melon Skiing and Melon Bungee, and so much more”.

To my great regret, the next Melonfest was not until February, so I would have to content myself with a photo of the big slice and be on my way. The taxi driver dropped me back at the airport where I was amused to see another aircraft parked at the fuel pumps, with the pilot having trouble with the card reader. It looked like my friend from the aero club would shortly be on his way to the airport for a fourth time!

The final flight of the day was to Roma, home to not one but two big things. The receptionist at the hotel mentioned a third, a “bottle tree”. I had no idea what this was, but the walking route to the big things would pass it anyway! Making the most of the remaining light I set out on what would end up being a rather longer walk than anticipated. The bottle tree was the first stop and turned out to be a big tree, shaped like a bottle! Unsurprising, in retrospect.

The bottle tree is native to Queensland, and is a hardy plant which is cultivated extensively in the region. Roma in particular uses it for street plantings and other landscaping. The big Roma bottle tree has an impressive circumference of almost ten meters and was relocated as a mature tree to its present location in 1927. The tree’s bulbous trunk is used to store water, and the trees can live to ages of well over 200 years.

Roma’s biggest bottle tree

The next stop was the “Big Rig”. This didn’t fit so well into the “Big Thing” family; although it’s certainly big, it is simply life size, as rigs are big anyway. From here it was a 30 minute walk down the main street to the day’s final attraction, the “Big Nut and Bolt”. This was much more pleasing!

A short walk back from the Nut and Bolt led to that evening’s dinner stop, Roma’s Indian restaurant. There were no other patrons, but that was maybe not surprising for a Tuesday night.

It was an early start the next day, with a quick stop at the Roma airport terminal for a hot drink before departure. In a stroke of good luck the café manager had just arrived to prepare for the first commercial flight in a couple of hours. While the previous day had been all about short flight legs and multiple stops for “Big Things”, today would be longer legs across central Queensland and just a couple of stops. The first flight was a couple of hours northwest across the state to the country town of Blackall; this was just a short stop for fuel, however, before carrying on to the day’s main event.

It was a short flight on to Longreach. This was the first operational base of Queensland’s first airline, Qantas (an abbreviation for Queensland and Northern Territory Air Service). The airport now hosts the Qantas Founder’s Heritage Museum, and it happened to be Qantas’ birthday on this particular day. Admission to the museum was being offered free of charge, and tours for half price! There was no way I could visit somewhere like this without visiting the historic aircraft which are on display, so I signed up for the next tour.

While waiting for the “boarding time” for the tour, there was just enough time to grab lunch in the café. Free cake and tea was being served, and one of the senior staff members at the museum was giving a talk about the history of the museum followed by a Q&A. The guide then gathered us all up and led us over to the enormous covered area that houses four iconic Qantas aircraft.

The aircraft on display are a Douglas DC-3, a Boeing 747, a Lockheed Super Constellation and a Boeing 707, and we visited them in that order. The DC-3 was set up in cargo configuration with no internal seats and we could only peek in through the door, but from there we were able to head inside the 747 for a tour of both decks.

Qantas operated a total of sixty-four 747 aircraft while they were in service. This aircraft, the “City of Bunbury”, was named after the Western Australia coastal town (which I’d visit in a couple of weeks) to mark both the 150th anniversary of Western Australia, and the occasion of Bunbury being declared a city. Starting service with Qantas in December of 1979, it’s estimated that during its working life with the airline it carried over 5.4 million passengers and flew over 82.5 million kilometres – equivalent to more than 2000 trips around the world and ten years continuous flying.

After exiting the 747 we were given the opportunity to take photographs inside the number 2 engine before touring the Super Constellation, within which was an exhibition about the various routes which Qantas used to fly. Entering service with the airline in 1947 on the “Kangaroo Route” between Sydney and London, the Super Constellation was the first pressurised aircraft in Qantas service, and also the first to feature female cabin crew! We then moved on to the 707 which was set up as a VIP private aircraft. The 707 was the first one delivered to Qantas, and the first civilian jet aircraft registered in Australia.

Conveniently, someone had left the personnel gate in the airport fence open and it was easy to get back to Planey. I turned his nose northeast this time, and we set out on a several-hour journey back across much of Queenland to the coast and the Coral Sea.

Approaching the coast, the hills returned before falling away into the fertile coastal plains. Tully, my night stop, sits among farmland on the the Cassowary Coast with sugar cane and bananas being the dominant crops. The cane is processed at the Tully Sugar Mill, a large industrial complex which abuts the town and is an excellent landmark from the air. Tully airport is small and primarily appears to service a skydiving outfit; their aircraft was parked up at one end, and idle, with nobody around.

Tully is a small town, and it was just a 15 minute walk down the side of the Bruce Highway to reach the motel. After dropping off the baggage I called a taxi, and we rode along the route through Mount Mackay National Park towards Mission Beach and tonight’s Big Thing – the Big Cassowary. A cassowary is a large flightless bird, the second heaviest in the world, and is renowned as the world’s most dangerous, having a vicious claw on each foot. Despite this fearsome reputation cassowary feed mainly on fruit and only two fatalities are on record, both of people who were harassing or otherwise inappropriately close to the cassowary.

The taxi stopped just a few yards down the road from the Big Cassowary, which did not disappoint. There’s only so much time one can spend starting at a cassowary however, and it seemed like a shame to come all this way and not see the sea. The beach was just a ten minute walk down the road and sunset was approaching; although the sun would be setting over the land, it still seemed like a perfect opportunity to enjoy the views.

A few minutes back up the road was a Thai restaurant with exceptional reviews. Too good, in fact, as they were full. Plan B, then, was to buy a bottle of wine at the bottle shop over the road and head back to the restaurant at the motel. A taxi driver was waiting in the shopping plaza next to the Big Cassowary; he was surprised at a request for a ride all the way back to Tully but rose to the task and provided a steady stream of conversation all the way back to the motel.

Click here to read the next part of the story.

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