|Chopper showstopper in regional New South Wales|
David Whitley takes to the air over the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, terrified that his tiny steed won’t make it.
If two proper helicopters got together and had a baby, this would probably be it. In chopper terms, the tiny contraption in front of me looks like a newborn. It can seat two (or three with a bit of breathing in) and appears to be a mere shell. This is my first time in a helicopter, and I can’t profess to being an expert, but being able to see the engine and inner workings surely isn’t safe, is it?
Despite it looking like it might start crying when I touch it, the helicopter is apparently fine. Seeing the guts is a cool design thing according to Mike Watson. Mike runs Fleet Helicopters in Armidale, New South Wales and his small squadron of flying machines gets up to all sorts. Some are used for transporting rich businessmen around, some are used for fighting bushfires or power line surveys and others are used for taking tourists out on jaunts above the countryside. And for me, that countryside is going to be the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park. It’s gorge country, and we’re going to fly low over six of them, taking in waterfalls, old mines and areas that even the most ardent bushwalker would be hard pushed to reach.
“Do you want the door on or off?” says Mike, as if this is a perfectly normal pre-flight question to ask. “There’s not too much wind about, but it might be a little bit blowy.” A little blowy? In every single one of my other flying experiences, a missing door mid-flight would lead to a depressurised cabin and being sucked out to certain death. But hey, if it improves the view, why not? I’m strapped in with a harness that looks suspiciously like one from a high thrills rollercoaster, and the rotors slowly begin to whir. It takes a few minutes for the engine to warm up – it needs to be going at 30rpm before take-off.
To emphasise just how small the scale of things is, Mike’s radio communications don’t go through a control tower – he talks directly with the pilot of the Qantaslink plane that’s nearby on the runway. After a quick “do you mind if I go first old chap?” in pilot-ese, we’re off over Armidale, and then over the farms and vineyards towards the gorges. It’s a part of the world that’s monumentally underrated. The Oxley Wild Rivers National Park bears comparison to the far better known Blue Mountains near Sydney. Of course, it’s not within two hours of a major city so it doesn’t see hordes of tour buses every day - but there’s the familiar blue haze, a lush green foliage and jaw-dropping views from almost every angle.
Before heading into the gorges, I’m given a little education about the area. What we see today started to form around 60,000 to 70,000 years ago when Australia and New Zealand were part of the Gondwana supercontinent. The tectonic plates crunched into each other, forming a plateau. A wet period then followed, in which rivers carved out the gorges through granite rock that was at one stage the floor of the Pacific Ocean. It’s an area that has been subject to a David Attenborough documentary, Life. The famous naturalist came out looking for rock wallabies and wedge-tailed eagles, and he wouldn’t have had to battle through many people to see them.
The benefits of the pocket-sized helicopter, its wrap-around glass windscreen and missing doors soon become apparent. We fly over Hillgrove, an old antimony mining settlement on Baker’s Creek Gorge. It feels like a proper eagle’s eye view as we pick out the mine shaft, and the mild buffeting as we transcend air channels adds to the thrill. Lean back towards the propeller, and the DAKKA-DAKKA-DAKKA is vivid; venture a hand out towards where the door once was and it feels the pace. The pen I’m holding almost takes a long trip downwards.
From Baker’s Creek, we fly over motorbike tracks, walking trails and tributaries of the Macleay River. We’re looking out on a unique eco-system – plenty of hitherto undiscovered plants have been found here by scientists, and there are probably a few more that are yet to be tracked down.Animal tracks – probably belonging to dingos or wallabies – dot the scree slopes near the gorgeous loop in the river known variously as “The Heart Of New England” and “Mickey Mouse”. There’s no sign of any active life though – our tiny aircraft feels like it’s the only thing for miles around
We swing a sharp right to get a proper view of Wollomombi Falls, which is the first, second or third biggest waterfall in Australia, depending on whose tape measure you’re using. It’s little more than a trickle today, but it’s more than made up for by Dangar Falls, which is billowing over the cliff face. Apparently an Italian chap once tightrope-walked over Dangar Falls pushing a wheelbarrow. Each to their own, but I think I prefer my baby skeleton helicopter with its missing doors.
More photos here
The Flight of the Six Gorges with Fleet Helicopters (Fleethelicopters.com.au) departs from Armidale airport and lasts around 60 minutes.