The long road to Broken Hill
This safari route is a gentle intro to outback flying if you're based anywhere within coo-ee of regional NSW. We did it over four days in April, fabulous time of year, and we kept our overnight stays to just two farms. Converging from a handful of other NSW home airfields, we met up at Bathurst and left from there.
But you can play around with the route; swap my choices with whatever suits your mission, or add in some more destinations further afield. Just start planning ANYTHING so you at least get the ball rolling. Here's how it went down for us.
You know, it’s a very strange thing. Get a bunch of women pilots together, and something just automatically brings on a big grin. Maybe it’s a case of “Yay, I’m out from under the admin heap” (that’s anyone with a job) or “Yippee, I’m out of scrubs and PPE” (that’s our mate Doctor Kate) or “Thank God … I don’t have to cook for a week” (that’s me.)
But, when it’s a bunch of female pilots on a first attempt at an outback safari, the overwhelming sentiment is total and ridiculous excitement … ok, maybe chucked in with a few nauseating nerves and rumbling panic. Oh well, I thought, nothing that a vat of tequila slammers won’t fix tonight.
With the Australian Women Pilots’ Association (AWPA) conference happening in Broken Hill this year, it was a no-brainer for WardAir’s Catherine Fitzsimons and me to try and lasso a few planeloads of girls to come along with us while we took the long way around to get out there … very much WardAir style.
We’d been dying to go visit North Bundy Station, located halfway between Hay and Deniliquin in central NSW.
I get a bit excited when a new outback destination comes on to my radar, so when they invited us down to check out what they're offering, we thought it was only fair that their trial guests included a bunch of slightly mad, opinionated and extremely noisy females on a girls' week away.
You’d be hard pressed to find more congenial hosts than Peter and Lisa McCrabb at North Bundy. Peter flies his Piper Archer regularly, keeps the airstrip well maintained, and both he and Lisa are a font of fascinating info and anecdotes about life on the land out here. We stayed in their renovated shearers’ quarters, basic but comfortable and, over our two-night stay, we were routinely treated to Lisa’s fantastic cooking in their big country kitchen.
On our first night at Bundy, Peter & Lisa took us for a drive to check out the sunset and, on the way home, we insisted on calling into their favourite local, the historic Royal Mail at Booroorban. For re-hydration purposes. I'm not sure the gorgeous publican Roger was quite prepared for what walked in the door but by the time we left, we'd made a decent dent in his gin supplies and shared plenty of stories he didn't know he wanted to hear.
Caveat: At the time of publishing this post, (June 2021) North Bundy Station is not quite ready to open their new station stay business to fly-in and drive-in tourists. When shearing and the other myriad farming jobs allow, they are working hard on their facilities, so that can happen soon ... Covid permitting of course. Until such time as their website is up and running, call Lisa McCrabb on 0427 930643 with any enquiries.
Once Peter cleared the rams off the strip for us on day three, our four little aircraft took off in a plume of dust, tracking south-west over the last of the aptly named Hay Plains, and called in to Swan Hill for some fuel.
As it turned out, the mother of all crosswinds called in to Swan Hill that day too, so there was no rest for the girls at the controls. Chief wrangler in C172 VH-CYF with me was my student, Hilary, to whom the elements showed no mercy as she competently guided us out of the washing machine in the circuit. She flew us low level along the twists and turns of the Murray River as we made our way north towards Balranald. The lush green of the irrigation-fed paddocks along this stretch brought pure delight to our non-pilot passengers too, who love nothing more than the dress circle view of our landscapes that only light aircraft flying offers.
Di Williams runs the beautiful station stay of Lake Paika, a ten-minute drive from Balranald airstrip, where we left our aircraft. With conference welcome drinks looming, we stayed just one night here, but we had a good look around town, went for walks around the wonderful property, kept the fire stoked and ate enough for a small army. Situation normal in the outback. The lakeside setting and heritage homestead make this a photographer’s dream. I'll admit Lake Paika is a real favourite of mine. Check out more here, and keep it in mind for a visit if you’re in the area.
On our WardAir training adventures, Catherine and I try and throw a mix of off-the-grid destinations into the itinerary. We’ve had great times at the tiny town of Pooncarie, thanks to the hospitality of Barb & Bob at the Old Wharf Café. They run the café on their own, despite it being a really popular lunch and anytime stop for road travellers, due to its gorgeous position right on the banks of the Darling.
They happily picked up our first carload from the strip, then threw Kate the keys to do the next few runs into “town”. Kate would have me say at this point that she was always first into any of our waypoints due to the eye-boggling speed of her prized Mooney, the venerable VH-VMQ, with which no other aircraft can apparently compete. But I’m so not going to say that. She needs zero encouragement.
From Pooncarie, it was straight up to Broken Hill for our little fleet, all except for one pilot whose C172 spat the dummy on the ground and needed some maintenance. Thanks to Kate for doing the ferry run, thanks to the very accommodating LAME from Broken Hill, and thanks to Barb & Bob who gave her a bed for the night, Robbie and her aircraft were happily cruising up to YBHI by the next morning.
After four days of Priscilla and Mad Max antics, we sadly had to bid all our mates farewell, until next year's conference. It was time for new nav student Karolina to take the helm of CYF, and our track home to Bathurst via Parkes gave her plenty of great nav practice along the way. How wonderful to see water flowing into the Menindee Lakes for the first time in five years! And to see the leap in confidence in all our girls since the trepidation of that first morning.
Absolutely hats off to all our students and new PPLs, who were well and truly out of their comfort zone in those first few days. It was wonderful to see the look of accomplishment on their faces around the campfire at night … this is absolutely the reason we fly, and rewards like these more than make up for the hard slog we put in towards a PPL.
So there you go, get your flight planning gear out. And meanwhile, what an initiation for our five brand new AWPA members, first timers at National Conference. They’ve spoken of a heartfelt welcome and solid friendships forged. Isn’t that exactly what Nancy Bird's vision for us was?