We’re beginning to feel like seasoned travellers. Been on the road now for four weeks and we’re meeting Dave the coach driver in the bar.
The bar is full of young back packers and our party is a mix of French, Dutch and German. One of our party is a young English teacher from Malaysia who speaks five languages and she becomes our translator when our schoolgirl French fails.
Dave points out two young lads at the next table who are helicopter pilots. Dave’s leading a four hour guided walk tomorrow morning around the Canyon. We are wrecked with being on the road and partying too much at the casino in Sydney that we decide to blow the bank balance and book a half hour helicopter ride over the Canyon.
We hope the pilots don’t drink too much and stay out too late, but we have a great evening with all the young people. As we go back to our room, I ask the girl at reception to point out the Southern Cross for me.
We walk to the cafe for breakfast but by the time we walk back temperatures are soaring and the flies are alive with a vengeance. There’s a dead snake on the road, its outline defined by the hundreds of black flies feasting off its remains.
A strong wind has picked up so we think the helicopter ride will be cancelled, but promptly at 9 am there’s a knock at the door and we are picked up in the minibus.
We pay our money and sign documents freeing the pilots from any liability in the event of our demise. A mere child takes us behind the office and we see what we think is a plastic bubble car. This is our four seater helicopter. The child is our pilot.
I am shoved into the front seat so I sit beside the pilot. Julie hops in the back and sits behind me firmly strapped in with her fingers in a white knuckle grip on the back of my seat.
We have head sets and microphones strapped on. I realise I have nowhwere to hold on to, save the handle which will open the door and my feet are placed on thin perspex. There is nothing between me and outside but thin perspex!
I am terrified. I can hear my boys saying, ‘You’ve done some really stupid things in your life Mum, but this must beat all.’
I remember the Japanese tourist who died in a helicopter trip whilst we were in Cairns. I remember Dave saying how these guys love flying so much they are working for less than the dole! I want to scream, ‘Keep the money. Just let me get out.’
The child radios in to base and we are off.
It is awful. We are buffeted by the wind the second we lose the shelter of the hanger building. The air vents at my left hand side puff air through and the pilot has trouble steadying the craft. As we rise further I am rigid with fear and I hear him speak through the ear phones but when I open my mouth to reply no sound utters. I am truly struck dumb with fear.
Rocking and rolling we fly over the complex out towards the Canyon. The pilot radios in to base confirming our position and I know this is because they will need to know where to find the wreckage.
We are now over the beautiful canyon and the pilot points out the pin pricks which are our fellow travellers on the last leg of their walk. I am too frightened to bend my head down to look as that would be enough to topple the balance of this plastic bubble so try to glance down without moving my body weight.
We were crazy. We paid for a half hour trip when we could have just paid for a fifteen minute trip.
Again the child radios into base. This time they will find the wreckage in the desert. We fly further over the valley and then the pilot spots some wild horses. I utter a soundless death scream and brace myself against the back of my seat as we dive down and he chases the horses over the floor of the valley. I think we are going to crash into the rocky cliff at the far side, but he pulls up from the chase and we rise above the cliffs with inches to spare.
We turn south and the wind is no longer buffeting through my air vent. He points out the water source high on the Aboriginal land. They have been here 20,000 years. We are shown the sacred place where no women are allowed to go. It is truly spectacular and a privilege to see. We have seen a lot more from the air than the walkers would be able to see but I still can’t speak.
To my surprise we land safely but I still can’t speak. The child goes off to the office and the other boy calls us over to the minibus. Both of us are shaking and laughing and I realise my voice has come back now I am once more on terra firma. We ask the driver to thank the child pilot and explain why we were struck dumb.