A Trip to Commonwealth Hill & Lake Gairdner, SA

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A Trip to Commonwealth Hill & Lake Gairdner, SA

Category:Pilot Stories

As soon as we left Victoria and crossed into South Australia, it stopped raining. Our first flight was at the Coorong Coastal Park in South Australia. On the second morning, we awoke to no wind and fair skies. Let’s go flying. From a dry dead flat salt lake, we flew off towards the coast. It was only 2 kms away but we did not reach it. At 1000ft we were down to 5 kph, but very very smooth. I turned into the wind and we were now doing 105 kph. It was a great view though. Spectacular small salt lakes parallel to the ocean finally leading to the main waters way off in the Coorong itself. We were camped at the foot of 100ft high sand dunes. We flew 3 x there at the Coorong before moving on. 

Our next flying was at Clayton South Australia. We had a contact there with a field. Clayton is a little recreation town for yachties. It is also where the mighty Murray River ends its long journey and enters the sea. Just before it enters the sea, it flows around Hindmarsh Island. We flew off into a 6km tail wind. At 1500ft we were doing 75 kms an hour, and the mouth of the Murray was 16kms away. What a fabulous view! All the water around the island is shallow and when the sun is out, the colours are just fantastic. Heading back, our GPS read 43kph. It was still very smooth flying. Flying the next day, we retraced our flight over the mouth, and then went on to the town of Goolwa and finally back to Clayton. In total 1.2 hours and 48kms covered. While chilling out back at camp, I SMSd our daughter, just to keep in touch. I also SMSd Tom to tell him how great our flying was. Within 5 seconds of sending the message to Tom, he rang back and yelled down the phone at me.”BASTARD”. He was so quick off the mark, I laughed and laughed. We were visiting Tom and Donna next. 

We travelled to Adelaide to meet them and within 1 ½ hours we were out at Toms favourite strip and the weather was just perfect. Out we flew, Lyn and I, with Tom and Taylor. Climbing out to 1200ft over the coastline, the water was glass smooth to the horizon. In the warm sunshine, the colours of the water were blues and aquas and turquoise. See front page photo. It was one of the few times my GPS has read, 58kph out and 58kph back. Down the coast we flew for about 20kms, then turned inland and flew back over dry farmland , back to the strip. AH, it was SO GOOD. 

Next morning Sunday, the wind was up. Tom had arranged to meet up with his mate, an ex Aerochuter, Dean. We met up in a factory not far away. Dean is building motor homes now, half million dollar motor homes. They were impressive. So was the amount of work Dean was putting into them. Next morning, we are on the road again, heading north. We were meeting Tom and Donna again in 3 weeks time. For the moment, Lyn and I were heading to Commonwealth Hill sheep station. It is situated right in the middle of the Woomera Rocket Range. 

We stopped at the Woomera Caravan Park overnight so as to get permission to fly in the restricted Zone. One phone call to the Airport Manager at Woomera was all it took. He knew what the RAA was and he also knew what powered parachutes were. He took my details of where and when we would be and when we would be out of the place. No problem. Because there is very little mobile phone service on the Stuart Highway, we phoned ahead to the Station Managers wife, Angela, from the last public phone on the Highway closest to their place, at Glendambo roadhouse. 

Commonwealth Hill is 110kms from the bitumen. Angela told us we could expect to spend 2 – 2 ½ hours to reach the homestead. We actually spent 3 hours because we were towing and did not know the road. The road was pretty good. At an average of 40kph, a few wash a ways and corrugations, the only worry was staying on the right road, even with very good directions and maps. Finally arriving, we drove through the entrance to the homestead and passed all the outbuildings, including the rocket fall out shelter. Now that we will have to ask about later. Of course, the house dogs started and Angela came out to meet us with a 3 week old baby strapped to her front. She showed us around the very solid rock stone walled house. Built in 1947, it has 2 lounge rooms and 8 bedrooms, an attic and a cellar, and a wired in big wide veranda all around the house. The fridge was a separate room and the fully stocked wine cellar was where Angela escaped to when the temperature reached 52 Deg. C. for a couple of days over summer.

When Dougall, the manager arrived home we all had a friendly cuppa and then he announced he had to travel to the furthest end of the 1,000,000 acre property to check on the windmills and diesel pumps, 90kms away. Would we like to come along for the ride? The ride was in a 182 Cessna. Oh! Yes! This gave us the opportunity to see the property very quickly, without us having to drive ourselves around. It was a great flight. Dougall explaining lots along the way. Not a lot to see though. Flat, red sand, one type of light scrub, rather featureless desert, except for 30,000 sheep, vastly scattered though. Dougall explained when the wind did not blow, his little diesel engines had to raise the water to the 30 ft high tank. 

