Things seen in the first half hour of the 7 day Great Ocean Walk

A few photos taken on a short coastal stroll near Apollo Bay.

The Great Ocean Walk is 100kms or so of spectacular walking track along the coast beside the Southern Ocean, between Apollo Bay and the 12 Apostles on the south east coast of Australia. It’s very popular. Many do the full 7 night hiking trip, but sections of the walk are easily accessible for shorter walks. Our short walk involved heading west along the walking track from Marengo until we had strolled half as far as we felt like walking in total. Then we shared a banana and some Anzac biscuits, had a drink of water and returned. For the record, we walked 4kms in total. Simple pleasures.

Upon returning to our starting point at Marengo, the swell had picked up and the wind had backed a little around to the north east. This meant the wind was partially offshore where these waves were breaking (a good thing from a photographic point of view). So after collecting my telephoto lens from the house, I climbed on to my favourite elevated grassy knoll overlooking the reef at the point (covered in comfortable thick springy grass and sheltered on three sides by thick bushes), with an uninterrupted and elevated view of the channels and the Little Henty reefs and islands. The sky remained very overcast, and the light was generally dull. The air was full of salt spray.

Two ocean swims west of Cape Otway

The uninterrupted flow of the weather across the vast oceans between Argentina and Cape Otway sees wild storms, strong winds and huge swells hit this part of the south-east coast of Australia with full force. The coast is littered with shipwrecks, and demands respect and caution from all mariners venturing near it.

The so-called ‘shipwreck coast’ stretches over 100kms west from Cape Otway. Over 50 sailing ships have been wrecked along this part of the Victorian coast. It is aligned NW/SE, and faces the prevailing westerly seas and winds that have pounded this coast for millions of years. While not the most southerly point in Victoria, it extends to just shy of the 39th parallel. Cape Otway is technically not in the latitudes of the roaring forties, but it frequently feels otherwise. The parallel of latitude on which Cape Otway sits passes some 240 nautical miles south of Cape Agulhas on the southern tip of the African continent, and the next land to the west is the east coast of Argentina.

The wildest weather and most powerful groundswells to strike the coast east and west of Port Campbell come from the west and south west. The bay at Port Campbell faces directly south west. It is spared nothing in bad weather and big south-westerly swells.

The following two photos of the Port Campbell jetty indicate the range of conditions which can be experienced in the bay at Port Campbell, and this part of the west coast of Victoria.

The weather and sea conditions on the west coast are the subject of previous posts on this blog, including: ‘Wild weather and a big swell on the coast west of Cape Otway’ (published 28 June 2017), and ‘Some winter cameos from the west coast of Victoria’ (published 12 August 2017).

Ocean swimming in this area requires great caution, but also offers great rewards. This post is one average ocean swimmer’s account of two ocean swims in spectacular locations on this coast. I hope to share something of the sense of joy and adventure of ocean swimming in this part of the world.

The 2020 Port Campbell Ocean Swim

The Port Campbell surf life saving club has a long, active and proud tradition in ocean rescue and water safety. In addition to conducting regular beach patrols from November to Easter, the volunteer members provide an important coastal rescue service along 60kms of the coast. They are equipped for inshore rescue operations in areas inaccessible to other vessels and often inaccessible from the land. Port Campbell is the only place between Apollo Bay and Warrnambool that a rescue craft can be launched. Volunteers remain operationally ready every day of the year. They have attended many call outs in life-threatening conditions at isolated and dangerous beaches and locations. They are currently equipped with a 6m rigid-hull inflatable boat to assist in this role, in addition to the standard surf life saving IRBs (inflatable rescue boat), the ‘rubber ducks’. Training over and above life saver training is required to serve on this boat on coastal rescues. In earlier days, there was a team equipped with a rocket with a rope connected to it, for firing from the land where possible to those in need of rescue from the sea.

At Sherbrooke Creek beach (between the 12 Apostles and Port Campbell beach) on 21 April 2019 two volunteer members of the SLSC died when their 6m rigid-hulled rescue boat overturned while they were attempting to rescue a tourist who was in the sea in wild conditions and in trouble. The tourist was subsequently winched to safety by a rescue helicopter. There was a very high swell at the time, and conditions were described by locals as treacherous. They were local dairy farmers. They were highly experienced and respected members of the club. They were a father and son, aged 71 and 32. The club and the whole Port Campbell community were shocked and shattered by the tragedy. The heroism of the two men has rightly been widely recognised throughout Australia and abroad. I salute their bravery. Ross Powell and Andrew Powell and the sacrifice they made will not be forgotten.

Since 2004 the Port Campbell SLSC has participated in conducting a three-swim ocean race series with the surf life saving clubs at Warrnambool and Port Fairy. There is a prize for the overall winner of the series, as well as prizes for individual performance in each of the annual races. Swimmers are welcome to do one, two or all three of the races. The event is called the Shipwreck Coast Swim Series.

The Port Campbell swim is my favourite of all the regular ocean swims conducted by surf life saving clubs along the west coast of Victoria. It’s a true ocean swim. The race has been cancelled on occasions due to rough seas, and this close-knit crew of water men and women does not rush to cancel for rough seas. Indeed, I have arrived to race on days when I was confident it would be cancelled, only to find that the race was going ahead.

The swim takes swimmers out beyond the eastern headland of the bay to where there is a spectacular view down the coastal cliffs to the east. The sea is never still at the far turn buoys, even if from shore it appears to be so. Sometimes the swell is sufficiently large that even with a field of a couple of hundred swimmers, not one of them can be seen by an individual swimmer when in the troughs. I have experienced breaking waves out the back, and strong currents taking me seaward past the eastern headland. I would not contemplate such a swim without the Port Campbell SLSC members on paddle boards, skis and in rubber ducks patrolling the swimming field to ensure safety. It is a wonderful privilege to be 600m or so offshore, swimming in such a place. I was so enthralled and rapt with the wild beauty of this place, that last year, my 11th Port Campbell ocean race, I abandoned the notion of racing, and just cruised around the course with my GoPro camera taking photos and chatting to lifesavers along the way, all of whom laughingly endorsed my decision to tour rather than race. The photos and story of that swim are on this blog in the post, ‘Port Campbell Ocean Swim February 2019’, published February 3 2019.

There is a wonderful small community vibe to this swim. The swim is very well organised and safety is clearly paramount, but the administration and organisation aspects are refreshingly relaxed. The field is generally around 200 strong, so there is no rush, or press or pressure associated with the race. The start and finish lines are friendly places.

So of course, I lined up on Sunday 2 February 2020 for my 12th ocean swim at Port Campbell. I’ve always liked supporting this club and its community, given its history and tradition of selfless support to those in trouble in the sea. I knew it would be business as usual and that on race day, while nothing would be said, the absence of two volunteer members and stalwarts of the club would be deeply felt. In a strange way, it felt like a privilege to swim in their bay on their watch.

The scene upon arrival in Port Campbell. I had 6 mates doing the swim with me. It looks glassy. It’s an illusion. Certainly great conditions for the swim, but not glassy and calm like it appears to be. The wind backed around not long after this photo was taken and the conditions progressively got a little rougher out the back as the morning progressed. When I rounded the outer buoys around 11:15 there were currents, swell, a bit of chop and deep clear green water offering glimpses of the luxuriant underwater plant life that flourishes on the underwater reef and rock formations.
The white buoys are course lines. Keep all buoys on your left. The two outer buoys are taller and orange. Most buoys were not visible most of the time. I had to choose a navigation point a bit higher to aim for, such as a cliff, a building on the shore, trees, a cloud etc.
A rubber duck on the left being checked before the race. The briefing was conducted using the white board on the right. There was excitement in the air as swimmers progressively appeared in wetsuits and stood around talking tactics and conditions. But as you can see, there was an absence of crowds. By way of contrast, the annual Pier to Pub 1200m ocean swim at Lorne attracts 5000 swimmers and over 20,000 spectators.
L to R: Mike, Liz, Andrew and Hamish. These three boys arrived from Melbourne on motorbikes.
The start of the 1200m race. I’m on the far right in the front row, in a black wetsuit.
That’s me in the shallows having just stood up when it was no longer deep enough to do any sort of stroke. I always swim right into the shallows, because swimming through knee-deep or waist deep water is much faster than wading or trying to run through it. Not that it really matters. On this day I placed 178 in a field of 207 overall, and 33 in a field of 42 in the 60+ ‘super veteran’ category. There were 29 swimmers behind me. I chose to focus on them in assessing my performance, rather than the speedy youngsters who didn’t pause en route to enjoy the scenery. My average pace for the swim was 2:03/100m ( 20:30 per kilometre, or 2.993 kph).
Feigning running ability up to the finish line, where with a clock and a pen and paper, my time was recorded by a race official – old school, but it works.
My nephew Andrew. In 2014 he couldn’t swim at all, and he entered the Pier to Pub 1200m swim at Lorne. He came to me for clues on developing some sort of swimming stroke in the 8 weeks before the race. He did it, and has been steadily improving his stroke ever since. He is tall and fit, two good qualities for an ocean swimmer.
Son in law Hamish and nephew Andrew. Hamish grew up in the country, and his early efforts at ocean swimming after he met my daughter were ‘interesting’. He too has improved since and is well on the way to developing a good stroke. Hamish keeps himself running-fit, which is useful for his ocean swimming.
The 2020 Port Campbell crew. L to R: Mike, Al, me, Andrew, Hamish, Hunto and Kerr. The range of swimming times was between 22 and 32 minutes. Everyone did well and enjoyed the swim.
Liz’s Anzac biscuits are the stuff of legends. I rationed them carefully, as ravenous ocean swimmers can quickly account for all Anzacs within reach. Andrew is shown savouring his Anzac after the swim. The T shirt design this year was approved by all.

But I have the collectors’ item when it comes to Port Campbell ocean swim T shirts!

Post-swim awards. Before the earned prizes are handed out, there is always a raffle of spot prizes for competitors whose names are pulled out of a hat. Two years ago I won a pair of goggles. I was ambling across to the raffle area before it commenced, mainly because our lunch booking time was still 10 minutes off. Then the first name I heard over the PA was ‘John Longmead, number 517’. Knowing that you have to be present to collect, I shouted a triumphant response, and started jogging to collect my prize. I was not being heard. My name and number were repeated, and my louder perhaps slightly more desperate response was also repeated. Then I heard the words that the first raffle prize winner, not being present, would forfeit and another name would be drawn. I changed down a gear and flicked the sport mode switch (spent as my legs were from running the 20m up the beach to the finish line in the swim) and sprinted through the crowd, right arm extended, just in time to avoid the completion of the re-draw.
My unearned spot prize in the post-swim raffle. Given the $35 entry fee (online only), I probably broke about even.
A delightful lunch at ‘Forage on the Foreshore’ for our party of eight. This cafe is directly opposite the beach we just swam from. Sam and Laura have been here for a few years now. The standard was high from the start. I have visited here more than a few times over the years on my motorbike, and have always been very grateful for the strong coffee and half-brick size piece of fresh hedgehog. I also always enjoy the friendly service. Sam and Laura do a great job. I heartily recommend their French toast.
L to R: the motorbikes ridden from Melbourne to the swim by Mike, Hamish and Andrew. Hamish’s bike was a hired BMW 750 GS. Its engine blew up on the return trip, near Mait’s Rest about 17kms west of Apollo Bay. It was a standard engine blow up, not involving the rear wheel locking up (which potentially could’ve been disastrous). Hamish returned to Melbourne a little later than planned that evening, riding pillion on Mike’s Triumph Tiger. Retrieval and transport logistics were handled well. All in a day’s outing.
By the time we had finished lunch, the bay at Port Campbell had returned to its natural state. There was barely a person in sight. The headlands, the colours, the sky, the SLSC flag, the clean sand – an iconic Australian beach scene.
The club house of the Port Campbell surf life saving club overlooking the beach and bay.
Port Campbell bay. A beautiful place. The race left no trace it had occurred.

