This is a different style of report to normal. Its a little long, but sit back and enjoy the read. Thanks also to the team at Qantas for giving me many moments like this over the years.
My 4am wakeup call was the unearthly call of the curlew. These long legged birds dart furtively when hunting. To stay grouped in the darkness they let out loud, spectral cries which some Aboriginal tribes say are cries of dead babies. The only other sounds in the pre-dawn tropical night were frogs croaking rhythmical. Sleepily I showered, got dressed and tucked my trousers into the top of my socks, comfortable that only the night’s creatures would see this fashion indignity. One has to do these things when getting to the airport by bike. I can bike because the airport is close to my house and each morning the first take offs of the day wake me. On this day, however, I beat them because I was going to be on the first departure of the day, the 5:45am Qantas to Sydney.
The 20 minute bike ride took me along deserted streets before turning onto the dark, occasionally-lit airport road. Because Cairns Airport lies in the crook of the Baron River surrounded by mangroves, the airport road passes over small, muddy and crocodile-infested creeks. Bike riding really allows you to connect with the world and I could hear the mud plopping and smell its fetid dampness. Only the dim light of cirrus-veiled crescent moon provided contrast between the tangled, gnarly branches of these hardy trees and the night sky. A few stars shone through the thin cloud. Gradually one increased in brilliance before dropping from the sky to alight on the runway hidden from my view behind the trees. The deep rumbling reverse thrust seemed muffled by the intensely still airs of the swamp.
Abruptly, the mangroves gave way to the terminal area and I saw a red Qantas tail taxi towards the international terminal. Its lights made the rich red tail glow warmly in the night. I was heading towards the international terminal too. The bike stand is in a staff area there and they are happy to share it with passengers like me. Once “little squeaker” (she needs a drop or two of oil) was safely chained up and my trousers untucked, it was only a short walk to the awakening domestic terminal. There, immaculate and surprisingly perky airline staff contrasted the lines of subdued, casual tourists who lined up to check-in. I am not one for queuing and after a prompt, yet friendly, security screening my check-in was efficiently completed at the airside Qantas Club.
A brown terracotta urn, prominent in the nearby book shelf, was of passing interest as I bade my time in a comfortable arm chair. Instead I was fascinated by the in-flight magazine of the regional airline, MacAir, a Qantas partner. In this no-frills era, an airline that promises boarding by stairs then a full hot meal on a propeller plane whilst flying you to destinations like Pormpuraaw or Doomadgee seemed unusually exotic and retro-50’s glamorous in nature.
Reality called with the tannoy announcing “the first and final call for QF921 to Sydney at Gate 21.” As it was still 25 minutes before departure, I lingered to finish my toast then headed to the gate. Oddly no one else was at the gate. The reason was revealed once onboard as I counted twenty or so people scattered through the nearly empty economy cabin. We were on a Boeing 737-800 with 156 economy seats. Five of them, including me, were squeezed into the first row. I squeezed past a crumpled and weary lady whose husband and young teenagers were seated across the aisle. She volunteered that they were flying in one go from Perth to Melbourne, via Cairns and Sydney, to see a football match. My raised brows and slightly slackened jaw prompted a sigh of “It’s a frequent flyer redemption and we really love our team.” She nodded to her comatose family across the aisle. “Family bonding time too....” and her voice tapered away with an air of contemplative yearning. Later I saw that her team lost.
The cabin crew, who along with her and our 737 had just flown overnight from Perth, greeted her like an old friend and promised she could soon stretch out on an empty row after take-off. Shortly thereafter, with the perfunctory safety demonstration completed, we backtracked down the runway. I took this time to review my safety checklist, note my nearest exit and reconfirm just what piece of plastic I needed to pull, inflate or breathe through depending on what permutation of aerial death might present itself.
