"Alfa Yankee Papa, ready for take-off" was when the reality hit. Along with my seven travelling companions, were at the brink of an adventure that would open our eyes to a country where all the well-versed phrases couldn't begin to describe the sheer magnitude of what we were about to experience.
The weather was lousy in Melbourne, rain showers, 25 knots blowing from the south, top temperature of about 14 degrees C. Typical for Melbourne in August. Nice and warm on board, good view of the tops of the clouds glinting in the bright sunshine. North of the ranges the cloud started to break, offering us a glimpse of neatly fenced farming land looking a lovely fuzzy green from 5,000 feet.
"We will be commencing our decent into Broken Hill in 20 minutes" lulled us from between the pages of our lightweight novels so carefully chosen weeks ago when deciding how to compress two weeks of life's necessities into 8 kgs of luggage. The airport terminal was very smart, could have been anywhere inland except for the distinct Pro Hart paintings consuming potentially lifeless spaces.
"Alfa Yankee Papa. Ready for take-off." Again. Starting to take notice this time of what was rolling past the edge of the runway. Dirt, with a distinctive red tinge making the fuzzy green fields seem like part of yesterday. Next landing strip was only 1hr 40 min flying time away but a bigger contrast you couldn't find anywhere. The only indication where we were to land was well, our Pilot told us we were to land. Not "We will be commencing our decent etc..." but "We'll just buzz this piece of dirt so we can clear it of any livestock before we land." A short walk took us down to the Dig Tree on the banks of the Coopers Creek, a location that was the scene of a tragic part of our history.
Good to be back on board for the 1hr flight to Birdsville. The further North we flew the less formal became the disembarkation procedure. "See that building over next to the fence. That's the pub. When we land just duck under the barbed wire fence and go in for a cold beer. I'll leave your bags outside your room and see you in 5 minutes." Was it really only this morning that we left behind our respected city rituals for such freedom, so much blue sky, so few people, so much red dust, and, thirteen days to go.
Not so easy to concentrate on the lightweight novel next morning. Sitting comfortably at 3,000 feet with my face close to my window just in awe of how big this country is. Flying over the great Diamantina River which when in flood is over 100 miles wide. Now the only way you can tell water is down deep in the dust is by the outline of huge old gum trees outlining the now dry courses. Sit back and let my eyes walk the track between my seat and the horizon. Red sand dunes constantly moving throughout millions of years have been sculpted by the prevailing wind into patterns that may have been made by waves moving over sand at the beach. Continuous pattern, just goes on and on and on. Must have dozed off, a gentle change in engine tone announces our decent. No more sand dunes, flat country now, dry but productive with beef cattle resting under the sparse trees.
Land at Longreach. Nice airport, lovely sealed airstrip. We walk to the Stockman's Hall of Fame. A tribute to our heritage where many facets of life in the outback during our pioneering past are explained. A short walk back to our plane and the comfort of cruising at whatever altitude it takes to keep us bump free seems to act as a large dose of sedative. We can still see the dry river course we flew over the previous day. Big river when in flood. Today the tributaries look like Aboriginal dot drawings of great lizards with many legs.
Mt Isa tonight. Big underground mining town surrounded by hills. Looks pretty from the air. Good contrast to our remote stay last night. The town is dominated by the mine, which ever direction you look you can see stacks belching purified gasses, or, mounds of displaced dirt. Our bus tour the next day gives us an informed insight into life in this remote mining community.
Up we fly into the wild blue yonder to Escott Station, a cattle property located near the Gulf of Carpentaria. It's so warm. A dusty four-wheel drive tour of a very small part of the property showed us where salt water crocodiles hide in the evaporating billabongs dotted along the river bed. We ate outside that evening. Casual, very relaxed atmosphere. Very friendly. No marauding wildlife interrupted our pre-dinner cocktails.
The introduction to salt-water crocodiles yesterday was apparently a forerunner to todays agenda. More of the beasts!! We flew into Kakadu National Park over some of the most fantastic scenery. This is an area of great "Dreamtime" significance to the Aboriginal people who occupy this area and the only way to really appreciate the size of it is by air. We cruised by boat on "Yellow Waters" to view the wildlife from very close quarters. Lots of it. Can it possibly be the same day. Seems as if we have been away for three weeks. Another boat cruise this afternoon, this time at Katherine Gorge. A huge rectangular series of gorges cut out by the same-named river over millions of years. In a very special place an Aboriginal Rock painting proudly appears in a very difficult to reach position. We ate al fresco again this evening, still in our group. Meals are not included in the price of the tour so as to give us a choice. I certainly didn't want to spend money on the crocodile burger my friend was enjoying, but, it's his holiday too and he can eat what he likes.
Two delightful days in Darwin. Our first afternoon was free time so, being a quite big city we had all options open. Laundry was pretty much a priority with hotel facilities providing this. Lazing around the pool catching up on that forgotten novel was pretty successful. Dinner at the local Yacht Club eating under the stars again. Wide variety of local wildlife on the menu, camel, crocodile, goat and kangaroo were not my choice but enjoyed by my travelling companions. Next day touring locally by bus with our group with more free time or more touring offered in the afternoon. Nice to be offered options, not just told to do this or that. Ate yes, al stars again.
Early morning Sunday for flight to Kununurra. Spectacular scenery over north-west coastline, mangrove trees meeting blue ocean. Enjoy the productive, colourful landscape dramatically altered by the addition of water to an otherwise arid area to grow a vast variety of produce.
We departed early again this morning to escape flying in the heat of the day. Flew over and around a unique landscape known as the "Bungle Bungles". Rounded rocks sculpted by changing inland seas and weather whose splendour can only be recognised from the air. Am looking foreword to our 2 days in Broome, our furthest point west. The contrast in the colours of nature is spectacular where the blue of the Indian Ocean is separated from the red earth by a fine strip of white sand known as Cable Beach. We are staying at the resort located on this remote beach. At sunset, the silhouette of camels walking in single file along pristine white sand was truly postcard material. Two days of sheer bliss.
Today we have the longest day flying. From Broome to Alice Springs, 5 hours with a quick refuelling stop and early lunch at Halls Creek. Then onto Alice, cruising at 6,000 ft. The panoramic vastness of the desert country just kept on rolling by. As our Pilot said, "We keep on changing the scenery every 20 minutes." Two days here to enjoy the hidden treasures found in the ranges that encircle the town. We know we are on holidays by all the other tourists we come across. Can't help feeling a little smug as we watch them clamber on board their coaches, we will be eating their dust for only as long as it takes us to get back to the sealed road.
Ayers Rock!!!!! No need to use complicated adjectives . What you have heard can hardly prepare you for the dominating presence of this towering monolith. A hardy few of us became part of the procession of "ants" clinging precariously to the seemingly vertical surface the following morning. Mother nature had the foresight to dot the red soil with an abundance of multicoloured wildflowers. Or maybe it was our Tour Escort who had planted these for us. Who knows, everything else was organised with a special touch.
Our final day. Ayers Rock to Coober Pedy. Should be a hint of regret that our tour is coming to an end but can't help anticipating what will be packed into today's schedule. Looks as though we're landing on the surface of the moon. This is a town where they dig for opals. They live in houses excavated underground to escape searing summer temperatures. Insist on seeing the golf club. Last night spent with this intimate group, the sharing of such a unique holiday is a life-time experience that will never be forgotten.