(Written and photographs taken by Kori Shinn.
Edited by Katherine Williams, Communications Officer)
Kori Shinn has been studying her CPL (Commercial Pilot's License) with the MAF Flight Training Centre in Mareeba. This story is focussed on her safari at the end of her course.
SAFARI. While the mental images conjured by the word differ, for most people it symbolizes adventure. The unknown. Untamed wilderness. Wide open spaces.
For me, as a CPL (commercial pilot’s licence) student, going on safari was a milestone; something I had been preparing for, with varying mixtures of excitement and dread, preparing for since the beginning of training. Before that, if you count the time I spent facebook stalking MAF Mareeba and its students prior to commencement. It was the final hoorah in my training, sandwiched between building flight hours and the final ramp-up to my CPL flight test; it was that time when I could take everything I learned over the course of the last year and put it into practice. This safari enabled me to figure out where I wanted to go, plan the route, execute the plan. Then, make it back in one piece with roughly fifteen extra hours of experience and a whole lot of memories.
As a class of one, I had the freedom to choose my destination, and from the beginning there was no doubt in my mind where I wanted to go, one of the most far-flung and remote places on the planet, Cape York. I’d wanted to see it for years and so I set about planning to go there. The majority of my time in Australia had been spent on the other side of the country, in Western Australia; I then moved to the east coast to train in Far North Queensland which meant that I was already at the doorway and so all I had to do was step through that doorway.
Planning the route was complex for a multitude of reasons; six different airports spread across four charts, exceptionally unpredictable weather for most of the trip, long stretches of nothing but coastline and ocean. No towns. No people. Very few alternate landing sites… at least official ones. I made my peace early on with the fact that if anything drastic happened, I would be camping on a beach somewhere dodging crocodiles. (Spoiler alert: that didn’t happen.) Additionally, with only three days off work to get it done, it was going to be a whirlwind tour.
Day one would see me fly from Mareeba to Cooktown via the coast; Cooktown to Coen similarly, which would allow me to explore the southern perimeter of Princess Charlotte Bay before cutting inland; and from Coen to Lockhart River, where I had arranged to stay overnight on the airport grounds. Day two was to be a long one: Lockhart River to the tip of the cape, around, and down to Weipa for fuel, before making a break down the western coast to Karumba. After an overnight stay in Karumba, I would spend my birthday exploring along the Gulf of Carpentaria before dropping into Normanton for fuel and then back home to Mareeba. (#bestbirthdayever!!!)
That was the plan anyway, and I am happy to report it went pretty much like that.
After being seen off by my fellow students Nikki, Gloria, and Deivid, I left Mareeba just after 1:00pm on June 23rd and cruised up the coast. I was nervous; I’d been to Cooktown before, but no further, and knew once I got out in the thick of it, I would well and truly be on my own. My trusty steed for this mission was VH-WMC, the youngest 172 in the MAF fleet and, at the time, the only one with a fuel-injected engine. “Charlie” and I had spent about forty hours together before the safari exploring Queensland, and I knew her pretty well; it was a great comfort to me having a close friend along on my journey, even if that friend was an airplane.
As Charlie and I headed north, radio signals from Mareeba became more and more patchy. VHF reaches only so far, especially when one is skimming along at a couple thousand feet to take advantage of the photo ops presented by Australia’s magnificent coastline. Finally, with the buzzing and squealing that accompanies a dying radio signal, Mareeba disappeared from my headset. The last transmission I heard was my classmate Nick’s inbound call from the south, and Hans (Instructor Pilot) responding from somewhere out in the training area. From then it was all IFR (instrument flight rules) traffic communicating with the air traffic controllers on Brisbane Centre; serious, official-sounding voices with serious, official-sounding reports that made me realise how far out of my depth I truly was.
After a lovely landing at Cooktown, thanks to the twenty-knot wind straight down the runway, I fueled up and continued on. I didn’t need the fuel at that stage however, my dad’s voice kept entering my head from day one of safari planning: “It’s better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.” It seemed like a good plan to follow and so I did. I also really like Cooktown, so it was great to have the opportunity to land there. I took off and carried on along the coast, where I watched the landscape grow more and more sparse with each passing mile. By the time I reached Princess Charlotte Bay I hadn’t seen a full-sized tree in forty-five minutes. The bay was lovely, curving off into the distance, and half of me kind of wanted to keep following it around and head straight for Lockhart River. But again, Dad’s voice in my head beckoned me to follow my original plan and track inland for Coen, and a stop for fuel.
Coen was dry, hot, and windy… super windy. My landing was somewhat less than great. But Charlie and I made it to the fuel bowser in one piece, received our quota of fuel, and were prepared to return to the skies. Well, I was prepared anyway. Charlie, however, had other ideas and decided to vapor-lock, (this can happen when the engine gets hot) right there at the fuel bowser. I suspect VH-WMC may have been getting back at me for the aforementioned less than perfect landing.
Out of Coen, we struck a course straight for Lockhart River, a mere sixty miles or so to the northeast. I climbed to 6500 feet, just above a layer of scattered, fluffy clouds, and had the absolute pleasure of watching the world go by. This was probably the most relaxing part of the whole trip, the final stretch into Lockhart. It was the one time I wished I had a GoPro mounted to the plane, as I followed a beautiful break in the clouds down to circuit height and meandered towards the airport. Lockhart River was the one airport I had been warned about explicitly, as it can be a tricky one to navigate. Its location on the Cape, means that the weather changes almost by the hour, courtesy of the funnel shape created by some surrounding hills. I have been told the winds there are sometimes clocked at over fifty knots. My plan was to try and land, but if it didn’t work head back to Coen. Fortunately, Lockhart was kind to me that day, and I had a friendly twelve-knot wind guiding me in a sort-of-parallel direction along the runway.
