21 October 2009

catching light

I took this photo during a sunrise flight on the prowl for the Morning Glory last month. The fog pooled on the salt flats and flowed around the mangroves lining the river veins. We caught the light as it touched the streaky veneered surface, just before it burnt through. Two pilots. Early spring. The edge of a continent.

10 October 2009


Of the 4,006 identified species of cockroaches, Australia has 428.  I spotted this Northern Banded Cockroach (Cosmozosteria zonata) on Sweers Island, in the Gulf of Carpentaria.  Definitely the most comely Blattodean I've ever seen.  Australia has some of the world's smallest and largest, ranging from 3 to nearly 70 millimeters.  The larger ones are sometimes mistaken for tortoises on the road.

06 October 2009

dancing coffee and mugs of whales

The seeping desire to linger in familiarity is something I assume most people recognize.  From time to time, a soothing voice tiptoes out from behind droopy eyelids, crosses your temples, and slips into a pair of soft ears, saying stay putdon't venture away, I like it here. Why take to the sky when you've a cozy sheepskin chair , an engrossing book, and a mugful of something steamy?  That's a good question.  I could see myself perfectly happy scooting from one cozy nook to the next,  from mug to mug and book to book.  Happy. Complacent.  And really boring.

Today, I went flying and was thankful I did.  The most easterly point in Australia was a whale fest this afternoon.  Tyagarah's runway is a strip of grass hiding in a rectangular hole in the forest, and upon rising out of that hole, the Tasman Sea comes immediately into view.  And prancing about in the choppy blue today were scattered pods of jubilant humpback whales.  I cannot write with any authority about cetacean-human communication, but when we skimmed our glider over the water and circled the individual whales from 500 feet, I'm pretty sure they were trying to tell us something.  Like happy birthday, or I won the Mysticeti lottery.  As we swooped over them, they would leap out of the water and crash blissfully on their backs, hesitating on the surface long enough for us to count their white ventral grooves.  I dunno.  I'm just telling you what I saw.  I was impressed.

Tomorrow, I take up my pack for the first time in weeks, and head to Victoria.  It will be the first flight in a month that I haven't had to dip the fuel tank, monitor the oil pressure, balance a sectional chart on my knee, or take over the controls when my copilot falls asleep.  Instead, I'll probably pull out my book and maybe even enjoy a cup of something steamy.

photo: the mangrove-lined Albert River northeast of Burketown. In the foreground, the motorfalke VH-YHB.

04 October 2009

boiling down works

A couple rusty steel vats at Burketown's boiling down works.

The site sits about 5 kilometers out of town, a heap of abandoned machinery littered among the scrub.

03 October 2009

Australian badass

I know it's only been about 5 minutes since my last post, but I can't hold it in.  Here's the deal: I am staying with Morning Glory pioneer pilot/host/friend, curry-cooking, beer-brewing, motorcycle-twirling, mantodea-cultivating, photo-meister Russell White.  Basically a rare strain of Australian badass.  His driveway is--not shaded but maybe--attended by a crowd of tall banana trees. I think I even saw a trichopteran licking the dust off his BMW this afternoon.  That'd be the car, not the bike beside it.  He's the one to thank for my trip to Burketown, as it was he who gave me the only seat in his GROB 109A and let me fly a great deal of the time.  Russell lives in a town called Mullumbimby (I'm not making this up), which I just ran all over a few minutes ago.  To get a good idea of the terrain of Mullumbimby, imagine all of the 150-meter hills you could fit into 50 square kilometers, and then grab that bunch hills around the base and squeeze them together even tighter, and that's basically what Mullumbimby looks like, covered in grass and cows and fern trees and loud frogs and crickets.  And today, smoke.  Bush fires have been making the rounds these past few days further inland, and we inhaled a good dose of it.  So I'm here for a few days grâce à Monsieur White, until the next adventure, which begins with New and ends with Zealand, after a quick trip down south.

photo: another Australian badass. A jillaroo at the Burketown rodeo last weekend.

02 October 2009

switching back to CTAF

"Looks pretty amazing, really," said glider Oscar India.  Except he was looking in the opposite direction.  On 122.9 ("one-two-two-niner"), it sounded like the glider gang got the shards of a broken Morning Glory. What we saw was pretty amazing, too, but we were tracking 156 towards Cloncurry.  Shards of a different glory, the golden spokes of sunrise. It was enough of a sendoff for me.

I wouldn't be far from the mark if I admitted that I took this photo with a lump in my throat. Burketown was growing smaller behind us, and I knew it would only grow smaller in my memory, too.  We listened on 122.9 in silence as the other gliders' calls became more muddled and broken 10 miles out, 20 miles out, 50 miles out, and finally heard them one by one switch back to CTAF.

It's strange to live a year like this, building up a community over days or weeks and then one day turning away from it all without a backward glance simply because it's time to move on.  It's tough to leave a piece of yourself behind and not know if you'll ever return to reclaim it.  At Burketown, the pilots and friends, even the salt flats and the hot sea breezes, made the farewell difficult.

The day before I left, a fellow pilot, Nigel, gave me a thermalling lesson in this Dimona (VH-GYT). It was a beauty to fly, and I managed to keep it aloft for about an hour in the invisible afternoon thermals. When we landed, we ambled curiously among the parked aircraft to a helicopter being disected by a couple men and a forklift.  Dangling from the forklift's giant pincers was a 100 kilogram, 500 horsepower engine.  The one in the Dimona weighs 80 kilos and is 80 horsepower.  Nigel fell silent.  He was ogling the motor like a...well, like a glider pilot before a very lightweight 500 horsepower engine.  We had just spent an hour soaring with our engine off, and here we were, awestruck by a gently swinging gas-swilling beast.  Some things don't make too much sense.  I guess it's kind of like saying good-bye.  Eventually, we just had to turn and walk away.
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