Round the World – Australia 3, Part 3

Round the World – Australia 3, Part 3

There was still one “Big Thing” to see before departing Tully, and this was the Big Golden Gumboot, just a five-minute detour on the way back to the airport. The region around Tully is renowned for heavy rainfall, with regular flooding, and the Golden Gumboot is a nod to this reputation. Situated in the middle of town, overlooking the sugar mill, its height of 2.9 meters (25ft) is a nod to the highest recorded annual rainfall back in 1950. A green treefrog, the largest species of treefrog in the world, is native to the area and is featured prominently on the boot.

The airport was deserted again, and I took off to the south and started a gentle climb out past the sugar mill, setting course to the west and over the mountains. It wasn’t long before the ground passing below had turned dry and arid again. Instead of flying around the coast of the Cape York Peninsula as I did last time, this time the route would cut straight across the base towards the Gulf of Carpentaria. After one short stop at Georgetown, mostly for the pleasure of adding another airfield to the logbook but also to clean the windscreen, it wasn’t long before the town of Normanton came into view.

Normanton is home to two “Big Things”, and although I had stopped here briefly once before I had not been aware of their existence. Planey’s fuel was running low, so first task after landing was to fill up. This is not always easy in Australia; there are often long distances between airports that stock Avgas, and many of the fuel pumps require you to use a company-specific card rather than a generic credit card. BP is the worst offender, which is particularly frustrating as they are the most widespread supplier in the north and west of the country. When I contacted them to ask about getting a BP fuel charge-card they informed me that they’d only provide them to commercial operators and businesses, not to private individuals. The logic of deliberately excluding a group of potential customers from your fuel network is lost on me.

Fuel in Normanton is not supplied by BP, but is not much easier to access. The fuel pump directs anyone without the relevant card to download a particular app, but the app does not appear to be accessible on foreign phones. In the end I managed to track down a member of staff who was able to fill me up from the fuel truck instead, and take a credit card payment.

The same member of staff provided a rental car to head into town and see the Big Things. It was both too hot and too far to be practical walking. The first of them was the Big Crocodile, and in a break from the typical Big Thing tradition, this was a supposedly life-size replica of a genuine crocodile, “Krys”, thought to have been caught in the area in July of 1957. Some sources state that it was in fact killed in 1914 near the Roper River. The mystery is unlikely to ever be solved as the original photographic evidence was destroyed in a flood. The crocodile was allegedly a full 8.6m (26ft) in length!

Just down the road from Krys the crocodile is the Purple Pub, which served up an excellent chicken burger for lunch. I planned to carry out an oil change on Planey that evening, so I tried my luck and asked the chef whether he had any old buckets or containers to spare. He was kind enough to supply me with a couple of big yellow buckets which had previously held cooking supplies, which would be perfect for draining the old oil into. I loaded the buckets into the rental car along with a crate of water from the store next door, and headed off to the other end of town.

Located outside a caravan park, Normanton’s Big Barramundi is one of three big barramundi to be found across Australia. This particular one is six meters long, and was constructed in 1995. Barramundi are one of the most common species of fish found in the Norman River, presumably the reason for choosing this particular species of fish for the sculpture.

The temperature was touching the low 40s as I returned the rental car and loaded my new acquisitions into Planey. I was careful to climb out at a shallow angle and relatively high airspeed, to help with engine cooling, and headed out over the Gulf of Carpentaria towards Mornington Island.

The Gulf of Carpentaria is a shallow, tropical sea bounded on three sides by Australia, with a maximum depth of 82m across its 400 mile width. The gulf and its coastline is home to both saltwater and freshwater crocodiles, a wide range of sharks including bull sharks and tiger sharks, venomous sea snakes, and stinging jellyfish. Swimming, then, is not recommended. Planey’s engine ran smoothly though and swimming was avoided, with a nice dry touchdown at the airport on Mornington Island.