And so, with the sun very quickly setting to the west, behind the hills that separate Lockhart River from further inland, I put Charlie to bed and settled down for a good night’s sleep. I was beyond excited for the next day’s adventure to the tip of the Cape. I was also very aware that the weather, if bad enough might prevent me from getting there – or anywhere, for that matter. As a VFR (visual flight rules) pilot, a good storm coming through could see me stranded in Lockhart River for a couple of days. But all of that were worries for the next morning, and I figured even if I did have to turn back, I had already made it quite a long way for a lost American in a 172.
Day two dawned, and I went through the pre-flight checks in a sort of apocalyptic mixture of low cloud and drizzle. I could fly in it safely, but it wasn’t going to make for the best photos. Fortunately for me, the weather was meant to improve to the north, west, and south as the day progressed, so I figured if I could get out of the weather-catcher that was Lockhart River, I would be fine. The first hour or so in the air saw me sitting on the edge of my seat watching the clouds. It was overcast above, with scattered ribbons of mucky, wispy stuff that hung around my level and there were also intermittent showers in all directions. A pumping tailwind saw me blasting up the cape with a 140-knot groundspeed. I had several committal points enroute, each attached to its own plan of action in case the weather got any worse. Thanks to Dad’s voice in my head, I had more than enough fuel to get pretty much anywhere I needed to go. About 90 minutes in, just as I was about to give up on reaching the Cape and head straight for Weipa, I diverted around a particularly low cloud and the world seemed to open up. Blue skies, sunshine, crystalline water… and I found myself staring at the tip of the Cape.
Not many people can say they’ve seen the northernmost point of Australia. And how many of those can say they flew themselves over it? As I cruised around the point, just over 1,000 feet, I felt the most satisfying sense of accomplishment. How had I made it here? The Torres Strait was out of my right-hand side window and shining a beautiful aquamarine colour, where couple of boats skimmed over the surface. I could see Horn Island a mere stone’s throw away. The airport there, normally the busiest uncontrolled aerodrome in the country was quiet, and only a few scattered transmissions could be heard over the radio. I felt like the only person in the world at that moment.
I had to return under a persistent blanket of overcast cloud for the first part of my journey to Weipa, but as it cleared, I climbed to 6500 feet and flew the plane in some very smooth conditions that lasted the rest of the way. The landscape on the western edge of the Cape was far different from the east; here it was dry, desert-like, with massive rivers cutting through the landscape in a myriad of tributaries resembling the leafless branches of a tree. Where there had previously been rain, now there was sun. It was hot, flat, and formidably inhospitable. Beautifully so!
I left the coast and tracked inland to Weipa, where I landed for fuel. Again, it’s better to have it and not need it. Only one other plane made an appearance while I was on the ground there, a King Air that landed to let off a few passengers (all of whom stared incredulously out of their windows at Charlie and me, clearly wondering how we’d come to be there). Charlie again decided to put on a bit of a show for them and vapor-lock on our way out. She’d had a long day by then. And it was hot. We continued, cutting back to the coast to make our way to Karumba, roughly three hours away. It was interesting scenery, passing over Pormpuraaw, Aurukun, Kowanyama, and other small hamlets along the coast, as well as several remote stations. Over the course of my year with MAF, I had been working nights at a local pub, and we often had people come in from these places; it made me realise just how far they had to travel to reach Mareeba.
Inbound to Karumba, I could see the airport from a long way out. I descended over the ocean, dipping down over the host of fishing boats dotted along the water, and touched down with the beginnings of a beautiful, golden sunset coming through the right-hand side window. It had been a long day, so I was just as happy as Charlie to shut down and take my hangry self into town for some fish and chips. The next day was my birthday, and my trip home.
Charlie and I left Karumba early on the 25th and headed west along the Gulf of Carpentaria for a thirty-minute scenic flight. I stayed low, as the air was smooth, and had a good look at the coastline as it passed by below us. It was even drier here than further up the cape, and I could see the desert stretching endlessly out before me, with hardly a single piece of foliage in sight. We made a U-turn out over one of the little peninsulas poking out from the shore and headed back, popping over to Normanton for fuel, before making the long trek across the desert to Mareeba.
The final leg out of Normanton went very much as expected. I headed east, climbed to 7500 feet, and headed home. As with the whole trip, I had the GPS tuned in for peace of mind; however, I calculated everything on a paper chart. Dead Reckoning navigation is one of my favorite things to do, and the rather featureless nature of the Outback makes it particularly interesting. About halfway home, my headset started crackling with activity, and I heard someone I recognised: Mike and Nikembu, travelling in a loose convoy from Mareeba to Chillagoe on a solo navigation flight. After two days of nothing but unfamiliar voices and super strict, regimented lingo, hearing some of my fellow students was especially heartwarming. Not long after, there were more familiar voices as I came within range of the training area, and I knew I was almost home. The last half hour was bumpy; the wind had picked up, and it was hot out, so there was quite a lot of thermal activity. Even at 7500 feet, Charlie and I were getting tossed around like a tin can. We made it back to Mareeba without incident and shut down at just about the same time we’d taken off two days before. It was good to be home! But I already missed the Cape. As I put Charlie to bed (after promising her she wouldn’t have to fly anywhere for a solid week or so), I took a moment to reflect on the milestone I had just completed.
SAFARI. For most people, it symbolizes adventure; the unknown, the untamed; wide open spaces. For me, it had been a long time coming; nearly 1400 miles and fourteen hours of flight time, the culmination of a year’s worth of training and a huge test of character and judgment. The trip was short. It went incredibly fast. But it impacted me in unforgettable ways; I know that no matter where I roam, or what I do in aviation after this, I will never forget that time I flew to the Cape by myself in a 172 named Charlie.