THE STORY OF THE STINSON WRECK
As told by Bernard O’Reilly
Following the tragic events of February 1937, when the Stinson Airliner VH-UHH crashed in the McPherson Range, I have received many oft-repeated and apparently sincere requests to write the story of that memorable rescue in which it was my good fortune to play the principal part.
So at last the tale is here recorded in authentic detail, a saga of courage and endurance on the part of both rescued and rescuers, furnishing another page in the growing history of Australian character and achievement.
I received also repeated requests to write something of my early life and training, and this, too, I have done to the best of my ability.
At the time of the rescue there was much talk of bushcraft and the hardy spirit of the pioneers, which things I have portrayed in these chapters.
The drama of men and women who wrestle with drought, floods, fire, disease in herds and stock, and other adverse conditions, and who refuse to be defeated, is one which has been, and to some extent still is, an integral part of colonial history.
Writing of those four days of the rescue proved almost as trying as living through them, but the writing of the book has had its compensations. The chapters about my old home in Kanimbla Valley were a sheer joy to me; nothing could have made me happier than to linger amongst those scenes and write of naught else.
In the publication of this story of an airplane disaster, it is not my intention to further any sentiment which will adversely affect the airmindedness of Australian people. To any thinking person who totals the millions of miles flown by passenger liners of Australia, it must be apparent that flying is safe.
There can be no doubt in my mind that the Stinson Airliner was the victim of Queensland’s oldest and greatest enemy, the cyclone. Not only has it conquered a lightly built aeroplane. More than one great steel ship has gone down with all hands. It has razed flourishing northern towns, caused the loss of many lives, and of millions of pounds in money.
Too little of this book is devoted to my favourite themes, birds and wild‑flowers; but Charles Barrett and Alex Chisholm have written lovely books about them in much the way I should like to write, were I able. To all who read, I stress the need for greater appreciation of our unique birds and flowers, and ask for a greater measure of care and protection for what is essentially a part of the beauty and charm of our land.
On the little landing on top of my front steps, beside a giant blue hydrangea, wrens and spinebills and many of the other “little people of the bush” worked and whistled and sang whilst I wrote. Even as I write these, the last few lines, two firetail finches are planning and building in a eugenia bush five yards from the steps and a brown mountain thrush is scratching for insects in a bed of montbretias by my side.
This book has been written little by little in my spare time over two and a half years and it is quite possible that, had war not intervened, I would have gone on, being always tempted to write more, yet never wholly satisfied with what was written. Now, as I have oflered myself for the Air Force and am liable to be called up at any time and since the future is so obscure, I place this book before you as it is, hoping that you will not be too critical. The war seems a long way from Goblin Wood.
There could be no more hurtful thought than that of leaving my mountain, but things will go on the same old way. Molly will see that everything is all right and Tom will look after the stock and the outdoor work. Rose will do my job, the transport; the rainy season will soon be with us again and there will be months of hard packhorse work over sloppy tracks, but Rose is better amongst horses than any three hired hands I have ever seen. Besides, Viola will help her, especially with the lonely night work. Rhelma will feed the scrub turkeys which come for their daily ration of crumbs or meat. Mother will make the butter and do the sewing and potter around the garden do all those little jobs with which she busies herself from morning till night; a long day of busy hours has been her routine for seventy years; she won’t change now.
National Park, Queensland.
1st November 1940.
On Wednesday, 17th February 1937, day broke sullenly without the usual rich reds and browns which attend a Queensland mountain sunrise.
A pale grey scud had spread itself over the sky from the sea, deepening in colour from the distant coastline; an occasional puff of cool wind from the south‑east combined with the ominous sky in heralding one of the most violent cyclones which ever swept our mountain top. All through the day the peculiar scud of unbroken cloud gradually deepened in colour from pale grey to dull leaden, and the breeze, though somewhat erratic, steadily freshened.
Next morning I awoke with the jungle roaring like an angry sea. Stinging, hard‑driven rain bit my face like sleet, and low, wind‑blown clouds tore through the jungle trees and over the ridge‑tops like white racehorses. It was a wild, wind‑swept, boisterous day, but not unpleasant to mountain‑dwellers, who are accustomed to having their weather served up on the same rugged, lavish scale as their scenery. I took advantage of the that day to plant clover and couch‑grass seed in a new clearing, and at dark we settled down to another wild night.
Before dawn on Friday, I awoke to find my little house shivering from the hammer blows of a raging cyclone, and at dawn I went out to find the air full of flying leaves, and with every gust a crash from the jungle told of the destruction being wrought. Progress down the paddocks was slow; it meant crouching behind a stump until a lull came, and then sprinting for the next cover. The cows were huddled in sheltered windbreaks and nothing on earth would induce them to leave, so we left them there for the whole day without being milked.