Alcohol was completely banned in 2003, spurring riots, and limited access to it was not re-introduced until the last year or so. Large warning signs at the airport tell of the penalties for exceeding the strict limits that may be imported to the community. On this visit, however, I was staying airside and not entering the town itself. There was one more flight to go.

Crossing Queensland to the Northern Territory

Rather that setting out straight across the gulf, I kept our flight path within gliding distance of shore. Of course, even if one made it to shore in event of an engine failure, you’d probably just be eaten by a crocodile; at least the sharks wouldn’t get a bite though. This stretch of coast is incredibly remote with almost no sign of human activity. The one notable development is the Bing Bong port facility. The port is a bulk loading facility and exports lead and zinc concentrates which are mined at the McArthur River Mine some 100km inland. Loading takes place at anchorage using the “Aburri” shuttle vessel, as the port does not have the facilities to allow ships to come in and berth. On average the port services a ship every ten days.

The route finally led away from the coast, and roughly followed the course of the Roper River inland. For the last hour of the flight cloud and rain showers could be seen building on the horizon, and I held a little apprehension about whether I’d be able to make it to Roper Bar before rain set in. The strip there is dirt, and probably wouldn’t hold up well when wet. As I entered the downwind leg and performed a careful strip inspection I was relieved to see that the rain was still a short distance away, and the strip surface was in good condition. Much of the runway surface had vegetation such as small bushes encroaching, and it could clearly use a bit of clearing, but it was a good size and there was still sufficient room for landing.

Not much information had been available online about Roper Bar, and what limited things that I had managed to find out had given me a mental picture of a facility along the lines of some of the roadhouses which I had visited in the past. I was quite far out in my estimations. No highway could be seen, and the structures looked more like a workers camp than anything more developed. I was thrilled, remote locations were exactly what I had been hoping to see!

I touched down between the bushes, and taxied to parking. The rain was already setting in. As I parked Planey by the gate to the camp a battered old Toyota Landcruiser pulled up on the other side, and a gentleman in his 30s jumped out. This was Ben, the live-in manager of the location, who I had exchanged a few massages with. “You must be Ross”, he said, and handed me a room key. “Cabin’s number 3, over that way”. Off he went!

The camp was best described as “utilitarian”. Opening the door revealed a basic room with a window, a mini-fridge, and one bed. The fridge contained a few random items, and had a chocolate-bar wrapper and a dirty mug sitting on top. It felt a little like I’d inadvertently walked into somebody else’s room, but a double-check confirmed this was the right place. Strangely the bathroom was about the same size as the bedroom, and had a power socket actually inside the shower which made showers a little tenser than they should be.

Ben’s cabin was at one edge of the camp, facing towards the runway. He was having a drink on the terrace, but offered to open up the store and then provide a driving tour of the area! An impossible offer to resist. We piled into the old Landcruiser and headed for the store. Roper Bar offers two main services; the first is the camp, usually used by workers who are temporarily in the region, such as road crews. In fact, there was a large road crew staying at the moment; a few of them in the Roper Bar camp, but the main body of the crew had leased an area of land from Roper Bar and set up their own camp as Roper Bar didn’t have enough space. The size of the crew was driven by the fact that they were tarmacking a large section of the road, rather than just maintaining the dirt roads.

The second service provided at Roper Bar is the store, most of the customer of which come from two Aboriginal communities nearby. The store contains all kinds of day-to-day essentials such as food and toiletries, as well as other items like birthday hats and children’s toys. Given the limited cooking facilities back in the room, instant noodles and Nutella snacks were the only viable dinner options!

From the store, Ben drove us down to the Roper River; steering wheel in one had, drinks can in the other. We slowly crossed the ford, even spotting a crocodile basking on the upriver side of the crossing. From here, we circled round over the new bridge and back to the camp.

