outback flying to wilpena pound

“ We can’t take off until the fog has lifted “ It is flying rule 101, explained by Mr T as we sit on the airstrip in Cootamundra, on that cold Sunday morning in June. 

This is the start of a week of flying the Outback, a plan hatched only a few days before when we heard that Lake Eyre was filling up with water for the first time in years. While heavy rainfalls and floods caused devastation in Northern Queensland in early 2019 with homes lost and much of the state’s cattle industry wiped out, a few months on, the water has made its way slowly down south filling in rivers and plains, rejuvenated after years of drought. Suspecting this kind of weather event only happens once in a blue moon ( or a lifetime ), we could not miss the opportunity to see it for ourselves. 

And because we have not ventured that far in the outback before, a “quick” flight to check out the lake is turning into an air safari, joining iconic dots around the desert zone known as the Outback Loop. From mountain ranges, to outback tracks and sandy deserts, we’re off hoping to tick a few places off our bucket list.  

Our aviation friends Terry and Deidre are coming along for the ride. Terry and Mr T go way back, he is an aeronautical engineer and used to fly until recently. I am happy to let him have the copilot seat so that Mr T can rely on someone with a much higher degree of competency than yours truly. Also, it means that I get to seat at the back and take photos, so it’s a win-win situation. As for Deidre, she loves these outback trips and is used to either fly or go caravanning. As we both share a love of food and Moet, we look forward to see what kind of gourmet adventure this trip will turn into.

Having held our first flight briefing the night before at the Cootamundra Country Club, we’re all fresh and bushy tailed this morning, excited for our first leg. Today’s destination is Wilpena Pound in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges National Park. The plan is to leave early, travel to Broken Hill to refuel before continuing to the Pound, another 275kms to the west. Ideally, we’d like to get there with enough time and daylight to do a fly over before landing. 

So we load the plane with our soft bags and patiently wait for the fog to dissipate. If patience is a virtue, it’s a pre requisite for pilots, and I can tell Mr T’s frustration as minutes turn into hours before the sun finally breaks thru. 

It is nearly lunch time by the time we take off and head north west.

The green paddocks of the Riverina gradually give way to a landscape of parched grazing lands around Ivanhoe,

the partially dried out inland lake system of Menindee

and finally the red dirt desert fringed town of Broken Hill, 3 hours later.

This is a quick stop, with no time to go and explore, as our captain is keen to make up time and arrive at Wilpena Pound before nightfall.

What is Wilpena Pound? It is a natural amphitheatre of mountains located 429 kilometres north of AdelaideSouth Australia in the heart of the Flinders Ranges National Park. Mr T reckons it’s  a whole bunch of rocks, but we’re talking about 800 million years old towering sandstone cliffs here, surrounding a huge circular basin, 17kms by 7kms! It is home to a host of animals, birds and vegetation and formerly used by graziers as a natural enclosure to keep cattle and horses.

There are 2 airstrips where to land around Wilpena Pound. One on the eastern face,  near the Wilpena Pound Resort, which is used by scenic flights at all hours of the day and requires permission to use. Another one at the Rawnsley Park Station, on the southern face, which still requires permission but is more accessible. Since our overnight accomodation is at Rawnsley Park Station, we decide to land there. While there is a modest landing fee ( $50 for twin engine aeroplanes ), transfer from the airstrip to the resort is free ( we could have easily walked there, if we didn’t have all these bags!). 

Rawnsley Park Station, was settled as part of Arkaba Station in 1851. One of the first pastoral leases settled in the Central Flinders Ranges, it was granted for a period of 14 years by the Colony of South Australia for what was then known as ‘unoccupied waste lands’. For the next 100 years, large pastoral properties were resumed for farming, with leases being issued and passed on from graziers to farmers, back to graziers as a range of natural disasters ( droughts particularly ) caused hardship on everyone. Present day Rawnsley Park Station was purchased by Clem Smith in 1953 and expended over the following 50 years to encompass 29,000 acres. It is now run by Clem’s son, Tony and his wife Julie, and while the Station still runs 2000 sheeps, its main business has been tourism since the introduction of cabins and sheep shearing demonstrations in the late 1960’s. Nowadays, it is well known for its award winning eco villas and private pool among these looking for a bit of luxury in the Outback, though I must say their more modest holiday units, in which we stayed, are extremely comfortable too. Complete with a queen size bed, fully equipped kitchen and ensuite, what more could we want for one night? 

