Thursday, March 29, 2012

Australian Adventure: Log 15

It’s been much too long since I’ve posted a blog entry of this incredible expedition; however, it is with good reason, as the team has been through an amazing series of challenges. From Roma, we left Rick’s house and took off from town with several onlookers cheering us along. Our destination of choice is Dubbo; however, landing in the town of Miles, we’re forced to concede to the massive storm system to our front. There are big nasty clouds all around us from the north down to the south east, a wall of rain and wind blocking our path. In Miles, we have to make the decision to change course once again, pushing south to work a crosswind rather than a full headwind. It cuts a large amount of distance off our route south, but it keeps us going.

Glenn makes a late landing in the village called The Gums. There is nothing here other than a couple derelict shacks and a rundown Road House sitting on the junction of two roads. The locals are not as hospitable as others we’ve had the pleasure of running into, and we set up in the truckers parking behind the Road House. It’s not a particularly pleasant sleep with trucks coming and going all night long, their generators starting up and shutting off. It’s another night with little sleep, but we’re back on the road, Glenn lifting off early in a bid to get down to Goondiwindi but sets down 3km short of the town on Moonie. We spend the day at the Road House here, the heat outside keeping me in the shelter of the air conditioned bar, buying overpriced coffee to keep my seat. We’re in wild pig territory here and the wall of the Road House is decorated with the heads of several different species of wild Boar. It seems that every truck that goes by is a pig or Roo hunter’s truck, the padded bars on the windows and rifles under the windshield giving away the drivers profession.

The winds just aren’t calming down today though. We move out to the Cricket pitch to make a lunch and waste away another couple hours, but as the sun begins to sink; the possibility of an evening flight is lost. We look around for a spot to camp as the cricket pitch parking lot has several no camping signs up. Instead we pull behind the bushes on the driveway to a farmer’s paddock. There are “No Trespassing” signs everywhere, but we set up camp for the night hoping no one witnessed us sneak in. We should be gone before the farmer comes to work tomorrow morning, hopefully.

The next morning brings with it kinder winds. Glenn is able to get up and heads straight west towards St. George. Again, he’s forced to set down short of the goal, about 60km out of town. We are forced to set up camp on a derelict side road as storm clouds finally catch up to us. We knew that at some time the run would be stopped with the coming weather, it just sucks that we are stuck out in the middle of nowhere. The storm hits us that night, Craig and I are in the camper while Glenn and Mark are out in tents. The amateur stitching job that I did to the canvass roof over my bed gets its first real test as torrents of rain fall on us all night long. The rain is relentless and my stitching fails big time. At first a small drip of water drips onto the mattress beside my head. I grab a towel and place it under it. The roof above is starting to pool water though and shortly a wet area in the middle starts to open up another leak from saturation. I place another towel in the middle of the bed and shift my body into a crescent shape in a vain effort to keep dry.

However, the rain is relentless, the saturated spot in the middle of the canvas is now dripping in four different places at a much greater rate, and the stitched rip is now a full pouring waterfall onto my bed. It’s a good thing it’s still quite warm out as my bed gets wetter and wetter. I soon give up the fight to keep the water from entering and just try to get some degree of sleep in the bathtub. The sleeping bag is soaked, the mattress nothing more than a giant sponge keeping as much water under me as possible. Sleep is futile and all I can do is wait for the light of day to come so that I can get out of the pool that is my bed.

Finally the sun rises and the others begin to wake. I did not sleep a wink all night, emerging from my sleeping bag dripping as though I just got out of a pool. Mercifully, the sun has broken through some of the rain clouds and I can pull all my sleeping attire out to dry. I wring rivers of water out of the shirt and boxers I was wearing. The sleeping bag and mattress are also heavily laden with water and I wring as much out as I can and lay them out in the sun to dry.

The winds are still high and rain squalls rotate through every hour it seems. There is no chance for Glenn to get back up in the air and we’re forced to spend the day on the ground, deteriorating from boredom. Walks down the old road and highway get boring quickly, and watching all the ants come and go from their little holes in the red clay ground also gets old soon. Craig spots a white snake making its way across the highway and we go up to investigate. It turns out not to be a snake but a row of several caterpillars all linked up for the daunting crossing of the highway, out in the open for predators to sweep in. I guess there is safety in numbers and by being all linked up, they do look like a snake from a distance, scaring away some rodents possibly. I run back to camp to grab a camera and tell Mark and Glenn. We are all so bored that the sight of some caterpillars crossing the road turns out to be the most exciting part of the day.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Australian Adventure: Log 14