A conservative estimate of the wind velocity over the McPhersons all that day would be eighty miles per hour- many a lesser wind has wrecked a town. Naturally, no aeroplane would have taken off under such conditions, and I have since learned that the ferocity of the hurricane was confined to the upper air, and the wind at Archerfield Aerodrome, Brisbane, was not abnormal.
I spent the morning attending to the stock. The poddy calves in particular were having a bad time, and temporary shelters were made to keep the terrific wind and driving rain from them. After 1 p.m. I went up to our tiny dairy cottage, and while it rocked in the wind like a ship at sea I cooked my lunch, every gust blowing the smoke back down the chimney.
While thus engaged, I had no means of knowing that over twenty miles away to the west, across great jungle-clad ranges and gorges, three men were struggling from the wreck of a stricken airliner. The late afternoon showed a definite lessening of the rain and by 8 p.m. the wind had begun to drop. Next morning calm reigned; the trees in the open were mostly stripped of their leaves and many of their branches, and had a peculiar old‑world wintry look. The atmosphere was cleaned of dust, smoke, and haze, and the visibility that morning was clearer than I can remember it ever to have been.
Buildings were clearly visible in Brisbane, seventy miles north. The Glasshouse Mountains, over one hundred miles, and the Blackall Range, one hundred and thirty miles away, stood out clear‑cut and blue against the northern sky.
Down in the troughs between the great billowing ranges of evergreen jungle, torrents revived by the rains roared their way towards the lowlands. The warming sun coaxed little plumes of mist from the drenched landscape, but the
sparkling morning gave me no clue to the terrible secret hidden in the heart of the grim McPhersons.
Four miles of our telephone line lay on the ground, so an early start was made that morning to pick up and join it. Masses of leaves which had been stripped from the trees lay in some places knee‑deep on the track, and at every few yards large limbs blocked the way. Huge trees, crashed and split in an incredible way, lay along the track, and vivid in my memory is the spot where the top of a glorious Wheel of Fire tree in full bloom had smashed into the middle of the road, scattering its blood‑red blossoms with a reckless hand.
From my cousin’s house at ten o’clock that morning came my first news of the missing airliner. He had received it over the radio, with the further information that it had last been seen south of Coff’s Harbour.
Our anxiety concerning it grew as the days went on; it was an almost personal anxiety. Those splendid machines flew over our house twice daily. They were links with civilisation, and we looked forward eagerly to their comings and goings. We even set our clocks by them.
For the week that followed, there was enacted the most intensive aerial search in Australian history. Australia’s Air Force and nearly every civil aeroplane on the east coast joined in combing the whole route. Exact figures are not available but it is well known that many thousands of pounds were expended on the search. Since then recent history has shown that the U.S.A. Government spent five million dollars on the fruitless search for Amelia Earhart.
Finally it was decided to abandon the search. Mrs. Proud, mother of one of the missing passengers, then offered £500 towards the continuance of the aerial search, which had proved fruitless. The offer was not taken up by either the Air Force or the civil authorities.
Anxiously we stood by the radio during news sessions hoping for word. Little hope was left to us when we heard that the liner was missing over the wild Hawkesbury country near Sydney, and then, when the wreckage was “seen” out to sea off Palm Beach, we regretfully said “Good‑bye” to Captain Boyden and his gallant company, and considered the sad chapter closed.
By the time a week had gone by there was seemingly conclusive evidence that the Stinson had been lost south of the Hawkesbury. Not only had it been “seen” and “heard” by casual observers, but its appearance had actually been recorded in the log of a steamer off Barrenjoey Heads. In the minds of the public, of whom I was one, there could be but one answer to the riddle‑ the ocean. Even the people who lived at the head of Widgee Creek (near Canungra) and who had seen the plane go into a cloud bank, perhaps a bare four minutes before it crashed, were forced to believe the overwhelming weight of evidence supplied by press and radio.
This being so, why in the name of all that is sane and reasonable should a man go out to search nearly four hundred miles away from where the plane was last seen? That is what has puzzled most of the people whom I have met, and that, too, has given rise to the frequent question, “Was it a hunch or was it reasoning?” The answer must be, “It was not a hunch, nor do I believe that such a thing as a hunch exists.” In ascribing my action to reasoning, I am not ruling out the possibility of Divine intervention. To me it seems that if God wished to intervene and save two men beyond ordinary aid, He would not necessarily do so miraculously, nor would He inspire anyone with a blind unreasoning impulse to go and do His will, but it seems quite natural that He would inspire in a man the reasoning and initiative which would send that man out of his own accord; the fact that the man so chosen had spent most of his life in unwittingly fitting himself for just such a job seems to further indicate a clear purpose behind it all‑ that, of course, is the way it appears to me.
We now come to Friday, the eighth day after the crash, and the day in which my Great Idea was born.