The memorable and never repeated Boat Bay swim at the Bay of Islands on 14 March 2015

The organisers of the Shipwreck Coast Swim Series (the SLSCs of Port Campbell, Warrnambool and Port Fairy) in early 2015 announced the ‘inaugural Bay of Islands swim’, to be held in Boat Bay. This bay is part of the beautiful but lesser know Bay of Islands, west of Port Campbell and the Twelve Apostles. I signed up in a flash, recognising this as a wonderful opportunity to do a decent swim offshore in the waters of this wild coast. The swim was never advertised as a race, and indeed was explained as an organised swim in a beautiful place with some safety backup. What a great idea.

The use of the word ‘inaugural’ in the advertising, caused me to believe the event would be repeated. Unfortunately, it never was. It remains a wonderful memory, all the more so for it having been a one-off. I persuaded good friends Susan, Mike and Richard to join me for this swim. It was always known it would be weather dependent.

This pretty much sums up the swimming issues at Boat Bay. It fails to mention sharks, but their presence is well known and taken for granted. I am aware that others have dived and snorkelled here. But I don’t know of any who have done a swim such as we did.

What about a swim out from Loch Ard Gorge, around Mutton Bird Island and back?

I have only heard this unofficially, but it is said that the Boat Bay swim was not repeated because regular fishermen at Boat Bay complained about being denied use of the boat ramp for those couple of hours in 2015 when the swimmers were there.

Prior to learning that the swim was not to be repeated, there was talk was of the 2016 swim being at Loch Ard Gorge, out the entrance, around Mutton Bird Island, and back to the beach. That would be about a 2km swim. The Boat Bay swim was around 1500m. I was most excited about the prospect of the Loch Ard swim – again very condition dependent – but on the right day, what a thrill it would be to do that swim. There is said to be a lot of marine life around Mutton Bird Island, and of course, the remains of the wreck of the Loch Ard.

Loch Ard Gorge

View to the south through the narrow entrance to Loch Ard Gorge

Wind, Sand and Water

Only a handful of people will ever see these coastal landforms, even though they are right beside the famous and busy Great Ocean Road. They were created out of sand dunes by a very high tide and a wind from the west. The next high tide, strong onshore wind or solid rainfall will see them disappear.

These sand cliffs and other forms were produced by the usual agents of wind, sand and water, but on a remarkably compressed timescale, geologically speaking. At sunset yesterday, the Mounts Bay (or Marengo Beach) sand dunes had a uniformly flat surface, indistinguishable from the dry sand on the beach save for the angle. A high tide overnight combined with a solid swell and the wind blowing over the dunes from the west saw these coastal geomorphic forms appearing not in millennia, but in hours. The same processes will remove them in days. The net result will be sand removed from the dunes and washed out to sea. These intricately sculpted sand forms are sadly evidence of the serious problem of coastal erosion which is affecting many parts of the Great Ocean Road.

These dunes are under significant threat from ocean waves and tides. In an attempt to halt the advance of the erosion, they are replenished regularly with sand from further up the beach by local authorities which surprisingly are yet to come up with an effective and permanent solution to the continuing erosion at this location.

Your mind and eyes might hunt for scale when looking at these pictures, like a zoom lens on autofocus trying to lock on to something. There are sufficient clues in each photo to assist in this regard. Suffice to say, most of these features are on a much smaller scale than you might think at first glance.

The above photos were all taken with my back to this beach (known as Marengo Beach or Mounts Bay Beach), and they are all detailed closeups of the formations on the dune shown below in both directions. Some of these images were taken with a macro lens. This beach is a km or so south of Apollo Bay, on the south-east coast of Australia.

Shorebreak at Dawn

Occasionally the ocean simply offers peace.

These photos were taken before breakfast this morning at Tuxion beach at the end of my street in Apollo Bay, Australia. A consistent surfable swell rolled into the bay from dawn to dusk.

Times when I flew like a bird

My eyes have been turned skywards for as long as I can remember.

As a young boy I had a a flock of pigeons which would wheel around the house and the neighbourhood , and at night sleep in absolute luxury in the imposing loft my grandfather and I built for them. It had no doors that closed, and the individual rooms had more comfort than a pigeon needed. There was a lot of breeding. Some of the adult birds would land on my arm at my bidding. That I could strike such a bargain with a free-flying bird always seemed wonderful to me.

I read books about aeroplanes as fast as I could find them. I read all the Biggles books (still in my library). I built model aeroplanes, some flew and some were just to look at. I made kites of all sorts. I experimented with diamond kites, square kites, box kites, multiple kites on the one string, and cardboard propellers made out of rectangular Jaffa packets which once the kite string was threaded through a hole in the middle, would spin their way heavenwards up the string until they reached the kite.

I recall a black and white picture buried deep in a volume of Encyclopaedia Britannica of the cockpit of a 1950s passenger aircraft flying over some vast ocean on an international flight in the dead of night. The pilot, co-pilot and engineer had short haircuts, were smartly dressed and seemed relaxed but focussed in the dim light of the cockpit. The glow from the walls of instruments surrounding them cast them in shadow as much as light. The cockpit seemed like a cosy small scale version of the vast dome of starlit night sky outside the cockpit. By attention to the details of that cockpit they were flying high in the night sky between hemispheres on the globe. As a boy with a bike and a dog, who went fishing, built billy carts, kept pigeons and guinea pigs and read a lot, this seemed wonderful and audacious and remarkable.

I wanted to fly. As a boy still of single-figure years, I accompanied my parents to Essendon Airport to farewell someone. We stood on the open air upper deck of the old terminal as the aircraft warmed up the engines after the doors had been closed and the passenger stairs wheeled back. It was a large turbo prop, probably a Vickers Viscount or a Lockheed Electra. It then started taxying and turned directly away from us. The turbine engines even at taxying settings made an excitingly loud and substantial noise that I could feel as well as hear. I still recall the powerful, warm and heady blast of avtur (turbine engine fuel) fumes that enveloped us for a short time. For some reason the experience thrilled me. This huge complicated machine was about to leave the earth and fly high and far. The crew might not have had their photo in an encyclopaedia, but I recognised it as the same deal.

As a teenager, when I had a job as a xmas postman on a red pushbike, I prepared for the weeks in the sun by going to the Geelong library and borrowing a book on clouds. I studied the book and as I delivered the xmas mail around various suburbs, I began to learn that there were classifications beyond white and fluffy. A lifelong fascination with the weather was under way.

I had my first flying lesson on 5 October 1968 at Grovedale Airport (now a fully developed housing estate). My logbook records the lesson as ‘air experience and effects of controls’. The flight was in a Cessna 150 registered VH-KUM, and lasted for an hour and 25 minutes. Its paint job was white and faded maroon. The instructor was Aub Coote. At that stage, I could only afford a lesson a fortnight ($14.50/hr dual). My last flight as pilot in command of a fixed wing aircraft was on 12 April 2012 (the final leg of a flight from Melbourne to Darwin). I flew a total of 2720 hours in powered aircraft in the intervening years.

I obtained a commercial pilot licence, and a grade 1 instructor rating. I was endorsed on light twin engine aircraft, and held an aerobatics rating. I was also qualified to fly at night. I sent a lot of people first solo, saw a lot of Australia from the air, and experienced weather up close and in all its glory. I realised many of my flying dreams and aspirations in those years. Flying stretched my mind, uplifted my spirits and took me on adventures that are a rich library of memories into which I delve when I wish to be pleasantly lost in my own thoughts.

I also flew sailplanes for a year or two. The highlight of the gliding was a 50km out and back solo flight from Tocumwal to Jerilderie, soaring effortlessly and pretty much in straight lines under lines of sizeable cumulus clouds.

But such matters are not the central subject of this post. It was not until my feet left the ground while I was attached to a hang glider, in December 1978, that I realised it was actually possible to fly like a bird. This post shares a few of my experiences over the years as a hang glider pilot. Circumstances dictated that there were times when I was not in a position to hang glide. Despite such gaps, I kept being drawn back to it. But I remain an inexperienced hang glider pilot. That said, the joy and great satisfaction I have experienced being airborne with the wind in my face cannot be measured in hours and minutes. Hang gliding remains one of the best things I have done in my life. Of all the forms of flying I have undertaken, hang gliding remains the purest and most intense form. It’s the flying that is closest to what a soaring bird does. I consider myself privileged to have been born into the era which coincided with the advent of the hang glider.

The age-old dream of humans to fly like a bird did not become a practical reality until the coming of the hang glider. Interestingly, any hang glider pilot transported back to early Roman or Greek times could build a safe and flyable hang glider with materials available in those eras. The dream was present then, but not the knowledge.

The 5 minute video below, which consists of highlights from a summer of hang gliding in 2000/2001, captures something of the satisfaction, the adventure, the beauty and the sheer joy of flying a hang glider. (The editing quality will reveal why I have persisted with the still photo rather than the moving image).

The video shows the following: taking off from Mt Buffalo; approach and landing at the old Goal Paddock in Bright; taking off from Mystic (also known as Bright Hill); approach and landing at the landing paddock in the northern end of the Wandiligong valley just south of Bright, after flying from Mystic; taking off from Moggs Creek, just west of Aireys Inlet on the Great Ocean Road; taking off from Marriners Lookout at Apollo Bay and landing in a paddock between the hills and the beach. In all clips, I am flying the Airborne Fun 190.

The balance of the photos and captions document a few highlights of my modest hang gliding journey from sand dune to cloud base, for those interested.

The photos are old and many have not fared well in the transformation from a print on photographic paper to a digital image. But I have included the photos in this account because I think they capture something of the early era of hang gliding, which by this stage is long gone and already fading from the memory of those who participated in it.

Teaching myself to fly the Wings Ranger on the Eyre Peninsula (South Australia) in the late 1970s

December 1978, feet off the ground at the dunes near Coffin Bay, South Australia. I was learning to fly by trial and error in the Wings Ranger which I bought from Chris Cowley. There were a few Pt Lincoln locals who were also teaching themselves to hang glide. I started by walking into wind on the beach, then jogging a little to feel the glider lighten without actually lifting me off the ground. Then I did the same thing from lower part of the dunes, moving progressively further up. From the top of the dune, I was getting airborne at a height definitely higher than I was prepared to fall. Minor left and right turns were made in these short flights, and of course every such flight involved a landing. I got a lot of practice at takeoffs and landings. These little flights were exhilarating. But it was solid work carrying the glider back to the top of the dune.
Once takeoffs and landings from the sand dune were occurring without incident and without my heart in my mouth, I progressed to higher hills and coastal cliffs. The hang harness I used for some time was very basic (see next photo), consisting of a triangle of canvas, with leg loops and a hang line sewn on. The hang line attached to the hang glider with a carabiner. There was a light strap which did up with a two ring belt fastener across my chest. Blood supply to the legs was cut off at times, and my potential for contributing to the perpetuation of the species was also significantly at risk. More than a few flights were cut short by the need to land with one leg rapidly going off line and causing pain.