Bushwalking trails about around the property and by the time we land and are shown to our units, we have just enough time and daylight to stretch our legs on a short walk to Alison Sadle. The view takes in the various ranges and hills of Arkaba, with Wilpena pound dominating to the East.

I am busy taking photos, but Mr T is more interested in checking his phone, as this is one of the few spots were mobile reception is available. No wildlife, but plenty of shrubs.

We return in time to meet with Terry and Deidre at the Woolshed restaurant for a sunset drink and dinner. 

Housed in the original woolshed, the restaurant uses local produce including their own lamb. Chicken, duck, beef and kangaroo are on offer as well as a vegetarian risotto. But we can’t go past their Lamb Tasting platter, the specialty of the house! For $37 per person, you get to to try lamb cooked in 6 different ways: lamb silverside with beetroot puree, chargrilled lamb cutlets with chimichurri, lamb sausages with red pepper pesto, lamb rump with roast pumpkin, Memphis style lamb ribs with housemade BBQ sauce and slow braised lamb leg with orange and parlsey sauce. 

All we need to add is some french fries, a bowl of roasted vegetables, some greens ( at my insistence ) and we’re good. So good in fact, that we nearly skip dessert, feeling totally full.

Deidre is one step ahead however, and while I am chatting away with our waitress ( a young French backpacker working on the farm in compliance with her working visa ), she arranges for 4 serves of coconut and cranberry sponge cake and mango sorbet to be packed for us to enjoy later. 

Deidre is not only a great food companion, but she also turns out to be ready for anything quirky I put to her. Like tagging along in the bush in the middle of the night, as I want to take pictures of the night sky. Leaving the boys to their nightcaps in the warmth of the units, we ventured far enough to get away from the artificial lights and try to capture shots of the milky way. Full moon doesn’t help and I obviously have a lot to learn, but it is a lot of fun and after nearly an hour in cold darkness, we giggle our way back inside, ready for dessert and champagne!

Next morning is very subdued. Breakfast is not included in the rate, nor is it provided at the restaurant, as guests are presumed to bring their own food and make use of the cooking facilities in the units. However, being fly-ins without any supplies, Deidre managed to purchase breakfast provisions from the restaurant the night before and has Terry knocking on our door with an offer to join them on the verandah. I bring along an additional fry pan, and next thing you know, Deidre and I are cooking bacon, eggs and tomatoes, Terry is making cups of tea and toasts while Mr T is putting a flight plan together. It is a gorgeous sunny day, promising a cloudless sky for our next airborne leg.

But not before we are picked up by the shuttle driver, who kindly takes us the long way back to the airstrip, giving us a tour of the resort. While the holiday units are the closest to the airstrip and the Woolshed restaurant, the road runs past the Eco Villas and leads on to the bush camping area. This brings back memories to Terry and Deidre, who visited years ago while on a caravanning holiday. Our driver delights us with stories of European tourists who book the villas in January and are surprised by the searing Australian heat, while most of the domestic clientele travels here in the winter, when the nights may be cool but the days are dry and balmy. Mr T takes tips for a possible return visit ( a tour of Australia by 4WD is on his bucket list! ) and soon, we are back in the plane. 

Since we missed the opportunity to fly over the pound the previous afternoon, Mr T makes up for it by circling over twice, climbing 1000m over Rawnsley Bluff at the southern end. What looks like a wall of mountains from the outside, completely encircles the gently-sloping interior of the Pound.

There is a high saddle over which a walking trail passes and a gorge on the eastern edge which I could not locate, despite my captain best efforts to fly low. The interior of the Pound does not rise to any height at the northern end, but instead simply drops off very steeply to the plain below in a series of steep gullies. I am in such an awe of the grandeur and the scale of the Pound, that I ignore the turbulences caused by the wind drafts, until quizziness starts to creep up and I tap on Mr T’s shoulder with a thumb up. 

Next stop, William Creek, 390kms to the north.

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