After grabbing some breakfast in the camp kitchen, the first task of the day was to carry out Planey’s oil change, swapping from the Aeroshell 100 break-in oil to the standard Aeroshell W100. Ben had given me directions to the camp’s engine oil dump, an old barrel by the diesel generators, so I’d have somewhere to dispose of the old oil. The oil in the engine was straight weight (as opposed to multigrade), so flows much more slowly when cold than when hot; I therefore ran the engine for a few minutes to get it hot and maximise the amount of oil which I could drain without needing to wait hours. This engine-run was made a little more tense by the presence of Ben’s young and highly active dog, Diesel, who was running around all over the place and entirely impossible to control. Thankfully he stayed clear of the propeller.

I fitted and safety-wired the new oil filter, replenished the engine with fresh oil, and carried out a brief engine run to check for leaks. All seemed well, so I replaced the cowl and loaded everything up for departure. It was to be a fairly short flying day with just two legs and a couple of hours of flight time; I taxied back down the strip, spun around while taking care to avoid the various bushes and shrubs, and took off. After circling the field for one last look, I set course for the only intermediate stop of the day, Groote Eylandt.

Flights north into Arnhem Land

The flight took me past the communities of Ngukurr and Wilton before coasting out over Numbulwar and beginning a descent to Groote Eylandt. This island is the largest one in the Gulf of Carpentaria, and the 4th largest in Australia overall. First encountered by Europeans during Dutch explorer Abel Tasman’s voyage in 1644; “Groote Eylandt” simply means “large island” in archaic Dutch spelling. The original inhabitants are the Anindilyakwa, and these days there are 14 clan groups resident around the island. The main industry is mining; 3.8 million tonnes of Manganese ore are extracted each year, roughly a quarter of the world’s total.

I parked Planey in a space next to another Cessna 182, the pilot of which was hanging out next to his aircraft. This was Mark, and he had flown out from his private strip close to Darwin to deliver a surveyor to the island on behalf of his son’s business. He was waiting around until the survey work was complete, so that he could return the surveyor from whence he came. He recognised me, and had apparently been following the website! After a chat, Mark returned to his wait and I fired up the engine for the final flight of the day.

I coasted out from Groote Eylandt over the manganese export terminal. The island is not too far from the mainland, meaning that dry land was never out of gliding range. Of course, the number of crocodiles likely to be found on this “dry land” was probably high. Today’s destination was Gove Airport, at the northeastern tip of the Gove Peninsula in Australia’s Arnhem land. The airport was originally constructed as a Royal Australian Air Force base during World War II, with three squadrons based there. The “Gove” name, in fact, is in honour of an RAAF navigator killed in an accident in the area.

The area around Gove airport is heavily developed as a bauxite mine, and until 2014 an associated alumina refinery. Nhulunbuy, the main town in the area, was constructed by the mining company to support their operations. The school, hospital, power plant and flights are all supported by the mining company, but despite this, Qantas ceased flights to the airport in 2015 after the closure of the refinery led to a 25% drop in town population, and corresponding drop in flight loads.

After landing, first priority was to refuel. As well as the BP fuel pumps with their crazy card system, a Viva Energy Avgas pump was available which accepted standard credit cards. With all tanks filled, I parked Planey up in the General Aviation area and called for a taxi to that night’s accommodation, the Walkabout Lodge in Nhulunbuy. While waiting, a police “ute” showed up to meet a police turboprop aircraft which had just arrived. A man was transferred from a cage in the back of the ute, presumably being taken away for court or prison. A selection of family were there seeing him off. A cage in the back of a ute seemed like a pretty rough way of transporting people in this heat.

Google Maps suggested that it was a 20 minute walk from the lodge to the “Roy Marika” lookout point over the town. Unsurprisingly it was uphill all the way. Upon arrival at the point which Google claimed was the lookout, nothing was in evidence other than a forested hill. It was another ten minute walk around the corner and up a side track to reach the top, followed by multiple flights of stairs up to the top of the lookout tower. The views, in the end, were well worth it!

