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Piper Cherokee to Thursday Island
Five of us chartered a Piper Cherokee 6. There was Peter the accountant, Paul the insurance broker, Clint the rheumatologist, Peter the optometrist and pilot, and me. When people enquired as to our occupations, I was retired (I was the youngest), and my associates were my entourage.
As the name implies, our aeroplane could take up to six people including the pilot. It had a single engine and underslung wings. With five largish men inside it seemed very small. When we looked out the windows it seemed even smaller. At least we had reasonably good all round vision.
I had not had a lot of experience in aeroplanes, especially not small ones. A friend in Emu Park had a smaller four seater. He would occasionally take us places, including trips to the ocean side of Curtis Island to try beach fishing. On one such expedition he made about four trips each way to ferry everyone. I only like sea fishing, but it seemed like a fun idea so Eileen and I and the boys were one of the trips. Some of the men loved their beach fishing, and had brought fancy looking beach rods, with wicker creels loaded with even fancier tackle. They conferred for half an hour about the best looking gutters and sand bars, and then each went to their chosen spot to do some serious fishing. Melissa, Silver’s daughter who was about twelve years old, wanted to fish too. I found a small hand reel with some line on it, baited a small hook, and threw it out into the surf in front of where we had set up camp. I told her that if she got a bite to just run up the beach and drag it in. Within ten minutes she had four good-sized bream ready for the pan. The fishermen came back with less than that between them.
For our trip north we departed from Redcliffe Airport with the two Peters up the front of the plane. Peter the pilot was in the left hand seat. Many early aircraft turned better to the left due to the rotational direction of the propeller. This meant that landing patterns were usually left-handed. Consequently sitting on the left hand side gave a better view of the approach. Aircraft must pass port-to-port when on opposite headings. If a pilot is following an airway marked by visual means on the ground, such as landmarks or lit beacons, they have to fly on the right side of the marked path. For the pilot to see the path, he would have to be sitting on the left of the aircraft. Consequently fixed wing aircraft have the command pilot’s seat on the left hand side.
Helicopters have the command pilot sitting in the right hand seat. I know even less about helicopters than I do about fixed wing aeroplanes. I was quite happy to fly in aeroplanes when I understood aerodynamics. I knew what kept them up. I don’t know what keeps helicopters up. I have only ever flown in two. There was the flight through the Grand Canyon in 1994, and a short flight sometime during the eighties at the Emu Park State Primary School fete. During the day of the fete a helicopter was taking paying passengers on joy-flights. The helicopter would gently rise and disappear into the distance where the passengers were treated to panoramic views of Keppel Bay before being returned gently to the ground. Silver and I were to drop hundreds of numbered ping-pong balls onto the school oval as part of a kid’s competition. We jumped in and strapped in and the helicopter took off….. not gently! As we rose we twisted left then right, and finally the pilot parked in mid air over the oval on a thirty-degree angle with me on the lower side beside the open doorway. “Tip ‘em out,” he yelled.
This helicopter had two pontoons for landing on water. The blown up pontoons were less than one metre in diameter and over two metres long. They were supported underneath rectangular frames. As I was furiously shaking ping-pong balls out of the cardboard box and out of the helicopter, many landed on the pontoon and sat vibrating but caught at the edges of the rectangular frame. I swear the pilot turned the helicopter upside down…..well maybe not, but we did eventually get rid of every last ping-pong ball.
Back to our trip. Brisbane airport radar must have been watching us for a long time as we headed north. Peter the pilot had handed over to Peter the accountant in the right hand seat. Peter the accountant had flown several times as co-pilot. As in-flight entertainment we each had a set of headphones. This was so we could communicate with each other in the noisy cabin. It also allowed we passengers to eavesdrop on radio communications. Apparently Peter the accountant had deviated from the flight plan sufficiently to have Brisbane contact us with a polite questioning.
We landed to refuel at Hamilton Island before continuing on to Townsville for our first overnight stop. Next day we attempted to fly to Cairns, but as we neared Innisfail we were forced back by the weather. Rain and cloud reduced visibility to less than the legal limit so we returned to Townsville. No wonder Innisfail has a sign at the outskirts of town saying, “Rain City”.
|Caves at Chillagoe|
Better luck next time, and we made it successfully, refuelled, and then we flew west south-west to Chillagoe for a caving expedition. The landscape around Chillagoe was formed when limestone was deposited as mud and coral reefs surrounding volcanic islands. Tilting, folding, and erosion exposed and weathered the limestone, which now towers over the surrounding plains. Flowing water dissolved some of the limestone, creating caverns and passages in which there are now stalactites and stalagmites. Few animals survive inside the caves, but several bat species roost and breed here, and Chillagoe is one of only five known nesting sites for the white-rumped swiftlet, which is a bird, not a bat.
We explored a number of caves. Some caves can be explored self-guided, and others require the services of a park ranger. There are a number of interlocking walks, which connect the caves, the lookouts, and the landmarks. The National Parks and Wildlife Services office has free maps of the district with clear directions to each of the caves as well as the ruins of the old copper smelters, the marble pits, and Balancing Rock. Chillagoe was a thriving mining town in the early 1900s, with copper, silver, lead, mica, gold, and marble in the surrounding areas.
