We aim to fly a kite to the highest altitude in the world
Designed by Robert Moore
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Cable Downs is a 50,000 acre sheep station (ranch) 40 km northwest of Cobar in Western NSW, Australia. It is 750 km and 9 hours from Sydney by road. We attempt the records here because there are few aircraft in the low to mid flight levels. It is near to a weather station and Steve and Karen Viant agreed to host our attempts. On the map the red zone is allocated by our Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) each time we make a series of attempts. It is hot in summer and cool in winter. We avoid the hot months because it has less favourable winds and is just too hot for us to tolerate.
We have flown in March, April, September and October but September seems to offer the best prospects of good winds to high altitude. In the image below you can see a narrow field which is a disused airstrip built by a previous owner, probably when the land was more productive. However, woody weed has gradually encroach on the arable land, reducing the stock carrying capacity. In 2009, Steve Viant cleared the scrub either side of the strip to create a 1.2 x 1.5 km field with scattered medium sized trees. There is now an open section about 500 meters wide with few trees. The woody weed continues to grow back and Steve was determined not to let it take over this section of land while he was custodian. The open spaces allows better positioning of the winch so line sag is not such a problem. The opening up of the field makes kite launches much easier and we can push more line out without snagging tree tops.
The properties for 100 km radius are dry land farmed with mostly sheep, some cattle and feral goats. Goats have become a source of supplementary income, especially in times of low rainfall when yields from sheep flocks diminish. There is a heavy kangaroo population and in good seasons and emus abound. Foxes sometimes can be heard roaming the scrub at night. Outside the recently cleared areas, there is a heavy growth of woody weed, acacia and medium height gum trees. The natural state before colonisation was more open grazing lands with larger, scattered trees. The reduction in Indigenous burning is thought to have probably contributed to the change in the patterns of faunal growth, densities and species mixes.
When a kite comes down it can be difficult to locate in dense scrub as there are often no tracks nearby. It is also very easy to become lost and disoriented as the millions of trees and bushes look the same. The terrain is very flat so it is hard to see beyond 100 meters. When it rains more than a few mm the red soil becomes mud and cars will bog easily. Even 4 x 4s will struggle when over 10 mm of rain falls. Rain is irregular but has impacted severely on the record attempts on 2 out of 6 occasions. This may be because the season chosen to fly kites is unstable, that is, early to mid-spring. Cable Downs is a dry land farming zone with marginal rainfall so can be subject to water shortages. During periods of drought the dust, locusts and flies have made the strip a harsh place on which to fly big kites. Steve and Karen's hospitality more than make up for the hardships. It can be a place for very violent thunderstorms, especially in spring, but we have the woolshed to retreat to. The clear nights allow us to view a spectacular night sky like nothing we will ever see in the city. The kite altitude record attempts have become more than just the quest to beat the world record. It enables us to glimpse the life of people in remote communities. We can experience a degree of isolation, see how fortunate we are to have plenty of water and sniff the essence of another facet of Australian life. Even if we don't break the record I will come away richer for visiting Cable Downs. In 2014, the day after the record was broken, Steve, Karen and Ethan Viant moved to a new farm in northern Victoria. They had given this increasingly difficult farming area a good try. New owners have declined to host any further high altitude flying.
Top to bottom right:
1. Camping on the strip, the moon shrouded by cloud heralds rain.
2. 2,200 ft above Cable Downs a kite born camera captures the south side of the newly cleared paddock.
3. Satellite eye view 20,000 ft above the strip in 2004.
4. In 2009 a huge storm turns Cable Downs into a lake and Mike Jenkins looks on from the woolshed.
5. 2011 and the 2 Mikes carry the kite out in preparation for launch.
6. April 2005 and the tail end of a severe drought. Wind drought as well.
7. April 2009 and camping on a lake challenged our camping skills.
8. October 2010 and drought is creeping back in after a couple of years of relatively good conditions. The average annual rainfall for this region is 350 mm but droughts are increasing in intensity and duration, making dry land farming a difficult proposition, despite the large property sizes of between 10 and 50.000 hectares. Native woody weed is a major problem depriving farmers of viable grazing land. These images illustrate the fickle nature of rainfall. In October 2009 we were innundated with torrential rain, washing our campsite out. The surface water was gone within 30 minutes and within a few hours there was little evidence of the 50 mm that fell over a 30 minute period apart from slighty damp soil.
Below: A 30 km diameter zone is granted by CASA for the duration of the attempts. It extends to 17,370 ft above ground level.
From the eastern end of the strip in 2007. Bottom: The green appearance hides a deceptively dry country.
Kite Altitude World Record