Flying with a bit more altitude gave me more time to practice turns. Reflecting the primitive state of the sport back then, when a rating system was introduced one of the earlier competencies required to be demonstrated was the 360° turn in front of a hill (one to the left and one to the right). So it was that we eagerly counted, discussed and recorded our 180° and 360° turns as our skill levels and confidence improved, even though such turns were often elliptical and rarely level, at least at first.

I recall that I developed doubts about the strength and suitability of the rope from which I was suspended. It was plastic looking and multiply braided – it looked like cast-off nautical line of some sort. Without tension on it, the braiding used to spring back to a loose position. It looked more like rope when under tension. It did’t look new. But rather than discard it, I went to a hardware store and bought some multi strand steel wire, which they kindly turned into a loop with a swage using a swaging tool they had. A small expense for a very worthy cause. This was my backup hang loop. It never had to bear my weight, but I felt more secure with it there.

Close up of the harness in use in the photos before and after this one. Seems to have all the necessary elements: two leg loops, a loop for each arm, a strap across the chest and a rope to hang it all from, all held together with a triangle of canvas.

This south-west facing coastal soaring site was known as Silly Point (on the south west coast of the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia). We top landed behind this takeoff spot. The Ranger had flexible plastic battens which did not give form to the wing as the later fixed shape aluminium battens did. It needed a pretty good breeze to fly in coastal lift. We often flew in wind measured at 25 or even 30 knots. The stainless steel plates under the king post to which the hang strap was attached offered a choice of three holes – the forward hole was for very strong winds, and the rear two holes were for strong winds. This primitive device allowed the pilot to change the centre of gravity of the glider – useful to ensure ‘penetration’ (positive forward groundspeed) in strong winds.
An inland site we flew on the Eyre Peninsula. It had enough elevation to cop the full blast of the westerlies. This photo shows how little the flexible plastic battens did for wing shape. As the grass, the onlookers and the sail show, this was a very windy day. We were waiting for the wind to abate to at most 30 knots. But before that happened, the bowing upright visible in the photo snapped with the force of the load on the wing. We always carried spare uprights, as they were a consumable for those teaching themselves to hang glide. Note that the base bar has no wheels or skids. Modern gliders, especially for beginners, are all equipped with wheels for landings that are less than perfect. If I blew a landing on the Ranger, I would often bend an upright (which was straightened and put back in service) or broken and replaced. At that stage I either didn’t know, or didn’t fully understand, that the force of the wind goes up as the square of the factor of its increase: a 20 knot wind has 16 times more force than a 5 knot wind. Or, without numbers, as wind speed increases, the power you feel increases exponentially.
As my confidence with takeoffs, landings and gentle turns grew, I sought higher and higher takeoff sites. This is Mount Greenly, not far north of Coffin Bay on the west coast of the Eyre Peninsula, South Australia. I had many flights from this 650 foot rocky ridge which was parallel to the coast and facing directly into the westerlies coming across the Great Australian Bight. That’s me airborne in the Ranger. Access to this takeoff site was to bush bash up the full 650 feet of the eastern face of this ridge, with the hang glider on one shoulder.
The view from Mt Greenly. As with most sports that involve equipment, I find the rituals satisfying and not to be rushed. This includes setting up and packing up. I am shown here sorting out the various cables, tangs, nuts and bolts as a prelude to raising the glider on the A frame, and attaching the wires from the A frame corners to the nose (the very front end of the keel). That was the moment when the jumble of sail, cables, aluminium and other bits and pieces became a flying machine. The Great Australian Bight is the backdrop in this image. Because of the elevation of this site, we didn’t want too much wind in evidence on the water as it was stronger up higher. The surface of the sea provides a very accurate way of assessing wind strength and direction from above. The ever present risk of strong wind on such a site, especially for a glider such as the Ranger which didn’t have a great top speed, was getting blown over the back of the ridge. That is, with the pilot’s weight fully forward (max throttle), the glider was pointing forwards but going backwards. Rough and possibly unflyable air awaited over the back in the lee of the hill.
Jack Langmead loved Mount Greenly. Dear, faithful Jack. He was smart, and a constant companion. He was also very fit. I did a lot of running in those days in that beautiful part of the world. But never without Jack (I don’t recall ever having him on lead in Pt Lincoln). I often did a few laps in the middle of some runs in the shark nets at the Pt Lincoln jetty. Jack would dive in after me (more of a belly whacker actually). He usually caught up with me after half a lap or so, and would try to climb on to me. This involved scratching and general inconvenience. So we developed a routine: after half a lap I would look over my shoulder and check that Jack was in fact closing on my, then I’d duck dive before he got to me, swim back under him and surface and keep swimming to where I’d started. He’d take enough time looking around for me after I went underwater that I’d get a good lead for the return half lap before he started following me again. Repeat for as many laps as required. I don’t think he enjoyed the swims like he enjoyed the running. I believe he saw it more as a rescue mission.
I was mighty pleased to have this new apron harness in which I could fly prone, with my feet on the rung which I would release after holding it near the base bar for takeoff. That’s Chris Cowley ‘wiring’ me off. The wire man’s job is to hold the front wires very lightly, ready to grip them firmly if a gust threatens to raise the nose suddenly and upend the glider. The pilot positions the nose in a level or slightly lower position for takeoff, keeping the wings level laterally. When the glider was settled in the right attitude, and felt stable, Chris would confirm that he had no pressure on the wires. If he was applying a strong downward force, then of course when he let the wires go the nose would pop and the glider could well flip over on its back. I would then say ‘Clear’, and he’d immediately take his fingers off the wires and duck down and to the side quickly. ‘Clear’ meant I was ready for takeoff and that I should be expected to takeoff without delay. Immediately after takeoff I’d stay in the hang position (body vertical, legs dangling) until speed and attitude etc were all sorted. This didn’t take long. Then as soon I was established in clear air with height, I would drop the stirrup connected to the bottom of the harness by the ropes visible in the photo, then position my feet on the stirrup as I lay down on the apron harness. The ropes were now taut, my legs were fully extended and I was lying prone. The glider and pilot performed a lot better in this low drag position than with the pilot vertical. It was prone flying that truly felt like flying like a bird. While the pilot can see the base bar, unless you look up or sideways, the glider is virtually out of sight. There is no other view like it.
Jack Langmead asking himself once again, ‘Why does he always bring me all the way up here only to disappear into the sky like this?’ Jack would monitor my flight as shown, then when I landed or sometimes just a bit before, he would head off down the mountain over the rocks and through the dense scrub, generally arriving at my feet with a panting smile before I had even had time to remove my harness and helmet. I enjoyed Jack’s company on our hang gliding trips. It’s a wonder he never got bitten by a snake there. We saw a few on this mountain.
Contemplating recycling this cray-pot component found on the beach. Test run of doffing to see if it had potential as a hat for my noggin (which compared to some pinheads, has a substantial circumference). It didn’t.

You may have noticed the plaster on my right arm. On 6 September 1979, at a cliff site north of this point, I had my first flight at this site, and also my first flight with my new prone harness. I had never used such a harness before. How hard could it be? Modern wisdom might say too many new things at once. The trouble with learning by trial and error is that the errors are expensive. Anyway, I crashed into the cliff (I stopped where I hit, on the sloping top part of the cliff, not the sheer vertical lower part with rocks and waves below it). Analysis with the benefit of hindsight suggests the causes included: the wind dropping out a bit without me noticing until after I was below cliff-top height; me trying to scratch back at slow speed to a spot where a gap had been eroded in the cliff edge which I (over-optimistically!) thought might be used for a landing; my assessment of airspeed in the newly prone position was inadequate; I allowed the glider to get too slow in my earnestness to keep flying below cliff top height to somewhere better to land than rocks and surf; the glider stalled, dropped a wing and turned into the cliff. I pushed out on the base bar while heading straight back at the cliff and completed a 180° descending ‘turn’ (not a controlled turn as that wing had stalled), but hit the cliff with the base bar and my knuckles at an angle of bank which matched the angle of the sloping (but still steep) upper section of the cliff.

An upright broke, the base bar was bent, and even though a bit dazed, I was able to sit on the rocky slope, my legs under the edge of the sail of the collapsed glide nodding my head ineffectually as my nose bled profusely all over my hitherto pristine sail. I remember thinking I had ruined my sail. I wasn’t in any great pain. I knew I had done a bit of damage to myself and was quite groggy. My orbit was fractured in three places, my zygoma (cheekbone) suffered a depressed fracture, my nose was broken, my top jaw was broken in two places, my right arm was broken and my knuckles were scraped and I lost a thumbnail (jammed between the base bar and rocks when I hit). Other than that, all good. Luckily Liz (a nurse) was on duty at the Pt Lincoln hospital when I arrived in casualty). Her exact words in seeing me were, “What have you done to yourself you duffer?” I ended up (thanks to an Adelaide oral maxillofacial surgeon, NOT thanks to the Pt Lincoln medicos who identified only soft tissue damage – they missed every broken bone!) with my upper and lower jaws wired together for a month and living through a straw, and with my broken arm in a cast. I came good pretty quickly once the jaws were unwired.

Everyone I flew with back then had a significant flying incident. Some of us got hurt more than others. Some died. This is to be expected I suppose given we had no real guidance or knowledge. Many hang glider pilots back then came from surfing or sailing backgrounds. Sea level is a better height at which to make an error than 1000 feet above the ground (or even at more than 15 feet above the ground). Around the time of my accident there was a year when 5 pilots died in Australia. The sport is now highly organised and closely regulated. There are licences, training course, and sanctions for those who choose to fly unsafely. Glider design and pilot training have brought the accident rate right back. The collective experience of successive generations of hang glider pilots has been passed on and applied and has seen the sport mature and become acceptably safe.
L to R: VH-AMO (Cessna 170), Theo Modra, Chris Cowley and Larry Jones. Theo owned a farm out the back of Pt Lincoln, and also owned Thistle Island, at the foot of Spencer Gulf. Theo flew between these properties in his vintage Cessna 170 (a single engine tail dragger). When he learned that there was interest in hang gliding in the lift on the north facing bowl of Thistle Island (see next photo) when the winds were from the north, he had the perfect solution to transporting the gliders over there – strap them on the side of his aeroplane. I flew the rest of the crew over in a Cessna 172. Theo said old AMO pulled to the left a bit but was fine. The hang gliding was also successful. The spirit of aviators is to be admired.
Thistle Island at the foot of Spencer Gulf. There was a whalers’ cottage on the island (the only residence back then) which we often hired for wonderful long weekends on this remote island. I’d pilot a light aircraft to get passengers to and from the island. That’s Wedge Island on the horizon.

Progressing to inland flying (foot launches)

Looking down on Bright Hill, or Mystic as it came to be called. I was flying a Moyes Mars 170 which I bought in March 1990 (after doing a ‘refresher’ course – which in fact was my first and only course – with Steve Ruffels at Bright).
Looking straight down at launch on Bright Hill (also known as Mystic). I had taken off there, and climbed well above launch height in one of the thermals which can reliably be found to the left or right of launch. These thermals were known by local pilots as Markus and Emily.

The corner of the instrument visible on the right is my Sjostrom Variometer – an instrument which measures altitude with a readout, and vertical speed with a numerical value and an aural signal. The vario beeps with increasing pitch and frequency as you encounter lift, and makes a low pitched sound when you are in sink or otherwise descending. Thermalling can be done without a vario but it is more efficient, especially in light thermal conditions, with such an instrument.

