A desire to showcase the river country of NSW and move away from the vagaries of farming in the outback is what drove Peter and Wendy McDonald to establish Murray Darling Scenic Flights in 2022.
The pair had been farming sheep and crops at their property near Thule Lagoon near Caldwell since 2003 and, after battling drought on and off for almost a decade, decided it was time for a change of scenery.
“I’ve always wanted to go flying,” Peter said.
“I said to Wendy during one of the drought periods when I was sick of feeding sheep, ‘That’s it, I’m going to sell the sheep and do some retraining and get my commercial pilot’s licence’.”
Peter first got the flying bug as a young boy when he flew with his father, and the dream of taking to the skies stayed with him into adulthood. He achieved his private pilot’s licence in 2009 with a vision forming in the back of his mind.
A few false starts, or rather delays, due to the welcome arrival of a second child, rain and COVID-19 meant Peter didn’t begin his flying career as first planned.
“Archie was born the day after I went on and completed my commercial pilot’s licence. It also rained. We continued farming and flying was put on hold but after another couple of years of no water I started looking around for work in aviation. Then COVID hit. I was told, ‘We are putting pilots off, not recruiting new ones’.
“Someone said to me, ‘You live in a beautiful spot. What about starting up your own business?’ So I called the aviation authority, arranged the relevant forms and 12 months later, we were off.”
Peter is now flying regularly and “absolutely loving it”.
He is taking visitors to locations such as Lake Mungo in the Willandra Lakes World Heritage Area, the glorious pink and white expanse of Lake Tyrell in the Victorian Mallee and the Gayini Wetlands, an area of national and international conservation significance in the southern Murray Darling Basin.
“The salt lake at Lake Tyrell is incredible and the most undervalued pink lake in Australia. I’ve flown over many lakes in Australia, including Lake Eyre, which I’ve flown over quite a few times. By comparison, Lake Tyrell is 10 times more spectacular than Lake Eyre,” Peter said.
Yanga National Park and the adjacent Gayini Wetlands are located between Balranald and Maude. These stunningly diverse sites feature significant Ramsar wetlands and redgum forests. Together, they comprise some 200,000 hectares and are the floodplains of the lower reaches of the Murrumbidgee and Lachlan Rivers.
From the air, they present as a myriad of forests, lakes, creeks, river courses and mudflats.
“The Gayini wetlands have been described by ecologists in the area as the Kakadu of the south,” Peter said.
“The Riverina floodplains up here are incredible to fly over, they are an inland delta.
“The beauty of flying this region is that no two flights are the same, there is always something changing. Colours start to change as the moisture dries up and green turns to gold, but then green emerges again as the flows in the rivers start to recede and new growth emerges. It is an amazing thing to witness.”
The appeal of Peter’s flights is that they are not just airborne ‘scenics’. Each route presents an opportunity to land and immerse yourself in the nature at hand. Some flights work in with a ground operator, others include a stop such as Mungo Lodge, where you might enjoy a morning tea break or lunch. He also offers overnight and extended adventures.
All flights take in the Murray River system and are conducted in new Cessna 172 aircraft, which seat three passengers. They depart from local airports including Deniliquin, Echuca, Swan Hill or Kerang. Special pick-ups from other airports such as Hay can be arranged.
Peter said one area showing off its seasonal brilliance at the moment was the Barmah Milawa Forest, home to the largest river red gum forest in Australia and the most intact freshwater floodplain system along the Murray.
He loves nothing better than a dawn pick-up of his passengers.
“The mornings are the better time to fly because it’s generally so much smoother,” he said.
“To get up in the air early is magic, when you fly first thing when it’s absolutely still. It’s like driving a car on glass, beautiful and smooth.”
He’s averaging two scenic flights a week and is due to rack up 100 flights for the year.
“The NSW outback is really very accessible, and people don’t realise it,” Peter said.
“To go from the river to the outback, fly over wetlands and 20 minutes later land somewhere in the desert like Lake Mungo blows people’s minds. They have no idea of the complexity and geography of the landscape.
“People think you need to travel remotely to get these experiences, but when you put a flight into the mix you can do it all in a day or two if you want to.
“We live here, we know how significant these landscapes and ephemeral wetlands are so we are hoping to reframe the way people think about the region and the environmental assets we’ve got here.”
Original Article published by Vanessa Hayden on Region Riverina.