Flight to Darwin

We left Tasmania this morning, having barely seen anything there. I think I know now what a child feels if someone were to give him a candy and as soon as he gets a taste in the mouth, they pull it away. This is how we all felt, leaving Hobart after just one day there.

Sun reflections from lakes on the clouds, shining from underneath
Sun reflections from lakes on the clouds, shining from underneath, lining up...

We crossed Tasmania heading Northwest at 16,000 feet. Rolling hills and low mountains stretched beneath us in every direction, with only a few populated places along the way. Then we found clouds. The first ones we came across along the way were yet different again from all previously seen: very thin veils of low cirrus, barely visible, stretched right beneath us. These clouds resembles weightless feathers suspended in mid air, with a denser shaft and vanes on both sides, thicker along the middle and gradually becoming barely perceptible along the edges. Several of these ephemeral creatures of the weather floated parallel to each other and gave us another curious effect to observe: the sun, reflecting off of the lakes on the ground, cast bright beams upwards onto the undersides of these clouds, and as we flew over you could see these strange bright sunspots on them. Sometimes the reflecting lake and the sunspot on the cloud would co-align, producing a brilliant, but diffused, flash of light from the ground, which could also take on a slight green or purple tinge depending on the angle of view. These reflections turned out to be exceedingly difficult to photograph; the results hardly give the real view justice.

...and finally aligned in a flash of light.
...and finally aligned in a fleeting flash of light.

The reason for going to the NW end of the island was to attempt coincident measurements with the Cape Grim Observatory, one of the premier long term monitoring stations in the world. Opportunities to compare measurements between agencies and different instruments don’t come around often and scientists take advantage of every opportunity. We made a low approach at the Smithton airport, flew over the beautiful sounds and islands of the Northern Tasmania and started our journey to the North, climbing to 40,000 feet over the Melbourne area. Flying through such a busy airspace can be quite a challenge and the pilots chose to fly over it: most other air traffic is either climbing or descending in that area and we didn’t have much of a problem at 40,000 feet.

Further to the North we started doing vertical profiling again by making low approaches to a few airports that we selected based on our preferred route. The agricultural landscape of the Southwern Australia soon changed to more arid red soil supporting sparse forests with a few lakes here and there. Unpaved roads stretched for countless miles through these plains. Flat for the most part, the terrain looked quite monotonous, and people not busy with instruments (like myself) started dozing off, only to awaken to turbulence, which we encountered on every missed approach, with vertical wind gusts from 2 to 6 m/s. The high air temperature and heating of the surface by the sun generate a lot of clear air convection and, as a consequence, turbulence, and were firsthand witnesses to the process. Jumping forward I’d note that this flight was more tiring than others just for that reason alone if nothing else, and we were quite beat when we made it to the hotel in the evening.

The Diamantina River
The Diamantina River: huge, wild and foreboding

The North Central Australia had another type of landscape, and seeing the land change before you over the course of a measurable period of time was fascinating, if not to say eerie. The sparse forests now were replaced by arid landscapes of low dry grass with gigantic meandering river systems of the Channel Country, the Cooper Creek (imagine a “creek” made of many channels adding up to 35 miles across its valley), Diamantina and Georgina rivers, also consisting of hundreds of interweaving channels, crossing the plains from the North to the Southwest. There were just about two or three sites where we saw the lone homes that stood in the middle of this vast wilderness, with some mile of a road visible, originating from the house and going seemingly nowhere. This makes one wonder, if that is a vehicle road, how’d the vehicle made it there and what did it run on? There seemed to be no other tracks or roads leading in. It would certainly take a special mindset, hardiness and perseverance to choose to live in these places (and to survive there too). Inhospitable and foreboding, the country along the Western border of Queensland and Eastern Northern Territory is an amazing sight that made me wish I could come there see it for myself from the ground. Living in their cities, most people in the U.S. don’t even know such places exist at all and I am willing to bet that suits the residents of the Channel Country just fine.

We landed in Darwin in early afternoon, causing confusion between what turned out to be two organizations awaiting us. Resolving this misunderstanding took a few phone calls and apologies but turned out ok in the end. We drove the rental cars to Mantra Pandanas hotel and settled for the evening.

Territory Day fireworks in Darwin
Territory Day fireworks in Darwin

Today is the Territory Day in the Northern Territory. Fireworks go off everywhere, some of them sounding like fairly major explosions, wildly echoing through the concrete canyons of the downtown Darwin. I watched one rocket fly into the air intake of an air conditioning system on the roof of the nearby building and waited a while to see if a fire will start but the vent must have been designed to withstand to the Australian style of celebrating, for nothing happened. There was a spectacular fireworks show on the bay, which happened to be right in front of my 17-th floor west-facing room. Excited to see the show, my colleagues walked or drove to the bay; I decided to crash in my room to catch up on phone calls and E-mail, and was rewarded with the views second to none, and all from the comfort of my own balcony.