The instrument mounted on the aluminium rod to the left is my basic but effective airspeed indicator. There is a ram air inlet facing forward, and the red horizontal disc in the plastic tube rises and falls in direct proportion to the mass airflow (airspeed). It is calibrated in mph, being from the USA. Surprisingly it was accurate enough to be useful. But a pilot should not rely on an airspeed indicator for safe flight. Slow speed in particular should be sensed by the feel of the controls and the airflow over the pilot and the wing.

Coastal flying involves almost exclusively flying in ridge lift created by onshore winds of sufficient strength. Accordingly, coastal flyers get comfortable with ground handling and with taking off and landing in winds of reasonable strength. What we considered reasonable in the Wings Ranger days would now be considered too strong. We often flew in wind measured at a steady 30 knots (with the hang loop attach point on the front hole!). In the modern era, most coastal flying takes place in the 12-20 knot range, perhaps a bit stronger in high performance gliders.

Inland flyers on the other hand sometimes fly in ridge lift, but more often fly in thermal lift. So takeoffs inland are often in lighter winds than would sustain flight by ridge lift. The aim is to get airborne, quickly find a thermal, circle and climb then head off cross country. So inland flyers are comfortable with and proficient at light wind takeoffs. Taking off in light winds means that before the takeoff run starts the glider doesn’t generate lift and tauten the hang strap by the sail rising while just standing there (as usually happens with coastal flying), and the need to run while keeping the glider level and the nose down (to avoid it ‘popping’ and stalling the glider on takeoff) to build up airspeed is a critical skill. It was widely recognised back in the early days that coastal flyers needed a bit of practice and guidance to perfect their light wind takeoffs. They also needed to learn how to recognise a thermal, and how to climb in thermal lift.
As the sport evolved, so did the instruments available to pilots. L to R: Brauniger vario (incorporating altitude, vertical speed and airspeed readouts); airspeed sensor feeding the vario; GPS for cross country navigation and distance recording.
Buckland Ridge, between Bright and Myrtleford. In southerly winds of suitable strength, this arc of ridge provided very reliable ridge lift. It is also a premium site from which to thermal. Many happy flights from here, even though the drive in was a bit hard on the vehicles.

This upright is on my Enterprise Wings Combat 152 which I purchased from Alan Beavis in November 1992. Note the black plastic wheel fitted to the base bar. In the event of an inland landing in light or nil wind, if the pilot did not pull off the perfect full flare no-step landing with the glider not touching the ground until he lowered it gently, such a wheel either side of the base bar would allow the forward momentum of the glider contacting the ground to be dissipated over a landing roll of a metre or two. Such wheels have saved many a base bar (and probably uprights too).
It can be a pointless matter of pride for some pilots not to have wheels on the base bar (as they no doubt add marginally to drag in flight and to some, suggest inexperience). I’m not bothered by such appearances. With the exception of the Ranger, my gliders have all had some sort of wheels on the base bar.
A flight from Mt Emu in my Moyes Mars 170 in November 1992. I was testing a new camera set up. I had my Nikon DSLR mounted on the cross bar with a counter-balancing lead weight on the opposite cross bar. I operated the shutter with a pneumatically operated shutter release via a connecting tube cunningly wound around the RH upright. Certainly better resolution and focus than previous efforts. A pity I was in a Mars 170, and obviously bombing out when this well focussed photo was taken. That pudding bowl helmet was bought by mail order from the USA not long after I bought the Ranger.
The old Goal Paddock at Bright, Victoria. It was so named because it served as the goal paddock in the world hang gliding championship held in the Bright area in 1988. The video in this post shows me doing a final approach over the line of trees immediately to the viewer’s left of the brown paddock.
The Enterprise Wings Combat 152 in a landing paddock at Bright. When looking at this photo I can smell the air and the vegetation of those wonderful valleys, and I fondly recall the convivial company of other pilots at the end of a day as we packed up in the landing paddock.
The Moyes pod harness, ICOM CB radio, emergency parachute packed in the chest compartment of the harness and hang glider packing pieces lying around. The pickup ritual is never annoying. It is often protracted if other pilots are doing the same thing, by talk of the flights just completed.
Georgie trying out the new pod harness. Note the marine buoys on the base bar – they act as makeshift wheels and are often used in training. They work.
Jess and Georgie were there to meet me after I landed at the Goal Paddock in Bright.
There’s no place like cloud base.

I was at an altitude of 7,500′ at this point, flying fast in an attempt to descend and stay out of the cloud. The lift was strong under the cloud, especially close to cloud base. It was very hot on Bright Hill where I took off, but quite cool at this altitude. Thermalling up this high in such conditions is a great pleasure. I always carried water in a camelback strapped to my back. The tube to my mouth was routed via my harness straps. One benefit of flying high was that water would condense on the exposed length of tube between camelback and mouth, which in the constant airflow would refrigerate the water in that part of the tube. So I always had at least a couple of mouthfuls of beautiful chilled water to drink, before getting to the lukewarm water.

Tow launches in the flatlands

I did my hang gliding ground-tow endorsement in a paddock near Yarrawonga in March 1994. The towing vehicle was an old Valiant with a payout winch attached to the tower. As still air was good for tow training, we had the gliders assembled by not long after dawn. I like the translucent pastels on the wings of the gliders (my Combat 152 is the far glider) as they were backlit by the morning sun.
The procedures established for ground towing in the modern era of hang gliding work well. Aircraft pilot style procedural phrases and acknowledgments are used. The pilot stands holding the glider, and when he signals the tow to commence, the pilot waits a moment while the tension on the line builds a little, then walks a step or so then then runs forward. The feet are not on the ground for long. The pilot releases at a time of his choosing. A broken tow rope or premature release from some other cause is always a consideration. Similarly, the glider developing a turn one way or the other can quickly lead to a lock-out (steepening turn ending in impact with the ground) if the tow release is not quickly operated. Generally, I released around 800 feet or so, maybe a bit earlier if I flew through a good thermal. The plan then was to circle gently back towards the launch end of the paddock in case a thermal wasn’t found. But at most paddocks in Australia in summer, after about 11am, there will be thermals.
Waiting at sunset for a pickup after a X-country flight of over 20kms.
In December 1994 I attended a week long cross country tour at Birchil organised by Rohan Holtkamp (a gliding instructor who runs a very successful and well regarded hang gliding school from his property at Beaufort in Victoria). The paddocks around Birchip are huge, the sun is hot and the thermals are strong and plentiful. We were all accommodated in the Birchip Pub. Tow launches here were done using a trolley on wheels. The pilot starts the takeoff in a prone position, and upon releasing the trolley is immediately airborne and remains in the prone position as the glider clubs away quite steeply. This system works very well.

The lines visible over the base bar are, L to R: the tow line release line (red); the tow bridle (connecting my harness to the tow line); and the VB cord (which allows me to alter the camber of the wing in flight to improve the glide ratio and maximum speed as required. The VB line pulls the cross bars back along the keel, tightening the sail and turning it into a higher performance wing. VB stands for variable billow. VG is an alternative term for the same thing, and stands for variable geometry.
Late afternoon flight from the tow paddock out of Birchip. Start of a 16km glide to the north from Culgoa, augmented by a few late in the day thermals. VB was full on for the entire glide. It is released for final approach and landing, as the glider is more responsive in roll and can fly slower with the VB off.
This was the dry and dusty stubble paddock (16kms north of Culgoa) in which I landed on another day during the cross country tour after a 25km flight from the launch paddock. I radioed my intended landing position to the retrieve crew on descent before I got too low for the line of sight CB to work. The air was so still late on this hot afternoon, that dust raised by my boots tended to stay just hanging in the air before slowly settling or dispersing. The waiting was totally quiet and very peaceful. I felt great.

A couple of days after this flight I flew my PB X-country distance being 38kms from the launch paddock to a paddock south of Wycheproof. The flight was done in a gusty nor’westerly, under an overcast sky of high cloud. I released at 900′ AGL, climbed to 3500′, had a low save from 1300′, then climbed to 6550 over Dumosa in powerful thermals in unstable pre-frontal air. It was a lengthy and relaxing final glide to my landing, if a little bumpy at times as it neared the ground. . I waited for the retrieve crew stretched out on the dusty stubble in the shade of the Combat, head on the harness and camelback tube in mouth, rehydrating with luke-warm water. I remember feeling very satisfied.

Flying from Mount Buffalo

Flying a hang glider from Mt Buffalo warrants its own sub-heading. This takeoff ramp ends with a sheer drop of about 2000 feet to bush and rocks below. The ramp is 3200 AGL. As the site guide says, there is no room for mistakes here.

I recall when I first started flying around Bright, I visited this ramp with a view to assessing whether it was for me. I concluded that it was not. I would be content flying off other hills with less critical takeoffs. I would leave Buffalo to others without any qualms. But after regularly flying in this area for a few years and after having flown well above Mt Buffalo on quite a few occasions, I began to view this launch as a good clear launch at which I could use the same technique that was serving me well on all the other launches in the area, with the safety of immediate significant height above terrain after takeoff, enormous thermal potential in every direction, and a wealth of options even if just just gliding down from this height.

On 8 January 1993 Mark Verhayden, an experienced local pilot and instructor, agreed to supervise my first launch here. We went early one still morning, before the thermals kicked off. It all went well, as did all my subsequent launches from Buffalo. After some regular inland flying, height is good and feels safe. My thoughts about standing on this ramp ready for takeoff had become all positives – I’ll be airborne quickly, I’ll be high quickly. My only thoughts on launch here are flying thoughts. I still paid very close attention to the conditions, I would not use this site in conditions which had any question mark over them, and I never needed reminding about the need for focus on preparation and takeoff here.
Lizzie relaxing on the Mt Buffalo launch ramp
A small telltale is visible on the front left of the ramp. In summer, there is also one on the other side. It is very important for a pilot hooked in and standing on that rear section of the ramp sloping back, to know what the wind is doing on and near the ramp for a safe takeoff here. This involves appreciating the big picture – from which direction is the general weather pattern producing winds? – and the micrometeorological picture – what is the wind in my face doing, what is the wind doing at the left of the ramp, the right of the ramp and beyond the ramp? Such trees as I can see in the vicinity, what are they indicating as to thermal activity? The hang gliders that took off before me, what did they encounter?

The scale of Mt Buffalo can produce some interesting wind behavior. For example, a light wind up the face of launch, apparently from the north, can in fact be caused by a steady gradient wind from the south blowing over the back of the mountain. That apparent light northerly can be caused by the rotor effect of the southerly going overhead at height in the opposite direction. While the moment of takeoff might be OK in such conditions, flight shortly thereafter could well be turbulent in what is actually the LEE side of the mountain. Knowing the big picture matters.
Overlying the Buffalo gorge on another occasion with a few thousand feet of clearance. The Buffalo Chalet is in the centre of the frame.
Preparing the glider for takeoff. That’s the glider’s nose cone on the bush. It wraps around the very front of the glider, making it streamlined. We were not as close to the edge here as it looks.
Mark acting as my wireman. I do recall thinking that a harness of some sort and a secure line to an anchor point might not have been overkill . The ramp is quite steep, and the first step off it is a big one. It’s important on this ramp to have the glider. The nose of the glider must be lower than for a launch from a gentler slope without a 2000 foot drop after a short takeoff run. This is to prevent it lifting and slowing the glider during the takeoff run, with the risk of a stall, wing drop and turn back into the rock face immediately past the end of the ramp. Good airspeed as you leave the ramp is required. My first takeoff shown here was safe, but on subsequent takeoffs I kept the nose even lower.
I was airborne in about half the length of the ramp. That’s Mark out of the way beside the ramp making sure my side wires clear his head. The nose at this point was a bit higher than is ideal.
Seems I got the nose back to a better angle by this point.
The video at the top of this post opens with a takeoff from Mt Buffalo. The position of the nose during that takeoff is where I like it for this site.
Manoeuvering in the gorge to see if by some chance there was a thermal at that hour of the day. There wasn’t.
Setting heading for Porepunkah airstrip, over that heavily timbered ridge on the right. A smooth nil wind landing there completed the flight. A great start to the day.