It was an early start, leaving the lodge just after 7am for a departure before 8. The plan for the day was to fly along the northern coast of Arnhem land, all the way over to the city of Darwin, landing at a few airstrips along the way. The region’s European name comes from the Dutch East India Company ship the Arnhem, which visited the region in 1623. The area has of course been inhabited for far longer by Aboriginal Australians, and there is evidence of extensive visitation by traders from the Indonesian islands since at least the 18th century. The peninsula is the home of a commercial spaceport, the Arnhem Space Center, and in June of 2022 this facility supported the first rocket launch from a commercial space facility outside of the US.

Most of the airstrips along this northern coast service Aboriginal communities, and one cannot exit the airfield fence without a permit. This was not a problem, as I wanted to drop into quite a few little airports before arriving at Darwin, and didn’t have too much time to hang around at each. The weather was perfect yet again, with occasional clouds, light winds, and great visibility. I lined Planey up on the west-facing runway, number three behind a pair of commercial Cessna 210s that were departing, and off we went. Departure from Gove took us out over the Gove Port, where the bauxite from the mines is exported, before we continued west along the coast.

Every airport along the north coast of Arnhem land was deserted, and the same was true after leaving the western limits of Arnhem land and approaching Darwin. I set Planey down for short stops at the airports of Elcho Island, Milingimbi, Maningrida, Waruwwi, and South Goulburn before a longer leg across to Snake Bay, on Melville Island.

Milikapiti, or Snake Bay, airport on Melville Island was the final stop before turning south to Darwin. This is the largest of the Tiwi island group, named after the aboriginal ethic group who reside there. After Tasmania, Melville Island is the second largest island in Australia. The stop here was just long enough to drink some water and munch a couple of rock-hard ginger biscuits before setting out on the day’s final flight to the Northern Territory’s largest city, and capital, Darwin.

Flights along the coast of Arnhem land

Arrival at Darwin International would be the first airport of the trip so far where interaction with air traffic control would be needed. I called up the approach controller a little early; I had not filed a flight plan and although this is not mandatory, it always seems to take a little time in Australia for a controller to enter one’s details into the system if they don’t have a plan sitting there already. Clearance to enter Darwin’s airspace was soon granted, tracking directly to “Lee Point” followed by a right base for landing.

The General Aviation parking area at Darwin is a little tucked away, but the airport taxiway diagram was clear enough that I was able to make my way to it without difficulty. The parking area was pretty full, but there were a couple of free spaces left at the near-end, and I selected one to park up in and tie down. There were plenty of rain showers around so I made sure to secure the cover nice and tight before gathering bags (including a load of laundry!) and heading over to the exit gate. It was just a short “Uber” ride to downtown Darwin and the hotel.

The stay in Darwin would be the first one of more than just one night; it would be quite welcome to have a day off from flying to relax. Darwin, like many Australian cities, is bedecked with a great number of street-art murals. Many of these art pieces owe their existence to the Darwin Street Art Festival, first held in 2017. This annual event has transformed many of Darwin’s alleys, streets, and major buildings into a spread of colourful art pieces.

Darwin and its surroundings are blessed with quite a number of “Big Things”, the first of which was just a short walk from the hotel. This is the “Big Owl”, and unlike many big things is quite a professional and serious-looking piece of sculpture. This owl is a Tawny Frogmouth Owl, a representation of the spiritual ancestor of the region’s Larrakia people called Chinute Chinute. It was unveiled in 2010, created by the indigenous artist Richard Barnes.

Just down the walkway from the owl is the lift that leads down to the Darwin Waterfront Precinct. The Waterfront Precinct is built on reclaimed land from Kitchener Bay, and features restaurants, bars, a wave pool and a man-made beach. Given the large number of dangerous creatures inhabiting the sea in this part of the world, a man-made and self-contained swimming beach is a much better option!

Click here to read the next part of the story.

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