Day 9(?) - Kununurra YPKU to Broome YBRM

We spent three days and four nights in Kununurra. That's one more of each than originally planned, but when we checked the weather the evening before our scheduled departure, we found that there were high winds forecast at all altitudes between YPKU and YBRM. Since the ground along our track was fairly rough, that meant turbulence, and a fair bit of it, so we delayed.

I should take a moment to note that we weren't just idling in YPKU. The first day, we went on a boat tour of the Ord River Irrigation Area, which sounds dry, but absolutely isn't (see what I did there?) This area is different from most of Western Australia in that it has more fresh water than it knows what to do with - and that was the basis of the Ord River Scheme.

The river was dammed to create Lake Argyle, a kilometers-long and dozens-of-meters deep lake, high in the hills. Some 55 km downstream (to the north, towards the sea) another dam was placed - the Diversion Dam. The first dam collects the runoff of some 40,000 hectares of catchment area, and this is even more impressive than it sounds - during the wet season in 2011, apparently, the lake rose 1.5 meters in a single day. For context, that 1.5 meters is enough to keep Perth and Melbourne together in fresh water for seven years. Unfortunately, there's no way to get the water to Perth or Melbourne.

The purpose of that first dam is to hold that reservoir of water. There is a 30 MW hydroelectric power plant built into it, which provides power for the Kununurra/Wyndham area and for the Argyle Diamond Mine on the southwest side of the lake. Between the dams is kept at a relatively constant level - whereas prior to the dams, the river (which winds thorugh some very steep gorges) would vary in depth up to 4 or 5 meters, resulting in a blasted-looking landscape, now it is kept relatively constant - and the river path has flowered. There is an abundance of flora along it, and a riot of birds, and of course, crocodiles. The estuarine crocodiles, we were told (saltwater) seem quite happy to walk around the lower Diversion Dam and swim upstream into the relatively peaceful and food-heavy area above it. In addition, the river drops some ten meters over fifteen kilometers, which makes for some serious current. We passed several canoers - I considered that a bit brave, given the number of crocs we also passed, but was told that the crocs weren't really eating at the moment since it was too cold.

The locals, with the exuberance displayed by most Australians I've met so far, offer tours of the river. Boats go up from Kununurra in the morning to the dam, where they switch passengers for those who were bussed out and then run back. The fun part about this initially? The boats. The tour company guide explained that they went to a naval architect in Darwin and said they wanted a boat that would carry fifty people in comfort at a speed of approximately 60 km/hr while using less than 400 liters of fuel per trip. He designed them a flat, stepped-hull tour boat with a long curved roof and a 300 horsepower engine on it. The problem was that when tested, it used over 600 liters of gas because the boat had to be kept at full power, and even then wouldn't fully go up onto the hull step. The tour company decided in true Australian fashion that the only answer was more power, and stuck three matched 350 horsepower V8 four-stroke Yamaha engines on it.

Their first test, it reached 80 km/hr before the roof started to act like a wing and cause it to flutter off the water. Oh, and it used 300 liters for the trip. As they said, grinning, more power meant less gas.

I can verify that this boat is hilariously awesome. It's faster than most of the ski boats I"ve been on, and carries fifty people. The guides are expert at horsing it down a river that in places is only about twice the width of the boat, and in others has trees reaching in to touch both sides. Exhilarating doesn't begin to cover it. If you take the Triple J tour of the Ord River, make sure you get put on the 'Peregrine', which is the big boat. They have that one, a two-engine and a single-engine. While I'm sure they're all of a speed, the ludicrousness of the size of the big one coupled with that speed makes it a laugh in delight sort of trip.

Oh, and the wildlife.

Crocs, of course. A few wallabies and roos, bounding away over the banks. Birds, birds, birds - from pelicans to the everpresent galahs to egrets to spoonbills. I didn't get a picture, but one of my tour mates got a great shot of a black cockatoo with a bright red slash on its tail. Gorgeous. And near the end of the tour, an island with no less than four osprey nests on it - two of which had ospreys in them.

Along the way, the tour stops to explain the river topography, to explain the benefits and costs of the irrigation system, to give you facts and figures about the project. If they are to be believed (and I see no reason they wouldn't be) the project has resulted in an increase of 300% of the species count of birds on the river, as the birds are attracted to the lush vegetation resulting from the stable water levels. In addition, the actual reason it was done - over 40,000 hectares of land are under irrigation below the diversion dam (which sends that water into the irrigation channels) - and there is capacity for perhaps twice that to be added. The cost of this project was around $60 million AUD (in 1960 dollars) which, while quite a bit, seems like a pittance for the benefits it appears to have accrued.

