By Dan Telfair
After we finished planning the Coober Pedy trip, we began planning for the following day's flight into Alice Springs. That flight would be a bit more challenging, as it is about 360 miles and into a 'Primary' (Class B/C) airport - one having a lot of more complex procedures. It is a strange fact of flying that many pilots, myself included, prefer flying in relatively dangerous remote areas to flying in safer, but more controlled urban areas. We deal with environmental dangers much more comfortably than with man made regulations and restrictions.
The next morning, we decided to refuel at Arkaroola before continuing to Coober Pedy. Doug Sprig, the current owner/manager of Arkaroola and the sole pilot of Arkaroola Air, was a great help in refueling. He is a slight dynamo of a man in his early fifties, who runs everywhere he goes. A great guy. He seems to be deprived of other pilots with whom to talk, so he took advantage of our company. In addition to Arkaroola Air's Cessna 207, he keeps a Gypsy engine Auster as his personal toy.
The flight to Coober Pedy was smooth and relatively short. In response to our call from the airstrip telephone box, a lady came out to turn on the gas pump. We refueled Tango Sweetie, and did a proper job of cleaning her up and putting her to bed. The flies (blowies) were a pain. We put on our head nets and that helped a good bit. Zia called the hotel owner where we were booked, and they sent a taxi, the driver of which turned out to be the same lady who turned on the gas for us. When we got to the hotel, she had an express package to deliver to the desk - she does mail delivery on the side. I asked her if she also pulled teeth, and she said that she didn't, but that she was one of the town nurses.
Coober Pedy is an interesting Outback/mining town. It is very touristy now, as they have wisely diversified their economy. However, the mining business is still booming and there are prospectors and mining operations everywhere. Because of the temperature, and the availability of mining equipment, a good part of the town is built underground. That includes hotels, restaurants, and private homes - rather picturesque and somewhat unusual.
We went opal shopping, had a fair dinner at a restaurant adjoining the hotel, did the flight planning for the next day's trip to Alice Springs, and went to bed.
The next morning, we got out to the airfield bright and early and had an uneventful flight to Alice Springs. We had a slight tail wind, and made the trip in about 2:45, a bit faster than expected. A pilot from Aboriginal Air Services was kind enough to explain the self service pumps/credit card system to me so we could refuel. Then he followed up by providing us with a cart to unload our baggage and giving us a ride into town. Aussies are great people.
After checking it to the Desert Palms Resort, which has very nice little bungalows, we caught the bus into town and had lunch at a traditional pub - pictures of early Alice Springs and famous residents everywhere.
The next morning, I decided to make a solo flight to Ayers Rock and back. I was determined to see it, and Zia was not in the mood for another day of flying. It was a bit daunting to fly solo into and out of a 'primary' airport, and to and from a destination I had never seen before. However, other than some juggling with the navigation and radios, all went well. Ayers Rock is one helluva big rock! In the morning light, it looked orange against a green carpet of vegetation that surrounded it for several kilometers on all sides. I can't say I was particularly moved by the sight, though I might have been had I seen it from the ground. However, the airfield there requires 24 hour advance notice and has a $55 landing fee. I decided on the aerial view. It was spectacular, but less than a religious experience.
I returned to Alice Springs without incident, refueled Tango Sweetie, put her to bed, and caught a cab back to the hotel. It is interesting that there are no FBO operations or transient pilot facilities at all at the Alice Springs airport. There is a BP gas pump that you taxi up to, swipe your credit card, borrow their ladder, and fill up. Then you push your airplane to a tiedown area, and look for a place to get out of the airport boundary fence and/or go to the bathroom, call a cab, etc. I finally found the local private aero club, the staff of which were nice enough to let me use their facilities.
The next morning, I started on a planned five mile run but, as frequently happens, I spaced out and missed the turn back to the motel, adding about three miles for a total of around eight. Fortunately, my mind doesn't wander quite so much when I am flying.
After lunch, we went to the Royal Flying Doctor Museum, and had a very good lecture and tour. We both bought polo shirts with the Royal Australian Flying Doctor emblem, with the idea of wearing them on our Angel Flight missions when we got back home. Thereafter, Zia returned to the hotel, and I continued to the Aviation Museum. They have some very interesting displays of early aviation triumphs and tragedies in Australia. One display in particular caught my eye. It was a wooden prop with both blades roughly chopped off halfway between the hub and where the blade tips should have been.
