50. The Cropduster

I LIKE TO FLY over the city at dusk, in the summertime, when it’s really hot, and the city feels like a dying animal. It makes me emotional, for some reason. Happy and sad at the same time. But there are all kinds of times when it is good to fly. I like equatorial storms the best. We fly around them. I work for Qantas now but I used to fly with Ansett. When Ansett went bust, it took me ages to get into Qantas, so in between I got some work with a regional airline in central Australia. It later went bust too. Ben, as always, had to do it his own way. He bought himself an old cropduster with his payout and fixed it up and told us he was taking three months out to circumnavigate Australia. To be honest, I was a little jealous. In the end he did a figure of eight and visited me in Alice Springs twice. I took time off each time. The first time it was spring and the weather was great. The second was summer, when it’s too hot to do anything but fly and drink. Each time we spent a week together and we did a lot of flying and a lot of drinking. On both occasions, Ben seemed to be enjoying himself, but the second time he was a little different from the first. He told me he'd seen something up north that had shaken him up, but I never got to the bottom of what it was. The last time I spoke to him was on the phone and he was in Melbourne. He told me he was bored and twiddling his thumbs, which he wasn’t very good at. He returned early and under budget so he was going to take an extra couple of weeks to go around Tasmania. Now I’ve had a look at the black box logs and I think about that flight of his quite a lot. He would have taken off from Moorabbin in the early morning before dawn. It was late summer. The sky and the sea would have been in their own ways flat and pink and grey, the way they can be before rain. He would have landed in Devonport and then he would have had to make a very important decision. Perhaps he’d already made it. Should I fly straight down to Hobart and come back up the east coast, the safe way; or should I actually do what I set out to do and circumnavigate Australia, which also means the west coast of Tasmania? The west coast of Tasmania is of course famously treacherous. So Ben decides that he’s going to do what he set out to do. He gets to Smithton and spends the night at the Smithton Hotel, a pub with rooms. Presumably, he wakes up the next morning and gets the weather forecast from the bureau. I’ve had a look at the weather forecast for that day. A cold sou’westerly front was due to hit the coast at about 2pm. So I know what he was thinking. Ben was thinking, if I set out early enough I can get to Strahan before the cold front hits. I’ve been to Smithton since then and he probably just didn’t feel like spending another night there. There’s not much going on in Smithton. It’s worse than Alice Springs. But lately sometimes I’ve been wondering if I really do know what Ben was thinking. Because he didn’t take off that day particularly early. Not the early he would’ve taken off if he’d been concerned about getting to Strahan in time. Now, when I was a student pilot I used to fly cropdusters for fun. One time I had to get a cropduster from Tamworth in New South Wales down to the King Valley in Victoria. That meant flying over the Great Dividing Range. As I flew, a low cloud front came in that covered the hills I was flying over, forcing me down into a valley. If you’re flying over a valley and the clouds descend to an altitude lower than the ridge line in front of you you’re suddenly stuck. Trying to guess the height of the ridge hidden in the clouds is too dangerous, so you have to land the plane, which means you have to have some ground you can land it on. I had to look up a map of landing strips that cropdusters carry for such circumstances. I landed my plane and at the strip I found an old cropduster pilot who had been dusting crops most of his life. He invited me to stay at his place that night, and we spent the night drinking in his kitchen and he told me about his life skimming over the fields of the local farms, and about the mountains, and the surrounding district, and the people who lived and died there.

With thanks to T and in memory of M.