Lismore with a population of around 40 000 is the main centre of the Northern Rivers Region of New South Wales. The area is also affectionately known as the Rainbow Region due to its progressive, tolerant, alternative outlook and thanks to its utter beauty. On New Year's Eve Lismore plays host to the Tropical Fruits new year party meaning that up to 2000 whacky folk converge on the town for a night of sheer hedonism and a few days of fresh air and recovery on the nearby beaches or up in the "Aquarian" hills. During the xmas/new year period, Lismore is a feral 12 hour drive from Sydney. It's also a gorgeous and fun 95 minute trip on Rex-Regional Express, Eastern Australia's great little regional airline.
Back in October 2008 boyf and I decided that it was time to plan and book our regular trip to Lisome for Tropical Fruits. I booked flights on Rex for $129 each way and a week's accommodation at our regular hippy B&B/Artists' retreat in the hills towards Nimbin. Just so that I could satisfy my inner plane geek (and gloat to those who didn't think to book on Rex to LSY) I went to the DJ and JQ websites to chek their prices to nearby Ballina/Byron. Sure enough they were asking upwards of $200 for the dates we were flying and it was still 3 or 4 months away from departure. For once boyf was happy to be attached to an A.nutter!!!
This trip meant a couple of firsts for me. First time to fly on Rex and my first trip on the Saab 340. Also my first flight wholly within NSW (if a bumpy flight SYD-CBR as a kid in the 80s on a TAA DC9 is considered an interstate flight).
SAAB340B - I think it was VH-ZLV (delivered to American Eagle in 1996. To Rex 2008)
Engines Started: 10:45 ish
Arrived: 12:30 ish - a bit late...but I was already on Rainbow time so no worries
Thankfully our place is only 10 minutes in a cab to the airport so it didn't matter that the taxi I'd booked online the night before was a good 10 minutes late.
We were dropped in front of T2 which Rex shares with Jetstar and Bogan Blue (and some Qantaslink flights). Yet again I could gloat and glide thorugh the terminal with pride rolling my exceptionally stylish (el-cheapo, bought in an emergency) suitcase behind me. The DJ checkin counters had a queue that extended a good 100 metres westwards beyond the end of the snakey-line barriers and towards the end of the JQ queue which was just as long. Both queues were full of shazzas, dazzas and impatient snotty children with runny noses and red cordial stains around their mouths.
At the two open Rex counters on the other hand were were smiling staff waiting to check us in. A delightful middle aged woman pulled up our reservation, taged our checked luggage, made pleasant (not forced) small talk and wished us on our gay and merry way. Meanwhile the 18 year old girl wearing way too much make up behind the nearby DJ counter was snarling at some happless moron who was casting me incredulous (but slightly imbecillic) looks wondering why I didn't have to stand in a queue a mile long like he had.
Security was s expected and T2 was positively packed with people on their way to holiday destinations all over the country. We made our way to gate 47 through which all Rex pax pass. At 10:15, about 5 minutes late, flight ZL332 to Lismore was called. I checked out some of my fellow passengers. There were the four backpacker types who, by the look of their blood shot eyes and slow movements, had already got in the spirit of the Rainbow region by partaking of the funny smelling cigarettes that are so common up that way. There was a young mum with an exceptionally well behaved daughter. There was a slightly odd looking couple both of whom wore trousers pulled up too high and a smattering of other ciy and country folk.
We all went downstairs and boarded the waiting bus that would (eventualy) take us out to our little waiting aircraft. At the bottom of the steps the first officer was standing and greeting passenges as we boarded. Nice touch. Standing in the door was a smiling FA of indeterminable age (honestly she could have been anywhere between 25 and 45) who would later introduce herself as Libby. Once everyone had boarded (100% load) Libby shut the door and did a few walks up and down the aisle helping people with carry on luggage, making sure people were settled and comfortable, going through the usual "you're in an exit row today" routine and being generally busy and useful, not once loosing the smile on her face.
Now talking about smiles, some airlines do them well most of the time (TG, CX, NZ) , some do them well most of the time (QF domestic), some feel a bit forced (SQ, JQ - i.e. smile or youl lose your job to some other adolescent!!!) some kind of try sometimes (DJ, MH, LH), and some simply don't bother (UA et al). I've only once come across an FA as genuinely warm, professional and skilled as Libby on this Rex flight and that was in the pointy end of an SQ 777. She set such a positive tone in the little Saab cabin throughout the flight.
During our long taxi out into Botany Bay in order to take off from "the 3rd runway" towards the north, Libby gave the safety demonstration. I was mesmorized by the amzing acrobatics and contorttions necessary for a sole FA to do the demo, holding the handset/mike, and doing the "lift the clasp, nose and mouth, life jacket over your head, whistle and light" routine with full choreography. 10 points from all but the Ukranian judges...and they only gave 9.5 due to sour grapes and maybe because the smile faltered ever so slighlty when demonstrating the mouthpiece to blow for inflation.
The little Saab powered down the runway and was gently airborne within seconds, seeming to wobble over the airport for ages whilst gaining altitude. We flew northwards over the suburbs before leveling out at 13 thousand feet somewhere west of the Central Coast. The captain came over the pa to say that we'd be flying lower than usual today due to cloud a few thousand feet above us. That was fine by me a I just love pressing my nose up agains the window and peering down at the green land below and boyishly enjoying the wonder of flight.
Once we'd levelled out, the lovely Libby got on the PA to offer to call ahead for a taxi upon arrival in Lismore for anyone who needed transport into town (what a simply beautiful bit of customer service i tohught). She then said she'd be coming through the cabin offering either sweet or savoury snacks for morning tea and a drink of water, followed by tea or coffee. The fact that the coffe was the most vile instant coffee this side of LA didn't bother me because by this stage I was so enamoured by the quaintness of flying Rex and the obvious pride all the staff that I'd encounted thus far took such pride in their jobs and thier little airline.
All too soon the captian came on the PA again to say we were about to commence our decent and to warn that there might be a few bumps as we passed through the sub tropical clouds that were the nacent stages of the wonderful thunderstorm we enjoyed that afternoon (and just about every afternoon) in lismore. He skillfully ducked and weaved among the clouds while passengers sucked on the mints that Libby had handed out just prior and about 70 minutes after leaving sydney the little Saab kissed the tarmac as lightly as a feather.
We taxied to the cute, functional terminal and deplaned and were thanked yet again by the lovely Libby and the 1st Officer who was at his post at the bottom of the stairs.
I stepped off the plane in love with flying again and breathed in the rich, heady air of the Rainbow Region and wished life was always this serendipitous.