Monday, August 08, 2011

Birdsville and Lake Eyre - Part 1

I got a message on Wednesday to contact a friend in Roma named Greg who has a pilot’s licence and his own plane. The message was simple “Greg wants to take you over Lake Eyre”. Greg popped into the office later that day to confirm the plan. He was taking three people out to Birdsville on Friday and onto the Lake on Saturday and there was a late cancellation. Was I interested, he asked. Of course I was. With the Lake reputedly full after the floods earlier this year, I agreed on the spot and got excited as Friday approached.

On the Friday morning we gathered at Roma Airport. Greg’s plane is a Cessna 182 four seater and the other two passengers squeezed into the back. I sat next to Greg as “co-pilot” though I what I knew about flying planes could be written on a matchbox. I could read maps however and enjoyed following the route on the charts on Greg’s ipad. Greg did allow me to steer the plane for 10 minutes or so while he consulted charts, something I did with a mixture of elation and terror.

We set off southwest towards Cunnamulla and got there after a hour and a bit’s flying. We weren’t stopping there but enjoyed the flyover view of the town and the Warrego river slowly ambling south towards the Darling. Our first stop was Thargomindah another hour to the west.

We followed the path of the Adventure Highway past Eulo and beautiful Lake Bindegolly National Park.
We stopped in Thargomindah and Greg had to rapidly deal with a vicious cross wind that almost dragged us off the runway on landing. After that excitement, there was the more mundane task of refuelling and eating a packed lunch at the deserted airport.

Then it was aboard, heading northwest to Birdsville. Greg took this circuitous route because he reckoned the Channel Country was more spectacular this way. He was right. The Cooper Creek stretched out like the Nile Delta cutting the brown landscape with a magnificent swathe of green. We passed Durham Downs station, a huge property just to the west of the creek, often cut off for months at a time when the Cooper was in full flood.

On the other side, a huge lake bore into view to the north. We diverted to take a look at Lake Yamma Yamma (formerly called Lake Mackillop). Yamma Yamma seldom sees any water but was full now, feeding off the waters of Cooper Creek while nearby claypans etched into the landscape.

We went briefly across the border into the moonscape of northern South Australia below Haddon Corner before angling back into Queensland for the descent into Birdsville. Perched precariously at the edge of the Simpson Desert, Birdsville survives on the infrequent waters of the Diamantina River, which like every other system in Queensland is flowing freely at the moment.

The town was founded in the 19th century to collect tolls from the droves of cattle moving interstate. Originally called Diamantina Crossing, it was given its current name in testament to vast amount of birds who call the place home. Many of them were perched over the runway making descent difficult and forcing Greg to keep the nose of the plane up on landing so if they did hit us, they would do less damage on the undercarriage. No such drama occurred and we got out to notice the iconic Birdsville Hotel handily placed across the road from the airport. The racecourse was further away on the other side of the river and will be full for the annual races at the start of September.

The town was quiet enough, though there were plenty of caravanners making the pilgrimage along the famous Birdsville Track into SA or into the Simpson Desert. We made the short walk to the caravan park to find the cabin we booked for the night and then to the impressive tourist office to pay for the charter over the Lake tomorrow. Greg decided he would rather be a passenger than a pilot for this leg and who could blame him.

Then it was onto the Birdsville Bakery (which in typical outback style is licensed to serve alcohol) for a coffee and a camel burger (which I was assured was genuine dromedary – though someone at the pub later reckoned it was beef). A walk around the spread-out town found the ruins of the Royal Hotel, the old hospital turned into a museum and Blue Poles gallery owned by the remarkable Wolfgang John.

John is a German who has made Birdsville his home for 18 years. His mother escaped eastern Germany ahead of the Soviet army in 1945 and he was brought up in Bremerhaven and then in southern Germany. But he found his true home in the Australian outback. The gallery is full of magnificent paintings of the desert he so clearly loves. I asked him was the gallery named for Pollock’s painting. No, he replied, the poles out on the veranda are blue.

All this playing the tourist made me thirsty and it was time to check out the pub where I rejoined my aircrew. Everyone went outside to catch the last rays of the sun disappear behind the airport before packing out the restaurant for a lovely dinner. Then it was back to the cabin for a coffee and an early night with the big Lake Eyre expedition to follow at 7.30am in the morning.

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