A 747 flight to Tasmania? And not even to Hobart, but the regional airport of Launceston. And with Jetstar? What???
Okay, I’m being deceptive. The flight number of our Jetstar Airbus A320 from Sydney to Launceston in Tasmania’s north was JQ747. A bit like the old QF787 flights to Canberra.
We’d bought the tickets months ago during one of Jetstar’s big sales, taking advantage of the school holidays dates, our first time flying into Launceston and my first summer visit to the state.
As always I felt anxious about the trip (though considerably less anxious than about of next one), though I consoled myself with the short flight times. It helped that Sydney presented its finest flying weather yesterday with clear, mostly calm, skies.
I wake early, feeling like I have had too little sleep. Despite this being a Sunday I had stayed up late last night doing work.
Outside is another perfect day for flying. Not a cloud in the sky and not much wind. It’s also a great day to escape Sydney with the temperature forecast to reach the forties. We are mostly packed so it’s just a matter of finishing off some leftovers and tossing the rest.
Our neighbour drives us to Padstow, from where we catch a train to the Domestic Airport. There are long queues in front of the Jetstar desks, but we have already checked in online. We print our bag tag and some boarding passes at the electronic kiosk, but when we finally reach the bag drop desk the attendant reprints them due to the faint ink.
Once through security Alex orders a Maccas breakfast and I use the facilities. One of the side effects of anxiety is upset bowels. Not that I’m feeling that anxious anymore as we go to the gate.
Boarding is a matter of fighting for the windows seat with the other two. I grab it, organise myself, snap photos. Unfortunately my phone updated to Android 8 while the software to download photos wirelessly from my camera did not and is incompatible until some future update. I won’t be updating this tablet until it does.
There’s not much for me to say about the Jetstar A320, I’ve flown the so often. We are in row 8, comfortable enough on the black leather seats so long as nobody behind us pokes their knee into the back of them. The front cowl of the engine is visible out of the windows, the sharklets (flakelets in Victoria?) indicating that this is one of the more recent acquisitions.
We are asked to switch everything to flight mode as soon as the cabin door is closed, then the black clad crew perform the safety routine as we back away from the gate. Today we are taking off from the third runway towards the north.
Another aircraft lands in front of us, then we taxi on to the runway, align ourselves with the runway and race off into then sky. A tight right hand turn takes us over the industrial suburbs to the east then out over the sea. It feels like we turn northwards for a while, but perhaps it was only towards the east, heading away from the coast. Finally we turn south and fly parallel to the coast. The seatbelt lights are switched off and there is the click of the odd unfastening seatbelts as the crew spring up to service the cabin.
First officer Claude Sandor pipes up over the address system and welcomes us to the flight, along with captain Lachlan Bell. He announces that our cruise altitude will be 26,000 feet with a smooth flight expected apart from some bumps on descent into Launceston. And that we should arrive early, around midday.
I’m partly reassured, but still feel an underlying tension, despite the weather outside. On my headphone is playing ambient electronica to calm my nerves, though there are many interruptions by Alex once he awakes from his take-off snooze. B is busy reading the inflight magazine.
We haven’t paid for Plus fares, so there is no included food credit on this flight and neither do we avail ourselves of the buy on board.
Outside we are paralleling the coast. The ocean below is almost as flat as the sky is blue, ripples without whitecaps. The coastline is visible, from the entrance to Botany Bay with the airport in the background, specks of aircraft on descent as the fly over the cliffs of the Royal National Park. Then the industrial port city of Wollongong and onwards to South Coast fishing towns. Almost all the way a dark green backdrop of the escarpments leading to the Great Dividing Range, the eroded mountains that separate the Eastern coast from the huge inland of Australia.
Above the range is the pale white Moon, its mares tinged blue like the seas they were named after as it heads towards the western horizon.
We cross the coast again south of Eden, then fly inland for a little before emerging from the southern coastline near Mallacoota in Victoria. Now we are over the Bass Strait that separates Tasmania from the mainland.
The sky has changed too. Covering the strait is a carpet of white cloud, while above us whisps of white flee overhead. Long lines of gradually dispersing contrails from other craft give me confidence in the conditions around.
The cloud makes it seem that only the sea of Bass Strait reaches up into the skies, whilst the land channels it. For as we begin our descent towards the cloud I can see it has an end. I spot Flinders Island below, then, clear of cloud, the northern Tasmanian coastline.
I am aprehensive now, waiting for the bumps, but they do not come yet. I see mountains approaching, a granite outcrop that I am guessing is Mount Barrow, bare grey dolerite walls stark against the vegetation.
