Morning at Mungo Lodge was just as beautiful as sunset had been the night before. After breakfast in the restaurant and a very short stroll back to Planey we set out once again. With the sun at our back we headed west towards the mid-size airport of Wentworth to pick up some much-needed fuel.
As I pulled up to the fuel pump I was initially concerned that fuel might not be available; there were a couple of workmen busying themselves around the pump. It turned out that they had nothing to do with the fuel pump, however. The good news was short lived because I soon found out that to pay for fuel one had to use a phone app which had been geo-locked so only phones registered in Australia could download it. The unnecessary difficulty that Australian fuel companies place on payment remains puzzling to me. In this event it cost them a few hundred liters of Avgas sale, as I simply flew a few miles to Mildura and filled up there instead.
The Murray River runs just south of Wentworth. Flying between there and Mildura, the views of the flooded river were quite dramatic. These towns lie near the bottom of the river’s extensive catchment basin and stand in the path of all water coming down from a huge area of New South Wales. The river was already well above its banks and spilling out into the flood plain but there was worse to come; heavy rains further up in the basin had dumped much more water which was now inexorably making its way down towards Wentworth. All the residents could do was wait.
From Mildura we flew south towards the day’s first Big Thing. After a quick stop at Ouyen, where crop-dusters were coming and going, we arrived at the dirt strip serving the small town of Patchewollock. This picturesque runway was stretched across a field of rich yellow rape seed, about a 30 minute walk from the town. In a straight line across the fields it would have been quicker but I was reminded that this was Australia, and heading cross country could well lead to being bitten by a snake and dying. The road it was, then.
The main road was almost deserted, with just a couple of cars passing. One small hatchback drove by in the direction of the airstrip, and re-appeared about ten minutes later, slowing to a stop as it drew near. Driving was a lady whose name I regrettably failed to note down. She was extremely friendly and offered a lift to the town. As we drove she talked a bit about her life in Patchewollock; she had moved here quite some years back for love, with her husband sadly dying a little while ago. Before long we pulled up at Patchewollock’s main attractions; the silo art, and the Big Malleefowl.
Silo art appears to be a relatively recent phenomenon in Australia. The first large scale silo mural was completed in about 2015 in Western Australia and since then examples have exploded all across the country. Silo art tourist trails are attracting visitors to small towns that would otherwise languish unseen, and bringing in much-needed business. The GrainCorp silos in Patchewollock mark the northern end of Victoria’s silo art trail although my guide informed me that they are no longer operational, and grain must now be driven some distance away to the next town.
They were painted by a Brisbane artist by the name of Fintan Magee. For inspiration for his silo mural and to get to the know the people of the area, Fintan booked a room at the local pub so he could mix among the local community. He soon met the subject for the Patchewollock Silos; a lanky local by the name of Nick “Noodle” Hulland who exemplified the no-nonsense, hardworking spirit of the region. Apparently Nick is a pretty humble guy and still a bit self-conscious about being replicated in giant scale overlooking the town!
A few meters away stand the Big Malleefowl. These two giant birds were installed by the old railway station in 2013, sculpted by artist Phil Rigg. The Malleefowl is mostly found in the arid and semi-arid regions of Australia, such as this part of Victoria. These birds use external heat sources (decomposing vegetation during spring and heated sand in the summer) to hatch their eggs, creating large “mound nests” for the purpose. Although a pair of Malleefowl can hatch up to 200 chicks in their lifetime, the species is threatened by extinction.
My host was kind enough to give a lift all the way back out to the airfield where we happened to bump into her daughter. On her way to return a borrowed trailer, she had noticed a ‘plane parked up and stopped to investigate. We chatted for a while before it was time to head off once again.
My intention had been to stop at the town of Loxton to visit the Big Swan. However, this swan (as many swans are wont to be) is located down by the river; the Murray River. As seen earlier, this river was in the middle of a historic flood, so I made some calls as I flew to see whether a visit would even be possible. Responses quickly came back from the town library and caravan park; the swan was swimming. I would have to be content with an aerial view.
As we drew closer it became clear just how impractical a ground visit would be. The swan sits on top of a cargo container in the middle of a caravan park, which is located down on the flood plain. The top of this container was barely clear of the water; one could not get close without a kayak. A couple of low circles sufficed to get a decent view, before I pointed Planey north and headed for the next stop. Vineyards and wineries plastered the landscape below; this was definitely wine country.
After a short stop at Renmark I continued west to Waikerie. The airport here is home to a gliding club who were out flying today. In fact, they decided to pull a couple of gliders onto the opposite end of the runway and leave them there as I was making my final approach, forcing me to go around and land on a different runway. From Waikerie, it was a short hop along the flooded Murray to my destination of Hutton Vale in the Barossa valley.
The Hutton Vale winery’s website advertised their farm airstrip as well as available rental cars. Perfect for exploring the Barossa valley, I thought! When I called up they let me know that the website was out of date however, and that they no longer had cars available. The typical Ozzie hospitality kicked in though and they quickly offered use of one of their personal vehicles, which I was told would be waiting for me on arrival. Fantastic!