I’m up early once again, the mere sound of Glenn’s tent unzipping is enough to get me out of bed, even if the night sky is still untouched by the suns rising rays. It’s like the army all over again, I’d automatically wake at 5 am every morning for that was the regimented routine. I put together a round of teas for Glenn Mark and I, and Mark and Glenn negotiate over the computer, watching with worried eyes as weather systems advance on our location. Rain is on its way in the next couple days and will likely hold us up. A quick decision is made to bypass Emerald and cut south. Winds are pushing in from the coast, so Glenn’s thinking is that changing direction south will allow a few more days of travel, only having to fight crosswinds, rather than meeting the systems head on in a fight for Emerald. This also means that we are sacrificing highway miles up north, so we’ll have to find more down south before we cut across to Perth.
With the early morning leave from Barcladine, I’m not so eager for a breakfast this morning as the weight of a deep-fried seafood platter is still sitting in my stomach. Glenn makes a successful flight first down to Blackall, where I get in a much needed swim at the local pool. Day upon day of sitting in the Nissan has stiffened my back, the mere act of turning to look out the window to find Glenn high up in the sky is almost becoming painful. The good swim does wonders to loosen up my muscles; I’ll have to make use of pools more often when they become available. Glenn’s evening flight sees him land in rodeo grounds just past the town of Tambo, offering up an excellent spot to set up camp. After a good meal cooked by Mark, I take the opportunity to sit out under the big sky, taking in the mass of stars that come out in the Outback sky. It really is amazing how much more you see out here, and I take every chance I can to do some star gazing before fatigue gets the better of me.
The next morning, Craig and I walk the Paramotor out to the truck pullout over on the highway. It’s another stroll through long grass; the injection of adrenaline from the threat of the legless menace is more than enough to wake whatever sleep was still in my eyes. With the wing set out, Glenn hits the starter and gets nothing but a click. Within a split second, I know what is about to happen. A furious tirade of profanity spews from Glenn’s mouth as he continues to hit the starter button to no avail. He thinks the battery is dead and Craig runs back through the wet grass while Glenn and I stripe down the Paramotor. Craig is back in a flash and we button up the Paramotor with a fresh battery. Glenn hits the starter button once again, “CLICK.” Boom goes Glenn, he’s so mad that he can’t even string different words together, just constantly yelling out “f@#$, f@#$, f@#$, f@#$….”

We pull everything over to camp, and start to strip the starter off of the Paramotor, however, there is a special technique to get it off and we decide that it is easier to just do a full engine swap with Marks motor that is stored in the truck. Another hour later we have swapped motors, but the wiring harnesses are different! Another long while of cutting, soldering and shrink wrapping, and we’ve managed to get Glenn’s machine tip top once again, but we’ve lost a good portion of the morning. Glenn takes to the air with little effort and gets a good head start as we have a huge mess to clean up after the frantic search for spares, tools and stripping a new engine out its box in the trailer.
We catch up to him just before the town of Charleville. The name sounds familiar to us, and as we start to notice the signs of flood waters, we quickly remember why. It was Charleville and the neighboring town of Mitchell that were evacuated last week, making the news. The devastation of the surrounding area was immediately evident, all the paddock fences were covered in debris, trees had mud reaching as high up as ten meters in some cases and the bridge entering the town was destroyed, yet being a good six meters over the rivers current level. The town itself was saved for the most part as it sits on high ground, but environment all around the town was left in ruin. We spent our mid-day break here, making use of an air conditioned Road House as a refuge from the searing mid-day heat. This is also where we would say good bye to Mark for a couple of days, he’s off to Sydney to partake in an event put on by Tourism Australia where he can schmooze with big wigs and celebs while giving interviews to all the countries major news stations.

On our way out of town, we stop at the local fuel station to top up the LPG (Propane) for the truck, finding that the pumps are out of service. We top up all the Jerry Cans in hopes that we can make it to the next town on petrol alone. We drop Mark off at the bus station and book out of town after Glenn. The route we take back east once again follows the river that flooded, and from Mervon to Mitchell, the landscape and infrastructure is raped by the forces of the flood waters. The bridge in Mitchell fared even worse than that in Charleville, being washed away completely and we take a makeshift fording ramp across the now tranquil stream.