I’m expecting mountain wave turbulence, but still it doesn’t come. Not until we descend lower over the picturesque farmland and rolling hills does the aircraft start its shaking and bumping. But we are slow now as we pass Launceston Airport for an approach from the south and I can cope with this. It’s a lot like flying into Canberra.
Yet when we land on Launceston’s single runway it is as smooth as it can be and the windsocks hang limply towards the ground.
The first flight for 2018 is complete and it was a pretty good one!
We taxi along past the Sharp Airlines hanger, filled with turboprops, and come to a stop to the north of the terminal.
There are no jetbridges at Launceston, so we make our way down the stairs and into the terminal building. Despite that, the terminal looks reasonably well equipped, with a cafe and local products store.
I had thought that the Hertz collection point was a shuttle bus ride away, but they, like many other car rental companies, have a desk in the terminal building and it is only a short walk to our red Hyundai i30 rental car. We carefully tak photos of the existing damage, then pile in for our ride.
Where to? I suggest Tasmazia, an hour and a half away, but stomach rumblings indicate a closer destination is called for. Instead we drive to Launceston’s most famous site: Cataract Gorge.
On this clear hot weekend day the Gorge is crowded, no doubt many of the visitors local and taking advantage of the swimming pool and swimming in the river. It is a beautiful spot, the South Esk River flowing through a gorge of grey volcanic dolerite rock, the grounds landscape with early English sensibilities.
We have a lunch of hot pastries sitting on the bright green lawn while a peacock attempts to steal the crumbs. There are many of these iridescently plummaged migrant birds wandering around the gorge and apparently they are bold food thieves.
Then we take a walk up to the suspension bridge across the river. The heat of the day lent the air the scent of eucalypts and pines. Below us young men splash in the cold cascading waters of the river.
Once across the river we follow the path back down and across to the kiosk again, admiring the rocks and the wildflowers that line the banks, the black swans preening in the water.
Climbing back up the path we cross the river again, but this time on the chairlift, which features the world’s longest single span. It is a slow, relaxing way to take in the sites from above, though my skin burns wherever the sun touches it.
On the other side there are wallabies playing and a long walk along river towards the Kings Bridge, leading to the city. Despite the heat, the scenery is worth it. There are huge rocks to our left, one held by cables and poles to stop it slipping. The sides of the steep opposite bank are covered with she-oaks and the colours remind us of a Tom Roberts painting.
At one point there is an art installation requesting silence. But that is the least quiet point on the walk, as nearby youth jump from rock cliffs into the river with a portable speaker blasting out their music.
We are weary by the time we make it back to the very pretty Cliff Grounds and its restaurant, where we cool down in the presence of more peacocks as we sit beneath a ginkyo tree. The chairlift returns us to the entrance of the park and the car.
It’s time to check into our hotel and catch up on the cricket, as England wilts in the Sydney heat. But summer days are long this far south and there is still plenty of daylight for exploration.
We set out in the car again along the eastern Tamar Valley, where the Tamar river broadens out as it reaches the sea. We spot a cherry farm and pull over to purchase a box of cherries direct from the farmer. There is nothing better than fresh Tasmanian cherries. So much better than what we have been eating from the supermarkets back in Sydney.
Continuing on, past the industrial area of Bell Bay we reach George Town. Not the Georgetown of Penang in two weeks time, but a much quieter version. Very quiet on the Sunday evening with nowhere that suggests a meal. The scenery around the Patterson Monument is very pretty though, peaceful with the slow river meandering past reeds and parkland.
Hungry, we head back south and cross over the river at Batman Bridge (cue Adam West music) to the Western Tamar region. We take the slow winding road through Deviot and are rewarded with beautiful views of the river and pretty houses and vinyards. No food, however, so we press on.
It is difficult to convey just how lovely the scenery is by the river. So serene, the golden afternoon light casting the reeds and trees, the gentle waters, the old houses in a beautiful glow.
Eventually we turn inland towards the highway, but now we have views right over the valley from the top.
At last we reach Launceston, hungry and tired. My head aches. We try the Launceston Seaport area, a new development, looking for food. The first place we try has no tables free until after 8pm. The second is just fish and chips, and we’ve had that too recently. Finally we go to The Levee which has a table.
We sit down and order. Steaks for everyone.
But they too are busy and we don’t actually get any food until after 8pm anyway. Fortunately it is worth the wait. The best steaks we’ve had in a long, long time. Just perfect.
And so it is time to head back to the hotel to rest. It is still light outside, but our minds are dark with fatigue. Tomorrow, an even bigger day awaits.