What It’s Like To Fly Low Level Over Lake Eyre In A Chartered Plane

Visiting Wilpena Pound, flying over Lake Eyre, and spending the night at the Birdsville Hotel, all in two days as part of this Aussie outback extravaganza.

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Photos by Matthew Welsby Photography

DAY 1:

One of the first things I am told about the tour to Lake Eyre is that I will need to measure my head for an Akubra hat. Initially, I measure with an iPhone cord. I am off by 20cm. It’s a dismal effort. 

Thankfully, by the time I am sitting in the car on the way to the airport, I’ve managed to provide what seems to be a semi-accurate number.

Take off is from the Adelaide General Aviation Terminal, so that’s where I scramble out of the car, duffle bag in hand. I can see people milling about, sipping from mugs and chatting. This is my tour group, the people I will be spending the next two days with for the ‘Two-Day, All-Inclusive, Lake Eyre Spectacular Tour’.

Bonnie Cesco greets me cheerily. She is the Managing Director of Airtours, and essentially the reason I am on this very trip. Bonnie introduces me to the rest of the room, and produces my tour pack. Slipped into a brown paper bag is an itinerary, an information package, a map, and a few Lindt chocolates. Bonnie also presents me with my Akubra and, thank god, it fits.

There are seven of us in the group, including myself. Then there’s our pilot and his wife, who is joining us for the weekend. Pretty much everyone has hiking boots on. I’m the only one already wearing my Akubra. I take it off.  

The first thing to remember if you’re flying in a chartered aircraft: Everyone gets a window seat. 

I am practically glued to the glass of the plane window as we take off. The first flight is to Rawnsley Park. We fly over the Clare Valley and descend into the Southern Flinders Ranges. 

The second thing: You feel the landing. 

Rawnsley Park Station sits on the southern face of Wilpena Pound and was settled as part of Arkaba Station in 1851. In 1968, the first cabin was constructed, and the sheep shearing demonstrations started. Now, tourism is Rawnsley Park’s primary enterprise. 

When we get out of the plane, the weather is warm. We debate whether or not we should take our lovely new Akubra hats. I elect to bring mine. The wind immediately takes a liking to my Akubra and attempts several times to seize it. I fight back. I win. 

We are greeted by a Rawnsley guide and loaded into a minibus for a tour of the station. We pass masses of red soil and shrubbery. As the minibus jolts along the dirt track, we spot a flock of sheep, accompanied by lambs. The lambs are young enough that their tails are still long, and they bound after their mothers, carefree in the morning sun. A woman in the group askes the guide if he’s ever eaten lamb’s tail. He tells her he hasn’t, and she says he’s missing out, says it’s delicious cooked over a fire.

A tour of Rawnsley Park isn’t complete without seeing the sheep shearing station, so that’s next, says the guide. We’re lucky, as it’s currently shearing season, and we’ll get to see the shearers at work. The shearers at Rawnsley Park are currently shearing over 250 sheep a day. It’s mesmerising to watch. The sheep stays still, and the shearer is swift and speedy. I instinctively pull my coat more closely around me when I see the sheep pushed back outside without its wool. 

Once we’ve watched perhaps five sheep go through the shearing process, our guide declares it is time for coffee and scones. 

The morning tea destination is Woolshed Restaurant. It’s rustic yet elegant, the way Hollywood studios generally envision restaurants in the Aussie outback. The scones are warm and fresh and we top them with strawberry jam and cream. 

“This is a two scone stop,” declares a group member. 

The third thing: Go to the bathroom at every opportunity. 

There is no toilet on the plane. We have been warned, and so we make sure to stop by the restrooms at the Woodshed Restaurant. 

We board the plane for the second time that morning. We’re heading to Innamincka.

When we land, the first thing we see is a long, winding road, and a whole lot of outback. Innamincka has a population of 44 people, and its main attraction is the Innamincka Hotel, so that’s where we head. A local collects us in a 4WD. She speaks a little about the pub we are heading to, informs us that the main visitors are people exploring the outback. Sure enough, a few minutes after we sit down in the pub, a pair of travellers stroll in. I see their truck out of the window. They’re wearing flannelette shirts and their boots are covered in dust. 

We eat lunch at Innamicka Hotel (fish and chips). One woman in our group announces she is a collector of stubby holders, and purchases one from each and every place she travels to. She buys two Innamincka stubby holders, and then it’s time to board the plane once more and fly to Nappa Merrie Station to see the Dig Tree. 

