Day 5 - Karumba YKMB to Tindal/Katherine YPTN
(Here's a map of the tour so far)
Woke up early in Karumba Point and had a light brekky (toast, some orange/passionfruit juice). We trooped out to the airport, and got there by around 7:45am and started loading the airplanes. I did a preflight. I've noticed that the tour pilots don't do full preflights - I suspect because they were the last people to fly the airplanes, and because they're doing much more streamlined ones given that they've both been flying at least 20 years - but I have no desire to skimp. I'm well aware of my baby pilot status, and I have a strong desire to have an 'incident-free' flying career.
SDN was in good shape. I sumped the tanks, since we'd fueled at YNTN and flown over to YKMB - so there was some empty space in the tanks, and condensate might have formed. Nothing; all clean. Checked the oil - still at 8 quarts, she doesn't seem to burn much oil either. My pax removed the tiedowns while I removed the pitot and intake covers, then I did a walkaround. All was well. I shuffled another day of clean clothes into my day bag (my main bag is too big to horse into town every night, so I tend to just stuff a day of clothing into my CPAP bag and bring that plus my gear bag). Filled out movement and fuel logs, then we got into the plane and ran through checklists.
While I was doing that, Val took off in ULE. I managed to get started before Hugh in IRJ, so I took the runway next and we took off to the west, turning right a bit to head up the coast. The day's flight was the complex one involving arbitrary waypoints, but (hooray!) I'd programmed them all in during the flight up from Longreach yesterday and assembled them into a flight plan in the G1000. I hand-flew it, though - went to 500 feet for a while, then 1000 feet. We followed the coastline for around 250 NM, flying along mangrove swamps and inlets and a couple of river deltas. It was gorgeous - the Gulf of Carpenteria on the right, and bright turquoise water along the shore, with mangrove trees stretching all the way out into the gulf itself. In that 250 miles, we saw one road, which I found out later was a recent addition, probably by the military (dirt); some 4-5 speedboats, and nothing else. No habitation. No houses, no roads, no power lines, no railroads, nothing except mangrove swamps and the bush. As an American, especially one from New York, this completely blows my mind.
Afer 250 NM, we turned inland and flew 50 miles or so to Borroloola YBRL, a tiny strip at a bend of the Macarthur River. The wind had picked up, and we landed with perhaps a 10 or 12 knot direct crosswind, and taxied back to the tiny apron at the approach end. There was a fuel bowser there, but it turns out the credit card system on it was malfunctioning. I had enough gas in SDN to make it to PTN, most likely, but the 172s don't have that sort of range. Luckily, the fueling chap was there working on the generator that runs the bowser, and he got on his mobile and got us authorized. I had a bit of trouble - my debit Visa cards really don't work well over here, it seems. I'm not sure if it's because I've been fraud-checked or not, because my bank does not have a frigging non-toll-free number posted on its website so I can't even call them to check. Grrmmrtrmbl. And none of the machines take Amex. Fortunately, my pax had a working Visa, so we fueled up.
Was reminded that Australian sensibilities aren't American. While some Australian members of the tour group were chatting with the refueler, he mentioned that some folks there had gone city to get 'better schools' for their kids, because "schools 'round here are all just fulla blackfellas." Didn't join the conversation. Must be getting old.
After fuelling, we sat at the picnic table which was the extent of the ground facilities at YBRL, had some cheese and salad sandwiches we'd brought with us, and walked the 1/4 mile to the 'main streat' of Borroloola. Um...well, there was a petrol station. And a motel. This is somewhere that is probably 400 miles by road from any other larger settlement. The police cruised by and waved, probably concerned that there were suddenly 9 people with no visible means of support or, worse, cars wandering around town. We headed back to the airstrip and mounted up.
The second leg today was a straight flight across country. We headed almost directly west to Tindal Airbase, a RAAF base which doubles as 'Katherine Airport' (at the other end of the field) a tiny airport for the town of Katherine some 8 miles away. The flight took us over several fires - I was told by the locals that these were likely ranchers burning out areas to improve grass growth, although one of them looked to be a eucalyptus fire next to a river - billowing white smoke, rising up to 6000 feet or so. We were at 4500, but didn't pass directly through it, so I didn't divert.
The ride got bumpy at 4500 - we had a 20kt quartering tailwind, and there were just enough hills below to cause some bumps as the wind came through. I decided to avoid climbing, as it wasn't too bad - SDN had no trouble. Since it was Sunday, we were pretty sure Tindal wouldn't be active, but we checked as we got closer - sure enough, Tindal was closed down, operating as a CTAF. I had pulled ahead of the pack as they were not only slower, but had climbed to 6500 to get out of the chop, so I went in first and landed. Nobody there. There were a couple of dozen aircraft shelters under the downwind leg, but they were all locked up tight - nobody was visible anywhere on the airport. The RAAF, I was told, doesn't really operate on Sundays. I'm not sure how tongue in cheek that was (or wasn't!)
Taxied over to the civil apron to the fuel pumps. Hooray, it's a Shell Aviation pump, so the fuel carnet from SDN worked. Gassed up, then taxied over to transient parking and tied down between a pair of local 172s and a Piper of some make or other. While we were tying down, Val landed in ULE. She dropped her pax at the airside gate to the Katherine terminal, and SMSed us to tell us that getting out of the airside required an ASIC holder to hit an intercom. So we legged it over there when Hugh came in and got out with his crew while Val and Hugh went to fuel up and tie down.
We got a van taxi into Katherine, and here we are at the Beagle Motor Inn on 4th street. Walked into Katherine - there is a shopping center with a Woolworth's in it (Woolie's, in Aussie) but everything else in it (bar a chemist) was closed. We walked up the main drag in Katherine - two blocks of local stores, then BAM the bush again. The main street through is a highway - the sign says "<--ALICE SPRINGS DARWIN-->" on it at the crossroads. "Hey, isn't Alice Springs like a thousand klicks or something from here?"
"Yeah, but it's that way, mate."
Was saddened to see that the relatively large population of Aboriginal people in Katherine seems to have the Native American disease - many of them were sleeping off liquor on the roadsides. Somehow felt guilty about this, although I'm not sure why.
Time to figure out tomorrow's flightplan and make some notes. I've flown perhaps 1600-1800 nautical miles of Australia. It's a beautiful and empty country. More later. The motel restaurant is closed for the weekend, so we're going over to the Golf Club for dinner. I hope they let this Jewish blackfella in.