With the GPS it was easy to locate the strip at Hutton Vale. After an inspection pass I touched down to the north and rolled out into the parking area where one of the winery owners was waiting to greet me. Parked nearby was a little Toyota sports car, my ride for the evening. After thanking him profusely I headed for the nearby town of Angaston and the Yalumba winery. Winemaker Paola would be starting work there soon and I had decided it would be fun to visit and check it out in advance. It would be crazy to say no to the chance of a wine tasting with a professional!
The winery was beautiful. The first vines were planted in 1849 by English émigré Samuel Smith and today they produce upwards of 750,000 cases of wine each year. The tasting assistant was keen to tell us all about the history and current arrangement of the business, all the more so after hearing that Paola would be working there. She also provided some of the very best wines to try and from these it was clear to see why Yalumba were such a renowned name in wine circles!
Next it was time to find some dinner, and where better than the Krondorf Cellar Door in Tanunda. Paola would be working here until vintage started at Yalumba and I was curious to see it! These guys offered great wines and “artisan” pizzas, enjoyed on an outside table overlooking main street. An unexpected treat was that Tanunda were having their Christmas parade that evening; the first in a few years given the recent restrictions from Covid.
The parade was nothing if not varied! Wineries, the emergency services, local schools and marching bands, a hot air balloon company, car dealerships, and many more participated. There was even a veterinary practice, marching with a small pony and a few dogs. The town seemed happy and full of energy to have this annual tradition back.
After breakfast the next morning at a local bakery I drove my little sports car back out to the airstrip, leaving it in the location instructed with the keys in the center console. It was yet another perfect day with temperatures in the mid 20s and a light breeze blowing, which made pre-flighting a pleasant affair. I bundled the cover into the back of the aircraft along with my backpack and taxied out to the east-west runway, departing to the east. This was the final day of flying and it was quite a long trip back to Luskintyre.
Before striking out cross country I had decided to stop in at the Truro Flats airpark whose website was most welcoming, inviting visitors to turn up pretty much any time. This enormous grass field, with numerous runways, is located on the flat land just to the east of the hilly Barossa. The hospitality did not disappoint, with a few people wandering over to say hello as I parked. Among this little group was Dennis, an 80-year-old gentleman who was one of the leading figures on the air park.
He invited me in to the club house where they had been busy setting up for the night’s Christmas dinner, and ran me through the history of the site. Founded in 1986, the cooperatively owned airfield now had about 50 members. He proudly showed me the equipment set up to provide power and water to this off-the-grid location, including tanks of water set around the site for fire-fighting, before taking me on a drive around the perimeter. While spotting for kangaroos he described the expansion of the airfield from the original single block to the two blocks, and multiple runways, which are present today.
By the time we arrived back at Planey two bright yellow gyrocopters had arrived and parked nearby. These were flown by Dean and Dave, based at a small airfield nearby in the Barossa valley. They were excited to hear about the trip and immediately offered me a ride in a gyrocopter, a first for me! They couldn’t decide who would take me up however, so settled the debate by deciding that they both would.
I flew first in Dean’s enclosed gyrocopter, followed by a ride in Dave’s open-cockpit model. Both were impressive modern machines! The method of operation was quite unusual to me; the rotors are free-spinning, powered by air movement past the machine, with the engine only being used to spin them up to a minimum speed on take-off. The performance was quite eye-opening; both pilots were keen to show me emergency descents where the aircraft descends directly downwards, swooping forwards at the last minute to come in for a gentle landing. I had a go on the controls and found them quite straightforward to fly.
Dean and Dave were due back at their field, and I had a long way to fly to get back to Luskintyre before dark. I didn’t fancy trying to land at an unlit grass field after sunset. The gyrocopters taxied out ahead of me and leapt into the air. I followed, swiftly overhauling them as they turned west and I struck out east. The Murray River crisscrossed back and forth below me, spread far beyond its banks and filling the flood plain. From time to time the river disappeared off to the north and was replaced by arid fields, quite the contrast from the inundated area around the main channel.
My first proper stop was at the small airfield of Balranald. I wasn’t the only visitor; a helicopter and Cessna 206 were both parked up near a mobile fuel trailer. A few people milled around nearby. They were all involved in flight operations supporting the Murray River flood response. I didn’t expect the specifics though; they were flying in to pick up sheep! The Cessna 206 had flown down from the Newcastle area with a mechanic on board to perform some work to the helicopter. The workers admitted that it was probably much cheaper to just buy new sheep but it was good to see that the welfare of the animals out-weighed the economics.
A local farmer was hanging around watching and quickly offered to drive me into town so that I could buy a drink. I was happy to accept, and we chatted about the floods and how areas were flooded now which he’d never seen underwater before, with worse still to come. It wasn’t long before he was dropping me back off at the airport, ready for the next leg.
I continued east to Hay where a fuel bowser that accepted credit cards was available, and filled Planey up for the last time this trip. From there it was a race against the sun, pushing to be back at Luskintyre before dark.
Conditions were perfect and my ETA settled in at a good 30 minutes before the sun would set. The latter part of the flight took me over the rugged Blue Mountains before I started my descent to touch down back on the grass at Luskintyre, and secured Planey. There were a couple of maintenance items that the shop there would take care of after I’d gone, at which point my friend Gerard would relocate Planey over to his hangar. Next time I saw them, it would be time to head out over the Pacific at long last!
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