Hidden away in the Avon valley on the western side of the Wheatbelt, lies a diamond in the rough known as White Gum Farm.
It’s not called White Gum Farm for nothing as the farm is situated at the northern end of a stand of Eucalyptus wandoo, also known as ‘white gums’, growing on a hill of some of the oldest rocks on earth dating back 3.5 billion years. To the west, is Mount Bakewell and to the south, Greenhills tavern and grain silo. In between, the green hill of white gums stands out as a beacon in the flat landscape when you’re flying, guiding you home to runways 09-27 and 14-32.
There are so many magical things about this place that make my heart sing. Some visit White Gum for the camping, 4 wheel-drive tracks and fishing for silver perch in Lake Kimberley; the big dam in the middle of the caravan park. Others, like myself, come to fly. But in my time here, I have discovered there is so much more than that.
Whit Gum Farm is where the Wing Threads adventure all started for me. I first came to White Gum Farm in November 2015 to do a microlight trial instructional flight with certified flying instructor, Gordon Marshall, at Sky Sports Flying School.
On my first evening I camped in my Subaru Forester next to the camp kitchen, back seats folded down with my sleeping mat, pillow and doona. Flying microlights is an early morning and late evening activity. When I woke at dumb o’clock the next morning, I was greeted by a blood orange sunrise through my rear window, or so I thought until I realised, I was facing the wrong way. I turned around to see the actual sun rising over the dam and was blown away that what I thought was the sun was a full moon glowing a brilliant red as it set on the horizon.
Such wonders of beauty are not uncommon at White Gum Farm. The flatness of the surrounding landscape opens up vistas of the sky that are breathtaking to behold from the ground, whether it be an epic sunset, galaxies of stars revealed in the blackness of a moonless night, or a burgeoning wall of grey cloud as a thunderstorm rolls in to soak the often-parched earth.
When the wind is still, a pervasive silence falls like the world is on pause, so one can hear the flap of a magpie’s wings 50 metres away, and when it blows, you can hear it as it rolls over and down the hill, rustling one tree after another as though the trees are reaching up with their leaves to join a Mexican wave. When I first began flying, I remember Gordon telling me if I wasn’t sure which way the wind was blowing, all I had to do was look at the grass as it would be bent over in the direction the wind last blew. I cannot look at the grass now any other way.
Grass is a wonderful indicator for the wind at White Gum because there is simply so much of it. The Farm is surrounded by cropland making it a wonderful place to fly as there are so many places to land and the flat mosaic of paddocks puts on a spectacular show of colour with the seasons best viewed from the air.
In winter, the new crops sprout into fields of bright green before Spring transforms them into seas of fluorescent yellow as the heads of the canola bloom. After harvest, the scorching summer sun turns the slashed stems brown before the farmers start to burn off the old crops in the Autumn, ploughing the blackened topsoil back into the earth weeks later to begin the whole cycle again.
After flying in the morning, I love to explore the nearby bush to see what birds will reveal themselves to me. I especially love to do this during the wildflower season when the shrubs burst into colour and one may also come upon fields of pink paper daisies.
White Gum Farm is a haven for parrots – and could easily be renamed ‘The Land of the 28s’ (or Ringnecks as they’re properly known), although the pink and grey galahs come a close second. In my explorations, I often see boobooks, stubble quail, white-browed babblers, weebills, yellow-throated miners, white-eared honeyeaters, pied butcherbirds, yellow-rumped thornbills and rufous treecreepers by day and barn owls, tawny frogmouths and owlet night-jars by night. The list goes on.
Kangaroos also roam the park freely and it is a delight to go for a swim at the end of a hot day in Lake Kimberley, to be joined by a kangaroo or two come to have a drink as tree martins, white-backed swallows and rainbow bee-eaters swoop down to drink as well from overhead.
There are also what some would consider less welcome characters. Spiders are everywhere and it is not uncommon to find a colony of 50 or more orb spiders sitting patiently in webs inter-spun across the back of a hangar.
Many a morning I have gone to the ablution block and been joined by a huntsman the size of my hand on the wall of the shower. One must also be mindful of the many redbacks and check there are none in the trike before flying. Or that a paper wasp hasn’t decided that under the dash or in the pitot tube would be the perfect place to build a nest. If you don’t like spiders, then I would advise you don’t shine a light into the grass at night unless you wish to be greeted by hundreds of tiny green eyes glinting back at you from the many wolf spiders come out of their burrows to hunt.
Through flying with Gordon, I became part of the White Gum Farm family. Next door to the Farm, is White Gum Air Park, owned and run by Mary and Andrew Cotterell. Mary and Andrew plan to build up to 50 ‘air-partments’; hangars fitted out with accommodation so you can kiss your plane goodnight and go to bed in the room next door and dream about flying.
They have also bought two ex-commercial Boeing 737 passenger jets. The aircraft belonged to the fleet of the now defunct company, Ozjet, and are no longer airworthy. With a team of enthusiastic volunteers, they have been slowly dismantling the jets at Perth Airport and bringing them piece by piece to White Gum to reassemble. When they are finished, one of the jets will become a walk-through display and the other, accommodation.
I only had the privilege to know Gordon for three short years as he passed away last November, but much of the White Gum rituals remain the same. Whenever we had finished flying for the day on a weekend, we would always drive through the paddock next door to visit Mary and Andrew for cheese and bickies before dinner of an evening, which I still enjoy doing when I visit. Often, we would be joined by other pilots, or Mary and Andrew’s family and there have been many nights spent laughing and talking by the fire bin outside and watching the stars come out.
Similarly, everyone around knows it is always morning tea in the ‘clubhouse’ at Mary and Andrew’s at 10.30am. Mary does freshly baked muffins, cakes and slices for everybody (my favourite is the ginger slice) and she is famous for her baking for good reason – you never know who is going to show up and everyone is always welcome!
Ever since that first trip to White Gum Farm I have felt there is something very special about this place and even now, when I make the drive out here from Perth, I feel myself begin to relax once I’m out of the city and make the turn onto the Southern Highway at The Lake roadhouse. Perhaps it is the prospect of flying, or that I have always known my time at White Gum would be brief and have wanted to soak it all in. Either way, I can see this strong connection with place that I feel will always keep me coming back. Welcome to White Gum.