The outback is a vast, lifetime’s worth of experiences. Taking to the skies makes it possible to see its greatest hits and secret corners in one continent-spanning trip. By Tricia Welsh
Unless you’re prepared to join the throng of ‘grey nomads’ who make the customary post-retirement pilgrimage by van or caravan, most people never get to see the true icons of outback Australia. But on a private charter with Air Adventure, you can start ticking off places such as Innamincka, the Birdsville pub, Uluru, Lake Eyre, the Bungle Bungles and more – in just 10 days.
Along with eight other passengers, tour leader Elise Barassi and pilot Jack Lancaster, I took to the air on an all-inclusive Iconic Australia adventure through the outback departing from Melbourne’s Essendon Airport.
First Stop – Birdsville, Channel Country
Flying into Birdsville, we are surprised to find the township so small – with a population of just 70 souls. The celebrated Birdsville Hotel is literally across the road from the tiny airport. This quintessential Australian pub has it all: history – it was built in 1884; atmosphere – its walls are lined with seemingly obligatory humorous signs and sayings; symbols of Australiana – an eclectic collection of hats with character line the ceiling; and a lively crowd of thirsty patrons breasting the main bar.
Kylie of Desert Edge Tours takes us through town, heading first for the Birdsville Race Track that each year hosts one of the largest country race meetings in the world. The town’s population explodes to more than 5000 in the first weekend in September as race-goers from all over the country arrive – early-birds taking up positions under coolabah trees along the river.
There’s been a race track here since 1882 and it’s the same length as Flemington, home of the celebrated Melbourne Cup, we learn. Kylie says the most popular items of merchandise at the track are dust goggles and fly nets with women arriving “pretty” and going home “wilted”.
Earlier in the day, we had landed at Innamincka where we lunched in the shade of the historic ‘Dig Tree’ on the banks of dried-up Cooper Creek. Checking out the trunk of the famous tree, believed to be some 250 years old, we read the carved blaze and pondered the fate of the hapless explorers Burke and Wills as they attempted to be the first to cross the continent from south to north in 1860.
Stay there: The Birdsville Hotel is the quintessential outback Aussie pub. Accommodation is clean and comfortable, the food hearty – such as Channel Country beef, and the beer cold in the atmospheric public bar.
To the sacred Mt Borradaile, Arnhem Land
We fly in low over rocky outcrops and vibrant green wetlands before landing on the dusty airstrip at Mount Borradaile. Max Davidson’s name is synonymous with this north-west corner of Arnhem Land.
This former buffalo shooter first came to the remote area adjacent to Kakadu National Park and Cobourg Peninsula in the Northern Territory in 1985. A year later, he and his late wife, Philippa, were granted an exclusive lease on 700 square kilometres of Mount Borradaile wilderness by a tribal elder to set up a tourism venture that would generate a sustainable income for the local Ulba Bunidj people.
Today, Davidson’s Arnhemland Safari Lodge offers comfortable bush accommodation in 20 cleverly designed bush-facing cabins. Central to the lodge is a welcoming communal complex with spacious dining room, relaxing lounge area with well-stocked bar, library, outdoor entertaining area and swimming pool.
After days filled with nature walks and climbs to rock galleries, generous-sized meals satisfy the most ravenous among us. Lunch is a lamb kofta with a Greek-style salad and fresh fruit, while for dinner we enjoy a broccoli and cauliflower soup, followed by wild barramundi with tomatoes, olives and capers (the chef is Italian) and a dessert of rhubarb crumble and cream.
A registered sacred site, it boasts what is considered the richest body of Aboriginal rock art in the world – with literally thousands of rock paintings documenting 50,000 years of indigenous habitation. Many, like the signature 17-metre-long Rainbow Serpent, were discovered by Davidson himself as he took tours of his outstanding natural environment. One of our group suggests the art here is “like Kakadu, but on steroids”.