Flying at Rainbow Beach, and off the Remarkables in New Zealand

I camped with a group of pilots (including Hughbert Alexander) at the foot of the dunes on Teewah, north of Noosa in Qld. I hired a Moyes Ventura (floater) from a local for the week. This flight was at Rainbow Beach, a north facing site. The takeoff was from the Carlo Sandblow, a gap in the dunes with a gentle slope on its higher part which is just steeper than a hang glider’s glide angle.
Geoff Dossetor kindly arranged for me to borrow a Combat 152 (same model as mine) for a memorable, cold and smooth flight in very good lift off the Remarkables, near Queenstown in the south island of New Zealand. Geoff , a champion pilot, ran a tandem hang gliding business from Queenstown. Geoff took off shortly after wiring me off and flew with me. This flight was on 28 July 1994. We took off just below the snow line. We were only 2-3kms from Queenstown airport, large passenger aircraft operate. Separation procedures were in place.
Smooth, cold air. The glassiest winter lift I have ever flown in. We landed on lush green grass in winter shadows in a valley just south of the mountain where we took off.

Flying at Apollo Bay

In October 1999 I had my first flight of the new Airborne Fun 190 from Marriners Lookout at Apollo Bay. The harbour can be seen in the distance. The large set of wheels are on the buggy I use to wheel the hang glider up to this launch.
I can’t recall ever taking off from Marriners Lookout without an audience. It’s a beautiful and popular spot. Regrettably it’s no longer practically available for hang gliders, since a wire fence was erected across the takeoff run.
Wheeling around above Marriners Lookout after takeoff, in a mixture of light ridge lift and big soft thermals.
Good height over launch. There is a hang glider parked on launch. That shiny black object is one of two neoprene mitts fixed to the base bar, to keep the hands warm in longer flights. In the cold onshore winds blowing in from the Southern Ocean, these mitts are gold after an hour or so of flying.
Lizzie was my retrieve driver for my Apollo Bay flying. I’d radio her and identify a location and time for my landing so there was no waiting after she arrived with the old Volvo wagon.
Landing on the beach in front of the servo at Apollo Bay.
Peter Batchelor on a day of low stratus, light winds and sea mist, bringing his EF5 down over the eucalypts below Marriners Lookout for a landing on the grass. This was a very innovative hang glider designed, built and sold by Ewan Fagan. They never took the world by storm but owners loved them and by all reports they flew very well. This is one of many hang gliders owned by Peter.
Fiona, highly experienced hang glider pilot and paraglider pilot (and instructor for both) at Apollo Bay, waiting for cloud to lift for her student paraglider pilots to fly.
Doing up the helmet ready for launch on Marriners Lookout. The carbon fibre helmet which replaced the more primitive red pudding bowl helmet shown in photos above. I don’t wear a full face helmet hang gliding, even though many if not most pilots seem to. The reason is that the oral maxillofacial surgeon who fixed up my facial fractures in 1979, commented that the force of the impact that caused those injuries, had I been wearing a full face helmet, might well have broken my neck.
Apollo Bay. I now spend much of my time in this town.
Flying the Fun 190 in light ridge lift near Moggs Creek on the west coast.

I have not flown my hang glider since the fence was put up at Marriners Lookout. But on racks in my garage at Apollo Bay, there is a Wings Ranger, an Enterprise Wings Combat 152 and an Airborne Fun 190, a Moyes pod harness, a carbon fibre helmet, a couple of CB radios, a Brauniger vario and a flying suit. There is some faint prospect of another takeoff site at Apollo Bay becoming available……

Bush flying in South Australia in the 1970s

On 11 June 1978 I was pilot in command of a light aircraft for a routine cross-country flight in South Australia, which turned into an unforgettable flight.

I penned an account of this flight many years later, and it was published in an Australian flying magazine. The text of that article is reproduced below under the heading, ‘A Memorable Flying Lesson’.

In providing a little background to the flight in question, I confess readily to indulging in rambling reminiscences of the years I flew around South Australia, of which I have very fond memories. If you’re not a pilot or you don’t have any interest in aviation, you might prefer to jump straight to my account of the 11 June 1978 flight.

Prior to commencing this public blog, for some years I published a private blog accessible only to a family and a few friends. This post appeared in that blog in 2017. I thought it a story worth re-telling to the growing number of people who view the content of ‘South’. In this post I have included the comments made by readers on the original post, as in some ways their content adds to the story in the post. To the few who have already read this post on my previous blog, I apologise for its reappearance here.

Please forgive the poor quality of the photos in this post. They are mostly copies of prints created from 35mm slides which weren’t much in the first place, and which are now over 40 years old.

A few memories from my early days of bush flying in southern Australia

Just over 40 years ago, the young bloke in this picture (concentrating hard on the task at hand by the look of things) was doing a fair bit of flying around the  Eyre Peninsula and the west coast of South Australia in a Cherokee 180 registered VH-WIL.

I arrived in Port Lincoln in February 1978 and immediately became a member of the Port Lincoln Flying Club. I had only flown Cessna 150, 172 and 182 models prior to my move to South Australia, with a grand total (including all training flights) of around 150 hours. I had an unrestricted private pilot licence and an aerobatics endorsement covering spins, stall turns, loops, barrel rolls, aileron rolls, Immellman turns, half-loop and roll and half-roll and half -loop. I had no training in night flying and no training in instrument flying save for the most basic introduction to flight solely by reference to instruments as part of my private pilot training.
Lizzie came to Pt Lincoln in early 1978 to take up a job as a midwife at the local hospital. She bravely did a lot of flying in light aircraft with me from that point on. This was an era when Lizzie and I both had curly hair. Mine was natural.
Typical bush landing strip on farmland north of the Eyre Peninsula. Door of VH-WIL open before starting up, letting the heat out and the flies in.
This was the pride of the fleet of two aircraft at the Pt Lincoln Flying club – an ageing Piper Cherokee 180 registered Whiskey India Lima (VH-WIL). Barry Firth, the chief flying instructor gave me a 30 minute ‘endorsement’ on WIL in March 1978, after which I was all good to head off and fly it whenever I felt like it (subject to the aircraft not being flown by another club member). It was even easier to fly the Piper than the Cessna models I had trained on. In this picture, the aircraft is parked in a paddock near Coorabie, which is on the edge of the Nullarbor Plains west of Penong. This was one of my regular stops. As you head west from Ceduna Coorabie is the last district which has arable land.  It’s hard country.  The vegetation and ground surface on which the aircraft is shown was uniform over the whole strip. The dirt road on the right was not used as it was too rough. In very dry times (the default setting in Coorabie) the soil in this paddock would erode away from between the durable grass tussocks, creating a surface about as smooth as a paddock full of short white posts of varying heights and not too close together.
WIL took me many places. This photo was taken on Three Hummock Island in Bass Strait, when Noel (my brother) and I flew over there to see my friend Rob Alliston (who was brought up on the island). A side story of that trip is that when I inquired about the airstrip (a grass strip in those days) I was confidently informed by Rob that it was 1000m in length and entirely suitable for my planned visit. Upon arrival after flying over Bass Strait in this single engine aeroplane, direct track from Cape Otway, and after overflying the paddock deemed an airstrip it became immediately apparent that while Rob had gone metric in recent years, the strip had not. It was 1000 feet long. We landed without incident (short field landings were a regular part of my SA flying, even at that early stage).  For the takeoff, according to the aircraft’s performance charts, with the weight carried I would need the air temp to be below 10C and to have a headwind component on takeoff of above 20kts. Fortunately, Bass Strait produces such conditions daily, so the departure was uneventful.
Ceduna was a regular destination and/or refuelling stop on trips further afield.  It holds many fond flying memories for me.   I have landed at Ceduna in dust storms, driving rain, strong winds, thunderstorms, and at night with kerosene flares lined up down both sides of the runway. 

The groundsman at the airport back in the late 1970s was a young fellow with a family, who used to get overtime if he had to put out the kero flares for a night landing (there being no electric lighting at that time). So on my fortnightly flying trip to Yalata (west of Ceduna) I would defer my departure from Yalata to dusk to ensure a night landing at Ceduna, which kept me current at night flying, and the groundsman with a bit of overtime pay. He generally gave me a lift into town to my motel after he had collected the flares and stacked them away.
On one occasion (some years later after I obtained a commercial pilot licence and an instructor rating) I landed at Ceduna airport with two student pilots in a C172 and the wind was blowing 40 knots right up the strip shown in the photo above. There was a flight service unit at the airport (the official presence of the regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority), and they informed us by radio that 40 knots was the steady wind strength – no gusts, just 40 knots. The sky was blue.

We landed and stopped short of the first taxiway to the right in the above photo (just before the three white cone markers on the edge of the strip), and were faced with the dilemma of taxying with a 40 kt side wind. An aircraft on the ground in such a situation gets much more lift from the wing into wind than from the partially shielded wing on the downwind side of the aircraft. Net result, the aircraft wants to flip. My two student pilots were rather large lads off the land, and at my request they exited the aircraft while it was still pointing into wind and one got hold of the left wing tip while the other leant his considerable mass over the left wing strut. This was our best effort to keep the aircraft right way up. As it turned out it was successful. I then taxied at less than normal walking pace to the square of bitumen outside the flight service office, and parked into wind. That square was no more than 30 or 40 paces wide.

When we were ready for departure, the wind was every bit as strong as when we landed. I deemed the crosswind taxying option more hazardous than taking off directly into wind straight across the bit of tarmac outside the flight safety office which was for aircraft parking only. So the three of us climbed aboard. The airspeed indicator was showing 40 knots before I had started the engine. I fired up the engine, did the pre-takeoff checks, applied full power and we were airborne in the remarkably short distance before the edge of the tarmac. I was relieved that I never heard any more about that takeoff from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority. While it was the best safe option available for the departure, it might not have conformed precisely to all relevant rules and regs. But the silence of the regulator thereafter was a win for common sense.
My job in SA as a wandering minstrel, required regular flying trips to Mudamuckla on the northern Eyre Peninsula and not too far south of the Gawler Ranges. I was the beneficiary of the generous hospitality of a farmer called Doug Marchant who flew his old Cessna 170 tail dragger out of a paddock beside his farm. He not only made his strip/paddock available to me, but also lent me his FJ ute to drive myself into town and back. This was very flat wheat and sheep country. Doug’s landing paddock was slightly concave with the middle of the paddock being slightly lower than all the fences. He had two strips mown across the diagonals from corner to corner. So each strip started with a slight downhill, which from mid-paddock became a slight uphill.

 I recall a particular takeoff from this strip early one afternoon in mid-summer where the OAT (outside air temperature) gauge on the aircraft was reading around 50C.  There was no wind to speak of, and only occasional thermal activity (willy willys were very visible over the dry stubble paddocks). No matter how I held them the PA-28 performance charts refused to confirm that I could safely clear the fence in my chosen direction of takeoff, even though I was the only person on board (i.e. the aircraft was lightly loaded). Indeed, the implied prediction of those charts was that if I attempted a takeoff I would wrap the aircraft up in Doug’s fencing wire. Unlike most Cessna singles, WIL has manual flaps operated by a handle between the front seats. It looks something like a handbrake lever in a car. The beauty of manual flaps is that they can be lowered to any of the three stages on offer virtually instantaneously (in a Cessna, the electric flaps come down and retract quite slowly).

