FLIGHT TO THE WILDERNESS OF OZ

If you want to get a taste of Australia's vastness in days, not months, there's only one way to travel. Concluding our series, Robert Milliken takes to the air and hops 3,500 miles across a continent; THE WORLD IN MOTION: AUSTRALIA BY PLANE
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE TRADITION of long-distance travel existed in Australia long before the Europeans arrived. For 40,000 years, the Aborigines had been crossing vast stretches of the continent in long, lonely walkabouts. That instinct, perhaps the legacy of when man came out of Africa and crossed the world, is still etched into the national psyche today.

Australia remains deceptively and defiantly large. From the 1920s, pioneer aviators began to shorten the distances. But unless you are a backpacker with months to spare, you cannot hope to see the most dramatic sights - the Reef, the Rock, the Rainforests - without flying. A young Danish woman I met in the outback told me: "I was completely unprepared. Denmark can fit into Australia 178 times." Britain can 31 times.

I didn't have a few months to cross the continent, still less a lifetime. I had 10 days. Wanting to feel something of the challenges the first flyers faced 70 years ago, I mapped a route that would also give me a sense of this land's physical contrasts. I began in cosmopolitan Sydney and flew almost the entire length of the eastern seaboard, stopping first at Hayman Island, off central Queensland, then at Cairns, in tropical far north Queensland, across to Alice Springs, in the red, dry outback, and back to Sydney: a journey of 3,500 miles.

No single leg on my continent-hop took less than 212 hours. As I looked comfortably from the window seat of my jet aircraft down 31,000ft to sun- kissed coral cays, dense mountain forests and endless parched plains, I thought of the men and women who had taken risks in the first bi-planes to carry mail, cargo and eventually passengers through the back-country and the bush. Few have paid them better tribute than Ernestine Hill, the journalist who took years to travel around Australia in the 1930s, and who said of those early pilots in her classic book, The Great Australian Loneliness: "Carrying crayfish and prize Pomeranian dogs to the Never- Never [the deep outback], bringing down the dying and sometimes the dead, and scattering a small snowstorm of weekly letters over a country that was once out of the world for five months at a time, they have brought the Great Australian Loneliness well on to the map."

They also left legends of bravery, adventure and romance. One of them, Sturdee Jordan, an ex-wartime pilot, crash-landed his early DC3 in the outback of New South Wales. The plane was wrecked, but he survived unscathed. So did each of the 30,000 eggs he was carrying as cargo. Jordan's generation of pilots navigated by following cattle tracks between towns and landed at night guided by flares from kerosene-soaked rags. Now flying has become commonplace, a utilitarian and indispensable affair. The multiplicity of airlines that burgeoned over the first 40 years has been reduced largely to two giants, Ansett Australia and Qantas, who between them fly some 6,000 domestic departures a week. Paul McGinness, co-founder of Qantas, was right when he said in 1922: "One day people will use aeroplanes like trains and buses."

The Pacific Ocean shimmered as my Ansett flight touched down at Hamilton Island, the airport servicing Hayman Island and others in the Whitsunday Passage group, located where the Great Barrier Reef meets the central Queensland coast. The flight had been packed with people looking eerily like characters from Sylvania Waters, the real-life television soap about middle-class Sydney folk, headed for a housing industry convention on Hamilton Island.

My destination, Hayman Island, attracts a somewhat different crowd. It's an exclusive resort for those who want to get away from everything, and are prepared to pay; Keith Richards and his family had recently dropped in for a break from the Rolling Stones tour. Hayman was to be an overnight stop on my way to north Queensland. I wanted to call there to fulfil a long-standing desire to sail through the Whitsunday Passage islands. Real sailors in yachts spend weeks at a time pottering around the passage, dropping anchor at any number of deserted beaches. My crossing in a motorised 115ft launch, Sun Goddess, took just 45 minutes and, with a porter whisking away my luggage and a waitress offering me a glass of champagne, set the tone for Hayman Island.