The light load must have made the captain gleeful. Anticipating a spirited take off, he opened the throttles just before the 737’s nose swung into complete alignment with the runway’s centre lights. The low slung CFM56-7B26 engines hoovered the thick humid air into fine tornado like vortices that hung down from the metallic lip of the cowling to the runway. This ethereal bond to the earth, lit by the staccato flashes of the navigation lights, lasted barely a half a minute before it was broken by a crisp rotation. Upwards we soared, agilely banking left seconds after the gear clunked away.
This noise abatement procedure meant the lights of Cairns swung rapidly to lie behind us and we climbed out in the direction of the Great Barrier Reef into purple sky that was being warmed from below the horizon by an invisible sun. Once the requisite height to clear the surrounding mountains was reached, the captain turned us south and extinguished the seat belt signs. My seat companion excused herself and stretched out on the empty row behind us. She was snoring well before a simple breakfast of cornflakes and fruit. The stewardesses pressed warm rolls on whoever would take them and were easily able to serve everyone before we levelled out at cruising altitude. Outside, it was pitch black because, as I would later see, we were flying in high level cloud.
When I requested coffee, which was served generously, I was offered a choice of instant or plunger. As is case more often than not on Qantas, the service was caring, attentive and personalised, even in economy class and despite the obvious tiredness in the crew after their long overnight shift. No one begrudged them the crew chance to stretch out and snooze like the majority of the passengers were doing. They did not have long to rest, however, as our captain had promised us a quick flight down to Sydney. Surfing an advantageous jetstream meant that the 737 would give the odd bouncing shimmy as the wind grabbed its tail and sped us south.
Outside the world turned to grey and ice crystals crept across the window. I neither noticed nor saw the sun rise. Nothing would be seen through the cloud, therefore I settled back, slipped on the noise cancelling headsets, powered up my lap top and worked on some university work due within the week. It was a flash of reflected light from a dam far beneath us that broke my concentration away from my lap top. The cloud we had previously been flying had dispersed to reveal a calm vista of crinkled, bush-covered hills filled with creeping morning mist. Long, tree shaped shadows stretched across the tan earth at the edges of clearings in the bush. These clearings were occasionally filled with a dwelling or some sort of farm building, but as we sped south, the density of human activity increased, signalling our approach to Sydney.
About two and a half hours after take-off, the captain throttled back the engines and our nose dipped. The crew gently woke the sleeping passengers who awkwardly stretched their limbs and rubbed their sleepy eyes like roused children. The captain got on the PA to announce our very early arrival time and suggested that we all find a window seat to enjoy the promised views of Sydney. For about 20 minutes we descended over dense green bush, half-filled dams, yellow beaches whose white surf was dotted with black seal-like surfers, broad lazy rivers and finally the spreading reach of suburbia. Finally the meccano-like structure of the Harbour Bridge and the classically-futuristic sails of the Opera House came into view. The harbour’s blue waters sparkled in the morning light, which also glanced off the windows of Sydney’s geometric skyscrapers.
We were well on final approach now. Although the 737’s flaps were slowing our progress through the air, our increasing proximity to the earth gave us the incorrect impression of speeding-up. Rapidly we shot over the Terminal buildings at Sydney before gliding in for a gentle touch-down on the smaller of Sydney’s two runways that thrust into Botany Bay. The reverse thrust shook us loudly and briefly before the Captain turned off the runway on a high-speed taxiway. From there it was a circuitous and slow taxi to our gate at Terminal 3. We past the kaleidoscope of wide-bodies parked at the distant international terminal. The rainbow colours and logos on the broad tails hinted at the exoticism of Asia. Finally, with a curtsey-like bounce, well pulled up to the terminal and the engines spooled down. As if in a guard of honour, the friendly crew lined the galley to farewell us with genuine warmth and undoubted relief that their working "day" was now over at 8am.
It was a short walk up the airbridge to the waiting hug from mum. Like me, she had flown in to Sydney that morning too, but from New Zealand. Qantas is truly part of the glue that keeps our far-flung family together. It was actually my birthday and for someone thousands of kilometres away from their loved ones, I say without reservation that the hug she gave me was the best birthday present I have ever received.