By Bernard Eckey
We had hoped that our first gliding safari in November of the 2022/23 season would get us into Queensland, but it soon came to an abrupt stop at Mildura. Our chase car driver reported flooded roads further east, which left us with no choice but to turn around and visit the Flinders Ranges instead.
Our truly international crew – two Kiwis, one German and one Aussie – decided to try again in late February and set the bar a little lower. This time we aimed for a flight to Narromine with the option of visiting Lake Keepit for a day or two.
When we got to Waikerie, Graham Parker was already waiting and eager to get going in the morning. He had a look at the weather and spotted an opportunity to get to Narromine with only a single stopover. He also suggested Balranald as the preferred landing option with Mildura and Robinvale as alternates. At first, our trip progressed as expected but it got a little tricky around the badly waterlogged areas after the recent Murray River floods. However, when we made it past Robinvale and over drier country again, we even found thermals to 5,000ft.
This got us safely into Balranald and because we gave our Kiwi chase car driver Peter McKencie a good head start, we didn't have to wait long before he arrived to give us a lift into town.
The gliding forecast for the next day was hardly encouraging, with blue thermals to less than 4,000ft over the Hay planes, but with improving conditions east of Griffith. We decided to fly cooperatively, stay within a few kilometers of each other and aim for the airfield at Hay to start with. This tactic, combined with moderate flying speeds and two pairs of very long wings, got us across the wet areas around the Murrumbidgee River and some rather large patches of water on the ground.
PHOTO TOP: Bernard (far right) with Phill Hollick, Graham Parker and the gang.
ABOVE: Getting ready again after a stopover at Balranald.
Just when we thought the worst was behind us, some middle level clouds depressed the lift along our track towards West Wyalong. Finally, around Condoblin the blue thermals went to over 5,000 ft and we eventually managed to get final glide to Narromine on what must have been one of the last thermals of the day. Arnie Hartley was there to welcome us. He even dropped us off at our accommodation in town, as our chase car driver was still two hours away. Great service, Arnie – thank you again!
I didn't need any rocking to fall asleep and decided to stay on the ground for the next day, as the forecast was for a few days, with cumulus clouds at 10,000ft later in the week. The prediction proved to be absolutely correct and we had some very enjoyable days under fluffy white clouds while covering distances between 500 and 600km.
I was keen to stick my nose into Queensland but failed to convince my friends to get closer to the border by visiting the gliding club at Lake Keepit. It meant that the furthest north we got was the town of Walgett, just over 250 km north of Narromine. We enjoyed meeting many like-minded gliding addicts from all over the country and around the world.
We also rubbed shoulders with the friendly Bathurst Gliding Club members who were holding a club camp at Narromine at the same time. Some of them gave me splendid feedback on my book ‘Advanced Soaring Made Easy’. It made my day as it confirmed that all that effort was not a waste of time.
Then came the day when we spotted some worry lines on the face of Graham Parker, freshly elevated to accommodation manager and chief task setter. "If we don't leave tomorrow,” he said with his eyes firmly on the laptop, "we will be confronted with some bad weather further south, which will make life very difficult for us." We all agreed that this was our best option and the following morning we launched into broken lift to just 2,500ft and with a 20kt crosswind on our southwesterly track.
Just to remain airborne was hard and exhausting work but the expectation of better conditions on track made us push on and direct each other into any form of lift available. Graham survived by working some shear wave. I was lucky to find a weak thermal to almost 4,000 ft and together we slowly edged closer to a band of cumulus between Condoblin and Griffith.
When we got there, we found quite reasonable lift for a while but after only 100km or so the sky turned blue again. I slowed down again and stayed close to the track line while Graham Parker and Theo Newfield picked a route much further south. Unfortunately, I finished up over large areas of waterlogged terrain, where the Lachlan River empties into the Murrumbidgee.
As far the eye could see, the sun was reflecting in the water through the dense cover of trees. I was getting worried but to my surprise, the few remaining 'islands' still produced weak but workable lift. Much to my relief, a lone 3kt thermal kept going and going until the altimeter was showing almost 11,000ft. It was badly needed as the approaching front had already turned the sky pitch black for the last 60km into Balranald.
I arrived over the airfield just in time to observe the landing of the ASH 25. After Graham Parker and Theo Newfield had pushed it off the runway I asked them to catch my wing as the runway lights at Balranald are well hidden among the long grass. Not surprisingly, our chase car driver only caught up with us in the pub well after dark.
The predicted strong headwinds for the next few days made us decide to have another stopover at Mildura on the way home. On this flight I shared the ASH 30 cockpit with Peter McKenzie after we relegated Theo Newfield to the chase car. Peter kindly took the controls. It allowed me to relax and enjoy the fascinating scenery of the meandering Murray River, still on the way back to normal after the recent flood.
Soon after landing at Sunraysia airfield I rang Phill Hollick, the owner of the first electric self-launching single seat glider in Australia, and asked whether he would like to join us for dinner. He promptly agreed and even suggested that I take his brand new AS 34 for a ride in the morning. Of course, he didn't have to ask me twice! Over dinner Graham Parker made his day by offering to take him for some air-to-air shots from the back seat of the ASH 25.
After breakfast we figured out how to do it in the safest possible way but still get into positions that allow the owner to take some nice photos. Everything went exactly as discussed beforehand and Phill’s partner even filmed the AS 34 take off. (https://youtu.be/XneCAG1HnUI) Some bystanders thought that it looked more like a winch launch.
The ASH 34 Me from the cockpit of an ASH 25.
Back to Waikerie
After landing it was impossible to overlook the broad smile on the face of the proud owner. While he continued looking at the pictures of his pride and joy, we got ready for our flight back to Waikerie. Initially we took advantage of some wisps of cumulus but then the sky turned blue again. Graham and Theo beat me home by about 10 minutes after I got down to 1400 ft and into a bit of trouble over the wet area around Renmark.
Back at Waikerie, with a cold one in one hand and a hot sausage in the other, we looked back and congratulated ourselves for some very disciplined and highly cooperative flying in what can best be described as trying conditions. Both of our self-launching gliders worked flawlessly and each of us had burned less than 10 litres of fuel for our 4,000km, two-week long soaring adventures. Best of all, we didn't record a single engine air start on track.
But there is some sad news after all. On the final flight back to Balaklava I realised that this was our last safari for a while, as the ASH 25 will soon be shipped to New Zealand. Believe me, doing such exciting trips entirely on your own is only half the fun. It is the nice company that makes all the difference!
Bernard Eckey is the Australian agent for Alexander Schleicher