A festival, flights and a rail fail

It’s been a long day and our short trip up to Central Queensland is now over. Though I did not feel the same dread as on the flight up, I still awoke to a sense of anxiety about our upcoming flights. At the same time the weather forecast sounded much nicer. Surely it was to be a very pleasant flight back…

If only I could have caught a train then I would have been so much more relaxed. Sadly, there was no train to catch. Not from Yeppoon.

As I mentioned before, once there were trains to Rockhampton, from where you can still catch trains north, south and west. Those days have gone, along with the railway tracks that connected Yeppoon and Rocky.

I went for an early morning walk with my camera to inspect the remains of the railway station and yard. Not a single track remained. The wooden station was in a decrepit state, fenced off, though I hear that it is to be moved and preserved. Shrubs grew wild alongside the platform. Despite this, I could very well imagine catching a passenger train from there, mentally rolling back the years.

The yard at Yeppoon was once very interesting, with a number of sidings, freight buildings and a wye, a Y junction allowing locomotives to reverse direction.

All gone.

Part of the line across from the station has been converted into rail trail. I walked over to the entrance and read the historical signage. According to the signs regular passengers trains stopped running between Yeppoon and Rockhampton in 1978, long before we arrived. So it was not negligence that we never caught it.

Perhaps the silver rail motors that we sometimes saw near Lakes Creek in Rockhampton were commuter trains to the meatworks or tourist train specials. Something to research in future.

Sadly the closure of the railway feels like a typical Australian lack of tourist vision and the prioritisation of property developers above all else. A regular train service to Yeppoon would have been slower than by car but more of a tourist draw card and could have helped the localities along the way too. It would have offered something that nowhere else in Queensland has got. Even better would have been the long gone line to Emu Park. You could combine catching the train with a day at the beach. Perfect!

It’s too late now.

Rockhampton Airport is now open again and has been for a few days. Though we could have attempted to change our flights without charge the issue is that the car was hired from Gladstone, so we must return there.

We pack our bags and check out from the motel. On the way out of Yeppoon we pass the entrance to my old high school. I can see some changes, but it’s school holidays and there’s no chance for a closer look.

The drive up to Rockhampton and down to Gladstone is unexciting, just reversing the previous journey without the familial interlude. Many coal trains are operating along the line, a kilometre long hauled by electric or diesel locomotives interspersed between the snakes of coal hoppers.

We have a couple of hours before we have to return the car and check into the flight so we head down to the Gladstone Marina to the Harbour Festival fair. This is like a substitute for the Sydney Royal Easter Show that we aren’t taking him to this year. The number of rides and sideshows is quite impressive and Alex immediately starts compiling a list of those he wants play on. Unfortunately the prices are surprisingly high, especially the sideshow alley. Twenty dollars for three games? I would hope that the odds of success are quite high for that price.

In the end he just jumps on the suspended trampolines and takes me for a spin on the dodgem cars. We eat a lunch of nachos and pork buns under a marquis. It’s quite warm, though there is a fair breeze blowing and scattered clouds scooting across the sky. While they offer relief from the heat they are also a source of anxiety for the flight.

How do I know I’m feeling anxiety? By the number of trips to the bathroom that I need to make.

We farewell the fair. At least we made some use of the detour to Gladstone.

When we drop the car off at the airport it is dustier than when we collected it. I’ve already checked in online but we collect our boarding passes and drop off our single bag at the QantasLink desk. The friendly young agent points out the pin code for the unmanned Qantas lounge and we are all set.

The lounge has a self serve bar with chips, biscuits, cakes, coffee and alcohol. No bathrooms however, so just when I am trying to relax Alex demands to be taken out to the facilities.

I arrive back in time to see our aircraft taxiing into the bay It’s an Bombardier Dash8-Q400 turboprop, the same type I flew late last year in an effort to put my turbulence anxiety fighting skills into practice.

We walk out along the tarmac, boarding from a long ramp rather than the built in door stairs. It’s a narrow tube with two sets of seats on each side. I take the window next to a stranger while B and Alex sit opposite.

It’s a full flight so far as I can see. There are two attendants serving us today and they perform the safety demonstrations prior to our taxi out to the northern end of the sole runway. We pass a temporary hanger housing a couple of Army NH90 helicopters, presumably used for the disaster recovery efforts after Cyclone Debbie and the associated floods.

Suddenly we are racing down the runway. My heart is in my mouth. Up we rise into the air and it is okay. Then we turn right and there are views of the Queensland Alumina Limited refinery, red from the bauxite they process. Further around and we see what look to be salt lakes, red from the algae. But no, these are lakes of red mud, the leftovers after alumina is extracted from the bauxite, leaving an iron rich slurry, hence the rusty colour.

From the ground, depending on where you looked, the sky was clear, had scattered cloud or, in one spot, a larger mass of cloud. I hope that the pilot would steer us through the clear skies away from the puffs of doom.

But no, we seemed to be aiming at the clouds. As we approached we started bumping more. Then we entered and things got rough. As the view outside turned white I felt the force pushing us up, then dropping us down. Yes, this aircraft was light enough that there were actual drops.

A flicker of clear sky, then the next cloud mass, and the next.

When we emerge above them my hands are shaking. Now that might be due to the fact that I am level with the propellers and there is lots of vibration, but I certainly feel shaken.

That was not fun.

The seatbelt lights are switched off and  the first officer welcomes us to the flight, telling us that it should be good conditions in the air and in Brisbane, but that it’s QantasLink policy that passengers should wear their seatbelts at all times when seated. No need to tell me!

