Finally. We've been stuck in Stawell Victoria for four days - because this time of year, cyclonic low pressure sweeps north into the Great Australian Bight, then turns east and drags cloud, rain and general muck across Victoria and southern New South Wales. We dodged cloud to get in to Stawell, and then it rolled over us. Every morning, we would get up at sunrise, walk through Stawell's business district and out the other side, and up Observation Hill - because from the top, you can see approximately 30km in every direction. Two of those four days, the sun would be shining in blue sky above us, and in every direction there was cloud down to the ground, between two and 10 km away. So very frustrating.
We did manage to visit the zoo in Hall's Gap, some 20km away. This was excellent - it's a great smallish zoo (well, not that small, it has some large reserve areas) and best of all, most of the animals there are somewhat tame. I got to sit with the meerkats, who have this great scam going whereby they have trained the keepers to place food in the visiting human's hands. So I got clambered on by three meerkats, who each grabbed one of my palms and nommed until the food was gone. Then they climbed over the rest of me to be sure, sniffed my ear, bumped noses with me and scrambled away.
After that, I got to snuggle two dingo pups. They were both white dingo puppies. Also, both fairly socialized, so both extremely eager for hugs and ear and tummy scratchings. The zoo is socializing these two to take to events to raise awareness of the dingo, so they need lots of people to interact with them gently and affectionately. Um, okay.
Also, got to walk through the wallaby area. The wallabies immediately boinged over and demanded food, so we fed them the grain kibble we'd been handed on the way in. The wallabies were actually a bit chubby; they obviously are quite successful at puppy-eyeing food out of visitors - and were tame enough to cluster around when you squat down to feed them and don't mind being petted. I ended up with three of them crowded around me submitting to head scratchings in exchange for food. Many animals in this zoo are in fenced areas which humans can enter and exit via gate. One thing that struck me as peculiar was the popularity of the spotted deer and the turkeys - until I remembered that these are native to the U.S., so to the locals, they were roughly as exotic as the koalas were to me.
This says nothing of the grey kangaroos who also boinged over for their share. The roos are bigger, so live behind a wire fence in a large reserve area, but of course will immediately approach passers-by looking for a handout. So in sum, got gobbed on by a bunch of different creatures; saw some more birds of all sorts, and some animals I didn't touch but was still amazed to see the way I did. In this zoo, many of the enclosures don't have fencing or walls around them - they just have lean-over walls at waist height and electric fencing to keep the animals away from the viewing edge (the backs generally open into reserve areas people aren't allowed into). So I got to lean over and trade quizzical stares with a red panda and a Tasmanian devil, for example, from around one yard of distance. The koalas were too stoned (all koalas are stoned on eucalyptus toxins permanently) to be interested, and were hanging out in their gum tree some six or seven yards in, but good on them. The only disappointment (as my travel buddy explained) was that this zoo did not have a 'meet a koala' experience (where they place a stoned koala in your lap) so he was not able to get video of me being urinated on by a marsupial. I told him better luck next time.
We've lost enough time that we have had to prune back our plans to take a one-week walkabout with the airplane on our own. This is not a severe loss - it will save some money, for one thing, and for another we've already flown around the whole country - the only places we didn't go were up the east coast towards Cairns and west towards Perth. The west is too far away to get back in time, and the northern part of the east coast is also suffering weather, so we probably can't go there and make it back. We planned to make a stop in Bathurst to visit with my pax's friend who owns the flight school, and maybe find a day to do the Sydney Harbor scenic flight once we get back to Camden.
This morning, we popped our of our rooms just before sunrise, and miracle - blue sky. Packing quickly, we took a taxi out to the airport and packed up SDN, waiting patiently there for us these several days. I decided to head northeast to Griffith YGTH - around 221 NM away, it was on a near-direct line to Bathurst, and had a Mobil fueling point (which we have a carnet for). It felt so good to get off the ground again, and bank over the (very) small town we'd been stuck in for the past half-week. Don't get me wrong, Stawell is a perfectly fine town, but we wanted to be moving again.
When we got to Griffith, the wind was from around 330 degrees magnetic at 13 knots. Unfortunately, the runway at Griffith is 06/24, so that meant a direct crosswind. Sigh. There was a Jabiru in the circuit doing training, so the locals weren't letting it bother then. The Cessna 182 is rated for 15 knots crosswind - which means that's the highest number Cessna will admit they tested it at. I've landed a 172 in 15 knots of crosswind, so I figured what the heck.