Anyway. The other days we did touristy stuff (including visiting a tourist-facing distillery called the Hoochery, a sandalwood plantation, and some local rock cutting shops which work with a local multicolored stone called zebra rock). The 'extra' day the tour went off to look at Wyndham, the local inlet port, while my pax and I walked around Kununurra - a small town in the middle of the vastness of Western Australia.

Oh, and while there, we managed to find a shop at Broome (Broome Air Maintenance) who said that sure, they could take a whack at fixing SDN's nose gear. So, heartened, we got up early the morning of the 18th and headed to the airport.

Our flight path took us from Kunurra to the southern end of Prince Regent's Gorge, a 40 mile long cut wending its way from the southeast to the northwest, opening into the St. George Basin (an inlet from the coast to the north). Although it's apparently loads of fun to fly this gorge at 500 feet (modulo helicopters from cruise ships that buzz it) the winds were around 25 kts directly across the gorge, which meant that even high enough to be safe, it was going to be super bumpy, so we passed over it at around 4,500. It was still gorgeous, although we didn't get to see the various falls and the like from close up.

At the basin, we turned to the west southwest parallel to the coast and flew to the Walcott Inlet. From there, we turned a bit north and flew to another famous local landscape feature, the Horizontal Falls. The tidal flow here floods through a narrow cut in the rocks, leading to a roiling basin of whitewater on the low side. It looked beautiful, even from our height. Afterwards, we turned southwest and flew to a small strip serving a town out on the mudflats of the coast named Derby (YDBY). Landing at Derby gingerly due to the still-bodged nosewheel, and avoiding the various birds who were unconcernedly gathering at the runway approach end, we waited while the other two airplanes fueled up (SDN has twice their fuel cap, so we didn't bother, wanting to leave the airplane light for the mechanics) and then took off and flew the 90 NM to Broome.

Broome is an international airport, probably because it's a resort town on the northwest corner of the country and thus is close to Indonesia etc. It's also a regional and sightseeing aviation hub, so it has an active CTA. The tour pilots had warned me that Broome is a bit particular - they want you to report your position using your bearing from Broome and distance, but if you say 'radial' they get all tetchy because they don't have a VOR there, so it's not really a radial. :-P

The weather had been clear and blue on the way from Kununurra, albeit with a 22-26kt wind from the east. It was under 5 kts on the surface at Derby, and clouds were starting to show in the west. When we took off from Derby and tracked for Broome, there was a significant layer forming at around 5000 feet, so we stayed at 3500 where the air was clearer (at least 10-15 miles visibility). We started at 2500, but it was a bit bumpy so we went up another 1000 (where, it turned out, it wasn't much better - but it wasn't too bad).

I ended up right behind VH-ULE (one of the constants of having a faster airplane). Since I wanted to hear Val check in with Broome Tower first, though, I throttle SDN back to 'slow cruise' (19/21) and managed to stay mostly behind her and echeloned off to the right. She called up Broome at around 30 NM. Waited for her to finish, then chimed in right after: "Broome Tower, Sierra Delta November."

"Aircraft calling Broome, say again please."

"Broome Tower, Sierra Delta November." (reminded myself to keep it a bit slow - I talk Noo Yawk, and it's not as rushed and clipped out here).

"Sierra Delta November, Broome Tower."

"Broome Tower, Sierra Delta November is Cessna One Eight Two, three zero miles from Broome on a zero six four bearing at three thousand, five hundred inbound, estimating arrival one five with information Zulu, requesting clearance."

"Sierra Delta November, Broome Tower, you are cleared Broome on the zero six four bearing, please notify when you are ready for descent and please notify whether you have traffic Uniform Lima Echo in sight."

"Broome Tower, Sierra Delta November cleared Broome on zero six four, has Uniform Lima Echo in sight, will notify when ready to descend, thank you."

"Sierra Delta November, please notify if you overtake Uniform Lima Echo."

"Sierra Delta November will notify of overtaking Uniform Lima Echo."

So we headed in. As we continued on, it began to rain a fair bit from the layer above us. Other than that, visibility was still at least twenty miles, because I could essentially see the airport, so I wasn't concerned - we were still at least 1500 feet below the clouds, and 3400 or so AGL, so VFR clearance was fine. After about ten miles, I decided that while I could keep behind Val, I probably couldn't stay far enough back for comfort. "Broome Tower, Sierra Delta November requests permission to orbit once for separation from Uniform Lima Echo."

"Sierra Delta November, Broome Tower - you are cleared to orbit right, report complete."

