Round the World – The Pacific, Part 2

Round the World – The Pacific, Part 2

Arriving back at Sydney International before 6am in the morning, I made my way north to Maitland airport via metro, mainline rail, and taxi. Planey was waiting patiently in the hangar, just as I had left him. With a few final goodbyes to the folks at the Newcastle Aero Club I was soon on my way south, starting off a few days of local flying in Australia before it came to the final departure from Brisbane.

I stayed just inland of the M1, and skirted the western suburbs of Sydney towards my first stop at Camden. A strong wind out of the west was leading to fairly bumpy conditions down at low level, and Sydney’s airspace precluded climbing any higher.

My visit to Camden was a short one, really just to be able to say that I’d been there, and I was soon airbourne again for the short hop over to the much smaller airstrip at Wedderburn. This is a little airpark to the southwest of Sydney, situated in a pretty quiet and forested area. The strong winds seemed to have discouraged most people from flying and I was the only aircraft on frequency as I joined the downwind and came around for landing. The parking area for visitors was clearly signposted and I brought Planey to a halt on the grass and went to have a look around.

The day’s flights

The clubhouse was very pleasant and well kept, but deserted. I wandered back down to the other side of visitor parking where a man was busy washing his Jabiru 170. This was Dave, and he was most welcoming, quickly introducing me to fellow Brit Peter and his slightly larger Jabiru 230. Peter had just carried out a fix to his fuel system and was about to go for a flight to ensure it had worked. He invited me along to experience flight in a Jabiru, and I gladly accepted.

The Jabiru was a good performer, leaping off the ground and climbing well to pattern altitude. The fuel pressure fix appeared to have worked; I held a fuel pressure meter and would call out the value whenever Peter asked how it was looking. After a short flight out to the west we returned to Wedderburn, which had become a little busier; flying club president Pablo was coming back from a trip and landed just ahead of us. Over the radio, he invited us up to his hangar for tea and cake and we spent a happy half hour or so swapping flying stories with a few of the airfield regulars.

The day was drawing on, so it was soon time to get going. After a couple of photos with Planey I hopped back in and headed south for a quick stop at Shellharbour before turning the nose west and heading for Canberra. The evening drew in as I approached the capital city and by the time I arrived it was fully dark. The wind was blowing cold and for the first time in Australia I had to make use of a jacket. I tied Planey down in GA parking and before long I was in an Uber to my hotel, and an excellent steak dinner to top off an extremely long and tiring few days.

After an excellent night’s sleep I felt much more rested. This was my first time in Canberra, so the opportunity to take a look around the city could not be missed. It’s not a big place and all the main attractions are within walking distance. First, though, breakfast at the cafĂ© next to the National Capital Exhibition.

Canberra is a manufactured capital. When discussions around the federation of Australia started to really make headway, an agreement was reached that neither Sydney or Melbourne would be the capital; instead a new capital would be built in New South Wales, but at least 100 miles from Sydney. Many locations were considered but ultimately Canberra won out ; New South Wales ceded the required territory and construction of the new capital began.

This tale is told in the National Capital Exhibition, and laid alongside contemporaneous major national and world events such as the creation of Vegemite. It’s well worth a visit if in Canberra, and entry is free. From here it’s just a short walk, crossing the bridge over the artificial Lake Burley Griffin, to the old parliament building. Constructed between 1923 and 1927, this building was intended to act as a temporary parliament, with a life of 50 years, until a larger permanent building could be designed and constructed. In the end it continued in operation, undergoing several renovations and expansions, until 1988. The building is now open to the public as a museum.

A short walk up the hill from the old Parliament is the new Parliament. Opened in 1988 by Queen Elizabeth II, the building is much bigger than the old Parliament and is largely buried inside the top of Capital Hill. A giant 81-metre (266-foot) spire with an Australian flag caps the structure. The lawn leading up to the main entry is lined with flagpoles, topped with the Australian national flag as well as Aboriginal and Torres Straits flags. This struck me as an unfortunate choice; surely it would be better to have one single flag which the country could congregate around, rather than dividing people into three groups.

It was a short Uber ride from the new Parliament back to the airport, and entry to the GA area was easily arranged with a call to airport security. Departing north offered up great views over the city of Canberra, familiar from the small scale model of the city which had been on display in the National Capital Exhibit.

The day’s flying was split into two legs; the first of these to Young for fuel. This town styles itself as the cherry capital of Australia, something which it proudly displays on a mural at the airport. A tortoise was slowly but steadily crossing the taxiway as we taxied in, careful to avoid running it over.

After refueling we headed straight back out to the north. A short stop at Forbes was followed by landing at Parkes, the final stop of the day. I had chosen Parkes as a destination due to the enormous CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) Parkes radio-telescope which is situated just north of the town; ever since seeing the movie The Dish I had been keen to visit. I parked Planey up next to a couple of other light aircraft, tied him down, and headed in to the little terminal building to figure out transport.