So I chose my takeoff direction, did my pre-takeoff checks while taxying, then without stopping at the very start of the strip to stand on the brakes while I applied full power (stopping thus is standard short field takeoff technique) I did a U-turn keeping the taxying speed up which meant that as soon as I was pointing down the strip I already had 5 knots or so of speed over the ground. I applied full power as I came out of the U-turn and accelerated across the paddock towards the well maintained 5 strand fence which was rapidly looming larger. I would normally put one or two stages of flap down for takeoff from the start of the takeoff roll. But flap causes drag, and slows acceleration. So I started my takeoff roll with zero flap. Then as I got quite close to the fence with gravity still firmly in charge, I quickly pulled on two stages of flap which increased the apparent camber and effective angle of attack of the wings thereby creating more lift (for a short time only, because flap also increases drag) which with the help of a little back pressure on the control column allowed the aircraft to pop into the air to about fence height, just long enough for me to clear the fence before the aircraftt began to settle back towards earth. But by the time it was doing that I was over the fence with at least a couple of kms of flat unfenced stubble ahead of me. My wheels might’ve just grazed the stubble, but by staying just above the ground (a couple of feet) in ground effect, I was able to accelerate sufficiently in level flight to eventually gain the required airspeed to climb out with the two stages of flap set. I was then able to retract the flap in stages in the normal way and climb out at the usual airspeed.

This is a variation on a useful but not always taught technique of the soft field takeoff.
WIL carried Lizzie and me over many many miles of ocean during my three years in Port Lincoln. It was a 135NM flight to Adelaide from Pt Lincoln, via Spilsby Island and Corny Point. Most of this was over water. We did the trip many times at night. One of the landmarks and emergency landing options en route was Wedge Island, shown in this photo. There was a rough landing strip on it which was actually just part of a dirt road on the island.

In 1981 I obtained my commercial pilot licence, and until the end of 1982 when I left Adelaide and moved to Melbourne to study, I flew regular charters from West Beach (Adelaide’s main airport) to and from Wedge Island with tourist groups, consisting mostly of divers and fishermen. The strip was outside normal legal landing parameters (the aircraft performance charts said it was way too short). But the operators had a dispensation from the regulator (the Civil Aviation Authority, which in 1995 became the Civil Aviation Safety Authority) for a handful of nominated pilots to conduct commercial operations in and out of there. This required special training on the island airstrip (with Barry Firth, then CFI of the Pt Lincoln Aero Club) in a variety of conditions. Apart from the short and narrow track with a curve in it for takeoff, the approach to the south was towards rising terrain, which meant there was no overshoot option. I was pretty proud to be one of the limited group of pilots authorised to conduct commercial operations in and out of this strip. There were only four pilots who did charter flights in and out of this very poor but very interesting strip. We flew in marginal weather at times with very strong winds (often across the strip), heavy rain, and decidedly marginal visibility en route from Adelaide to the island. I recall the welcome sight of its distinctive shape suddenly appearing through grey curtains of rain on many a trip (see photo in the header of this post showing Wedge Island coming in to sight with a heavy rain shower coming in from the south).

That strip has long been replaced with a proper large safe airstrip. But during all those years of conducting charters on and off the dirt road, there was never an incident or accident. I was proud to have contributed to that record. The aircraft type we flew in and out of Wedge Island was the wonderful Cherokee Six (PA-32). We were often near max weight with 5 passengers in addition to the pilot, and their luggage.
A pilot’s log book is an interesting document. There is a legal requirement to keep a log book and to record the details of each flight on the same day as the flight occurred.  But a pilot’s log is so much more than merely a legally required record. Pilots are justifiably proud of the record of their flying careers and the hard won gradual accumulation of flying hours. A pilot never throws a log book away.  That said, agricultural pilots who, legend has it, traditionally exceed the duty time limits, seem to have trouble locating their log books when the regulator comes knocking.  Either that, or they keep a log book for the regulator, and another for the grandchildren and posterity.

For every airborne adventure experienced by pilots since there have been log books, there has been a single or at most a double line entry in a log book. Such entries may not reveal at all that a life-threatening or life-changing experience occurred on a particular flight, or it may make the briefest of allusions to the fact that it was no ordinary flight. Pilots are masters at understatement in their log books, with at most a bland abbreviated and often cryptic addendum to an entry which tells nothing of the real story.  This propensity for understatement is not a quality which carries through to social gatherings where pilots need no encouragement to wax lyrical and at length about their flying experiences.

Thus I come to the log book entry of a flight which is the real subject matter of this post. The entry is for 11 June 1978, in VH-WIL, it had a duration of 2 hours and 37 minutes of flying with me as pilot in command,  the time being entered in the ‘Day’ column (which as you will learn, was not entirely accurate). On that flight I took off from Murray Bridge, overflew Victor Harbour, Cape Jervis, Lake Fowler (near Edithburgh on the Yorke Peninsula), Wedge Island and Thistle Island (both in the southern waters of Spencer Gulf), for a landing at Port Lincoln. The meandering departure track we flew on departure from Murray Bridge was a scenic route chosen to overfly a few places my passengers wanted to see from the air. The only hint that this flight had some elements which created indelible memories, is the afterthought entry “Landed after last light. Heavy Cb activity”. A Cb is a cumulo-nimbus cloud –  a thunderstorm cloud.  This addendum  was an afterthought – my original decision as to the content of the log book entry was to simply record it as just another flight.  Now to the detail behind the log book entry. The departure from Murray Bridge was in fine weather. The arrival at Pt Lincoln was not.
The story begins the previous day, 10 June 1978. It was a Saturday. I had been asked to fly a couple of friends of ours together with their infant daughter from Pt Lincoln to Victor Harbour for a slap up dinner they were attending on a nearby rural property.  Lizzie and I were also invited to the dinner. It was a most enjoyable banquet at the extravagant home of a vet, on a country block not too far from Victor Harbour.  

As for flying logistics for the trip, Murray Bridge was the most convenient strip to land at, not the least because fuel (avgas) could be purchased there. I had arranged this with the MB flying club. The account below is exactly as it was reproduced in the magazine ‘Australian Flying’. I have resisted the urge to edit. The rather uninformative map in the above photo was inserted with my article by the editorial staff without my knowledge or approval.

The 11 June 1978 Flight


“In 1978 I had flown 180 hours since first solo. A couple of lengthy cross-country trips had enhanced my view of myself as an accomplished navigator. Soon, the glory of being a ‘200 hour pilot’ would be mine. I liked to think that at 180 hours I was already flying like a 200 hour pilot.

A weekend trip was planned in the flying club’s trusty Cherokee 180, across the Gulfs from Port Lincoln to a small airfield east of the Adelaide hills and back. I was the aero club’s newest member, and a newcomer to South Australia. The trusting passengers were my girlfriend and a married couple with babe in arms. Meticulous planning and preparation were undertaken, including the fully prepared log on the back of the old flight plan form which was enough to keep a team of navigators writing constantly for the duration of the flight. All maps were pre-folded, all frequency plans were drawn, both mains and confidence were fully topped up, and off we went.

The trip over via a scenic route went exactly according to plan. An enjoyable weekend was had by all, and I extracted the passengers from the party mid Sunday afternoon. I had plenty of time to check the aircraft and make it home before last light. I had doubled the ’10 minutes before last light’ planning requirement for my ETA. The weather forecast was unexceptional.

I planned to top up the tanks to full fuel at the airstrip where the aircraft had been parked. A knowledgeable looking instructor there reluctantly agreed to sell me some drum stock. He wheeled the drum over, and wound the pump handle for a while then put the fuel caps back on. I checked the contents myself, and noted that the fuel level in both tanks was beneath the tabs. I told him I’d prefer it filled up, but as he explained, he was short on fuel and had given me “enough to get back to Port Lincoln”. That was re-assuring. After all, he was presumably well past the 200 hour pinnacle, and he wore epaulettes.

The takeoff and climb-out were uneventful. Blue skies were the backdrop to sharply defined cumuliform clouds, some of spectacular vertical extent. A photographer’s delight. As soon as we levelled out in cruise, operational matters were all well under control and I took the opportunity to make a brief captain’s address to the passengers, and to fire off a few frames on the Nikon. Smiles and ease prevailed in the cosy cockpit as we left the coast behind and headed out over the sea.

About half way back, the blue skies ahead were progressively overtaken by cloud. Visibility was still fine. The sky ahead was all cloud, and the sky behind was all blue. I did a groundspeed check and noted that we had an unexpected head wind of about 30 knots. So I descended to try for a better groundspeed. Just as well too, because some of that cloud was a bit lower than it looked at first. The sea was as I had never seen it. We were now down to about 1000 feet. Rolling and breaking surf with huge trails of streaking foam covered the sea from horizon to horizon.

There was now some blackness beneath the clouds ahead, with dark purple-green pendulous formations in the lowering base, the likes of which I had not seen before. Failing to understand the significance of what I was observing, I merely registered idle curiosity at the spectacle. Our greatly reduced groundspeed was now visible to even the untrained eye. A check revealed a headwind component of 45 knots. As I lifted my head from this groundspeed calculation, my poise was disturbed by the odd wisp of cloud rushing past the cockpit. I responded by descending to 500 feet above the sea.

By now there were a few heavy and very noisy drops of rain hitting the windscreen, and the black and grey columns of rain ahead did not augur well. I reached for the microphone and tried to radio Adelaide for a weather update on Port Lincoln. I was too low for the VHF to work, and the old HF proved, as usual, to be about as reliable as mental telepathy. There was a lot of static and interference on the radio.

Wedge Island slowly appeared ahead and the 45 knot headwind was confirmed by another groundspeed calculation. I did not know there was a strip there. Eventually Thistle Island loomed out of the murk, but took an uncomfortably long time to get any closer. By the time we flew abeam its eastern tip, the rain was constant and heavy and made conversation below a shout impossible. I didn’t know there was a strip on Thistle Island. I didn’t think to look.

But I did realise that the black curtain ahead dragging its hem in the seething sea was no place for a VFR (visual flight rules) Cherokee 180, even with a ‘nearly 200 hour’ pilot at the controls. I descended further to remain clear of cloud, and at about 300 feet above sea level, finally realised that the dark maelstrom ahead was not for me. I then recalled having flown a few weeks earlier to Spilsby Island, north of my present position. So a quick free-hand pencil line on the WAC chart and off we headed, laying off 30 degrees of drift on the diversion track. The forces from the northwest reached Spilsby Island before I did. Retreat back to Thistle Island was required.

By this time daylight was all but gone. I did a 180 and applied 30 degrees of drift into wind again, and headed back to Thistle Island. At this point it occurred to me that Adelaide should be in the clear, and that with the 45 knot tail wind the trip would be quick. But then the penny dropped. The amount of fuel I had on board was precisely ah, well approximately……ummm……let’s see those gauges …… E to F and fluctuating all over the place.…..ah ……took off at ……but that ATD didn’t really help, because I had no idea how much fuel I had on board at departure, except that it was ‘enough to get back to Port Lincoln’. The fuel calculation ignoring the recently added fuel was a bit tight for comfort. So I concluded that even with a tail wind of 45 knots, running the risk of fuel exhaustion over the sea in the dark was not the best option. I was not aware of any strips on the Yorke Peninsula, much less any strips with runway lighting.

