22 August, 2010

Flinders Ranges/Innamincka/Birdsville/Lake Eyre Flying Visit 21st and 22nd August 2010

For many years I have wanted to see the Cooper (Cooper Creek) after a flood, visit Birdsville and have a look at Lake Eyre, particularly from the air. After the big rains of last summer and since, with good flows into Lake Eyre we decided this winter was the time to do it. I was much looking forward to spending Election eve at the Birdsville Hotel!

With our friends Bruce and Libby Standen we flew to Adelaide, an uneventful trip with some great views of the Murrumbidgee River (Hay) and the Murrumbidgee/Murray junction.Stayed overnight at Glenelg and at 9:00AM yesterday morning we boarded a Beechcraft King Air-pressurised, twin engined turbo prop jet-a very smart machine. This was a regular tour heavily advertised on the internet and read well. We four were accompanied by a guide and six other passengers. I managed to snare the co-pilot seat for the first leg which was a relatively short hop, for a machine with a cruising speed of 270 knots, to Port Augusta for refuelling. We were told just before take-off that the itinerary had been changed and that we would not be going to Maree, but straight to Innamincka after overflying the Flinders Rangers and Wilpena Pound in particular. We were also told, almost in passing, that we would be going to Coober Pedy on the way back tomorrow.

I was surprised that the pilot immediately ascended to 22,000 feet before descending in to Port Augusta. Good views of Yorke Peninsular, Port Pirie and Wyalla, but hardly the best altitude for general sightseeing.

We flew slightly east of north from Port Augusta and flew around Wilpena Pound after descending to about 5,000 feet. We couldn't take many photos as the windows were fogged over from the cold at the higher altitudes we had been at! It was however, good to get a general idea of what the Flinders Ranges are all about and the Pound in particular. I would now like to see it on the ground. We had quite good views of Lakes Torrens and Frome as we flew on to Innamincka again at high altitude, where we landed for lunch. Our guide placed himself in a back seat where there was no window and apart from handing around a brochure provided no information on what we were looking at-which seemed rather strange. Perhaps he didn't know!

An attractive young barmaid at Innamincka amused me with her very definate view that it would be raining today (Sunday) and that it would start at 6:00AM. She proved to be right!Innamincka surprised me with the undulating nature of the country. The "town" is down in a shallow gorge no doubt cut by the Cooper over millions of years, but well above flood levels now. It is near the junction of the Strezleki Creek with the Cooper. The Strezleki flows north quite a long way before joining the Cooper which by this stage is flowing in a general westerly direction towards Lake Eyre, still many hudreds of river miles away to the south west.

It was determined that it was too wet for us to land at the "Dig Tree" (although I noticed other aircraft on the ground), but that we would overfly it. This turned out to be laughable as the pilot didn't know which tree it actually was and the guide who couldn't see out anyway, was of little help. After several circuits of the general area we went thru the climbing routine and headed for Birdsville. Lots of the country covered by lake like water and I noticed that the lakes had all been joined up, with some big patches of green where the water has receeded, so I concluded it was flood water rather than local run-off. We flew over the Coongie Lakes and Goyders Lagoon, according to my very detailed road map, although there was no confirmation from the pilot or the guide that that was what we were looking at!

Birdsville was just as I expected, on the banks of the Diamentina. The sealed airstrip is right beside the Pub so one simply parks and walks across.David Brook was as good as his word and knocked on our door soon after we arrived and we organised to meet for dinner. I first met David and his wife Nell at the World Hereford Conference in Armidale in 2004, where we shared the platform. He and Nell gave a fascinating speech on life at Birdsville, where South African born Nell went, sight unseen, after her marriage to David. They now have some 8m. acres around Birdsville where they run some 30,000 Hereford cattle. They also raised six children. David was until recently the Mayor, is a 50% owner of the Pub (and the one at Innamincka). He has lived in Birdsville all of his life. He and Nell were instrumental in setting up the OBE Organic Beef organisation and David is Chairman. OBE is a private company owned by the twenty cattle suppliers. They toll kill at a service abbatoir and do their own marketing both domestically and export, particularly to the US.I was most interested to learn from Nell that the catalyst for setting up the organic beef initiative was the threat to the entire Lake Eyre Basin (one sixth of Australia) from the move to have it declared a World Heritage Area, which would have most likely led to destocking. A response which I feel reflected some great innovative thinking. Given that no fertilizers are used and there are no problems with internal or external parasites, meeting the organic criteria did not involve major changes to production practices.

Over dinner I was able to keep everyone posted with the Election Results by accessing the internet on my Iphone. I learned that Telstra NextG came online three days previously.

This morning (Sunday) we woke to stories that it was raining at William Creek, Coober Pedy and Oodnadatta and the weather there was deteriorating.

As arranged David Brook took us on a tour of the town and the famous Birdsville Race Course. We also made a brief visit to his very comfortable home in "suburban" Birdsville. There has been much development around Birdsville of more recent years and the town has a freshness about it. Obviously tourism is ever increasing business. It had only five houses when David was born.

A decision was made that as the aircraft was required in Adelaide the following day and as the weather was too bad for "low" flying over Lake Eyre etc. we had no alternative but to climb above the weather and return to Adelaide. We also learned that at high altitude the aircraft's fuel consumption could be lowered by as much as 50% and there was now no need for a refuelling stop. This we did, flying for over half the trip at 29,000 feet, still in the cloud. My sense and observation was that the ceiling was not much higher, but the pilot made no effort to "go see". Perhaps other aircraft told him otherwise.


In any event we had a fast trip back and arrived in Adelaide to a bright sunny day. Somewhat of an anti-climax. We managed to get an earlier flight home to Sydney, with some good views of the Adelaide Hills and the Murray before cloud obscured further viewing.

Whilst I enjoyed the outing this tour, particularly considering the price paid, was really second rate by way of factors other than the uncontrollable weather and we intend to take it up with the promoters. Link to all photos.
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