The fourth thing: Napping is very possible. 

I discover this accidently. It’s a discovery I’m thankful for.

The Dig Tree lends itself to discussing the story of infamous explorers Burke and Wills. In 1860, Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills led an expedition of nineteen men, with the ambitious intention of crossing Australia. In 1860, most of Australia’s inland was completely unknown to the European settlers. Burke, Wills, and five other men lost their lives. Only one man, John King, crossed Australian with the expedition and returned alive to Victoria. 

It’s only a five-minute walk to the Dig Tree but it’s enough to make us hot and sweaty. This is the when we begin to properly feel it. Feel that the bush is rugged and wild and absolutely not our mate. The history is seeped into the land, history not only of Burke and Wills but of the Indigenous people whose land it has always been.

We return to the plane, and soon realise we have allowed a few buzzing flies into the cabin. We swat furiously. The flies win. 

The fifth thing: Being contained in a small plane, fighting flies, does wonders for conversation. 

The next flight, the flight to Birdsville, is just under an hour. I find out the names of everyone’s pets, and am shown multiple photos of children and newborn babies. 

Birdsville is a famed outback tourist destination, with a population of approximately 110. The Birdsville Races are a significant annual event, attracting many a visitor to the township. The area is sparse yet compelling, surrounded by looming red sand dunes.

When we arrive in Birdsville, we land directly opposite the hotel, and yes, it’s spectacular.     

We are given our room keys (literal keys) and agree to meet later for dinner. I find my room and collapse onto the bed. It’s practical and clean, and unlike the plane, there’s a bathroom a metre from the bed. 

Before dinner, we congregate in the Green Lizard Bar for drinks. I sip my cider and read a plaque on the wall about how the Green Lizard Bar got its name. It’s a story about the Summer of 1986, one of Birdsville’s hottest on record. Extensive flooding of. The Diamantina had isolated the town for some months, and the pub had run out of beer. What it did have was Crème de Menthe and lemonade, so “Green Lizards” were the only alcoholic beverages available. A group was formed, the “Green Lizard League”. Today, the “Green Lizard Bar” pays homage to the “League” and meetings are still occasionally held there. 

Dinner at the Birdsville Hotel is generous, quality pub food, and we’re in bed before 9pm. 

DAY 2:

The next morning, we meet to drink instant coffee from enamel mugs and munch toast. We ask the stubby holder collector if she has secured the Birdsville edition. She assures us she has.

The sixth thing: Airsickness is real. Pack Travel-Ease.

Today is the day we fly low level over Lake Eyre. They say it needs to be seen to be believed, and I’m joining the ranks and saying I agree. We take turns clambering into the cockpit of the plane to gaze out of the front window. At this moment, it’s difficult to admit how often we take for granted the beauty of Australia. The sheer sparseness of it, the wide-open land and the red dirt and the water that persists in spite of everything. 

We reach Lake Eyre and unbuckle our seatbelts, scrambling to stare out at the splendidness. It is pretty damn breathtaking. We shift from side to side in the plane, searching for the best views, taking turns to get “the shot”. Then, for a little while, we just sit. Each of us in our seats, quiet and content. 

The final thing: There’s nothing quite like low level flying. 

Our penultimate stop is William Creek. We eat at the local hotel. I have one of the best serves of fish and chips I’ve ever eaten. William Creek Hotel doesn’t sell stubby holders, and the collector is disappointed. Instead, she pins her business card to the wall, which seems to be the done thing in William Creek. Her card sits amongst hundreds, tacked together in traveller solidarity. 

The flight back to Adelaide is just under two hours. When it seems like we may be close to landing, the stubby holder collector stands and gives a short speech, thanking everyone for the weekend. We all clap. 

When I trod down the stairs of the plane the last time, my black jeans are filthy, and my boots are covered in dust, but god my smile is big. 

Airtours operate Australia wide in turboprop aircraft. The team are passionate and professional, and the Lake Eyre Spectacular Tour is genuinely a once in a lifetime experience, one of those surreal, pinch yourself trips.

The 2019 tour dates are completely sold out but 2020 dates will be released soon.

​Interested punters can email [email protected] for information on upcoming tours.

To find our more about Airtours, see here.

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