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Wonders from Above

A pilot’s guide to Australia’s natural wonders

Aussies have quite the reputation as lovers of travel. Overseas you’re almost guaranteed to bump into a fellow Aussie. The only thing we seem to love as much as overseas travel is exploring our own backyard.

Australia is home to some of the most unique and spectacular wonders of the natural world. As an avid traveller, I’m a little embarrassed to admit how long it has taken me to visit some of these amazing places myself. Admittedly, some of these destinations can be a little out of the way (Uluru, I’m looking at you…) but for those privileged enough to have a licence to fly, there are so many incredible places that we can explore from a perspective that some can only dream of.

The good news is that these attractions are even more spectacular from the air. If anything, the last few years have given us the time to reflect inwards and remember why this Great Southern Land is truly the best place on Earth. That’s why we have put together the pilot’s ultimate bucket list of Australian wonders from above.

Australia’s Red Heart

Uluru, Northern Territory

Australia March 2020

What springs to mind when you think of Australia? For many, it’s Uluru. Some of you might have been lucky enough to fly over this gigantic rock on a commercial flight, but there’s nothing like cruising 1000ft above one of the world’s largest and most sacred monoliths. The rich colours of burnt orange and ochre make this landscape so awe-inspiring, it’s easy to see why the World-Heritage listed National Park holds such special cultural significance to the Anangu, the local Aboriginal people.

After enjoying a few circuits of Uluru from above, it’s time to make your final approach into Ayers Rock/Connellan Airport (YAYE). Be mindful that prior permission is required and that AD charges apply. The airport is located just 20 minutes by road to Uluru and is serviced to receive around 300,000 travellers a year, so you’ll find quality amenities and plenty of transport options to get you from the airport to Uluru.

Go early in the day to beat the heat and admire Uluru’s natural beauty up-close with its ancient rock paintings and carvings. Learn stories and follow in the footsteps of Aboriginal ancestors.

The airport is less than 10 minutes to the main hub of Yulara if you’re interested in staying a few nights in one of the desert-style resorts or campgrounds. Watch the colour of Uluru change as the sun sets and join an unforgettable fine dining experience filled with bush-tucker inspired cuisine and cultural performances. Don’t miss the magical Field of Light, a colourful light installation which is dramatically backdropped by the silhouette of Uluru. This was only ever meant to be a temporary installation, but its sheer popularity has made it a permanent fixture for visitors.

Arguably just as impressive as Uluru is the lesser-known Kata Tjuta rock formation which is 50km from Yulara. Kata Tjuta means ‘many heads’ in the indigenous Pitjantjatajara language and is an amazing collection of 36 domed boulders that form deep valleys and gorges. If you have the extra time, take a detour cruise over these impressive red rock domes on your way back home.

Aquatic Wonderland

Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

Seaplane over the Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is nothing short of breathtaking, whether you’re admiring it from up in the air or submerged beneath the surface. The Reef is gigantic, spanning over 2,300km along the eastern coast of Australia and is considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world. With over 3000 individual reef systems filled with abundant marine life and surrounded by hundreds of beautiful tropical islands, the natural beauty of the Great Barrier Reef is truly unmatched. The Reef can even be seen from space, so image how amazing it is to fly yourself over the largest coral reef in the world.

Base yourself at Shute Harbour, a convenient gateway to the Whitsunday Islands and the Reef itself. The Whitsunday Airport Shute Harbour (YSHR) is a privately-owned airstrip and is located about half way between the coastal towns of Shute Harbour and Airlie Beach. The airport incorporates a 1,410m asphalt runway with a dual taxiway, Avgas services and plenty of parking. Please call the airport in advance to advise of your ETA, landing and parking fees apply. If you become particularly fond of the area and decide you never want to leave, there’s even an Airpark and Hangar Homes for sale at the adjacent Whitsunday Aviation Village Estate. One can dream, right?

DISCLAIMER: The weather conditions at this strip can be volatile due to the surrounding terrain. Exercise caution at all times. However, the potentially tricky conditions are worth the visit!

From Shute Harbour Airport, you can cruise over the famous White Haven Beach, lush inlets, sweeping sand cays and drop-dead gorgeous landscape. For the self-confessed romantics, be sure to fly over the iconic heart-shaped reef (located at Hardy Reef) to top off an unforgettable experience. Be the envy of every Queensland holiday maker and cruise above the reef as far as your fuel tank will allow. While enjoying the brilliant aerial view of the Tropical North Queensland, keep your eye out for manta rays, green turtles, dolphins, sharks and other aquatic marine life from above. You may even be lucky enough to spot a whale migrating between the months of June and September.

Once you touch back down, it’s time to hit the water. Shute Harbour is the perfect gateway for island hopping, chartered boat tours of the reef, including snorkelling and sea kayaking. It goes without saying that you’ll want to stay at least a few days to explore. There is a plethora of lovely holiday homes in the area so you can put your feet up with a Margarita or three. The Flametree Caravan Park and Beaver Bar is just a 200 metre walk from the airport if you’re looking to stay close to the airport. For a bit more hustle and bustle, take a taxi into Airlie Beach where there is an abundance of lively bars overlooking the water. If it’s stinger season, skip the beach and enjoy a dip in the lagoon on the foreshore which is free access to the public. On Saturdays, the esplanade is filled with amazing market stalls, local produce and handicrafts.