The airport was quiet overall, and the terminal building was no exception. A few passengers were scattered around, and a single employee was managing check-ins at the regional airline desk. There were several car hire desks along the far wall but all were unattended. The airline employee was most helpful however; she had the mobile phone numbers for all the car rental representatives and called them all for me, one after the other. Unfortunately the result of her enquiries was that no cars were available! I retired to the seating area to consider plan B. The radio telescope is located a little way north of town and using taxis would not be terribly convenient.

One of the passengers who was waiting for the delayed regional flight came up to me. “Do you need a car?” he asked. My hopes rising, I confirmed that I did. “I’ll be away for a few days, why don’t you take mine? That airplane you parked next to is mine, so I reckon I can trust you!”

He led me out to the car park and introduced me to his very cool “ute”, which he called “The Rocket”. After checking that I could drive a manual, he told me not to worry about the check engine light (“That’s been on for two years!”) and left me to it. As I sat figuring out where to stay that night, a lady walked up to me. “Hello – are you stealing my husband’s car?” His wife had come by the airport for some reason, and spotted me about to drive off!

On arrival at the motel the lady at the desk kindly handed over some milk (a common occurrence in Australia and New Zealand) and gave a few recommendations about what to do in town. Being pretty tired, dinner that evening was taken care of by a short walk into town to visit the local pizza take-out.

The first order of business the next morning was CSIRO Parkes. The 2000 movie “The Dish” tells the story of how this enormous radiotelescope played a key part in the receipt of some of the first television signals to be sent from the moon during the first moonwalk of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. This 64m diameter dish was completed in 1961 and upgrades since then have led to its sensitivity as of 2018 being 10,000 times greater than when it was first commissioned. The sensitivity of the equipment is such that mobile phones must be turned off when visiting to avoid interference.

One of Parkes’ most notorious discoveries was Perytons, signals similar to cosmic “Fast Radio Bursts” but which were thought to have a terrestrial origin. Seventeen years later these were finally traced to the facility’s microwave door being opened during its cycle. Subsequent tests revealed that a peryton can be generated at 1.4 GHz when a microwave oven door is opened prematurely and the telescope is at an appropriate relative angle.

On the way back I stopped off at a local coffee shop for a light breakfast of hot chocolate and a brownie. Although the brownie turned out to be excellent, this was just a little too much chocolate. Now fed, it was time to return The Rocket to the airport and get back in the air. Taking off, I set course for the first stop at Nyngan. The reason for this was something of a throwback to the previous section of the trip; Nyngan is home to the “Big Bogan”.

Compared to big animals or fruits, this one might need a little explanation. “Bogan” is local slang for a person whose speech, clothing, attitude and behaviour are considered unrefined or unsophisticated. Originally a rather insulting term, in recent years it has become something of a proud moniker for many. The origin of the term is unclear; however, the fact that Nyngan is situated within Bogan Shire perhaps contributed to their decision to host this statue.

The statue is about a 30 minute walk from the airport; the sun was strong but the temperature not too hot, and with a hat and a bottle of water the walk was not unpleasant. Erected in 2015 with the idea of increasing tourism visits, the statue of the bogan had a pet dog added to it in 2022. Apparently local opinion about the statue is still very divided.

Turning northeast, I guided Planey through short stops at a number of airfields; Coonamble, Moree, Goondiwindi and finally Millmerran before approaching the small private airstrip at Fig Tree. Owned by Ken and Ruth, Fig Tree is a fly-in destination with a hangar apartment and even a little repurposed silo that one can camp out in.

Flights north to Fig Tree

Perched on top of a hill, the grass strip at Fig Tree is 380 meters long and not a simple place for the average pilot to operate into. The ground drops off steeply at one end of the runway and there are several large trees nearby. At least one aircraft has crashed on landing, and so before flying in for the first time one needs to sign an agreement to follow a specific arrival procedure. This involves a 500ft inspection pass, followed by an approach with a go-around, and finally the actual landing.

I could definitely see the value in this procedure, especially having been only operating into long tarmac strips in recent months! Landing was uneventful, and Ken was at the hangar to guide us in and help push Planey inside. I had elected to stay in the hangar apartment, as the silo requires one to bring ones own sleeping bag! The interior of the entire hangar, not just the apartment, was beautifully decorated and the reason for this soon became clear as Ken described how it is often used as a wedding venue. It was certainly the nicest accommodation that Planey had enjoyed in a long time!

Ken gave a tour of the facilities, and even supplied the keys to their sporty red Mini to allow a drive into town, before he headed off to the main house. After a wander around the grounds I drove into the nearby Pittsworth and, instead of eating out, elected to buy some cheese and fruit from the local Woolworths and take it back to the hangar, all the better to enjoy the lovely environment there.

Ken had provided a warning to look out for kangaroos on the road and this turned out to be well-founded, although the first wildlife to appear in the roadway was a large pig. On the way back the kangaroos did appear; one dead, and two living, although both hopped out of the way without delay.

Under a cloudless sky the temperature dropped precipitously once the sun went down, and the heater was most welcome.

Click here to read the next part of the story.

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