A highlight of any stay at Mount Borradaile is a sunset cruise on the tranquil billabong, gliding among water lilies as we inch up for a closer look at curious crocodiles and train binoculars on the plentiful birdlife trying to identify some of the 240 bird species in the area.
We edge into narrow fingers of water to investigate flowering trees and eagles’ nests, marvel at the timeless rock formation that is the eponymous Mount Borradaile and, before our cruise comes to an end, moor mid-stream for a convivial wine and cheese tasting as we watch flocks of birds heading home to roost.
Stay: Davidson’s Arnhemland Safari Lodge is located on a registered sacred site with reputedly the richest natural collection of Aboriginal rock art in the world. Its 20 solar-powered tropical cabins are all bush-facing to ensure privacy.
Only by plane – Faraway Bay, Kimberley Coast
Our route to Faraway Bay is via the King George River. Jack flies a low figure-eight so we can all check out what in the Wet starts as a raging river before spilling over the famous 40-metre-high red ochre cliffs to become the celebrated King George Falls below. Today, it is not even a trickle.
Aptly named Faraway Bay is an eco-resort in the far north-west corner of Western Australia and accessible only by air. The remote bush camp is owned and run by former Perth couple Kevin and Kathie Reilly who still call the Western Australian capital home during the wet season.
Located some 280 kilometres north-west of Kununurra and an hour-and-a-half flight from Darwin, their nearest neighbour is more than 150 kilometres away. Everything is flown in, available cargo space dependent on the weight of incoming passengers – and all at a price. According to Kevin, a keg of beer might cost $300 in Perth. “Landed here, it’s about $700.”
A trained chef, Reilly was also a crayfisherman for 20 years, has run hotels and motels and still holds a racehorse licence. A Jack-of-all-trades, he epitomises Australiana with his imagination, tenacity and versatility.
He picks up guests from the airstrip, takes them on fishing trips, cruises to King George Falls or simply to find crocodiles, organises kayaking on quiet billabong waters, looks after all the maintenance himself and at the end of the day prepares restaurant-quality meals – all with a roguish smile.
Meals are served at a large communal table in the Eagle’s Nest – an open-sided stone and exposed beam structure built using recycled timber from old wharves at Wyndham. Tapas-style canapés or pizzas freshly baked in a traditional pizza oven that Kevin built are served around an open fire or while watching the sunset over the freshwater pool.
Local fish features as the main course, such as Mangrove Jack or succulent fillets of Spanish mackerel from a 15-kilogram fish that Kevin’s assistant, Gemma, had caught a few days earlier.
Conversation here often reverts to crocodiles. The camp even has its own resident croc – Mollie, a five-metre long ‘saltie’ that Reilly suggests is about 50 years old. “I did fall into the creek earlier this year,” admits Reilly. “It was a very eerie feeling because there was a three-metre croc lying near the boat looking at me with one eye.”
Accommodation at Faraway Bay has been updated and modernised since the Reillys took over five years ago – with the addition of en suite facilities, electricity and open-air showers – it’s magical to strip off at dusk as the stars start to appear.
But the best spot to be each day is either cooling off in the rockpool overlooking the perfectly shaped turquoise bay or relaxing in the hammock by the Eagle’s Nest, gently swaying in the late afternoon breeze as the sun sets over the Timor Sea.
Stay: The bush camp at Faraway Bay is accessible only by air. Its 12 eco-cabins have en suites, private outdoor showers and 180-degree views over the eponymous bay.
Cattle Station Country – Bullo River Station, East Kimberley
The route from Faraway Bay to Kununurra is conveniently close (well, 260 kilometres away) to the extraordinary Bungle Bungle Range or Purnululu National Park that only became widely known in 1982. We detour to fly over the bizarre black and orange striped domes or ‘beehives’, peering into deep, palm-filled gorges, before heading north-east for Bullo River Station in East Kimberley.
As we approach the station, we fly over herds of cattle, corralled and ready to be loaded onto three-vehicle-long road trains that we spy sheltering under nearby trees. A line of boab trees cast intriguing shadows in front of the homestead by a cooling pool.