When I returned to the real world next day and flew on to Cairns, I carried my own bags. Here in far north Queensland, or FNQ as the locals call it, flying boats have a proud history of bridging the gap with southern Australia. When a flying-boat service from London to Sydney began in 1938, north Queensland was the last overnight stop, a day's flight from Sydney. Today it takes three hours.

Once a sleepy tropical town built around sugar plantations, Cairns is now one of Australia's boom towns, thanks largely to an astonishing growth in tourism over the past decade around the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, both listed by the UN on its World Heritage register of environmentally outstanding places. Japanese hotels and golf courses abound. Hollywood film companies fly in to take advantage of the exotic locations. Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer were due to arrive any day to star in a re-make of The Island of Dr Moreau, the HG Wells story. With its open spaces, sun, fresh air and unbounded opportunities, FNQ has become the California of Australia, a magnet for new settlers jaded by city life down south. I rang two colleagues who had recently sold their house in Sydney and driven north with their dogs, word processors and cases of wine to start a new life. "We can't see you tomorrow," they said. "The bulldozer is coming to dig the swimming pool."

So to get my own sense of the place, I took a bus 20 miles inland to the village of Kuranda, sitting in a rainforest above Cairns on the Atherton tableland. Dating from the area's tin-mining days a century ago, Kuranda was almost dying until business people saw its tourist potential as a "heritage" town and restored its rustic shop fronts. The town's Tjapukai Aboriginal Dance Theatre has become a big crowd-puller. My main purpose, though, was to return to Cairns on the restored railway line, built in the 1890s to take the mined tin to the coast. Any train buff should take this trip. The re-commissioned Edwardian carriages are well-proportioned, with wood panels and red upholstered seats, and the views through the Barron Gorge back across the canefields to Cairns are breathtaking. I was imagining Lauren Bacall and Kenneth More on this train in Northwest Frontier - until Tracey, from Queensland Railways, started on her non- stop tannoyed commentary. Happily, the creaks and rattles of the old carriages almost won the sound battle.

Back in town I stayed at the Cairns International Hotel, built during the 1980s boom but with a spacious lobby so carefully designed in old tropical style, with fans and cane furniture, that I thought at first that I had walked into another restored gem. The cost of the town's breakneck pace of development came to me in the night as I lay awake listening to the round-the-clock construction of the new casino opposite the hotel.

It was a relief to set off early next morning for the Barrier Reef, another Australian location of mind-boggling size. The Reef extends 1,400 miles down the north-east coast and covers an area the size of Britain. I embarked at the town of Port Douglas, north of Cairns, on a catamaran called Quicksilver. This was no ordinary cat. It had 400 seats, and every one seemed to be occupied. Quicksilver Connections, its operator, is the biggest people- mover on the reef. Last year, its catamaran fleet handled 200,000 visitors.

Before we left, a hostess offered me tea, coffee and anti-seasickness pills. "A herbal or a synthetic tablet?" she asked. Being a bad sailor I took both, but even such assiduous attention did not solve my problem. The trip to the outer reef through a heavy swell took 90 minutes, and we arrived not a moment too soon. Like the reef itself, the scale of the operation handling its troops of visitors astonished me. We disembarked at a two-storey platform, fixed to the ocean bed, where we were offered the choice of spending the next three hours getting wet or not getting wet.

The latter involved walking along an underwater corridor and viewing the reef and fish through a glass wall, doing the same thing from glass- bottomed boats or simply lazing on the platform over a generous lunch. But there is no substitute for swimming among the reef's coloured fish and seeing them through goggles, so I donned a wetsuit and joined a small group led by Ashley, a marine biologist, for 40 minutes of snorkelling. With a simple underwater camera which I'd bought on board the cat for about pounds 11, I snapped Ashley as he plunged to the ocean floor and re-surfaced with sea cucumbers, mushroom coral and other loose pieces to explain the reef's mysteries to us. Then he put them back again.

