Day Five. Carnarvon Kalbarri.
The final run home is 170 miles along the coast, beginning with the beautiful Shark Bay. With full tanks of fuel, sandy beaches below and clear skies above, I decide to fly at least part of this last stage at the relatively low altitude of 500 feet above ground level. At 500 feet AGL, the detail in the scenery below becomes even more acute with individual trees and even leaves, easily discernible.
The world seems to pass by more quickly at this height and abandoned airstrips and dirt tracks come and go in a heart-beat. All the while the white sands are a constant companion out to my right hand side with waves gently lapping the shore on isolated beaches. My mind has almost exceeded capacity absorbing the broad spectrum of colours and textures that I have seen today and this coastal fringe provides even more. I want to yell the praises of this region to the world, but then pause, wondering if the key to its beauty lies in its isolation and sparse spattering of mankind.Shark Bay on the extreme western coast of Australia, in the Gascoyne region.
Shark Bay in Western Australia. Almost on cue, the remnants of past habitation slip by beneath me; a ghost town. I wheel the Jabiru around and look down along the line of the wing which seems to point at the structures below me. I guess it was once a thriving community of miners or farmers, now long gone. The buildings remain, blending back into the outback sands out of which they grew. Corrugated tin roofing flapping in the breeze and empty door frames, open to the drifting sands. Only the stone walls seem to offer any resistance to the onslaught of time and nature.
From above they stand so alone and yet undoubtedly played host to hilarity, hope and heartache in grander times. All around the eye can see nothing but the horizon; still these pioneers staked their claim in this very spot. Now many undoubtedly lie in tiny graves on the small ridge a few miles up the road. I cannot help but wonder what stories these walls once told, now fallen silent and their words lost in time. The sound of my engine fades too as I level the wings and head south to Kalbarri.Beautiful Broome, the western Australian coast.
The land ahead now begins to rise to meet me and I decide that is time to place some distance between the earth and me once again. As I track slightly inland, the beaches are gradually replaced by foliage and ridge lines whose profile is becoming accentuated by the afternoon sun. I am now ‘laying off’ quite an amount of drift to counter the strong wind that is blowing and I notice a discernible change in my speed across the ground. It has been a long day and my eyes are weary as I scan my chart to locate my lodgings for the night at Murchison Station. It lies on a bend in the river to the north of the airport, so I decide to follow the Murchison River that now looms large ahead.
Approaching Kalbarri and Murchison Station. Without difficulty I sight the few buildings that constitute the historic station and orbit overhead as requested to notify them of my arrival. Confident that I have made enough noise to attract their attention, I cut across to the airfield and descend into the circuit pattern. It soon becomes apparent that the breeze is also blowing at Kalbarri Airport as the wind-sock seems to be almost at breaking point, although thankfully it is almost parallel in direction to the runway.
Even so, as I make the final turn to make my approach to land there is a significant cross-wind component to this gusty wind. I am working very busily in the cockpit to control the Jabiru with my right hand on the yoke and doing my best to maintain some semblance of a constant approach speed and flight path with the throttle in my left. A gust rolls me without warning and I quickly roll the wings back to level flight. It’s an exciting ride and at times the speed washes off suddenly leaving the Jabiru hanging in the air, void of energy, until I can offer her a dose of airspeed to carry on. All the while I am very prepared to abandon the landing if it gets too hairy and I have enough fuel and daylight to fly to Geraldton if need be. But for the moment, it is difficult, not dangerous.Head to head; Exiting the runway at Kalbarri, staring down a Fokker 50.
The headwind means that it is a slow ride down to the runway where a Fokker 50 airliner is waiting to depart. I gather that I am the entertainment for the passengers and crew as they watch the mighty little Jabiru do battle with the conditions. Finally, the runway is within inches of the wheels and I ease in the rudder and lower one wing to align the aeroplane with the runway. Right in front of the critical audience of the Fokker’s crew, I touch down, slow down and turn around. Phew!
The Fokker at Kalbarri patiently waits its turn. My relief is echoed by the airliner’s pilot who transmit “I’m glad that was you!” as they enter the runway and wait for me to get out of their way. I waste no time in doing so and as they roar into the sky, I swing the Jabiru into a small wind-break provided by some thick undergrowth and shut down the engine. I have been in the air for seven hours and fifty-five minutes of extraordinary flying, but now it’s time to call it a day.Dawn at Kilbarri, western Australia
I climb out and push the Jabiru’s tail well back towards the foliage before lashing her down very securely to a pair of concrete blocks. As I unload my gear I share a few insights with a reporter from Kalbarri before my ‘lift’ arrives and I head off to Murchison Station for the night. The station owner, Calum, and his daughter sit in the front of the truck as I lean back on the seating in the rear in the company of a couple of fierce looking ‘pig dogs’. Never a big fan of canines, these two dogs occasionally growl at each other as we bump along the dirt road, but thankfully seem disinterested in me.