Banked into a standard rate turn to the right and concentrated on staying level with the rain smearing my vision of the horizon slightly across the windshield. Came around two minutes later - hooray standard rate - and aligned with Broome again. Reported complete. Broome Tower told me to vector direct for a six mile final to Two Eight since I was only around eight miles from the airport, I acknowledged and turned left so as to intercept the runway heading far enough out. When I turned final at five and a half miles (whoops) the frequency was busy, so I didn't get to report in until I was around four miles from the threshold. "Broome Tower, Sierra Delta November is on a four mile final for Two Eight Broome."

"Sierra Delta November, cleared to land Two Eight Broome."

I've started disliking long straight in approaches, because most of my experience judging heights and distances and speeds is in circuit approaches, and few airports here in Australia have VASI or PAPI systems, so I find that I tend to come in a bit flat and end up dragging in. Here, though, there was a VASI system, so I trundled on until it had flipped from four whites to two white/two red, then pulled power back and added in the first notch of flaps, perhaps two miles out. The wind was a bit tricky - there was a few gusts of tailwinds, so I left a bit of extra speed on, still concerned about the nose gear despite the long expanse of runway in front of me. Right before I crossed the threshold, it swung to a left crosswind of about six knots, so I crabbed it a bit and ended up touching down harder than I wanted to, but without bouncing or otherwise embarrassing myself. Held the nose off as long as I could, then let it down and made the turnoff. "Broome Tower, Sierra Delta November is clear of Two Eight Broome."

"Sierra Delta November, contact ground 121.7, good day."

"Contacting ground 121.7, thank you and good day." Flipped the freq. "Broome Ground, Sierra Delta November at Golf-One."

"Sierra Delta November, Broome Ground, do you wish GA parking?"

"Broome Ground, I"m looking for Hangar 2, Broome Air Maintenance, if possible."

"Sierra Delta November, can't help you there, but you're cleared ahead on Golf, hold short of the ramp - you're probably looking for one of the shops off to your right across the apron. Hold for Cessna crossing right to left at apron."

"Broome ground, Sierra Delta November, thanks." Taxied ahead and held at the apron entry for another 182 to pass me heading right to left, then looked over and sure enough, big sign BROOME AIR MAINTENANCE. Taxied over there, shut down and headed into the open hangar which had a Skywagon and a pair of 182s in various states of disassembly within. Asked for Wayne, was pointed to the office, where I found Wayne (the boss) behind a desk. "Hi, Wayne, I'm with SDN, the 182...?"

"Oh, right, nose wheel, was it? Is it outside?"

"Yep, got it right outside the hangar."

"Fine then, let's have a look." He headed out, handing me off to the office admin to trade details. I gave her the contact info for the airplane owners (Airborne, back in Camden) and my own local cell number, then headed back out. Wayne, my pax and I and one of his guys pushed SDN out of the way so they could get one of the Skywagons (which was almost done) out, and Wayne said "We'll give you a call, no worries."

So we headed over to the GA gate to meet the rest of the tour. We did so, found a couple of rental cars, got our rooms at the Habitat Resort, and wandered back into town to look at pearl shops and whatever was there. My pax and I were finishing our ice cream and heading back to the cars to meet our tour mates when the shop sent me an SMS: "Your plane is ready!"

I liked the sound of that.

So we cadged a ride back to the airport (was only a couple km or so) from two of our tour mates, and they were kind enough to wait at the GA gate while my pax and I picked up SDN (which consisted of getting thrown keys, and told 'mind taxiing it out? We have some seaplanes on the way in...'). I asked if they needed anything from me - signatures, etc - and was told nope, Airborne and they had been in touch, all set. I like the level of formality here. So we fired SDN back up and I called up ground to ask for repositioning, taxied her to 'intinerant parking' and I phoned the Mobil number. They sent the truck over, he topped up our tanks, and we tied SDN down, having caused our tour mates to have to wait for us around 20 minutes, but they said no problems.

Afterwards, we drove to Cable Beach. I considered this important. As the sun was setting, I took my shoes off and waded into the Indian Ocean. Standing in the surf, I lit a cigar and considered that I had accomplished what I had set out to do - fly across Australia. From Sydney in the southeast (where I had at least gone to the end of Sydney harbor on foot) I found myself on the northwest corner, standing in the Indian Ocean, and having a cigar. All in all, it was a really, really good feeling.

This being Australia, of course, the surf was littered with dead jellyfish ("stingers" in the local warning-sign nomenclature) but I managed to avoid any encounters with live ones. We trooped back to the hotel for a Chinese dinner on the verandah, and all was right with the world.