Stewart May and I have enjoyed several mutual cross country flights over the past couple of years in the Temora Aero Club Tecnam Sierra 2002. All of these were in NSW. Time, we decided, to spread our wings so to speak and fly to Wilpena Pound in the Flinders Rangers of SA. Having settled on this, Stewart casually remarked that maybe we should extend the trip to include Lake Eyre.
Why not, we agreed. And the trip was planned, the Tecnam booked and accommodation arranged.
It all looked fairly straightforward: on Google Earth, that is. Of course, we confidently presumed good late autumn weather and no problems with our trusty aeroplane. In any case we set a flexible timetable and kept our options open as far as possible.
As glider pilots we were rather wary of relying on the engine, particularly because the flight involved crossing some rather inhospitable albeit beautiful terrain. And as much as we love gliding we weren’t keen to test the Tecnam’s soaring capabilities. Mal Williams had done the same flight some time ago and helped us with invaluable advice like where and how to get fuel, how to get back into Broken Hill airport through the security gate (don’t ask, it’s a
secret!), how head winds can make for nervous glances at the fuel gauge in the last 50 or so nautical miles into Broken Hill from Temora. He also told us what to do when the engine goes bang! Yes, it did happen to Mal near Menindee.
We drove to Temora on the evening of Wednesday May 9. Rob Maslin, President of the Aero Club, generously interrupted his quiet evening at home to drop the Tecnam keys off to us in Stewart’s hangar. Thursday, 0900 we fuelled up and headed for Griffith, more fuel there (thanks for the tip Mal) and set off for Broken Hill. The plane hummed along and we sat back, gazed at the view and paid constant attention to our fuel state. Naturally we had head winds.
Menindee Lakes were full of water and spectacular photo 1. Landing at Broken Hill was interesting mainly because of fairly strong thermal activity and the inevitable cross wind. We enjoyed a great pizza and an excellent 2009 Vasse Felix shiraz that evening. Christine, our host at the ‘Lodge Outback Motel’, cheerfully provided pick up and transport to and from the airport.
The leg to Wilpena Pound was very outback – lots of red sand dunes, dry creeks and patchy scrub. Reassuringly, airstrips appeared at regular intervals. We had spoken to Drew Irvine, senior line pilot of Central Air Services, at Rawnsley Park Station near the Pound and knew the procedures for air traffic in the Wilpena area. Before we landed at Rawnsley Park we made a scenic clock-wise circuit of the area. photos 2 & 3
The Tecnam securely tied down, we hitched a ride into Rawnsley Park Resort with some friendly caravan tourists. Dinner was a very satisfactory BBQ we cooked for ourselves. We met up with Drew and arranged fuel for the morning. As icing on the cake, he offered us a ride to the airport.
First up we had to remove the ice from our flying machine. Cold starting the engine was also a bit of a challenge. Our first leg was the short flight to Leigh Creek where we topped up our fuel tanks. Then we set off for Lake Eyre. And what a brilliant flight it was. The southern Lake was impressive and the larger northern Lake extremely beautiful. We stayed at 6,500ft, well above the numerous other aircraft flying tourists in the immediate area of the Lake. Incredibly, the Lake featured large areas of pink, contrasting the white salt banks. There was an enormous amount of water which provided a perfect mirror for the high scattered alto cumulus above. Photos 4, 5, 6 & 7
Back then to Rawnsley Park via Leigh Creek for a really tasty meal at the Woolshed Restaurant. Stewart waxed lyrical about the sticky date pudding “second only to Wendy’s” he wisely qualified.
So far the entire trip had gone perfectly to plan. The Tecnam purred along contentedly, the weather was clear, head winds didn’t create any fuel or range problems and our navigation was spot on. We found ourselves contemplating our return trip via Mildura with relaxed anticipation. Then it got interesting.
The Area Briefing for area 51 on the Sunday morning looked good – “WEATHER: NIL SIGNIFICANT”. This was entirely accurate until we were about 70 miles from Mildura when light cloud at about 5000ft started to become more dense. Worse, the cloud base began to get lower. About 38 miles from our destination, we were confronted with a cloud base at 2000ft, mist and rain. After consulting Melbourne Central who in turn talked to a pilot flying west from Mildura, we diverted to Renmark. We still had low cloud and rain showers to contend with but were happy to keep in sight sunshine on the big flat paddocks south of the Murray as we made our way to Renmark. Stewart made a perfect landing on runway 18.
The airfield was entirely deserted – no power or gliding people to be seen anywhere. We re-fuelled using the clever telephone prompt system of the local Aero Club, tied down the plane and called a taxi into town. If you’ve never been there, we can recommend the accommodation and excellent bistro at the Renmark Hotel.
Next day, we flew an uneventful and very pleasant return to Temora.