Living on Cape York Peninsula can feel isolated at the best of times. People think that living in Weipa or Cooktown is remote. But try living on a cattle station or a wildlife conservation property in the middle of nowhere, hours from the nearest town. And that’s in the dry season. It’s a different ball game when the big wet strikes. Last week, Cape York News editor MATT NICHOLLS visited some of those places by jumping on the weekly mail plane that has become the lifeblood of the region ...
FRESH fruit and vegetables are something most of us take for granted each day.
If we want them, we pop down to the supermarket and fill up a basket.
But when you live hours from the main road, let alone a town, then a delivery of fresh produce makes it feel like Christmas.
“We couldn’t survive without the mail plane,” says Emma Jackson, who lives on Wolverton Station with husband Neville and family.
“For us, we are lucky because Weipa is only a couple of hours away, so we don’t need it as much as other places do, but in the wet season it is essential.”
It’s always hot in Cape York, so there are only two seasons – wet and dry. For nine months of the year, you’ll barely get a drop.
But when it rains, it pours.
A good wet season will typically bring more than a metre of rain.
A huge wet season will bring double that.
“It’s not uncommon at all for us to be stuck at Wolverton for more than a week, sometimes more if it’s really bad,” Ms Jackson said.
Those thoughts are echoed by neighbour Sally Gray, a manager at the Piccaninny Plains Wildlife Sanctuary – once a former cattle station that is now used for research and conservation.
“The weekly mail plane service is vital on a property like Piccaninny Plains, particularly as for long periods of the wet season we are completely isolated from the outside world,” she said.
“Aside from delivering a mail service, which includes bringing Royal Flying Doctor Service kit re-supply, we are able to receive essential fresh produce and urgent parts for all those critical on-station things like generators, which are notorious for packing it in in the middle of the wet.
"With the Cape York service also taking local passengers, it is a transport lifeline year-round to all us folk living in these remote locations.”
Megan Blair has been working on the mail plane service for seven years, having previously worked for West Wing Aviation (now Skytrans) when it had the contract.
When Chartair won the federal government tender to deliver the service, she was more than happy to change employers.
For Ms Blair, the mail plane is more than just a job.
The people in the Cape have become her family.
“I really like the work and I love the people,” she told the Cape York News from 10,000 feet.
“For them, the mail plane is like Christmas Day once a week.
“In the wet season, it really is a lifeline.”
Ms Blair’s day starts early and can finish late.
“I’m at work before everyone else because I need to make sure everything is ready before we can take off,” she said.
“I’ll get in at 5.45 and sort the mail and then go through the strip reports.”
Stations are obliged to provide a strip report on the morning of their scheduled service.
It’s as simple as filling in a form and then emailing it through to the Chartair headquarters at Cairns Airport.
For some of the most remote stations, which don’t have satellite internet, they can send a fax.
But even with a strip report, pilot Jack Roberts doesn’t take any risks, flying over each strip to get a visual before making a landing.
He’s making sure the dirt runways are clear of people, vehicles and livestock.
“It’s not uncommon for us to see feral pigs or cattle. I’m lucky that we’ve never had any direct interactions with animals on the strip, but you always need to be aware,” Mr Roberts said.
Once the plane lands, Ms Blair is straight out and ready to deliver the goods to each station.
More often than not, someone is waiting, ready to take their packages back to the homestead.
If no one is there, the goods will be left in a designated spot near the runway.
But the mail plane brings much more than letters and fresh produce.
It brings conversation.
Leah Jones lives on Kendall River Station with her husband Ben and daughters Tamar and Eden.
Apart from the other station workers, who can be a little bit rough around the edges, she doesn’t get to interact with anyone else in person.
So she was glad to meet the plane last Tuesday, having a chat with not only the flight crew, but also the passengers.
The plane powered down at Kendall so that the handful of passengers could use the bush toilet after what had been a two hour trip from Cairns.
“It’s always nice to stop and say hello to other people. Megs is just like family and we love our little chats,” Ms Jones said.
From Kendall River, the Cessna Caravan hopped around to another half dozen stations before returning to base.
Mr Roberts said flying in the dry season was worse than flying in the wet.
“Most people would think it’s the other way around, but the air is much smoother for flying in the wet season,” he said.
“You get a lot more bumps in the dry season.”
For the most part, you feel like you’re in a small commercial plane with the smooth landings.
But there are a couple of tree-surrounded runways that can force the inexperienced traveller to raise a sweat.
Unlike commercial runways, which can be up to 4000 metres in length, most of the strips in the Cape are around 1000m.
“I can comfortably take off in 900m,” Mr Roberts said.
“Stopping the plane isn’t an issue but there are a couple of strips which are a bit shorter than I’d like so those are placed in the sequence where we are likely to be lighter.”
Mr Roberts said modern pilots had it easy compared to those from yesteryear.
“Those guys would have truly had to know the Cape,” he said.
“Everything would have been visually navigated, there was no GPS back then. It would have been much more difficult.”
Mr Roberts said he was sceptical of the job before he took it on, but now loves it.
“When I first started flying I heard general aviation pilots say that airline pilots would do this job if it paid the same and I wasn’t sure about that,” he said.
“Now that I’ve done both, this is far more fun and interesting. It is a really satisfying job.”
Brad Allan from Archer River Roadhouse was there to meet the mail plane last week and get his weekly copy of the Cape York News, which is delivered for free to all of the Peninsula’s stations.
He said the federal government-subsidised serviced was essential to those living remotely.
“We get by because we aren’t too far from Weipa, but others just wouldn’t survive without it,” Mr Allan said.
Those thoughts were echoed by 82-year-old Darcy Burns, who owns Holroyd, Yarraden and Crystal Vale Stations.
“You wouldn’t be able to operate a business the way you do without the mail plane,” he said.