Outback 2: the best day
The best day began when I peered out into the half-light not long after 6 and realised the skies were clear. (There had been no stars the previous evening.) That meant we could fly. In a Cessna 210 Centurion. At 7.30, before any weather had time to develop and scupper views of the Simpson Desert meeting the Channel Country. This we had arranged with Ollie, our pilot from Central Eagle Aviation.
I'd wanted to photograph landscape patterns from the air since I first flew over the Australian desert nearly 20 years ago and was intrigued by what I saw below: I've looked longingly at aerial photography books ever since. During last year's Outback visit, I concluded the Channel Country's braided creek beds were my favourite subject. I had, however, been apprehensive about flying in such a small plane since I first spoke to Ollie months ago about the possibilities from Birdsville. He explained that this is the best country over which to get into difficulties and have to glide to a landing; it being flat with relatively few obstacles. I was reassured. Almost.
Knowing I was doing this for photographs, Ollie suggested I sat in the front alongside him to increase my viewpoints. Any trepidation I still harboured as we did the paperwork and made our way on to the tarmac was dissipated the moment we were airborne. My heart soared with the little plane. Exhilerating; breathtaking; extraordinary: these words are inadequate. How I wish I could use 'awesome'.
We headed west from Birdsville over Big Red, the largest (30 metres high) sand dune in the Simpson Desert, and a must-do for serious off-roaders. In the early-morning angled sun, the dunes acquired interesting shadowlands. Their parallel lines extended westwards far out of sight, even at this height.
We turned south and followed Eyre Creek in the direction of Goyder Lagoon, in northeast South Australia. The photographic possibilities were limitless: dune lines; circular clay pans; tree tops; tracks; coloured bands of sand, scrub, lake bed and water channel. There was a complete overload of subject matter. I had to keep reminding myself that this was a big first – to be savoured – as well as a gigantic photo op.
And what about all that fear? What fear? Ollie was a good guide and a competent pilot. We were in safe hands, and he made the most of the hour we had. I was so captivated by the vistas that my fear of flying in a small craft melted away.
As we approached Goyder, bright green swathes appeared ahead of us. The colour looked almost unnatural in this ochre-and-grey world.
Goyder Lagoon is an ephemeral swamp that is part of the Diamantina flood plain. In effect, it is a kind of spillway for the Diamantina River. So, in a good year for monsoonal rain far to the north of the Channel Country, the River drains – slowly over a slight gradient – into the Lagoon, and eventually, if there is enough water, into Lake Eyre. Eyre Creek, fed by the Georgina River (which flows from southwest of Mount Isa), also reaches the Goyder sometimes, and, depending on which is carrying the most water, the Eyre and Diamantina may backfill each other.
The ephemeral nature of water drainage in this extensive region of Queensland and South Australia (plus a little bit of the Northern Territory) is fascinating. Always at the back of my mind is the thought that, next time, I have to visit during the Wet. This poses serious logistical challenges that I haven't even begun to think about. Well, only slightly…
We followed the Diamantina River back towards Birdsville. How could there be such a substantial waterway threading its tree-lined way through desert?
All too soon the hour was up and we were nearing Birdsville. I made the most of every moment. I glimpsed the future as someone sped along the Birdsville Track. We made our approach. There was a frisson of fear as I heard mention of crosswinds in the landing instructions from the control tower. The plane approached the runway at a weird angle I preferred not to dwell upon. Cloud was building from the south: yesterday we had seen how quickly weather can turn here.
I'd done it. I'd been up in the smallest plane and viewed the most beautiful and unusual country from a completely different angle. Talk about an endorphin rush.
There was, however, a whole lot more of the best day yet to come…