This tank water was gravity fed to up to 15kms away to water troughs. There were 30 tanks feeding a network of troughs, over the entire property. Dougals job as manager requires him to keep that water flowing at all costs. If the water stops for more than ½ a day, sheep start dying. The return trip was at a height of 50ft checking the water depth in holding tanks all the way home. It was interesting to note Dougall used a small GPS for the entire trip. 

There being no land marks, even he said he could get lost in the vastness. We all had lots to talk about over the evening meal. Next day was spent exploring the immediate property on foot, as it was too windy for our flying. The rocket shelter was interesting. It was build after the 2nd WW, for the first rocket tests out of Woomera. The shelter consists of curved steel roof, not unlike ……and railing all jointed together, with concrete ends and all covered in a metre of earth.

Whenever a rocket was set for a launch, it was Woomeras job to phone all the homesteads to warn them to get into the shelters. After a while of nobody hearing anything from within the shelter, people started sitting on top of the shelter for a view. Very few people ever saw anything. Dougal did tell me though, a manager on a neighbouring property has told him he has found lots of broken up parts scattered over vast areas of his property. 

After lunch, Dougal asked us if we would like a truck ride to pick up 40 unshorn sheep that he was going to pick up and then bring them back to the homestead. No worries, let’s go. The corrugated station roads were murder on the 9 ton cab over truck. One hour later, we were glad to arrive at the holding pens where 2 young guys on motor bikes were holding the sheep. They had spent 2 days rounding them up. I watched the guys, yelling at the sheep up with a dog jumping excitedly all over their backs and nipping their heels. They were also grabbing fistfuls of the sheep’s fleece to guide them up the ramps into the truck.

At one point, I tried to help. When I saw one particularly stubborn sheep refuse to go the right way up the chute ramp, bone handed I grabbed for the sheep’s woolly back to guide him. Ahhhhhhh!!!!! I yelled in pain and unclenched the woolly critter. You’re on your own mate! I exclaimed. His wool was jammed full with every prickle, thorn, thistle and sharp object imaginable. That was the immediate end to my useful help. Finally loaded, after 2 hours, Dougal decided to show us some more of the property on the return trip to the homestead. Along the way he explained his method of how he manages 30,000 sheep, with 10,000 new lambs per year. 

His intricate computer aided method of always having at least of couple of 5 year old sheep to every bunch of young new ones, to show them around the paddock, where the water was etc. There are up to 70 paddocks spread over 1,500 sq. miles. And he absolutely loved his job and life style. Somewhere along the way home, we got bogged in soft sand. “Now we’re in trouble” Said Dougal. Lyn and I looked at each other. He tried forward and reversing a few times, but only managed to get us in deeper. One way to get out was to lighten the load. But there was no way Dougal was going to let those sheep go. Bugger, I’ll have to get out and help now, I thought. I looked around for a jack, a shovel, sand ramps, anything an experienced station manager would carry on one of his trucks. Nothing. No one thing to help us. I couldn’t believe it. 40kms from the homestead, in a Dario black stop, 40 bleeding sheep on board, no tools and 28 deg. C. Great! All we could do was DIG. DIG with our bare hands in the sand! And dig we die. 

After 30 minutes, we broke down a leafy desert bush and lined the ramped hole with it. With our hearts in our mouths we watched as the truck came straight out. Whew I Finally we had it back to the homestead, where we let the sheep out in to a home paddock. About 1530 hours the wind dropped suddenly.for a fly. Commonwealth Hill has a large dirt strip. Four actually. In a very large triangle. We climbed straight to 1000 ft and flew over the homestead. Dougal came directly out to the strip to watch us. There was no point venturing too far from home in this wilderness. So I landed and put Dougal on board. He was a bit puzzled by the craft itself, but absolutely loved the flying. Next, his two young workers on the motor bikes came out, so I gave each of them a quiet flight around the homestead. By that time it was pretty dark, but there were big smiles everywhere. That turned out to be our only flight time here. But it was a great one to put in the log book. 

After another delicious tea and lots of conversation late into the night, we had to retire, so as to pack and leave in the morning. Next morning we said our long good byes and started on our journey to our next adventure. The way out was a lot more relaxed as we knew our way and the conditions. Now we are into our next adventure. Meeting up with Steve from Yulara and Tom from Adelaide. We are all meeting at Glendambo Road House at 3pm. From there we travelled directly west to Kingoonya, and then turning south into the Gawler Ranges and the huge Lake Gairdner. Steve Bryan has written up this part of the story. So I’ll let him continue in his words. 

See Ya. John and Lyn.

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