Restored by a dinner of Queens-land mud crab and a sound night's sleep, I moved on next day to explore one of Australia's great natural wonders, the Daintree Rainforest. By contrast with the mass-scale reef visit, this was, thankfully, more low key: just me and seven other passengers driven in a four-wheel-drive vehicle by Murray Palin, of Australian Wilderness Safaris.

We spent a relaxing day driving deeper into the coast's northern reaches across crystal-clear creeks and through dense forests of umbrella palms tumbling down to the Coral Sea. Our destination was a beach below Cape Tribulation, a headland named by Captain Cook in 1770 after his ship, The Endeavour, was badly damaged when it struck a nearby reef. On the way, Murray's safari brought us face to face with some of the forest's more intriguing wildlife. As we cruised along the Daintree River, Dan, the boat's cheerful driver, steered towards the shore and pointed out a 12ft amethystine python curled on top of a thick vine. "It's the biggest predator in the rainforest," he said. "It can attack and strangle a tree kangaroo."

The snakes were out in force. As we turned into a side creek, a long, thin tree snake with a yellow head dropped off a branch, swam straight across our bow and hauled itself on to a branch on the other side, seemingly inviting the more intrepid among us to take its picture. On a sandy beach nearby, Dan spotted a baby crocodile sunning itself. This "baby" would grow up to be a man-eater, the type that makes the waters in these parts no-go areas for swimming.

Back in the van, as we crossed the Daintree by ferry, I really felt that I was at one of the world's last frontiers. Electricity petered out north of the river. Houses used their own generators, and telephone boxes, when they occurred at all, were powered by solar panels. Over a barbecue lunch, Murray explained the constant battle between conservation and development since this wilderness region was "discovered" in the early 1980s. "Fifteen years ago, you could come here and not see anyone," he said. "Now 400,000 people cross the Daintree River each year."

My flight from Cairns to Alice Springs took me halfway across Australia. I left behind the lush green and turquoise of FNQ and flew into an ancient, parched land of red and ochre. Below me were the spectacular arteries of bone-dry creeks and rivers of central Queensland. It was there, with the backing of isolated cattle farmers, that Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness, two First World War pilots, founded Qantas - the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service -in 1920.

I had explored before some of the Northern Territory's big attractions: Ayers Rock, Kakadu National Park and Katherine Gorge. This time I wanted to see Kings Canyon, 160 miles west of Alice Springs. I had seen Kings Canyon on film: it's the place where the Sydney drag queens ended their outback odyssey in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. But nothing prepared me for its breathtaking grandeur when I saw it for myself.

It was clear and a bracing 7C when I set out early from Alice in a four- wheel drive for the six-hour trip. Driving along a sealed road through the MacDonnell Ranges, where Albert Namatjira, the renowned Aboriginal artist, painted his pictures, I found it hard to take my eyes off the spectacular rock bluffs. If Hollywood started making Westerns again, this is where it should set them.

At Glen Helen Lodge, the only food and petrol stop between Alice and Kings Canyon, the friendly woman receptionist told me I would need a permit to continue the journey along an unsealed road known as the Mereenie Loop, a more adventurous route than the main road, because the road runs through Aboriginal land. She wrote one out on the spot. The loop was alarmingly pot-holed, and was dotted with signs appealing for "skilful driving techniques". Although the land seemed as empty as Mars, there were dangers enough lurking. A doctor friend in Alice had told me the previous night: "People forget how easy it is to lose control speeding in the dust. Then there are those who kill themselves through confusion. The other day, we had a young German tourist near Ayers Rock who forgot that Australians drive on the left. He tore along on the right, had a head-on collision and killed his mate sitting next to him."