This 160,000-hectare fully fledged cattle station was established by the late Sara Henderson, who later became internationally known for her best-selling books based on station life at Bullo River, including From Strength to Strength, Some of My Best Friends Have Tails, and A Year at Bullo. The property was then passed onto her daughter, Marlee, and her husband Franz Ranacher, who recently sold it to the Farris and McCleary families from Darwin.
The property stretches as far as the eye can see, encompassing many natural attractions that we experience during our stay: a helicopter flight to the Cascades – a series of picturesque waterfalls that link waterholes in a red ochre, palm-fringed gorge; a slow river cruise up to Bullo Gorge; and a day’s fishing on the vast Bullo River trying to land elusive barramundi.
An unexpected highlight is joining station wranglers as they sort some of the 9000 Brahman-cross cattle for sale. It’s dusk as we arrive and long-faced cattle raise dust as they move around the yards creating a steamy, atmospheric scene.
The new owners have already injected optimism, enthusiasm and made a significant investment in new vehicles, boats, quad bikes, six-seater buggies, horses and a soft refurbishment of rooms in what they envisage will be a long association with the historic property.
Stay: Bullo River Station is a fully operational cattle station spread with many natural attractions. The new owners are updating facilities and have plans to expand guest experiences.
Outback Oasis – Prairie Hotel, Flinders Ranges
Our route south to the Flinders Ranges, takes in low fly-overs of Kata Tjuta and Uluru with unsurpassed close-up views of these distinguished emblems of Australia. After a quick lunch stop at William Creek Hotel, we fly further south to Leigh Creek where Ross Fargher greets us at the airport.
A fourth-generation Flinders Ranges pastoralist, Ross and wife Jane run Nilpena, an 80,000-hectare sheep station near Parachilna (population: two) where they also operate the appealing Prairie Hotel, the most awarded outback hotel in the country. Granted a licence in 1876, the historic building has been stylishly refurbished, its red-and-white-striped verandah a recognisable feature in many a South Australian tourism ad.
The Farghers champion local art – vibrant works for sale grace the walls, and regional produce – their Feral Mixed Grill of kangaroo fillet, emu fillet mignon and camel sausage, recently made it to the list of 100 Greatest Australian Gourmet Experiences nominated by Australian Gourmet Traveller. Their feral antipasto is a delicious conversation piece, too.
It’s an easy drive to the Flinders Ranges through Brachina Gorge, up the Heysen Range and into beautiful Parachilna Gorge. Magnificent river gums edge dry river beds, well-camouflaged yellow-footed rock wallabies scurry through rocky hillsides and escarpments while road signs indicate the presence of multi-million-year-old fossils in the ancient terrain.
Being so close to Lake Eyre, a short detour north to the historic Ghan rail town of Marree is scheduled to venture to the lake’s edge via the famed Oodnadatta Track with local Arabunna elder Reg Dodd. In flood, this inland lake is the largest in Australia. It’s an awesome sight to absorb the enormity of it, its shimmering, white crystalline expanse extending to the distant horizon – to the very heart of outback Australia.
It’s a bitter-sweet flight back to Melbourne as a potential storm threatens around us, heightening our emotions even more. None of us wants the trip to end, but we all know that what we have experienced and been privy to doesn’t come around in everybody’s lifetime. We have indeed been privileged to witness ‘Iconic Australia’.
Stay: The Prairie Hotel in tiny Parachilna in the Flinders Ranges offers a slice of country sophistication with appealing outback architecture and outstanding regional produce. prairiehotel.com.au
MORE: Get on board…
The next Iconic Australia trip with Air Adventure departs Essendon Airport, Melbourne, on 11 August. The 10-day private charter trip costs $14,450 per person twin-share, and is inclusive of all accommodation, meals, wine with dinner, sightseeing excursions, entries to national parks, local expert guides and the services of a tour leader. There is no single supplement charge.