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THE VAST CHANNEL COUNTRY... ?Hfi^

where the postman

I

In this isolated area where the mailboxes are

hundreds of kilometres apart, the flying

postman's arrival is an eagerly-awaited event

Every Saturday morning the flying

postie takes off from Adelaide air- port and heads north, via Port Augusta, Leigh Creek and Marree, into the channel country of north-eastern South Australia and south-west Queens- land where, as Banjo Paterson said of the Upper Barcoo, "the churches are few" ... and, he might have added, the mailboxes hundreds of kilometres apart.

Often the mailbag hangs from an old 44-gallon drum, sitting lonely beside the dirt airstrip. Instead of listening for the postman's whistle, the station people wait to hear the drone of engines before they leap into a four-wheel drive and dash out to meet the plane.

The mail plane brings contact from the outside world on its round trip of more than 3500km: mailbags, perishable food, spare parts for the truck, news- papers, messages, medicines. The pilot is like an old friend, handing over boxes and packets and bits of news from pre- vious stops. Mail bags are exchanged, in- coming and outgoing, advice given about the state of airstrips ahead, and the plane is on its way.

It has been a good season, and masses of white and yellow wildflowers flap and blow as the twin-engine propellers lift the plane off the ground.

"Thirty minutes to Durham Downs,"

says the pilot, Captain Ray Johnstone, lifting the plane sharply up and over the homestead buildings and heading east into Queensland. The tree-lined Cooper

Creek lies below.

We have just left Innamincka station, first stop after Marree because the flying doctor radio has notified that the strip at Merty Merty was too wet after overnight rain to risk a landing. Merty Merty's mailbags were to go on to Innamincka.

Ray Johnstone, a New Zealander, be- came hooked on the outback after flying on aerial survey work for several years. He jumped at the chance to take on the mail-run job for Pagas Airlines.

The seven-seater Aero Commander Shrike has two passengers besides pho- tographer Milton Wordley and myself: Glen Tucker, in his 70s, going to Boulia to visit his great-grandchildren, and Jackie Wilson, a young American doing a master's degree at Hobart University on a Rotary fellowship. She decided to

30

spend a weekend "seeing something of the inland" as part of her 10 months in

Australia.

The weather early in the flight is over- cast, but it doesn't spoil the view, merely filters it in stunning qualities of blue. Around Port Augusta, blue ranges, the waters of the gulf, the sky, blend in an amethyst haze.

After Marree, the outback really rolls out its colours, pinkish-putty, marbled with water because there have been re- cent good rains; dry creek beds with dark trees veining the landscape; saltbush dotting the pinkish-orange-browny sands. There should be new colours to describe the Australian inland. No pre- sent colour names can capture them.

We fly over Merty Merty and ap- proaching Innamincka the Strzelecki Track looms, worn by the feet of in-

numerable camel trains.

"There was rain overnight at In- namincka," the pilot announces.

We touch down on the solid red-gibber strip. The station is Kidman property, all cattle, 16,000sq km. Harry Thompson comes out to meet the plane with his great-granddaughter, Kate Nunn. Her father, Albert Nunn, is manager of In- namincka. Harry, small, wiry, brown as a berry, has been on the Cooper for 50 years. "Never an idle moment," he says.

"There's always plenty to do."

"Four boxes for you, three mailbags," says Ray Johnstone. Some of the bags are for the Innamincka Trading Post and Cooper Creek hotel-motel a kilometre or so away, stopover for travellers on their way to Birdsville.

A big yellow car roars up, bringing Andrew Gassner, who, with Mike Steel, runs the Trading Post. In summer, when visitors are few, they waterski and fish on nearby Cooper Creek.

We go east into Queensland, flying over strange flat-topped cones which look as if they have been sawn clean off.

Farther up the Cooper lies Durham Downs, 10,500sq km of Kidman beef

CONTINUED PAGE 33

TOP: A view of Birdsville, Qld, from

the mail plane. RIGHT: The swamp area of Goyder's Lagoon, SA. FAR RIGHT:

At Glengyle, Peewee Clark and postie

Ray Johnstone. I

Photos: Milton Wordley.

irnves by plane

.where the postman arrives by plane

FROM PAGE 31

country. The river runs through the property, providing miraculous perma-

nent water.

Durham Downs' accountant Des Flood is out to meet the plane with a truckload of kids, including one from nearby Karmona station, whose supplies also come from this stop.

The pilot off-loads six boxes, including two of South Australian apples, and bread, papers and mailbags.

"A good year, this year," says Des, "and some more rain would finish it nice- ly. The only problem this summer would be bushfires, like in 1974. Dry thunder- storms start 99 percent of them, tourists may start one percent."

As we fly out north-west again the countryside becomes red and green des- ert, criss-crossed with dead-straight grooves running to the horizon like roads to nowhere, the marks of survey teams. At one point a wider scraping shows an airstrip beside a windmill and a small patch of water in the otherwise endless dryness. The survey camp has long since moved on.

