Solo Flight. Chapter 11. By Owen Zupp




Distant Voices.


Day Two. Barkly Homestead. 


Minutes after I depart Camooweal, I leave Queensland and enter the Northern Territory. There are no dotted lines on the ground to confirm the fact, just a reminder on the moving map of my GPS.


The Barkly Highway continues on its way as I enter my fifth and final hour of flight time for the day. Buzz Aldrin once described the lunar surface as “magnificent desolation” and while there is still vegetation below, I can understand to some degree what he meant. There is a real beauty in a vastness void of man. It makes one feel so small and insignificant and yet can inspire the mind to a deeper level of reflection. Perhaps it brushes away the illusion of self-importance and offers a sense of perspective in its place. Whatever it is, I draw a deep breath and smile at the remote world around me.


Gradually the earth becomes redder and the green tinges more sparse. Only the occasional bore breaks the trend like an outback oasis. The highway comes back towards me and if I allowed my eye to follow its thin black line I can just see a small group of buildings, but little more. It is Barkly Homestead and that isolated gathering is to be my home for the night.

An Outback Bore.


I nose the Jabiru over into a speedy descent, partly for efficiency and partly out of an enthusiasm to land. The red dirt runway is not far from the road with a thin track seeming to join it to the greater community. As I join the landing circuit overhead I struggle to interpret the windsock which appears to be hanging very limply. There are no water masses, trees, smoke or flags to offer any tell-tale signs of the wind direction or strength either. It is strange that the conditions are so calm when I had been enjoying a very healthy tailwind for the last half an hour.


Nevertheless, given the conditions I decide to land towards the settlement so after landing I can simply taxi off into town without having to backtrack down the runway. I position the aircraft to land, but as I enter the final stages of the approach it is obvious that conditions are not calm at all. I can sense the aircraft drifting sidewards over the ground on the base leg, pushing me towards the airfield. Then as I turn to line up with the runway the picture outside isn’t correct and it is apparent that there is a tailwind pushing me at speed towards the runway.


I decide to abort the landing attempt and fly a ‘missed approach’. As I pass the wind-sock at this lower altitude, it becomes obvious why it was hanging limply; there is virtually nothing left of it. Just a few shreds of cloth hang from the ring at the top of the pole, offering no worthwhile information about the wind speed or direction. As aircraft are designed to ideally land into wind, I reverse my intended landing and proceeded to touchdown on the fine red silt of Barkly Homestead’s runway without any further drama.


This windsock had very little left to say.

Taxiing from the airstrip ‘into town’ is an adventure in its own right. It is not so much a taxiway built for aeroplanes as a track built for four-wheel drives. The surface is far from level and the undergrowth reaches out from either side. I maintain a slow pace, conscious of not striking the propeller and watching each wing tip in turn to avoid banging into a branch. It is challenging, but I love it! This is outback flying. This is the flying of my youth.


I emerge from the scrub into a clearing where a lone fuel bowser stands ready to fill the Jabiru’s thirsty tanks. When the propeller comes to a halt, I pause for a few minutes to complete the paperwork, sign off the flight details and take in the scenery around me. I climb out and pop Bert onto the engine cowling to pose for a photo for my children, while I wait to see if anyone emerges from the buildings over yonder.


Bert takes a breather at Barkly.

As I wipe down the Jabiru’s flanks like a sweaty mare, I am met by one of the locals with a shake of the hand and an iconic “G’Day’. He assists me in getting the fuel pump started as it was being cantankerous and didn’t want to start. After a nudge here and there, the pump motor begins to hum and I fill the Jabiru with fuel as kite-hawks sweep in circles overhead.


I am directed to a parking spot near the caravans, but the track looks a touch too narrow for me, so I opt to pull the Jabiru by hand to its resting place for the night. Dragging the aircraft by its propeller, it bobbles and bounces along the uneven track as I contemplate a shower and a hot meal. Finally I have the aircraft parked and unpacked, by which time a small crowd of interested onlookers have arrived to see the aeroplane in the midst of their cabins and trailers. Despite feeling decidedly weary, I show a number of people the Jabiru and explain the purpose of my flight. As always, the Royal Flying Doctor Service crest and motto on the aircraft provided a central starting point for the questions.


As the crowd dwindles, I check into my cabin for the night. It is a simple, clean and tidy demountable building and just as I remember it from my stay here with my father twenty years before. In fact, the very cabin we stayed in is a mere two doors away and once again a strong sense of sentiment runs through me. However, it was not the time to idly ponder just yet as I still have phone interviews to conduct, blogs to write and emails to answer. Only then can I sign off the day behind me and ready for the one ahead.


The night is almost upon Barkly and the wind is beginning to die down. The colours of the sunset beyond the water tower are amazing and I decide to farewell the day in silence beside the Jabiru. The last rays of light subside and I enjoy the warm, dark silence a little longer.


The end of the day at Barkly Homestead.

Finally, I head across to the restaurant where some good outback fare is on the menu. Steaks that could have been cut from dinosaurs and all you can eat salads, vegetables and chips. The Irish waitress that takes my order tells me how she is working her way around Australia and this outback whistle-stop was her latest destination. I admire her free will but couldn’t help thinking of the gulf that exists between Belfast and Barkly.


Back in my room I make one last call home to Kirrily and the kids before turning in. In the absence of streetlights the room is pitch black with the silence only occasionally broken by a passing ‘Road Train’ or wildlife scratching around in the scrub outside. My mind steps through time as I recall the last time I had rested at Barkly on another dark, dark night. It was an evening that I have never forgotten.


It was set to the soundtrack of my father’s breathing; rhythmic, deep and gradually slowing. Yet despite his fatigue from the day’s driving, sleep was not forthcoming and eventually his voice moved bodiless about the room. The sound of his creaking bed gave way to steady pacing as he moved unseen. This very quiet man stopped and then began to speak in a way that I have never heard.


Made anonymous by the night, he spoke of a childhood of hard times and the shame of a farm lost. He spoke of war, blood and death. Hour after hour, my father delved deeper and deeper into his soul as I lay awkwardly in silence.  He jumped from the steamy the jungles of New Guinea and a patrol gone wrong to the frigid hills of Korea and the devastation he witnessed at Hiroshima. The recollections were only interrupted when he offered up answers to questions I would never dare ask. His mood swung between acceptance and raging hate and only when the clock passed 2am did the pace subside to infrequent muttering before he finally lay down and his breathing slowed into sleep. I had not said a single word.


Now I lie alone, two rooms and twenty years from that night. I have often wondered if he knew then that he was dying and felt a need to purge his being of those things that had never been uttered. I will never know, although I have my suspicions. For him, his journey was nearing its end that night at Barkly. For me, I still have so far to go.


Remote Sunset.




 Read the full story of 'Solo Flight' here.




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