I took a break from the bone-shaking drive by pulling up a small, rare hill so I that I could view Gosse Bluff, an extraordinary mountain rising on the horizon in the middle of an endless flat, purple plain. The sense of being on the edge of earthly life here was strong enough. Learning that Gosse Bluff was formed by a crashing meteorite thousands of years ago hardly surprises: this is a landscape of other worlds where one imagines that meteorites are commonplace. Locals, however, do not become blase about this land. The Glen Helen receptionist spoke of the bluff as of an old and valued friend. Advising me not to drive right up to it, she said: "She's in bits and pieces when you're up close. When you see her from a distance she's in one piece and she looks wonderful."

Kings Canyon itself surpassed even the bluff. I joined a group of five others led by Pat Laughton, an Aborig-inal guide, who took us to the canyon soon after sunrise. Imagine two flawlessly smooth red sandstone walls facing each other, formed over centuries by huge chunks falling 1,000ft down to a valley floor, and this is what confronted us. We spent four hours walking around its rim, trekking across a creek surrounded by palms and ferns, known as the Garden of Eden, and listening to Pat explain the Aborig-inal legends of the place. On a clear day, you can see right across to Ayers Rock, 215 miles to the south.

Words cannot convey the deep sense of peace and serenity that comes from venturing into this land. I wanted to hold on to it before returning to the clang and rattle of Sydney. So, back in Alice, I drove on my last day to Ooraminna Bush Camp, a few miles out of town between the Mac-Donnell Ranges and the Simpson desert. Bill and Jan Hayes, cattle farmers whose station is so large they're not quite sure of its size ("It think it's 2,000 square miles," said Jan), started Ooraminna to relieve financial pressures from drought.

In a world where everything that is is also a tourist site of itself, Ooraminna is effectively a "farm experience", although it has been carefully organised to avoid giving you the sense that you're in a theme park. Visitors can see how life works on a typical outback cattle place by sleeping in swags, taking bush showers open to the stars, eating meals cooked on open fires and joining in a cattle muster on horseback, motor bike or light plane, if there happens to be one on. I settled for a horse ride through the bush with Serana Cronkshaw, one of the jillaroos (the female equivalent of the jackaroo, or station-hand) who identified every bird we saw while lizards and kangaroos scampered across our path.

As we returned to the bush camp in the late afternoon, I reflected on how much of Australia I had covered in the preceding 10 days. For my grandparents, who came to this continent from Northern Ireland at a time when horses and buggies were just giving way to trucks and cars, this journey would have been close to science fiction. They could not have imagined how extensively the aircraft has unlocked the land. !

More flying holidays on page 77

GETTING THERE: BA (0800 747767) flies to Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Cairns and Darwin (changing planes in Bangkok or Singapore); Sydney, pounds 1,105 July to Nov; Perth/ Darwin, pounds 1,017 July to Nov. Qantas (0345 747767) flies to Sydney for pounds 1,105 until Nov, Perth for pounds 1,017. Bridge the World Travel (0171-911 0900) has flights to Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane on Philippine Airlines (3 stops) for pounds 630 before 14 July. Thai Airways flies to Sydney from pounds 945-pounds 998, Perth from pounds 934-pounds 998, depending on date of travel.

AIR PASSES: BA, Qantas, and Ansett (0171-434 4071) all have passes for trips within Australia. Each pass is for between 2 and 8 flights and each flight costs either pounds 80 or pounds 105. Australia is split into two zones, the higher prices is for crossing the zone line.

VISAS: Required for all visitors except those holding New Zealand passports. Call Australian High Commission Visa Line on 0891-600 333 (49p per minute peak rate, 39p any other time) for information on postal applications. Trailfinders Visa Shop (0171-938 3848) issue a visa in one hour (from 3 July).

FURTHER INFORMATION: The Australian Tourism Commission, Gemini House, 10/18 Putney Hill, London SW15 6AA (0181-780 2227).

Robert Milliken's journey was made with the assistance of Ansett Airlines and the Aus-tralian Tourism Commission

Comments