I had always thought that Cape York Peninsula was almost total rainforest. It’s not. As we flew north again, out of the plane window I could see it was mostly undulating hills with scrub and scattered trees. Occasionally we saw rivers, and occasionally we saw homesteads.
|Old Chillagoe smelter|
Weipa is the last town of any size in North Queensland. It lies on the west coast of Cape York Peninsula, 800 kms north of Cairns on a road that varies from the sublime to the horrendous, depending on whether it is the dry season or the wet. It is mainly famous for bauxite mining and barramundi fishing. The fishing is only good if you can get the barra in the boat before a crocodile gets it. We landed so Peter and Paul could do some business with several of the mineworkers, and therefore have some claims for their Income Tax Returns out of the trip.
The Weipa area was the first part of the Australian coastline to be explored by European explorers. The Dutchman, Willem Jantz, aboard the Dufkyen, first sighted this coast in 1606. Matthew Flinders noted the reddish hue of the cliffs, and in 1901 a geologist noted the presence of bauxite. It wasn’t until 1955 that it was discovered that the reddish cliffs were almost pure bauxite. Weipa is now the largest bauxite mine in the world, and known deposits are expected to last for another 250 years.
The traditional Torres Strait Islanders were masters of the sea and its products. While in the area about the same time as Jantz, the Spanish navigator Torres named the strait after himself. Thursday Island owes its identity to the rough and tumble of the early pearling industry. With its sheltered harbour, T.I. is on the doorstep of the only navigable shipping lane through the strait. The main industry here is now Cray fishing.
Thursday Island is in the middle of a group of islands off the tip of Cape York Peninsula. There are several islands that surround it and many of them are named after other days of the week. The airport for them all is on Horn Island. We stayed at the Gateway Torres Strait Resort.
We took the mini-bus tour, saw the WW11 gun emplacements and the cemetery for Japanese pearl divers, walked the harbour and the town centre, and had a beer in the pub where Chips Rafferty starred in the movie “King of the Coral Sea”.
There was a jetty at Horn Island that many of the locals fished from. First they would use a herring jig, which is a length of light line with half a dozen or so small coloured hooks attached. The entire rig is lowered into the water and jigged up and down. Usually several herring would be caught on some of the hooks. Then the herring were used to catch bigger fish. In two days the only ‘bigger’ fish I saw caught, looked like the three eyed fish from “The Simpsons”.
There was a good reason for this. The Fly River flows from Papua New Guinea into the Gulf of Papua and Torres Strait. Upstream a tributary flows into the Fly River called the Tedi River, or using the local word for river “ok”, Ok Tedi. The Ok Tedi mine is one of the largest copper mines in the world. Up until a January 2002 it was owned by BHP Billiton. It is now wholely owned by Papua New Guinea entities.
Since the 1980s the mine has sent sulphides and copper down the rivers and to the sea. The high sulphide content means that acid forming material creates acidic water, with an associated high metal content, which is then released into the environment.
To manage this a dredging program was commenced in 2001. Just below the mine the river was dredged its full width and for about a kilometre of its length. Heavy metals coming downstream from the mine now fall to the bottom of the newly created pit from where they can be removed.
It was time to start flying south. We flew over the Aboriginal community of Bamaga, and then followed the coastline to Cooktown. The beaches and the reef were beautiful from the air. I was already making plans to do a beachcombing cruise along this coast.
|Westpac bank, Cooktown|
While we waited for a taxi at Cooktown Airport, we noticed the Queensland Premier’s jet on the tarmac. The premier wasn’t there, but one of his ministers was in town to officiate at the famous Cooktown races. Paul had been a parliamentary secretary and an aid-de –camp to a governor, so after dropping a few names to the pilots, my backside was gracing ministerial leather. Our little Piper had a ceiling of about 10,000 feet. We had just been battling headwinds that had our speed down to less than 100knots. The jet could climb to 30,000 feet, and at that altitude there was a 140knot tailwind. They could be in Brisbane two hours after takeoff.
Cooktown is one of the few places where Captain James Cook actually came ashore in 1770. His ship “Endeavour” had hit a reef and he used the river to make repairs. There are several memorials to the famous navigator, including statues and museums. In the 1880s Cooktown was the second largest town in Queensland due to the discovery of gold. The heritage listed Westpac Bank building is still fitted out from those times. An indication of the optimism for the town was shown with the superb cedar joinery and heavy masonry columns. Cooktown now serves the fishing fleet and the tourist industry.
|Black Mountain near Cooktown|
About 30klms south of the town is Black Mountain. This enormous heap of boulders was not created by volcanic eruption. It is the result of weathering and decomposition of a body of granite. The granite was once a molten mass below the surface, where it solidified about 240 million years ago. Erosion removed the softer material leaving only the core stones. Stories are told of people, horses, and whole mobs of cattle disappearing into the labyrinth of rocks, never to be seen again.
|Lion's Den Hotel near Cooktown|
Not too far away is the oldest licensed hotel in Queensland, The Lions Den.
As we flew south from Cooktown, we had some more problems with the weather. At our ceiling the clouds were still towering over us ahead. There were some holes below us so Peter dropped us down to less than 1,000 feet for better visibility. It might have been better for seeing, but down at this level the air was much more turbulent, which not only affected our airspeed, but also affected the tummies of some of the more sensitive passengers.
From Cairns we called in at Hamilton Island to refuel for the final leg to Brisbane. We did stop briefly at Caloundra to drop Clint off near his home. For the last 30 klms to Redcliffe, I got the right hand seat, and Peter let me use the controls until we were in our landing pattern.
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