We go on to Cordillo Downs, a cluster

A mailbox fashioned from an old 44

gallon drum out in the channel country.

The route is: Saturday: 1. Port

Augusta; 2. Leigh Creek. 3. Marree.

4. Merty Merty. 5. Innamincka.

6. Durham Downs. 7. Arraburry. 8. Cordillo Downs. 9. Birdsville. 10.

Bedourie. 11. Boulia. Sunday: 12.

Bedourie. 13. Glengyle. 14. Burrie.

15. Roseberth. 16. Birdsville. 17.

Pandie. 18. Alton Downs. 19. Clifton

Hills. 20. Cowarie. 21. Mulka. 22. Etadunna. 23. Moolawatana. 24. Leigh Creek. 25. Port Augusta.

of white roofs. Kerri Chinner, governess to the two children of Lorraine and David Usher, who run Cordillo Downs, comes out to meet the plane. She is from Adelaide and loves the outback life. She has just had a holiday in the city and is glad to be back in the bush.

"We don't have TV," she says, "and I don't miss it. I ride horses, and there's some radio. Last weekend there was a race meeting at Betoota, 160km away - great fun. I love it out here."

More apples are unloaded, then four packets and one mailbag. Kerri reads the

newspaper as she walks back to the j

truck, mailbag under her arm.

We cross the Sturt Desert, a miracle of colour. It seems a pity those early ex- plorers, toiling and dying in the heat and drought, couldn't have seen it from the air. At Birdsville, the airstrip goes into the' town. The plane pulls up almost out- side the pub. David Brook, from the Birdsville store, hurries out because he's watching the football on the pub's TV, via satellite from Melbourne.

Sister Sue Job, from Sydney, meets the plane with medicine to go on to Bedourie, next stop. Sue and her fellow sister at the Inland Mission hospital, Ros West, from Brisbane, have been at Birdsville for six months. They travel 3000km a month conducting clinics.

Community mail bags are unloaded: Mungeranie, Mulka, Moolawatana,

Kalamurina.

So on to Bedourie township where the landing strip is a sore point with the in- habitants. Monika Humble, wife of Dawson Humble, shire clerk of the mighty Diamantina Shire, meets the plane to pick up the medicine.

"General dogsbody in the town," she calls herself, adding: "We need an all weather strip so we can link up with TAA flights and the flying doctor can land in all weather." (Sure enough, Bedourie had rain overnight. The landing strip was as slippery as an ice rink and we couldn't call in on the return trip.)

At Boulia, end of the line, there's a lit up airstrip. Glen Tucker is met by his grandson's wife, Margaret Whittaker, and his great-granddaughter, Kylie.

Brian Whittaker, the Pagas fuel agent, has his own plane and had been aerial mustering cattle in the desert so Margaret was on postie duty. She squat- ted in the light of her car's headlights to do the paper work.

Boulia is a nice little far-west Queens- land town, with the Min-Min Store (named for the famous min-min "ghost" light of the area), a pub with a comfort- able air-conditioned motel and the

Stevens' Family Cafe where, according to its take-away food bags, "everyone stops

for food and fuel."

We leave the next day at first light

after the pilot has made weather checks with Mt Isa air control.

At Glengyle, another Kidman proper- ty, we meet one of the channel country's characters, Peewee Clark, who comes out to the airstrip with his young son,

Desmond.

"Kosciusko breeze this morning, real pneumonia weather," he says cheerfully. "Hot yesterday, freeze you today."

After Glengyle, it's on to Durrie station. As we climb up and away again, we see Brian Whittaker's mustering plane far below like a white moth against the dark green trees along the Diamantina River.

Roseberth station is next, then into Birdsville again, where we have morning tea at the hospital with Sue and Ros, the nursing sisters.

Back in South Australia, we fly over Pandie Pandie homestead, giving a "waggle" of salute. The strip is too wet for a landing. Alton Downs is the same. We fly over Goyder's Lagoon, a huge swamp area where the Diamantina River peters out in a million capillaries of white water spread like a fine mesh over a vast green landscape.

The Birdsville Track divides into two

parts around it, the Inside Track and the Outside Track, branching at Clifton Hills station, where we land on a green strip.

There's no one there, but a lone mail- bag sits on an old 44-gallon drum and a note says: "Cowarie strip is OK." So is Mungaranie, but Mulka, Etadunna and Moolawatana stations are too wet, and we fly on to Leigh Creek.

"And that," says pilot Ray Johnstone, "is the end of the channel run." On the tarmac, he spends half an hour lovingly polishing the mud off the white aircraft.

We pick up three passengers for Adel- aide and head south, feeling sad that the trip is behind us. It has been all "go," but every minute interesting, an encap- sulated experience of the outback and some of its great stations, out there on the ever-changing, brilliant plains. Ü

- GWEN CUNNINGHAM

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