Calum offers me an ice cold beer and although I have not consumed a single alcoholic drink on this trip so far, the frigid drops running down the side of the bottle are just too hard to resist at the conclusion of eight hours in the seat. As I drink the amber fluid I can feel the cooling effect immediately and tip my head back in a thoroughly relaxed state, chatting with Calum as we drive on.The Gunbarrel Railway, stretched across the Nullarbor Plain.
When we enter Murchison Station there is a mix of buildings, the historic homestead, beautiful climbing plants and even rusting military vehicles, including a tank. After nights in hotel rooms and cabins, the intimate surrounds of this historic, working station are just what I need. This station has been active for over one hundred and fifty years and I can’t wait to stow my gear and absorb the history.
My historic room at Murchison Station. Calum shows me to my lodgings; they are refurbished shearer’s quarters that were built by convicts in 1860. There are some tell-tale signs of their convict builders even today. The large door-bolt is only lockable from the outside, while the lone small window would not allow a man to escape. Inside the walls have been rendered, but one small section has been framed and preserved to show its original form. The ceiling is low, but the air is cool by virtue of the thick stone walls. This is great!
As the sun is getting low, Calum suggests that we head straight out to the place that motivated me to stay at Murchison Station in the first place. I jumped back into a four-wheel drive and we trekked through the scrub until a small clearing emerged, spattered with headstones. A number of these headstones dated back to the founding days of the station, but it was two old headstones and a low fence that catch my eye.Grave site of the lost airmen. The headstones of Fawcett and Broad.
They are of Bob Fawcett and Eric Broad. They were contemporaries of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith and had been killed in 1921 when their Bristol Tourer biplane stalled while circling overhead a fellow aircraft that had been forced down with mechanical issues. The flight had been the first scheduled air service in Australia, a freight run, but was cut short in the wake of the tragedy. The outcome was that the service was placed on hold until sufficient emergency landing fields could be constructed throughout the Western Australian outback. During that time, QANTAS grew from strength to strength on the east coast and the rest is history.
Now I stand at this remote, forgotten graveside, so significant to our aviation history and pay my respects to these lost aviators. As I do so, Calum points just over the way, for that is where the aircraft tragically struck the ground. The wind and the isolation only add to the solemnity of the site and I am deeply moved.
I return to my shearer’s quarters and sit on the verandah, chatting with some young transient back-packers who are working their keep at Murchison. Having a warm shower is like a shot in the arm and that night I share a meal with my hosts at the homestead and learn more of the history. It is a tremendous feast of chicken and vegetables that I consume at an embarrassing pace. Seated around a table on the lawn under the stars, stories change hands and Calum relates that when he first arrived that there were some ageing ladies who still recalled with a smile when ‘Smithy’ came to Murchison.In good company: The Jabiru beside a Royal Australian Air Force FA-18 Hornet. Katherine, Northern Territory
Once again, generosity comes to the fore and Calum and his wife Belinda insist that my night’s stay is ‘on the house’ as their contribution to the work of the RFDS. Once again I am embarrassed, grateful and in admiration of the outback fellowship. We enjoy dessert and a couple more tales and the entire occasion feels more like old friends catching up than a host-guest-worker relationship. This is Australia at its egalitarian best.
The Murchison Station ‘shearer’s sheds’. I bid one and all goodnight and make my way by torchlight. There is no internet connection, so it is a night without news reports, interviews, blogs or updates. I stop to fill a jug of water in the kitchen where a harmless python resides in the drawer, before walking to my room and unlatching the convict bolt to enter. My torch beam reveals a coating of huge moths on the corrugated ceiling and I resolve to leave them alone if they’ll reciprocate the favour. In minutes I am horizontal and ready to sleep in the darkest room one can imagine; it’s blissful.The Apple Isle: North shore of Tasmania Across the Bass Strait, from Tasmania to the mainland
I roll over to set the alarm on my phone and set some very soft music to play. I am totally relaxed. I can still hear the wind outside and I think of my Dad and of the lost aviators’ graves, miles from home. So much has happened since the sun rose in Broome. The music is still playing gently as I am lost to the world for the night.
"A Sacred Site" is just one chapter from Owen Zupp's new best-selling eBook ,’Solo Flight’, detailing his fund-raising flight around Australia. "Solo Flight" can be purchased on Amazon and iTunes for only $4.99.
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