Qantas's Flight to Nowhere arguably served two purposes; it was partly a cathartic expulsion of nutty pando steam for its 134 passengers but principally a cry for attention from a hog-tied industry giant.
Yet a circular flight of fancy for flight-of-fancy's sake feels like needless carbon flatulence when existing regional flights such as REX's 'Milk Run' offer a bona-fide outback tour de force.
The Brisbane-to-Mt Isa flight (twice-weekly, both ways) is not for the clinically impatient. You can fly from Sydney to Tokyo in the same time it takes the Milk Run to bunny-hop its seven tiny-town pitstops.
I hop aboard the Brissie-bound flight in bush-race capital Birdsville, with six-and-a-half hours and five tyre-screeches still to go. Birdsville's tin-shed terminal feels like a mildly pimped-out bus stop. I'm too late to score a window seat because there is no online booking system on-site. "They do that in Brisbane," says the check-in bloke.
High drama erupts come boarding time: one of the 16 checked-in passengers has gone AWOL. "She's probably in the pub," says a sun-dried giant of human being, sporting speed-dealer sunnies, skateboard-sized thongs and short shorts that showcase humungous man-of-the-land carves. A strategic phone call ferrets outs the absconder from the 140-person haystack. She sprints across the dusty road to a chorus of bush raspberries.
Charismatic full-brimmed hats of variable vintage are stacked three high in overhead compartments before the flight attendant recites her fourth safety demonstration since take-off in Mt Isa this morning. She will repeat it four more times today, new passengers or not, tempo wavering between country-race caller and political-TV-ad disclaimer. Survival kits featuring protein bars, a saw and water steal the life jackets' usual thunder.
The Diamantina's incomprehensible immensity unravels in our windows as the Saab 340 turbo-prop complains its way up from the ochre-ringed tarmac (tip: avoid over-wing seats). The Simpson Desert's dunes stripe off into infinity behind us. Capillary-esque channels claw texture and a suggestion of green into the incandescent red earth, irrigated by Lake-Eyre-bound tropical rains that fell far away and long ago.
From up in the troposphere, Channel Country seems incapable of life, the archetypal outback void, but at ground level even light rain re-animates this dormant ecosystem; desert frogs hop forth from nowhere, lichens and flowers pop furiously. Erudite eyes can discern differences between a strange rock and a tool, and just another earth mound and an ancient 'kitchen'.
Windorah is the half-way point for the crew and its mandatory lunchbreak. Business and economy use the same fridge, so goes the in-joke (there is no business class). A sign commands that we nuke the [$4] meat pies for three minutes. Unfortunately, the high-mileage appliance throws fuse-tripping tantrums today.
The five 14.5-metre mirrored dishes lined up alongside the elfin airstrip were once choreographed to follow the sun "like giant sunflowers". However, one of Windorah Solar Farm's 'concentrated reflectors' has refused to dance with the others for a couple of years. No-one seems to know if or when it will get its mojo back.
A couple of flies are the only new passengers for the next leg to low-lying Quilpie (population 595) – proudly the "end of the [railway] line". A solitary Quilpien joins us on the "hot turn-around" (one engine left running).
The snack-only in-flight service is relentlessly efficient and friendly, if not exactly varied. In theory, Mount Isa passengers can gulp down eight complimentary coffees and scoff eight gluten-free cookies in just over nine hours. Probably more if they ask nicely.
Which explains the galloping conversations between slow-speaking, straight-shooting strangers, most of whom will stumble on a common acquaintance if they flap gums long enough. No topic is off the fold-down table, from land management to thorough pummelling of "those useless bloody idiots in Canberra".
After the Milk Run's longest leg (one-hour and twenty minutes), wide-streeted Charleville (population 3335) looks like an outback Mexico City compared with this morning's teeny towns. Crucially, Charleville's brand-spankers terminal has one facility that many lack: good coffee.
With each leg east, the landscape increasingly betrays humanity's attempts to tame and profit from it, from join-the-dots networks of coal seam gas to the laser-levelled fields of Darling Downs.
Big hats find their big heads again as the Milk Run descends into what is optimistically called 'Brisbane West' Wellcamp. The airport is actually 140 kilometres west of the Queensland capital, in Toowoomba – which is 'city' enough for most of these overcaffeinated outback folks, judging by the handful who remain for final short hop into Brisbane.
Obviously, the Milk Run isn't a designated dairy-product delivery service per se (although it does transport goods). It is, however, an indispensable (Queensland-government subsidised) link between remote outback communities and the big, bad outside world. These communities appreciate every night you spend in a hotel; the local economies are buoyed by every beer you down in their quirk-strewn watering holes.
So, what will it be? A Flight to Nowhere or a Milk Run that takes you to a whole bunch of somewhere-you've-never-been-befores for roughly the same price?