Coastal Cruising

Great Ocean Road, Victoria

Great Ocean Road, AustraliaGreat Ocean Road, Australia

I might be a little biased, but the Great Ocean Road has to be one of the world’s most beautiful and scenic coastal drives in the world. It’s equally incredible from the sky, and you can land a plane right on its doorstep. Featuring hundreds of kilometres of rugged cliffs, world-famous surf breaks and ancient temperate rainforest, this is the is the jewel in the crown of the Victoria.

Enjoy a bird’s-eye view of this unforgiving coastline, where the powerful waves crash and create the dramatic rock formations you see today. You can fly high over iconic rock stacks including the famous 12 Apostles, Loch Ard Gorge and Bay of Islands without being disturbed by the busloads of tourists down below. Provided the weather is suitable for flying, the Great Ocean Road looks epic from above no matter what time of year you visit. As you cruise up and down the coast, take a detour along the winding banks of the Ayre River and above the ancient tree-tops of the Otway National Park, home to lush temperate rainforest and cascading waterfalls.

Great Ocean Road, AustraliaGreat Ocean Road, Australia

Touch down in Apollo Bay for a few nights where you can find plenty of seaside apartments, holiday homes and caravan parks to choose from. The Apollo Bay Airfield (YAPO) is a rural airstrip situated on the edge of the township and is maintained by the local Shire. There is one sealed runway 740m long and has a two per cent incline to the west. Be aware that the runway has soft edges, so exercise extreme caution when landing and taking off. At times, the weather can be challenging, so carefully check conditions before you fly. There are no landing fees here but donations are appreciated.

Despite its isolated location, Apollo Bay is well-serviced for visitors with plenty of great things to do all within walking distance of the main shopping strip. When it comes to local produce, you can stroll down to the Apollo Bay Fisherman’s Co-Op and try some of the freshest seafood from their latest haul. If you’re big into seafood, then make sure you sample some of their famous Southern Rock Lobster. Wash all of that down with a tipple at the Apollo Bay Distillery where you can taste local gins. Apollo Bay is a mellow coastal town – slow down, enjoy a round of golf, an award-winning ice cream and a dip in the pristine waters without even having to leave town. Apollo Bay was named the fourth best beach in Australia for 2023, so it’s time to go and see what all of the fuss is about!

The Wild West

The Kimberley, Western Australia

Aerial view of the Horizontal Falls, Talbot Bay

This striking part of the country takes a back seat to some of the more notable attractions on the world stage, so we think it deserves a mention. You’ll need a bit more time for this expedition but it’s well worth the effort. There’s a huge amount of ground to cover in the Kimberley, so we’re only scratching the surface with our focus on the far-west coast of the Kimberley. Known as one of the world’s last true wilderness frontiers, the Kimberley region has so much unspoilt beauty to explore with its vast canyons, swimming holes and outback charm.

TIP: Fly to this part of the world during winter when the weather is drier and less sweltering. You can thank us later.

Make your first outing to Horizontal Falls, a unique phenomenon caused by the extreme tropical tides squeezing through a small gap of mountain ranges – this creates the illusion of water ‘falling’ in a horizontal fashion. Sir David Attenborough himself has dubbed these Falls “one of the greatest natural wonders of the world.” Who is going to argue with that claim?! Flying is hands-down the best way to experience this natural beauty. The flight is just over an hour’s flight from Broome and 40 minutes from Derby. Soar over deep red sandstone landscapes and the churning waters of horizontal falls. If you time it well, you might even see a tour boat navigating the Falls as you fly overhead!

Make the historic outback town of Derby your base for the evening, located at the mouth of the mighty Fitzroy River. Derby Airport (YDBY) is quite well serviced, with a sealed runway, 24/7 AVGAS bowser and plenty of tie-down room. It’s just a 10-minute drive from the township which was the first European settlement in the Kimberley.

Our next adventure is a cruise around the Dampier Peninsular, where red desert rock meets powdery white sand and turquoise waters. Circle above magnificent bays, inlets and creeks that meander their way through the headland, creating pops of colour and vibrant scenes from above. Land at the Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm airstrip (make sure to call ahead for details and organisation) and use this magnificent location as a base to experience the very best that the region has to offer – this includes fascinating pearl farm tours, indigenous cultural experiences and boat trips to nearby islands. You don’t need to rough it here, with the precinct offering its own luxury accommodation, a swimming pool and high-end dining experiences on site as a bit of a treat.

Aerial view of Horizontal Falls, Talbot Bay

If you have the time, venture out to the Buccaneer Islands or head inland towards the Bungle Bungles and Kununurra. We’ll leave those adventure for another edition.

So, how many of these bucket-list destinations have you been to? What did we miss? Share your aviation travel stories with us at editor@sportpilot.net.au