Words: Heather Swan
In April the BASEClimb Wingsuit Team - Glenn Singleman, Roger Hugelshofer, Ash Darby, Vicente Cajiga and I - made the first wingsuit flights over Kati Thanda (Lake Eyre), Wilpena Pound and the remote outback village of William Creek. It was Ash's first adventure with us and we were using new wingsuits - Hunters from Phoenix-Fly. We had a blast!
These uniquely beautiful Australian landscapes are rugged, remote and raw. If you haven't been yet, put them on your must-visit destinations list.
We started our adventure in Adelaide where we picked up two luxurious 4-wheel-drives, courtesy of Toyota Australia.
Wilpena Pound is around six hours easy driving from Adelaide. We took one of the scenic routes via the Barossa Valley and the charming historic town of Clare. Wilpena Pound Resort is a thoughtfully laid out 'eco' village with everything you need from hotel style accommodation to camp sites. There is a restaurant, shop, cafe and pool.
Kati Thanda is much more remote. To drive the famous Oodnadatta Track from Wilpena Pound to William Creek (access to Lake Eyre) you need a 4-wheel-drive, and it will take around eight hours. Once at William Creek there is a camp ground, or neat, clean accommodation in relocated miner's 'dongas'- part of the William Creek Hotel which is run by the indomitable 'Mayor' Trevor Wright. We stayed in the cutely named 'Pelican Suites'.
Magic hour - at sunrise and sunset - is stop-and-stare gorgeous. At sunset the sky burns orange and indigo, then when the stars come out, uninterrupted by city lights, they wash the inky sky like fireworks. William Creek centres around the Pub and the electricity drops in and out with the vagaries of the cantankerous generator. The locals are outnumbered a-million-to-one by the flies, but the place has an undeniable charm.
Yet most people will only ever see William Creek, Lake Eyre and Wilpena Pound in photographs. Those that do make the trek out to see it, walk or drive around, experiencing it only from an earth-bound perspective. A lucky few, with the cash and the nerve (I’m always surprised how many people are afraid to fly) see it from behind the windows of a scenic charter flight.
This is why Glenn and I like seek out special places to fly. In the last ten years we’ve had incredible experiences flying all over the world. Highlights include the second ascent of Mt Meru, a stunning 6772-metre mountain in the Indian Himalaya. After three weeks of climbing, we made a wingsuit BASEjump from 6604 metres. We flew around Mt Connor in the remote outback of central Australia, across Sydney Harbour from Rose Bay to Barangaroo, across Brisbane city and in April 2015 across the Grand Canyon from rim to rim. This latest outback adventure was just as inspiring and a lot of fun.
It’s one thing to say, ‘I want to fly across Lake Eyre,’ as I did after seeing an article about it having water in it for the first time in a decade, but then the devil as they say, ‘is in the detail’.
The biggest hurdle is usually obtaining permission, but in the case of flying the Outback, it is logistics - the sheer remoteness of the locations. There is no jump plane anywhere near there, so we were fortunate Wright Air, a company that does scenic flights and rural aviation services in the area, has an Air Van capable of taking our team of five to 12,000ft AGL. Trevor (who owns the company) was happy to make the necessary modifications - opening the door in flight, taking the seats out and fitting skydiving single point restraints. We were also fortunate to have Andy Mulholland, an experienced skydiver and pilot as our veritable ‘jack of all trades’ and jump-pilot.
Our ground crew, Melissa Davis and Terry Clark volunteered to make the epic drive to retrieve us when we landed. The ready-for-anything Land Cruisers are the vehicle of choice in the outback. We also had the latest infallible technology – for safety (Satellite phones and ePIRBS were essential), navigation, filming and communications. If you're traveling the Oodnadatta Track as we were you really need a Satellite Phone, just in case you break down in the middle of nowhere.
We pulled all of that together, funded it ourselves and made six flawlessly executed world-first flights, capturing unique images of some of Australia’s most breathtakingly beautiful vistas.
South Australia is a beautiful, diverse state offering everything from the beach to the outback with some of Australia's best wineries in between. Our images were unique though and South Australia Tourism liked them so much they shared the images and video with their 550k Social Media followers, attracting comments like, “Fantastic, Fabulous, I have walked around, over, on top of, and throughout the Finders Rangers and Wilpena Pound. Great memories of my childhood. But never from the air, great filming, looks brilliant.!!!”. Hollywood Director, James Cameron said he loved the video. “A great idea, flawlessly executed.” He said.
That we can bring something of our experiences back in pictures and on video to share with non-skydivers so they can appreciate the joy inherent in our sport is a huge bonus. Our footage has been watched by millions of people via social media and major mainstream programs such as Channel 7 National News, Discovery News Canada, National Geographic and 60 Minutes. Australian Geographic magazine are running a feature article in their September edition – expecting to captivate their 750,000 readers with our aerial photography.
Ordinary people get it. They say things like, “It must be incredible to fly like a bird in such beautiful places. I could never do this myself, but it looks amazing.” And of course it is, especially when we make the flying about the experience and the privilege our sport affords us.
It’s not like jumping at the drop zone, where of course we are performance focused and every jump is critiqued on how far, how long and how tightly we flew.
The joy of being the first to experience a place like no one else has is priceless. It’s what the pioneers of skydiving cinematography, people like Carl Boenish, tried to convey to the world. He set out to make skydiving films that would explain the WHY. ‘Why do you jump out of perfectly good aeroplanes?’ His films did what words never could to answer that question. The giant smiles, the bright coloured jumpsuits, the obvious elation is impossible to miss so that more people are drawn to the sport, if only to do a tandem. Later, in his BASEjumping films, Carl highlighted the power of the landscape and a parachutist’s unique interaction with it. Wingsuiting takes that interaction to new levels.
In pushing the boundaries of what we do with our wingsuit skydiving and cinematography, Glenn and I experience this joy anew and we don’t lose the wonder at how far we’ve come, and how much further we might go.
At Lake Eyre under canopy I looked at one of the most beautiful vistas I have even seen. The sun was low in the sky, puncturing the clouds with shimmering gold rays. The puffy white clouds were mirrored in the water of the lake, and the salt changed from white to pink and back to pink again. On the other side the outback stretched out like a moonscape. We landed on a small headland 107 kilometres from anywhere and it felt incredible!
At William Creek all the locals and the tourists collected in the main street, waiting to see us fly over. We gave them a show and 3 members of our wingsuit team landed, to the locals delight, eleven steps from the front door of the Pub. At Wilpena Pound the local aboriginal council and the management of the Wilpena Pound Resort came out to the airstrip to watch us. When we landed (being careful to miss the kangaroos and emus), the small crowd, obviously gobsmacked cheered and congratulated us wholeheartedly. Our wingsuits and camera helmets fascinated them. They thought what we’d done and how we did it was simply amazing. And it was.
Later this year we plan to fly Melbourne CBD and other beautiful parts of Victoria and the Northern Territory. We’ve also progressed the permissions for our most ambitious flight yet – the North East Ridge of Mt Everest. Stay posted!