No worries. Griffith has RPT (Regular Passenger Transport) operations - twin turbo-prop regional flights - so they have a nice long runway. Landed and taxied in to the fueling point, pulling in behind the Beechcraft just exiting, and fueled up before taxing to transient parking. Afterwards, wandered in to the Griffith Aero Club, which offered bathrooms, drinks & snacks on the honor system, and free wifi. Used all three, and was cheerfully greeted by the four or five local aviators who wandered through, striking up conversations about all manner of things ranging from how ridiculous the CASA is compared to the FAA (I flatly refused to buy that one, but they convinced me) to flying Jabirus, to the tour we'd just taken, to the inevitable "So one time I..." stories that pilots seem incapable of avoiding but enjoy anyway. I had a microwaved meat pie (surprisingly good, and I was inescapably reminded of C.M.O.T. Dibbler) and a tea, and signed the visitor's book before we headed back out.
The crosswind was still there, but we got off 24 fine and turned left, climbing to pass back over midfield on course to 060 while an RPT REX flight took off below us and headed south-southwest towards Melbourne.
About halfway to Bathurst, we realized there was a broken cloud layer at 4200 feet MSL over Bathurst and the surrounding area. This wouldn't be a problem, except that Bathurst is at 2500 feet of altitude. I might be willing to sneak under an 1700 foot AGL cloud layer - except that between our position and Bathurst, there were numerous peaks up to 3600 feet. Um...no. Also, we discovered, my pax's friend wasn't in Bathurst but was spending today and tonight in Sydney. So, with no reason to push it, we diverted north to Dubbo, where we'd gotten stuck by weather at the start of the tour. Dubbo is only 70 NM or so from Bathurst, and is on the lower slopes of the hills at around 900 feet - plus, we could skirt the hills to get there. So we did. Landed at Dubbo (I sort of tanked that landing, caught a gust and dropped it just hard enough to take a bounce...ugh) and taxied in to the fueling point. Gassed SDN, and hopped back in to taxi to the parking area.
She wouldn't start.
The starter motor whined and grumbled when the key was turned to START, but the prop steadfastly refused to move. Sigh.
Now, you can hand-prop a Cessna. But hand-starting propeller-driven aircraft is not the safest thing, and I've never done it - and my pax isn't a pilot. So either way, I'd have to try to teach this to myself - um, no, not with a 230-HP meatchopper involved - and even if I was willing, my pax would have to be at the controls with me in front of the plane. Also, no.
Reported the situation to the rental firm in Sydney by phone, asking them if this was a known problem with SDN. Nope. I tried manually turning the prop (not to start it, with the master off and keys out) to see if changing the position of the crank would help - sometimes it does with cars, when a worn gear means the starter won't engage at that point. Nope, no joy. So I wandered into the nearby [Royal Flying Doctors] hangar and asked if they knew anyone on field who worked on Cessnas, and got referred to Air-Link, across the apron. Ambled over there and asked; the chief mechanic turned to one of the other two gents hanging around and said "John?"
John said "Sure, mate," and gave me a lift back to the plane on their tow cart. When I explained what was going on, he said "Aw, it's a 182? Bet they have a Kelly aftermarket starter in it, those bloody things do this sort of bilge all the time." He popped the cowling off, reached into the engine compartment until he was shoulders deep and then his voice filtered out: "Yep. Kelly."
So John (using a single wrench and a driver) removed the starter motor from SDN (without taking off the nose cowling, impressive) and showed it to us. "Yep. See this gear here? Well, when the starter turns it's supposed to move forward to engage the gearing on the crank, but you can see, it's stuck back up in there. No worries." Then he put it on the cart and drove off. 25 minutes later he was back, having disassembled and lubed the starter, and he reinstalled it into SDN, then gave me a nod. I got in. Standby battery, check, avionics off, check, master on, throttle to 1/4, fuel pump, mixture to full rich for 6 seconds, fuel pump off, turn the key- and she started.
That was 1.5 hours of labor, which turned out to be a fairly paltry sum, so I happily paid up. Tried to buy John a beer but he refused, since he'd invoiced me for the labor. "No dramas, mate."
So we headed into Dubbo and immediately made a beeline (after getting rooms) for Donut King - the last Donut King we'd seen had, in fact, been this same one. Then we had dinner and headed back in for the night, and here we are - 2.5 weeks after setting out to catch up with the tour, 4400 NM or so later, and back in Dubbo. Tomorrow to Bathurst, hopefully, and thence to Sydney.