So once again, from the northwest tip of Thistle Island I set heading for Port Lincoln only to fly into a dark wall of rain. The rain which had been merely very loud now became deafening. It combined with the turbulence and the just visible chaos of the sea 200-300 feet below to lead me very belatedly to the conclusion that an immediate tactical retreat was called for. I turned up the cabin lights, and went onto the instruments. I held the wings level for a moment, noted the heading and then started a tentative shallow banked 180 degree turn. No instrument observed in the course of my somewhat random scan revealed anything constant. After a minute or so of turning with entirely unsatisfactory deviations in all axes, I levelled the wings on a very approximate reciprocal track and looked hopefully out the windscreen. I was rewarded by the sight of the dark outline of Thistle Island looming up at a frightening rate. As I later learned, I must have flown over the quite adequate grass landing strip there three or four times that evening.

I then circled for a while in the closest thing to VMC (visual meteorological conditions) on offer in a small area of rapidly fading gloom. I could just see the white highlights on the sea by looking straight down. On each orbit as the nose passed through a north-westerly heading, I peered hopefully in the direction of Port Lincoln township, until eventually I vaguely discerned or possibly just imagined a dull glow through the curtains of rain and darkness in that general direction. So I set heading for home again only to fly into the horizonless rain and turbulence once more, forced to retreat with yet another lucky 180 on the instruments. Three times this occurred, as thunder and lightning now added further drama to the situation. Caught between the seemingly impenetrable weather and the prospect of an over-water flight to Adelaide with fuel exhaustion a possibility, I responded by circling in the orb of gloomy visibility near Thistle Island simply because it was better than the other two options.

During the fourth or fifth orbit I spotted a red marine light in the general direction of Port Lincoln township and headed for it. We were about 200 feet above sea level by this stage. The driving rain intensified as if to force us back, but that red light remained visible. I flew towards it and eventually over it and was gratified to then see the faint glow of the township lights through the rain. It was by now pitch black. I had no night VFR training, and had never even been airborne at night.

As the solid rain and turbulence, the disorienting darkness and the thunderstorm threatened to end the flight short of our destination, the reliable little Cherokee plugged on until it was over the wharves of Port Lincoln. I then tracked coastal to the north at low altitude on the lee side of the hills where the thunderstorm and wind from the north west were violently spilling over. I searched for the rotating airport beacon and the lights of the airstrip and could not see either. I grabbed the microphone and dialled up the HF and made several unanswered calls to Adelaide for the lights. I tried to replace the mike on its clip but could not do so in the turbulence. I let the mike drop to the floor, abandoned radio communications and kept one hand on the control column, the other on the throttle. We were in the lee turbulence of the coastal hills being battered and bashed by a once-a-decade thunderstorm, like nothing I had ever seen. Last light had arrived about an hour before normal last light. I had to lean away from the perspex to my left after my head was banged into it a couple of times. The baby was crying. Her parents were silent. So was my girlfriend.

I knew by a rough estimate of elapsed time since overflying the township that the airport must be nearby. But even though I could follow the coast by the crawling headlights of cars on the highway and those parked on the side of the highway with headlights on, there was no airport beacon and there were no runway lights. I flew on because I had absolutely no other option. I learned later that a priest had looked out of the Port Lincoln hospital window and seen us, and offered up a prayer for our survival.

Then through the rain I intermittently saw the faintest outline of the runway lights on runway 01 dead ahead. There was no airport beacon to be seen but it was definitely Port Lincoln airport. My joy however was short-lived, because even though I could see about one third of the runway lights, we were tracking towards them laying off more drift than seemed consistent with the aircraft being re-useable after landing. I did not fancy doing a cross wind landing in conditions such as this, but overshooting into the black void beyond the runway was something I fancied even less. I was not going to do that. So I continued the approach, reduced the power and lowered some flap. With large and repeated control inputs I managed to occasionally achieve an approximation of the desired attitude and approach path. The successful outcome of the imminent landing or arrival was not assured, but whatever that outcome I had no doubt it was the lesser of two evils. The only certainty was that we were going to be on the ground shortly.

Perhaps the priest did me a favour with his prayer after all – and me not even a Catholic. Because just as I was approaching 50 feet or so over the runway, the undercarriage mere seconds away from some unauthorised modification, a flash of lightning accompanied by a simultaneous crack of thunder illuminated the terrible stage for a fleeting fraction of a second. It cast its white reflection off the water lying on the otherwise unilluminated cross runway, which was grass and puddles and directly into wind. The aircraft was virtually pointing straight up it. I cut the throttle, banked a little and straightened up, flared and touched down gently.

As the aircraft stopped in what felt like little more than its own length, I peered through the near horizontal rain at the illuminated windsock some 100 metres away. It was alternating between being rigidly horizontal and flapping wildly as the storm whipped it. Then as I watched it, the rain came down in a solid mass. Conversation was impossible. The windsock was now totally obscured from view, and the limited visibility which had permitted us to land moments before had gone.

I taxied off the strip in the general direction of the hangar, the control column rolled fully into wind. Water was driven into the cockpit between the door seal and the fuselage. I felt a hand alight on my shoulder, and give a brief comforting squeeze. I still don’t know which passenger did that. I taxied gingerly across the grass at a snail’s pace until the flying club hangar came into view.

Silhouetted against the club room lights were the still forms of a few club members standing in the open doorway of the hangar. They had waited for the last hour or more for either the start of the search, or against the odds as they saw it, the return of their beloved club aircraft. I learned that a SAR (search and rescue) phase had been declared.

I broke the club rule, and taxied out of the elements and the dark onto the smooth dry concrete floor of the hangar. The disc of the rotating prop was now visible in the fluorescent light. I eased the mixture back to idle cut-off and the engine and the noise ceased. I turned the master switch off. I opened the door and climbed out after my passengers. I turned and looked back at dear old WIL, water dripping off her white and red paint and forming small pools on the dry hangar floor. The odd hiss escaped as a drop found its way through the cowling onto something hot.

The club members helped us unload the aircraft, with hardly a word spoken. The downpour intensified forcing deferral of even a run to a parked car. The hangar doors were then closed and locked. I cancelled my SARWATCH (search and rescue watch) by telephone, filled out the maintenance release and the club docket, farewelled my passengers and went home with my girlfriend. The passengers seemed uncertain whether to respond to the situation from which I had delivered them, or the situation into which I had taken them.

My log book entry for that flight records the name of the airfield of departure, the route to Port Lincoln via Wedge Island and Thistle Island, and the flight time of 2 hours and 45 minutes.

So many lessons concealed in so few words.

The lessons include:

  • Have a known quantity of fuel in the aircraft before start up.
  • Know what a cumulo-nimbus cloud can do. Also know what one looks like from a distance, as well as from up close. The latter experience is to be reserved for those who are not airborne.
  • Confidence needs to be actively monitored and managed.
  • Official predictions of weather conditions and the time of last light are merely a starting point in making decisions dependent upon those events.
  • Timely retreats can save your life.
  • There is no correlation between the wearing of epaulettes and the quality of advice which comes from between them.
  • A bit of luck doesn’t do you any harm.”

In the Jan/Feb 2002 edition of the Australian Flying magazine, my account of this flight appeared.  I submitted it and consented to its publication on the basis that there be no editorial change whatsoever. The editors initially baulked then agreed. But this didn’t stop them changing the title without reference to me. The title I chose appears was ‘A Memorable Flying Lesson’. The editors of the magazine went for a title with the more tabloid-press ring, of ‘Flight to Hell & Back’, which misrepresented the whole experience. Whatever. Even though more than 40 years have passed since this flight, I continue to remember it very clearly. So does Liz.  For what it’s worth, I thought I’d share it with you.

The thunderstorms, torrential rain and gale force winds we flew through that night were declared in the local newspaper to be a once in a decade weather event. Apparently it was also a memorable storm for those on the ground in houses or cars.

My first underwater look at Little Henty Reef, Apollo Bay

I mentioned to a swimming friend who is married to a shark fisherman that I was planning to go snorkelling at Little Henty Reef. “Shark Alley!” was her response, albeit with a smile. Well, there is a seal colony (non-breeding) on one of the higher exposed sections of the reef. But surfers surf this reef, kayakers regularly paddle around it and there are often swimmers in the shallows. I have also heard that local snorkellers are happy to swim at this location. I asked around. I concluded it was a reasonable thing to snorkel on the inner reef, in appropriately calm conditions between tides. I see no reason why this water should be any more ‘sharky’ than the other places where I swim in this area.

The Marengo Reefs Marine Sanctuary is a short distance south of Apollo Bay. This protected area encompasses the Little Henty reefs and a total of about 12 hectares of ocean. It is rich in marine life. The reef furthest from shore is permanent home to a colony of about 100 Australian fur seals.

Little Henty Reef is at the southern end of Mounts Bay. Strong tidal currents and rips often surge between the reefs. These reefs are also the first landfall of big swells generated to the south west in the roaring forties. I have seen triple overhead surf on and around these reefs. Snorkelling can only be contemplated in low or no swell conditions, and ideally on or near a low tide. But calm water in this area is never still water. There are always currents of varying direction and force to consider carefully.

The inner reef of Little Henty which looks to be on the horizon is in fact only 150m or so offshore. From front to back: Mike, Hamish and Nadine who kindly offered to accompany us in her kayak to keep a lookout for any additional company in the water. A strong front with solid rain showers and big winds came through earlier in the afternoon. But by late in the day, despite it being overcast, the wind had dropped and sea conditions were as shown. We seized the moment on short notice as conditions abated. We entered the water half an hour before low tide. I expected there to be a fading current from north to south as the last of the tide ebbed out. But it became immediately apparent as we swam out that the current, unexpectedly, was going the other way and was reasonably strong. We had to aim for the reef with a significant drift angle to our right. I am still contemplating whether the forecast time for low tide was in error, or whether there is some other explanation for the current going north in the opposite direction to the outgoing tide. The current eased a little once we were in the shallows near the reef. But we still had to swim strongly going south, and could drift at a comfortable speed going north.
Mike at the northern end of the reef closest to shore. The seabed between here and the shore was only about 10-12 feet deep. There wasn’t much plant life until we got near the reef, where it was flourishing. There were many and varied fish species in the seaweed and kelp beds near the reef.
Mike & Hamish by the reef after swimming only 150m or so. Low threshold for a high five, but why not.
Nadine keeping a watchful eye out for us.
Kelp beds swaying in the currents.
A dozen or more smallish fish swimming past me just below the surface. Whiting?
The high point on the hills on the horizon is Marriners Lookout, which overlooks the township of Apollo Bay. To the left of frame are the sand dunes along the beach in Mounts Bay. The line of rocks on the right is the northern end of Little Henty Reef.
Bomp Bomp Bomp Bomp…..
Mike and I were heading north in reasonably shallow water over dense areas of kelp and seaweed. This is where the fish were. This stingray was heading south, no doubt looking for dinner. We had the current behind us, and when I touched Mike’s arm to point out that he and the stingray were heading for each other, the current kept him going for longer than he might’ve preferred. But the stingray was across the situation, and at quite close quarters did a right hand turn away from us out into the deeper water.
So much about a stingray swimming looks to me like flying. The fact that they have wings adds to this impression. They are very graceful.
Hamish enjoying the scenery and showing off his Apple watch as it resists splashes while not claiming to be waterproof.
At the southern end of the small reef the water between the reef and the shore was much deeper. You can see it falling away in the lower right of this photo.
Swimming this close to the marine plant life meant that we came across most fish quite suddenly. We saw quite a few sizeable fish. When swimming with the current, there was no need to kick or swim – we just drifted with it.
I have no idea whether this is a zebra fish, but it should be. The underwater gardens were fresh and almost tropically luxuriant. The colours were vibrant – not bad for early evening on an overcast day.
This plant species no doubt has a name, but seaweed is as specific as I can get without further research. The clean white sand was a feature of this area. Because there was movement of the water, visibility was less than in the rock pools I visit, but it was still very good.
Background: Marengo township. Foreground: Mike using his long arm to check the depth.
I think this was the same stingray we saw earlier. Seems we were both doing laps up and down the seaweed and kelp beds.
Once again, it headed away from me to deeper water. Stingrays in my experience are not aggressive creatures. They are quite gentle, and sometimes even a bit inquisitive of humans swimming near them. I have had them follow me, and swim slowly around me. But that stinger on the tail remains worth avoiding.
Silent low flying.
On the right, the deeper water near the southern end of the reef can be seen.
Swimming against the current required a few more horse power. At least the fish knew we were coming.
Nadine and Mike.
Mike looking a bit sceptical about Hamish’s fish size story.
L to R: Hamish, me and Mike. Marengo point in the background. This was taken just before we headed back across the short pass to the beach. Once again, the south to north current was as strong as when we first entered the water, requiring a drift angle of 30-40° to end up where we wanted near our car.

