Outback elevation

Bruce Elder joins a group of enthusiastic travellers aboard a Dash 8 for a tour of northern Australia's A-list attractions.

It's an age thing. If you are under 30 you might ask: "Who is Bill Peach?" If you are over 50 you might say, as many responded when I told them I was taking a Bill Peach Journey to northern Australia: "Is he still alive?"

From 1967-75, Peach was the face of ABC television. The Kerry O'Brien of his generation, he was the host of the channel's flagship nightly current-affairs program This Day Tonight. Every ABC-watching baby boomer, and all those who were older and cared about quality current-affairs reporting, watched as Peach and a team that included Peter Luck, Tim Bowden, Gerald Stone, Stuart Littlemore, Richard Carleton, Caroline Jones, Mike Willesee, George Negus and Mike Carlton used a combination of satire, sarcasm, wit and hard-hitting journalism to enthral their huge and devoted nightly audience.

Peach left the ABC and made some excellent documentary series, including Holiday with Bill Peach for five years and Bill Peach's Australia. He started Aircruising Australia in 1984 to take travellers to remote places in Australia.

Peach, 75, is alive and well. He still accompanies some of the tours run by his operation and there are old fans who want to "join Bill" and travel around Australia.

In 1984, the idea of taking a small plane and exploring little-known areas of Australia was radical. Most travellers, including many who now form the core of Peach's business, took trips to Europe and put outback Australia far down their list of must-see destinations.

This year Bill Peach Journeys is running seven itineraries in Australia and one in New Zealand. A small office in Mascot will organise 19 tours in Australia and five in New Zealand. The company's flagship tour, which I joined, is the Great Australian Aircruise.

Any list of must-see places and activities in the Top End, the Red Centre and the Kimberley would have to include the Stockman's Hall of Fame at Longreach; Katherine Gorge; the sublime rock-art galleries at Kakadu; flights over the Bungle Bungles and the Horizontal Falls; a walk along Broome's Cable Beach while staying at Pinctada Cable Beach Resort and Spa; watching the sun rise and set over Uluru; a walk through Kata Tjuta (the Olgas); exploration of the gaps, chasms and waterholes in the MacDonnell Ranges near Alice Springs; and a stopover at Birdsville's famous pub.

The Great Australian Aircruise goes to all these places. It's not cheap: $13,995 a person for 12 days. And, with a single supplement of $1629, a total of $15,624 if you're travelling alone and have your own room.

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The cost might seem prohibitive but comparisons with other carriers specialising in small-plane journeys with high-quality accommodation indicate about $1000-$1200 a day is the norm.

In recognition of the number of solo travellers, three times a year the single supplement is waived on the Great Australian Aircruise and this is the tour I join. Not surprisingly, there are many single travellers: widows and widowers, divorcees and those who have been happily single all their lives. In fact, of the 28 (the maximum for each trip is 34), there are only four couples.

Who goes on a Bill Peach Journey? Obviously, people who have the money. That, as our tour director John Medcalf points out, means they have all been achievers. While the oldest traveller is 89 and there are at least three octogenarians, the average age is about 65-70.

Some people are still working; some are in the their final year before retirement. Many have been educators or have been married to educators. All are well-educated and engaged with the world around them.

One octogenarian widow had gone regularly with her academic husband on walking holidays in the Italian Dolomites. She and others now want to see the wilderness of Australia without having to sit on a bus or in a four-wheel-drive for weeks. They aren't caravan people.

This tour works for these travellers not only because it ticks most of the A-list places in the Top End, the Red Centre and the Kimberley but because it ensures a high level of comfort, flying in a small plane and staying in the best available accommodation.

Attention to detail is the defining feature of this tour, among the most meticulous of the many group trips I've joined in my life. It probably helps that Medcalf has spent his entire life in hospitality, working as an attendant with Qantas, operating his own B&B and working with Peach's company for 20 years.

After you book, a large package arrives with your Bill Peach Journeys bag, backpack, wallet, cap and itinerary, a map to the company's small departure lounge at Sydney Airport and instructions on what to pack (to suit temperatures from more than 30 degrees in Broome to below zero at night at Uluru).

The tour spends two nights in Darwin and Broome and travellers are given the welcome option of dining wherever they choose. This is group travel that isn't obsessively focused on group activities. Just collect a receipt for your meal and it will be reimbursed in cash the following morning.

On our arrival in Broome, bus tickets from Cable Beach to the Broome shopping centre are handed out. You can head into town, lie by the pool or wander along Cable Beach.

The 36-seater Dash 8 aircraft bears the company's livery and each time you board the plane the seating arrangements are changed, so everyone has time in a window seat.

Typically you never have to carry your luggage. And no request is too much trouble. When we are delayed in Alice Springs, for example, the company arranges and picks up the cost of a flight for a passenger who needs to return to Brisbane urgently.

No tour, even an expensive one, is without its weaknesses. Bill Peach Journeys is at the mercy of local providers at each destination and, although standards can be demanded, it is hard to enforce them. At one point, after a bus driver has delivered a non-stop ramble full of crazy conjecture and offensive references to "blackfellas", one octogenarian wit turns to me and asks: "Do you think there is a special school for bus drivers?"

The decision to use a Dash 8 aircraft, even with the proviso that its 36-seat capacity will never be fully used and passengers will be moved around the cabin, doesn't change the reality that the windows are too small for good viewing and in most rows the aisle passengers have to crane to get the view they paid for.

Inevitably there is no substitute for "up close and personal" experiences on the ground. Seeing the Bungle Bungles and the Horizontal Falls only from the air is a poor substitute for the more expensive and time-consuming options of seeing them from the ground and water.

This is a trip for people who want to travel in comfort, who don't want to spend weeks (or months) wandering around the Top End and who want to see the iconic sites of the Northern Territory and the Kimberley. One couple in my group had taken this tour three times.

Perhaps Peach has given the best summation of the experience. In an ABC TV interview in 2007, he said: "I'm now of the generation that sees the beauty of the desert and the rocks and the things that repelled the earlier people who were looking for green mountains and big rivers, and the things that they'd come from in Europe, and who thought that this was a hell on Earth.

"You have to have a different eye to see what is beautiful about dry country, arid country. And of course it's not all like that. We've got nine different climates, we've got tropical wetlands, we've got everything."

Bruce Elder travelled courtesy of Bill Peach Journeys.

FAST FACTS

Touring there

Bill Peach Journeys' next 12-day Great Australian Aircruise departs on August 24, for which there is a stand-by fare of $12,795 a person, twin share. For details of next year's departures phone 1800 252 053 or see billpeachjourneys.com.au. Other tours run by the company range from a 12-day Great Southern Aircruise to a 12-day Icons of New Zealand Aircruise.

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