Beach to bush by air: 3-day Gold Coast to Outback adventure
It’s 1590 kilometres by road to Birdsville, but by air I’ll get there in hours not weeks. Flying is not only quicker, it also gives a unique perspective on the mesmerising landscape.
Day 1: All Aboard to Birdsville
Pilot Peter Gash climbs down from the aircraft and passengers who boarded 20 minutes ago at Coolangatta Airport alight stretch their legs briefly before we take-off to Charleville, about 683km west of Brisbane. As the plane leaves the suburbs behind, the view turns green with a patchwork of farmlands gradually morphing to brown as we move further from the coastline.
It is a big itinerary for one day starting with a 10am refuelling stop at Charleville at the Royal Flying Doctor Service base. Founded in 1943, the base services an area of Queensland that is almost the size of the United Kingdom. Looking at the displays, it’s hard to imagine how isolated families cope with snake bites, chest pain and asthma by describing where it hurts over the phone to a doctor so far away, even today.
Red dirt dotted with scrubby trees starts to appear in the landscape as we wing towards Birdsville. There’s not much water down there but the creek beds are easily identified by thick dark shadow lines of trees. Some areas look like a charcoal floodplain, but Peter tells us the green turned to brown and then died off.
The airstrip at Birdville has been seriously upgraded since my last visit with lighting and fencing, but the plane still parks just over the road from the iconic Birdsville Hotel. More than just a place to sleep, it’s full of tall tales and true, like the origins of the Green Lizard Bar – named after the time in 1968 the pub ran dry except for crème de menthe and lemonade. Green Lizards were the only alcoholic beverages available.
First stop is the Birdsville Bakery for lunch where the choices include curried camel pie and kangaroo and claret pie. I opt for the camel pie, and it is surprisingly tasty with a rich meaty filling.
A quick wander around town reveals plenty of highlights. Displays at the Wirrarri Visitor Centre explain the local rocks, fauna and flora. This is also the place to pick up a map of the town showing the fire-damaged ruins of the Royal Hotel, Geothermal Power Station and the steaming hot artesian bore.
As the sun drops lower in the sky, I board an air-conditioned bus which takes me 35km west into the Simpson Desert for sunset drinks on Big Red. At 40 metres high, this famous sand dune is a renowned 4WD challenge. I hold my breath as the 4WD bus chugs to the top of the massive dune, but it is a magical view outside. Red sand hills stretch forward into the desert as the glowing orb of the sun slowly descends.
Back at Birdsville, there’s time for a roast dinner at the pub before I retire.
Day 2: Just popping next door
A sunrise walk is my aim, and I make it to the lagoon pontoon just as the sky turns pink and blue. The birds make the most of the chilly morning, and there are plenty of photographic opportunities.
“If you thought the landscape was amazing yesterday, I think today is even more stunning,” says Peter as the plane races down the red dirt edged runway leaving the outpost of Birdsville behind.
He’s right, of course, and the day unfolds with stunning aerial landscapes. From the tip of Big Red to 50 metres below sea level at Lake Eyre, it’s hard to comprehend how nature can be so fiercely beautiful. We head south over the Diamantina River towards the Lake Eyre North.
Peter guides the aeroplane low and high over the land pointing out highlights along the route. The enormity of the 9500 square kilometres of Lake Eyre comes into view before we land at the tiny Outback outpost of William Creek. A cold beer and lunch await at William Creek Hotel, which is just over the border in South Australia.
Back in the air, the course continues over Lake Eyre South towards Innamincka and a stop at the Dig Tree. This is the spot where the Burke and Wills expedition met its unfortunate end by the bank of Cooper Creek.
A short 10-minute flight and the plane lands at Innamincka where there is a bed waiting at the Innamincka Hotel. A sunset cruise on Cooper Creek, which feeds into Lake Eyre in flood, shows me just how rich the bird life is despite the barren landscape.
Day 3: Eastward bound
An 8:30am start takes us back into Queensland heading east to Cunnamulla to refuel. The day’s destination is Charlotte Plains, a drought-stricken property that has been in Robyn Russell’s family for generations. Robyn leads a tour around the station explaining with subdued emotion the changes drought has wrought on the stock and land.
Seated on the homestead verandah, our group enjoys true country hospitality with a lavish spread of home-style cooking. The finale is a delicious apple crumble.
Finally, there’s time for a tour of the shearing sheds and a refreshing soak in the mineral-rich bore water before the flight home.
As the sky deepens to a deep purple and the twinkling lights of Brisbane approach in the distance, it is hard to comprehend how far I have travelled on this vast journey. I’m left with a deeper understanding of the courage of Outback Australians and the isolation they face on a daily basis.
The landscape is fierce but stunning, even in the midst of the drought, with water in the most surprising places. From the air, it is a rich, ever-changing tapestry that is a privilege to view.
The Outback Adventure tour season with Seair runs from March to October with monthly departures.
If you prefer to drive, this is another great three-day introduction to the Outback.