With Mark now gone, Glenn’s focus and determination is left nearly unchallenged as he pushes to make up as much distance as he can. His risk taking is getting more and more exciting for Craig and I on the ground as he makes some spectacular takeoffs, battling wind and obstacles. One morning, he climbs out into a field with a runway that is too short and just wide enough to fit his wing. With liftoff, he’s just kissing the trees on the left side, but not getting the height to clear the tree’s in front, cranking over on his toggles, he swings right and just clears the paddock, averting disaster by mere feet. It’s an impressive feat, however, Craig and I start to wonder if he’s maybe starting to push too hard, taking chances that are too large.
From Mitchell we push on to Roma, and Glenn is already on the ground on the outskirts of town chatting with a local. We pull up to meet Rick, a large man with large personality, shooting from the mouth and sporting a big gut. “I saw this UFO falling from the sky, and figured I’d come over and see what it was.” He is an extremely good natured person, inviting us up to the shop for a couple of beers, then even gave us his house in town that he was renovating. We set up the trailer in the driveway and had full use of the bathroom and fridge.
We knew that we’d likely be stuck here a couple of days, as the winds were forecasted to be high, and the hospitality of Rick was a welcome surprise, making us feel right at home and tossing us another beer once we were all set up, having a good long chat in the back yard before our beds beckoned us.

Australian Adventure: Log 13

As we fight our way west, headwinds are getting stronger and stronger, challenging our forward momentum. We arrive in the town of Longreach, it’s a small town of maybe 2000 people however, we’re taken back as the tail-wing of a 747 looms over the hangars at the airport just out of town. Glenn gets a shot of adrenaline shoot through him as he flies over what is listed as a rural airport, the sight of a 747 on the tarmac making him search around for equally frightening air traffic. However, not to worry, it’s only part of the Qantas Museum; placed here because this was the town the company began its operations.

It was a quick launch this morning, well before the sun even came close to breaking the horizon, and my stomach is arguing with me over the lack of breakfast. As we pass by the massive 747, we find a Road House to get fuel, and I take the opportunity to grab something to eat, the only thing available is a nasty little sausage roll that looks as though it’s been sitting under the heat lamp for days. Back on the road, I’m not quite sure if what I’m eating is actual meat in the centre of the sausage roll, as we race to catch up to the lone remaining pilot. Mark is sitting in the back of the truck, not making much sound as the reality hits that his dream of a world record has come to an end. He’s doing his best to now concentrate on the charity side of the expedition, however the pain is obvious.

Soon, we’re passing through the town of Ilfracombe. It’s a quaint little village that has a display of farm machinery running the entire length of town on the left side of the highway. It looks like a great place to stop, a couple nice little café’s look quite inviting, however, Glenn is nowhere in sight and we need to catch up. To our surprise, we find him just on the outskirts of town, sitting by the road side, the mid-day heat and thermals forcing him to call an end to the morning flight sooner than expected. However, this does mean that we get to make use of the café.

We truck Glenn back to town, straight to the café, where he wastes no time ordering up a proper eggs, bacon and sausage breakfast. Having already chosen my breakfast purchase, I had to make do with a Flat White as Glenn works a proper meal. We’re in town for several hours before the winds calm for an evening flight. I do a couple laps of the town getting pictures of the machinery and giving myself yet another sunburn before it’s time to leave.

Glenn is back in the air and heading for Barcladine. We’ve already planned to make an early landing here as there is a storm front moving in all around us, and we’ll have to make a decision in the morning whether to fight on east towards Emerald, or cut south to bypass a certain halt to wait out the storms. He makes to the outskirts of town just as the sun slips beneath the horizon, a perfect landing only minutes from a Caravan Park.

Setting up camp with the luxury of electricity, water, toilets and showers, we set about filling our stores and getting a much needed shower in before treating ourselves to a pub dinner. No cooking or dishes tonight.

The Caravan Park manager suggests a good bar to try, the Shakespeare Hotel and to not miss getting a photo of the “Tree of Knowledge.” Not quite sure what he meant, however, we packed along the cameras anyway. A walk into the centre of town soon displayed a rather modern piece of art centered in what is really a classic old Outback town, the contrasts where huge as a large green lit structure enveloped a dead tree. Inside, spires of wood streak down from the top creating a magnificent display of light and art, the dead roots in the ground on display through a glass floor. It’s something we really were not expecting. According to a plaque near the site, the tree was an icon that proclaimed the start of the Labour Party in Australian politics. The Aussies sure take their politics seriously to keep the tree on display with such extravagance. After some meandering around the area, our stomach’s beckoned us on to the Shakespeare Hotel, where I made the mistake of ordering the seafood platter, receiving a massive plate of deep-fried objects of varying shapes and sizes, all tasting the same, of grease. I knew I shouldn’t have ordered it and the after affects wood sit in my stomach well into the morning.

Despite the shower before bed, the nights heat brought gave me little chance of sleep, and the scream Gallah’s made their annoying return at four in the morning. Despite the luxury of a Caravan Park, the night would bring little rest as finding sleep is still a challenge.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Australian Adventure: Log 12

The team has taken a massive hit. After Mark has broken one of his propellers on the first leg of the journey, we’re down to no spares; one prop for each pilot is now all we have.