Below us are scattered clouds and a dark green undulating landscape occasionally riven by a brown river or pale mine scar. I half hope that this flight will be over quickly, half fear descending through the cloud again.

The crew come through with small packs of greasy bread and butter pudding cakes and drinks. I eat the food, more out of duty than anything else, and request a bottle of water that I won’t have to worry about spilling.

When I’m in this mood every small shake disturbs me. I imagine apologising to my aviation enthusiast friends that this wasn’t the classic tropical turboprop ride, luxuriating in the scenery on a slower, lower ride as I have in the past.

Our descent into Brisbane took us over the Glass House Mountains inland from the Sunshine Coast, in particular Mount Beerwah, a flattened volcanic core pyramid poking out of the flat landscape.

The clouds come to an end and I feel happier. There are houses and greenery visible below us. At one point I see a giant words “NORTHEAST HARBOURSIDE PARK” carved into a broad expanse of bright green grass.

We turn out towards the coast and fly out over the long, long Redcliffe Causeway segregating the mangrove lined Hays Inlet from Moreton Bay. Our wheels drop and we are over the water. There are some strong crosswind shakes as we turn. I lose track of how far we do turn. It doesn’t feel like enough to align us with the runway, but we are.

The landing is fairly hard, though not as bad as in my last Q400 flight where the aircraft had to be removed from service for inspection.

At last we are on the ground. One more flight to go.

We taxi into the QantasLink remote stand at the northern end of the terminal. Two buses appear. We board the first and take a very circuitous route around the Dash8’s, 717s and 737s until we reach the terminal entrance.

Fortunately there is no need to go through security a second time like in the old days. Instead we head straight up to the Qantas lounges.

The Qantas Club is closed due to a technical issue, so we are diverted into the posher and recently refurbished Qantas Business Lounge. The food selection is a little limited at this time of day. We each try a bowl of mulligatawny soup, which is basically curry sauce, washed down with some Bickford’s cordials. A recent addition to the lounge is the Cantina, which today is serving “Mexican” baked potatoes with cheese, black beans, bacon pieces and some brown avocado sauce that I refuse. Not the best really, but I am not in desperate need of food either.

It’s time for our final flight of the trip. I am not as nervous as for the last. We are flying in a Qantas Boeing 737-800 jet again and I feel confident that the weather will be better than on the flight up.

We take our spots on board, looking out over the engines forward of the wing. It’s a good spot and I’m glad it was free at check in.

The cabin manager introduces himself and informs us that this aircraft is equipped with QStreaming. I take out my phone just to check, but sadly the flight map has gone. Perhaps it is only available on certain flights.

We have to wait for a few stragglers, mainly in business class, then the doors are closed and the safety briefing commences. We taxi out to the runway for a northerly take-off.

Alex and B both tell me to put my camera away and stop hogging the window as we rise into the air. I can see ships carrying cruise passengers and cars at the Port of Brisbane on the opposite side of the river, then we are turning south across the bay.

Brisbane’s port, airport and central business district are visible from the window, but disappearing into the late afternoon glare as we ascend, this time avoiding any clouds.

The seat belt lights are quickly switched off and the meal service begins. This time it’s a pack of raw carrot sticks, Jatz crackers and spring onion dip. It’s the kind of thing we would have happily snacked on at home and B steals some of mine because she refused to take one herself. Alex is fast asleep on our laps, otherwise he would definitely have eaten them. He was busy dipping carrot sticks into his soup at the lounge.

The cloud has reappeared beneath us. The low sun glitters off country dams like diamonds on the ground. I’m just listening to music. B watches the news on the fold down screens. They display captions so it’s not necessary to use the supplied earphones.

The captain has describe the weather in Sydney as fine with wind from the south so I expect we’ll be making a direct descent over my workplace. By the time we begin our descent the cloudscape below us has become more complicated. Is it smoothed by winds, I wonder. There are a few shakes as we approach the first layer, but it’s better than in the turboprop.

What I am rewarded with is the most gorgeous evening scenery. First greys and golds as we begin making some adjustments to our course (ATC delaying us probably), then brilliant orange from the setting sun.

We fly down over the Hawkesbury River, over my work place in North Ryde, past the Parramatta River with the Homebush Olympic Centre in the background. I can see the neon towers of Easter Show rides in the grounds.

I point out more landmarks to Alex, including the Ikea store that says you are just about to land. But we have the extra distance of the third runway, over the terminals. I don’t know it until we are driving home, but there’s a rarely seen Antonov An-224 parked at the freight terminal below too. You can spot it in the pictures.

Finally we touch down, racing along the runway towards the sea. The reverse thrust kicks in and we strain against our seat belts. Then it is all over and we turn to make our long taxi back to the gate.

We park at Terminal 3 next to a Boeing 717 with the sky alight with fire. It was a wonderful way to end the flight.

Our bag is out quickly and we catch a taxi with a speeding driver back home as, being a Sunday, buses to our area are lacking and we have to get home to watch the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who (appropriately enough called “The Pilot”).

It was a good, if too brief, holiday. I would definitely think of returning again during the cooler months now that Alex is old enough to really enjoy the company of his cousins and his Nanna.

Would I fly there again? I had no complaints against Qantas. Their customer service and the experience was flawless. The flights themselves illustrated my frustration with turbulence. You get all worked up about it and the flight is smooth. You approach with confidence and you hit some very uncomfortable bumps. And past experience seems to be no guide. Just because you have a good experience with one lot of clouds doesn’t mean you won’t be bumping around next time, similarly with aircraft. The only consistency is inconsistency. But then you see the most spectacular sunset outside your window and it all seems worth it again.

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