It's not until I'm actually sitting in the open-topped biplane that the fear sets in. I'd known I was going to take this joy flight over Port Lincoln on South Australia's Eyre Peninsula for weeks, had been excited about it even. The moment I stepped into the canary-yellow three-seater aircraft, however, my heart started thumping in a way that made my whole body vibrate.
There is an assumption – my job being what it is – that I will be the personification of the wild-hearted adventurer; the person who's happy to speed down black ski runs and ride wild horses bareback. Let's just say, that's not the reality. There was a point in my life, not so long ago, that I had to take prescription drugs just to step onto a commercial flight; one that could carry more than 300 people and had an actual roof on it.
Luckily, our pilot for this sunshiny afternoon, a South African-born man named Mike Damp, is like a human a Valium, in a good way. The calm, bespectacled 60-something has been flying for the past 45 years. As he checks that my seatbelt is in place, he assures me that we're flying in "the Cadillac of the plane world". While this plane looks old-school, being modelled on a 1935 classic aircraft called a Waco YMF5, it was actually built in 2002 and is state-of-the-art. "There's nothing automated in these planes and they're so simple, which is why they're so safe," says Damp, zipping up his full-body khaki flight suit and climbing into the cockpit. "Failing me making some silly, silly decisions, we're going to be just fine."
By the time the propeller starts spinning and we're lifting off the ground, my heartbeat has slowed and I can begin enjoying the freedom inherent in biplane flying. The airborne equivalent of a convertible, it leaves you open to the elements (particularly the wind, my hair's a bird's nest within seconds) and puts you right at the centre of the experience. I close my eyes and feel the breeze warming my cheeks, sniff the subtle scent of salt in the air. Soon, I even manage to peep over the windowless door to check out the land below.
Port Lincoln is the seafood capital of Australia, with the largest commercial fishing fleet in the southern hemisphere. From up here I can see the dozens of circular tuna farms that have showered the area's fishing families with their millions. They pepper Boston Bay harbour on which Port Lincoln is set, one of the largest protected natural harbours in the world and three times the size of Sydney Harbour. As we soar further along the coast, I see stretches of isolated white sand beaches fringing the crystalline sea, in which we swam with playful sea lions earlier in the day. Next to them, rolling acres of lush green national park in which travellers can hike and camp, and the geometric divisions of farmland dotted with cattle.
Suddenly, Damp's voice crackles through my headset, pulling me out of my reverie. "Are you ready?" Oh god, I'd almost forgotten about the "wing drop" Damp talked about back on solid ground, in which he'll essentially roll the plane and plummet us towards the earth. "Errr… yes?" I squeak into my mouthpiece, wishing dearly to find my internal Amelia Earhart, yet clutching the seatbelt so tightly my fingers turn white. "Here we go!"
The plane tips to the right and drops altitude, the resulting g-force pushing my body into the seat and my stomach into my mouth. It is terrifying and exhilarating in equal parts – and, surprisingly, something I want to do again. Which in itself is a triumph, and no small thing for this incrementally less timid traveller.
Nina Karnikowski travelled as a guest of the South Australian Tourism Commission.
Regional Express (REX) flies from Adelaide to Port Lincoln up to eight times daily. See rex.com.au
30-minute flights with Joy Flights Port Lincoln cost $450 for two. See joyflightsportlincoln.com.au
Double rooms at the Port Lincoln Hotel start from $155 a night. See portlincolnhotel.com.au