The boys have just completed their longest flight of the trip, a 160 km early morning run that started well before the sun broke the horizon. We’re so far out in the Outback now that landing on the highway is ideal, there are no cars seen for hours and it provides a great runway for both landings and take offs. We’ve been under the pilots all morning and the conditions are good when they land. Glenn asks for a refill, they want to get a second morning run in before the heat of the day makes the thermals too strong. Craig and I top up both tanks and lay Marks wing out across the road for takeoff. However, there is a bit of a crosswind in the air and a set of power lines off to his left. With a heave and handful of throttle, he brings the wing up into the air above him and begins to scamper off down the road. But the crosswind catches him and angles the wing off to the right; he counters which is sending him towards the power lines. He lifts up off the ground and steers once again to avoid the lines, however, the steering input kills some of his speed and as he has just taken off, the wing loses lift an crashes back down to Earth.

Painfully I watch as Mark crashes into the abrasive road surface, the sickening sound of metal striking the rock surface and breaking. It’s all a blur and it looks like there was debris flying from the Paramotor. I run down the road after him, he’s already up by the time I get there, shouting out in a panic, “Is the prop ok, is the prop ok!” Glenn and Craig are charging up behind shouting the same question. I inspect the rear of his Paramotor to find what I had suspected, the carbon fibre blades are shattered at the tips, the metal structure around the fuel tank has buckled and broken free to stick out into the path of the propellers.

Heartbroken, I tell Mark, “It’s done,” then turn and slash my throat with my hand signalling to the others the day is done, and likely the trip for Mark. Glenn comes to a stop; his face falls as all hope dies, turns and walks with heavy steps back towards the camper. Mark is still asking in a panic whether the prop is ok or not, he either didn’t hear my first answer or most likely could not let himself believe the answer. I give him the bad news clear and to his face and the disappointment in his face is enough to nearly bring a tear to my eye. He drops the damaged Paramotor and walks back to the camper as slowly and painfully as Glenn.

Craig and I pick up the pieces from the shattered machinery and drag it back to the camper. Glenn is in deep thought, wondering around, while Mark is sitting silently on the other side of the road, gazing off into the prairie. We inspect the damaged Paramotor further to find the damage was even greater than we first thought, some expert welding and fitment will be needed to get the Paramotor running again, however, nothing goes up without a prop. Mark grabs a breath, picks himself up off the side of the road and comes over. “I’m out, Glenn get up in the air and carry on.” Both Glenn and I protest the snap decision as this was Marks dream to complete a flight around Australia, breaking a record in the process. Mark doesn’t want to hear anymore, the painful situation too much, and wants Glenn to get going, but we insist on a team meeting to further discuss the situation and where we go from here.

With some quick words, the decision is made that Glenn will push on to the next town, Mark will make some calls and try to get a new prop in, and will come back to cover Glenn’s tracks once a new prop has come. Glenn flies to the next town while Mark sits in the back of the truck, working the phones trying to source a new prop. Ben from Kangook, someone we met while down in Brisbane supplies several Paramotor parts and Mark has him courier in a new prop.

We hold up at a caravan park, happy to finally have a shower and fresh water at hand, the new prop will take a couple days to come in. The wait also gives us time to make repairs to the camper which is beginning to fall apart, weld up Marks frame and get some necessities. I’m holding fort at the camp as the others are in town, the Caravan Park manager shows up telling me there is a package in. Glenn shows us just after and picks it up. He hurries back and rips the package open, but something doesn’t seem right. Pulling the prop out, it is a two blade propeller made of wood, not a carbon three blade.

Mark returns, excited that he found some essential tools, the smile on his face sinks as he catches sight of the prop over in the corner of camp, stopping mid-sentence. “Oh no,” he mutters, the twin blade prop will not work on the Parajet motor. The heartbreak from a couple of days ago was replaced by hope, destroyed in a split second by heartbreak once again. “The Prop won’t work,” claims the Parajet rep over the phone to Mark. “The fastest we could get you one is in two weeks’ time,” The Parajet factory is based in England, and we are in the middle of the Outback.

Two weeks would kill any chance of making the world record as Glenn is scheduled to leave at the end of April. Another team meeting is called and we have the painful choice to make, do we wait and give up on the record, or do we push on, now only Glenn will be capable of the record? The hard decision is made, Glenn will push on alone. Mark will join him once the new props are shipped to join him in the rest of the journey. It’s a heartbreaking decision, as this was Marks dream, and all the hard work and finances to put this all together came from him and Jackie. For the next couple weeks, Craig and I will have Mark riding along on the ground, and not flying overhead.