I often swim for an hour or more in the ocean at Apollo Bay for the pure enjoyment of it. I don’t feel cold after these swims because I wear a wetsuit. But I found it interesting that even though I wore my winter Patagonia suit on this summer snorkelling excursion, and despite not hurrying my time under the hot outdoor shower when I got home, it took me a while to warm up. I suppose I got colder quicker because snorkelling is a lot less active than swimming non-stop freestyle. I was not back to my normal operating temperature until after my battered flake, two scallops, min chips and a potato cake. Of course no other meal could even be considered after such a swim.

When swimming in southern latitudes near the 40th parallel (38.75°S to be precise), with or without a wetsuit, the hypothermia clock is always ticking.

Just for comparison, these photos were taken about three weeks ago at a location on the Little Henty reefs about 300m from our snorkelling location. This was not a snorkelling day. (For more photos of big swell breaking on and near these reefs, see the post on this blog titled ‘Summer Solstice Swell’, posted 24 December 2019).

“A wild call and a clear call that may not be denied.”

I stood on the shore of the Southern Ocean this morning under a blue sky with a cool wind on my back, squinting into the sun.  Cold sea water was washing over my feet and a small swell was rolling in orderly lines across the bay.  I was savouring these moments and didn’t want to rush them.

I waded through the shallows then swam over the sand bar at Tuxion and under a few green waves which briefly stood tall in the offshore wind before breaking. A friend I bumped into on my walk to the beach joined me for the first 500 metres. We found our green-water distance from the shore and headed south. The water was cool and clear. The swell lines gently lifted and lowered us, something I always enjoy.   Then after a short chat while treading water out from the SLSC we went our separate ways.

Hamish took some drone footage from a point midway between the SLSC and the lookout from the beach as I swam out to sea a bit and then back.  I then swam north back to Tuxion, the beach at the end of my street. This return leg was a little further seaward of the sandbar because the waves were now breaking further offshore as the tide went out.

The video below (which has no soundtrack) was edited by trimming it to 1’52”. There was no editing of any other aspect of it.  The colours are as the drone camera recorded them. I have also posted 10 screenshots from the drone footage which capture a few features of the swim which I found enjoyable. In sharing this video and the screenshots I hope the reader gets some insight into the joy of an ocean swim.


  • At around 0:50 in the video, I have paused at my turn point to enjoy the scenery. A wave passed under me as I did so. I also spent a short time (not captured on the video) before heading back to shore just floating on my back in the swell while looking at the clouds and enjoying being effortlessly suspended by the ocean, weightless, between heaven and earth. Most of my ocean swims are out and back, and in company.  A bit of a chat at the turn point is an established ritual. A longer chat over coffee after the swim is an even more established ritual. Conversations over coffee among those still warming up after an ocean swim are somehow livelier and more convivial than normal coffee chat. There is truth in the ocean swimmers’ aphorism that ‘you’re only one swim away from a good mood.’


  •  What appears to be a large dark mass of fish swimming at great speed towards me and then under me as they are chased by a large shark not visible in the shot (at about 1:20 in the video) is simply the shadow of a small cumulus cloud sailing overhead in the brisk sou’westerly.


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Always a joy to stroll into the sea without another soul in sight.


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Cape Patton (17kms east of Apollo Bay)  on the horizon on the left, and the Apollo Bay harbour wall on the right. Who could stand gazing at this scene and not want to walk into the sea and swim?


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Perfectly formed little waves were breaking on the sandbar. They had a brightness and colour which only the backlighting of the morning sun can give.


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I walked out through the water pretty much to the edge of the sandbar as can be done on a lowish tide, then started swimming. The stirred up sand visible in the image is from the last set of waves to break over the sandbar.


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The middle part of an ocean swim is always about putting the head down, stretching out long, finding your rhythm and pace and settling into it for a while.  It’s a phase of a swim I particularly enjoy. An occasional glance forward looks after navigation.


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That’s me in the foreground of this image, just left of centre. I was heading back to shore at this stage. The small swell lines can be seen here. I also like this image as it conveys something of the sense of the vastness of the ocean which is felt by every swimmer when a bit offshore. I like this shot. The apparent remoteness from shore is a bit of an illusion, but the feeling evoked by this picture of a swimmer being so small in such a big ocean is not.


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The swim back to shore is assisted by regular brief acceleration as waves pass under me. Just before a wave passes under me, it sucks water immediately in front of it back towards the approaching wave. This is more noticeable with bigger waves. When I can see the seabed while this is occurring, it is clear that despite continuing to swim at the same stroke rate, my forward progress slows or sometimes stops completely for a moment before the wave makes it up to me with a short-lived acceleration towards shore.


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As I approach the area where the waves are breaking, I sometimes swim parallel to the shore trying to stay exactly on the line where they are about to break, but without actually getting caught up in the white water. (Swimming along this wave is not in the edited video). This maximises the pleasant sensation of being lifted then lowered by unbroken green water. On some of my longer swims on small swell days I do this for the entire length of the beach which I swim. In the photo the wave is about to break and I am still on its face, but I did manage to stay in the green water. If a bigger wave arrives, or I misjudge the point at which a wave will break, a casual duck dive under the white water is all that is required. Swimming in the waves like this makes me feel really alive.


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Strolling ashore after the swim. Behind me is an almost spent broken wave about to reach me, and behind that a green wave just starting to break (see around 1:37 in the video). Self-preservation requires a swimmer to always keep a lookout over the shoulder in the surf zone so as not to be caught unawares by a breaking wave. As the video shows, neither of these waves required a second look over the shoulder in the small conditions. But a breaking wave you are prepared for is so much more easily handled than one that surprises you.


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When leaving the surf after a swim, I generally find myself looking back out to sea and down the shoreline at where I’ve just been. These looks, especially if from the vantage point of a sand dune, sometimes reveal where and why the variety of currents I experienced while swimming were happening. They are also a chance to look for the often subtle signs of the general direction of the drift out the back of the waves which I know by that stage having just swum in it.  The direction of this current can be one of the more difficult things to pick from the shore before a swim. At my home beach though I can usually make an educated guess based on tide, wind direction and swell size and direction. But away from my home beach I simply ask an informed local. For the record, the general drift out the back this morning between Tuxion and the wall was south to north.

Drone footage courtesy of Hamish Christie.

Some readers will recognise the title of this post as coming from the poem ‘Sea Fever’, published by John Masefield, the English Poet Laureate, in 1902. The first two lines of the second stanza are:

“I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;”

Beauty beneath the Surface

The reefs and rock pools along the west coast of Victoria only reveal their beauty to those prepared to get wet.  For half the time they are entirely concealed by the ocean at high tide, and for the other half they present as relatively unattractive seaweed filled pools scattered between rocky outcrops on the reef, visible only at low tide.

But for those prepared to slide into the kelp, the seaweed and the still water of these pools with a face mask and snorkel, a beautiful world awaits.


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While most of the pools are connected one way or another to the ocean through the maze of channels between the rocks, at low tide much of the water in the pools is still and clear.  The further from the breaking waves a pool is, the clearer it will be.  A glance from dry land as shown gives some hint of the plant life beneath the surface, but no hint of the beauty beyond.

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Prolific kelp beds dominate the larger marine plant species on this reef.

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The safest way to enter these pools is to sit on the edge, which will feel upholstered as it is cushioned with Neptune’s necklace and other seaweed forms completely concealing the rock on which they grow.  Then slide on your backside down the sloping wall of the pool on the slippery beds of seaweed.  To attempt to walk in this shallow water near the edge, with or without flippers, seems to result in me sitting down in the water after a fall or a near fall on the uneven rocks concealed by the seaweed.  As soon as the water is deep enough to float face down and prone without scraping rocks or sand, do it.  Gentle kicks with suitable fins will see you effortlessly gliding at the speed of your choice to deeper water.  At their deepest these rock pools are 12-15 feet deep.  But 18 inches of water is also enough to glide over the pristine sand and sea gardens.

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Generally speaking, views of the surface of the sea from above or below are not available simultaneously.   But the gentle movement of the surface of these rock pools can allow you to view both at once, even if only for a moment.  

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What a contrast between the bare rocks above the surface, and the richly coloured world immediately below.

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The unhurried visitor to this world will see the gentle curves and arcs of the water surface, and the mesmerising movement of refracted light patterns on the contours of the seabed.

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 Boundaries between ecosystems in nature are rarely so clearly marked as they are by the surface of the sea..

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These pools have an abundance of fish in them.  But mostly their colour and markings make them very hard to see in a still photo.  While snorkelling, it is only their movement that allows them to be seen.  They are only easy to see as they swim over sand.

This 24 second video clip shows the abundant fish life in the vicinity of a rocky outcrop with all sorts of hiding places on and under it.  In still photos of the fish shown swimming here, their camouflage makes them virtually invisible unless they are over clear sand.  This area was close to the ocean beyond the reef, and so the water was highly aerated and moving constantly.  If I were a fish, I would seek out such conditions.

The parts of these pools connected directly to the ocean have currents pulling out to sea on the outgoing tide.  But there are lengthy sections which are perfectly calm and still. I cruised slowly through them turning left and right as pathways presented themselves.  This 21 second video shows  me swimming through a wall of kelp which opened up into a wide and deep pool fringed by kelp beds.


I drifted weightlessly at low altitude over the white sandy trails through the rock pool labyrinth.  Enjoy some of the highlights of the tour.



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Summer Solstice Swell

A very solid swell hit the west coast of Victoria on Sunday 22 December 2019.

I took these photos at Marengo Point and Little Henty Reef, a couple of kms south of Apollo Bay.

I can always be found in the front row when the ocean puts on a show like this.



Middle of the day

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End of the day

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Postscript: Last Sunday, the day these photos were taken, a rock fisherman at Separation Creek (about 29 kms east of Apollo Bay on the Great Ocean Road) drowned after being washed off the rocks by this swell.

This is a fate suffered by far too many rock fishermen. There are many risks in our society which are impossible to eliminate or difficult to mitigate. But drowning while rock fishing could be totally eliminated by the simple expedient of a light upper body harness, attached to a light line which is secured to a substantial eye bolt placed in the rocks above the high water mark for this purpose.