Magazine article Geographical

Two Wings and a Prayer

Magazine article Geographical

Two Wings and a Prayer

Article excerpt

For people living in Australia's harsh and remote outback, aeroplane services are a vital link to the outside world. Matthew Brace goes along for the ride

FROM HER FRONT PORCH Dorothy Wilhelm looks out over big fields. Dust devils leave balls of windmill grass gambolling in their wake. On windy days so many balls of it get snagged on the wire fences that they look more like bushy hedgerows. In winter the sun does little to ease the ice-cold wind whipping out of the desert. Just out of view, over a ridge by a lone eucalyptus tree, a herd of 60 or so sheep brave the dust. Even the tireless sheepdog Pearl is weary of the gale as she hitches a ride on the motorbike back to the farmstead with Dorothy's son Chris after mustering the flock. The 21,600-hectare farm has 4,500 merino sheep and 180 cattle. Every day is a working day.

Out of the blustery and hostile sky drones a small plane, battling to keep level in the turbulence. It swoops low over the lake, flooded by the previous month's unprecedented rainfall, and makes a brave and skilful landing on the dirt runway. The Piper Cherokee 6 turns on a dollar coin and taxies to a large bag hanging from a post. Out jumps a figure, unhooks the bag and loads it into the plane, replacing it with another. The post has arrived at Inkerman Station, near Broken Hill, in outback New South Wales. It may only come once a week and when the weather allows, but at least it comes. Dorothy and her husband Alby used to have to drive about an hour over rough roads to Horse Lake Siding by the train tracks and sift through the undergrowth to find where the guard from the Silver City Comet train had thrown the mailbag as the carriages rumbled by the previous night.

The Wilhelms fought for the air mail service in this part of the state and for the flying postmen, Don Crittenden and Malcolm McEvoy, who are both based in Broken Hill. "It is such a vital link out here," says Dorothy, glad to be in the calm of the kitchen after the wind outside. "We've never been bored in the outback -- there is always too much to do -- but mail is a necessity. It keeps you in touch with people in town and relatives about the place. We get medicine in the post too, which is good if we can't get into town for any reason."

Their nearest neighbours, Colin and Lorelei Roberts at Scarsdale Station, a 20-minute drive south, also fought for the service. They have run the 25,000-hectare Scarsdale Station for 42 years. "We used to use the train siding too -- they would drop off bread, veggies and the post, but if it was business letters you were waiting for and they didn't arrive for days or weeks and were then out of date it would be a real pain," says Lorelei. "Sometimes it was three or four months before we could get to the siding if the flood waters were running high. One year we even had to move house and live in the shearers' quarters for a few months because it was on higher ground. The mail just piled up on the siding. Funny thing is, this station used to have its own post office years ago, but everything changes and a lot of the bush services we used to know have disappeared."

The flying postmen have spent the past few months visiting additional stations along the Darling and Paroo rivers that were cut off by the freak rains in February and March. Postman Malcolm McEvoy says it has been heavy going. "It's a very challenging job even without the floods. Right now we're doing about 40 landings and take-offs in the run and you never know what's going to come out of the bush just as you are about to touch down. At Scarsdale the other day a kangaroo came out and went right across the air strip just as I was coming in. Or you could get feral goats, emu, or sheep. Ninety per cent of the time it's a crosswind landing and they are only grass strips, so by the end you feel you've done a full day's work."

It costs A$50,000 (20,000 [pounds sterling]) to run the flying postal service each year. …

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