It seems that in October, 1950, Kurt Johannsen and his partner Jimmy Prince were using a Tiger Moth to do some aerial prospecting. While taxiing after one remote Outback landing, they hit a sinkhole and one gear went in up to the belly. The prop hit the ground, shearing off about 15 inches from each end. What would have been a problem elsewhere, was an immediate life threatening situation where they were. They had little water, no food, no radio, and were stuck many miles from the nearest road. No one knew where they were. They had two choices; fly out, or die in the desert. The two of them managed to dig the Tiger out of the sink hole, using the broken prop as a shovel. Once they got it out of the hole, Kurt trimmed what remained of the two blades of the prop with a hatchet. He balanced the hub on a screwdriver point to get the weight of the two ends approximately equal. Then, after stripping the Tiger of everything possible, and leaving Jimmy behind, he managed to take off, vibrating badly at 3,300 RPM (1,400 above red line). He staggered through the air until he found a thermal to help him climb, flew back to their base camp, replaced the prop, and returned to retrieve Jimmy!
After the Aviation Museum, I caught a cab back to the hotel for some final flight planning for the next leg to Tennant Creek. Then it was off to a nice dinner at a hotel about 3/4 mile away. While we were there, we watched a tour bus arrive and disgorge forty or so weary travelers, just finishing an all day bus ride to get to Alice Springs. Zia and I agreed that we had the right approach to traveling in the Outback.
The next day we were to begin the next big leg of the trip - four days of flying in a row, up through Queensland to the Gulf of Carpentaria, before we would reach the east coast and civilization. I think at that point, both of us would have preferred spending the whole trip flying around the Outback. However, assuming the weather held, we did have 'things to do, people to meet - and miles to go before we sleep'. - with apologies to Rudyard Kipling.
That day was another great day of flying. We had to take off from a runway at Alice Springs that I had not used before, but the tower was very good with instructions. After we were off and headed north, there was very little to do until we reached Tennant Creek, two hours and a few minutes later. We found the airport without any problems. After landing, we called for fuel and a Shell rep came out and filled Tango Sweetie's tanks. We finished cleaning her and buttoning her up for the night; moved her to a parking slot; and tied her down. By that time, the hotel girl had arrived to pick us up and take us in to town.
It was quite a nice hotel/motel, the 'El Dorado', appropriately named as Tennant Creek is a gold mining town. We walked the quarter mile into 'town' (the main street that runs through Tennant Creek), and had lunch at a sandwich shop. There were two types of sandwiches '-Plain' or 'Lot' - 'Lot' being short for 'the lot' or 'with everything'. I ordered a 'chickenburger lot'. In addition to the chicken, it came with a fried egg, lettuce, bacon, tomato, cheese, grilled onions, mayo, pineapple, and sliced beets!
After lunch, we toured the town and took a few pictures. There is one main street and several perpendicular streets. From the main street, you can see the end of the town at each end of the perpendicular streets. From the center of town, you can see the end of the town at both ends of the main street. Tennant Creek's real claim to fame is that it is about half way between Alice and Darwin. The motels there do a good business providing overnight accommodations for those driving from one city to the other.
There was a good restaurant - again likely to do with the passers through from Alice to Darwin and vice versa. It is difficult to imagine, but the straight line distance between Alice and Darwin is twelve degrees on the globe. That equates to about 900 miles as the Cessna flies or probably around 1,100 miles of open desert, by two lane road , only recently paved! Tennant Creek is the only place even close to half way between Alice and Darwin.
The next day, we had planned to head to Cloncurry, a town with a population about a third that of Tennant Creek. It promised to be a real swinging place. After Cloncury, we planned to fly to Normanton the following morning. I had thought I'd drop Zia in Normanton (population 1200), and do a side trip to Burketown (population somewhat less). Burketown is the town that Nevil Shute used to illustrate the dreariness of Outback life in 'A Town Like Alice'. I thought that any town worth using as a bad example in a Nevil Shute novel was certainly worth seeing.
As it happened, we arose that morning to find a fairly thick fog with sky obscuration. Since we were temporarily fogged in and had some time on our hands, we did some revised planning. Zia suggested that, if I wanted to see Burketown, we should just skip Cloncury and Normanton, and go directly there. Sounded good to me. We replanned the day's flight accordingly. When the fog lifted, we took off on the first leg of the journey, and stopped a little over two hours later in Camooweel, a small village with an unattended strip. We made a quick potty and leg stretch break, and took off again to Burketown before anyone from the village could come out and see why we were landing on their airstrip.
We arrived at Burketown about an hour and a half later. We called for the local fuel man to come out and refuel Tango Sweetie; cleaned her up; unloaded the luggage; got her tied down; and caught a ride into town with the fuel man.
'Town' consists of an intersection at which stands the Burketown Pub. A few houses dwindle off in three out of four directions. The fourth direction ends in a swampy area about 50 yards from the pub. The Burketown Pub encompasses the town center, the only available restaurant, the "hotel", the poolhall, etc. They used to have a town hall of sorts but it closed.