It was on Friday morning, exactly a week after the crash, and the day before I set out on my search, that Viola and I went down to Kerry (near Beaudesert) to visit my brother Herb, at his little farm. He had a nice batch of cows and lots of pigs, spotted little fellows which looked like tiger cats. It was rather a hot day and I spent it going round with him, helping to water the stock and cutting feed for the cows and pigs.
In the morning, while we worked, Herb and I talked quite a lot about the Stinson. He had seen it go over on the previous Friday, flying into the wind towards the cloud‑banked McPhersons, holding its ordinary course towards Lismore. Later, we went over to his house for lunch. It was a small house, nice and new, smelling of fresh pine resin and new paint. While I was waiting for lunch I dug into a few old newspapers. Thanks to the break in our communications through the cyclone, and the flood to follow, I had scarcely seen a newspaper during the week. They were full of theories and counter‑theories concerning the missing airliner and one prominent paper, published two days after the plane was reported missing, assured us, in type which extended across the front page, that the machine had got to within fifteen minutes of its destination in Sydney. In a maze of contradictory evidence and theories advanced by six different papers, I gleaned one definite fact, and that fact was to send me out on my search.
It was the definite report that on the afternoon of Friday, the 19th, people had waited in vain at Lismore for the arrival of the airliner. Explanation of the plane’s omission to call at Lismore was that it had gone directly down the coast from Brisbane to avoid the bad weather over the mountains; but by this time I was in possession of the fact that the plane had not gone down the coast. Hundreds of people in my district had seen it disappear into the ranges towards Lismore; people waited in vain for its arrival in Lismore. What was the answer? It dawned upon me that the answer was lying somewhere up in the jungle and gorges of the McPherson Range.
That night, I could not get home quickly enough. Darkness overtook us as we rode towards home up the mountainside. Mopokes called from across the gorge; here and there a dingo sent his protest to high heaven; but I was busy turning over plans for my search, and working out the programme. Near home, the moon came up and sprinkled the jungle with silver.
We got to the home gate, and Rhelma’s blue cattle‑pup, Kettelorg, barked at us. No doubt he thought we had no right to come home so late.
By this time my plan was definitely formed. Including the area over the New South Wales border, there are roughly eighty thousand acres of unbroken, trackless jungle on the McPherson Range, in most of which visibility is limited to ten yards; to suggest that one man could search such an area thoroughly is too absurd for words. Three lifetimes would be all too short for such a job. There must be a plan of action. Next morning I telephoned my friend, Bob Stephens, at the head of the Albert River. He and his immediate neighbours were, far as I understood, the last people to see the plane flight, and from him I got a final check‑up on the position and its approximate course. We had in our house a copy of the latest Aerial Survey Map of the McPhersons. This map was reconstructed from aerial photographs taken at an altitude of fourteen thousand feet, and though lacking in minor detail, it was the best available guide to the topography of the range.
On this map, with an ordinary foot rule and pencil, I drew a straight line from the point where the airliner was last seen, along the line of flight towards Lismore, as I believed it to be. This plotted line touched four high mountain ranges, and I reasoned that, if the missing liner was to be found in this locality, it would necessarily be on the northern slopes of any of these four.
Such was the plan of action; it looks very plain and ordinary now, but it had one great advantage, it worked. Other preparations for the journey were simple; a wire handle was put in a two‑pound jam tin, so that it would serve the double purpose of a billy‑can and drinking cup; two loaves of bread, a pound of butter and half a dozen onions, and finally tea and sugar, went into the little tucker bag. Mother, now seventy‑five years old, seemed proud of the fact that I alone of the Queensland people was setting out to search, but there was a lot of uneasiness too, which she tried hard to conceal. One of my feet was inflamed from where a rusty nail had pierced it two days before. I opened this up and was pouring iodine into it, when Rhelma (now four years) found me. She said: “Daddy, that stuff will sting you,” but I had already found that out. Then, “Daddy, where are you going?” She was told, and then there was the inevitable, “Daddy, can I go too?” Reasons were advanced against this. “Well, will you bring the aeroplane home with you?” This was more in the nature of a demand, than as an alternative.
Viola came in then and said, “I wish I could go with you,” and the Littlefeller (as I always called Rhelma) said, “Mummy, I want to go too,” with renewed hope. Viola made me take some snakebite antidote (permanganate crystals), and a safety razor blade. Mother gave me a long piece of cord to serve as a ligature (or for spare boot laces!). Whenever we need a piece of string in our family, we naturally go to Mother for it. She collects it painstakingly from every parcel which arrives at the homestead and methodically places it in her stringbag.
From our house there is a riding track to Mount Bethongabel, a glorious lookout point on the border of New South Wales about four thousand feet above sea level. To this point I had planned to ride, so an old chestnut mare called The Great Unknown (Heaven only knows why!) was quickly saddled. She is a poor hack, as our horses go, but was the only one in the house paddock at the time. And so, with a quick, “Expect me when you see me,” we went dashing off along the border track.
Arrived at Bethongabel, I tied Great Unknown’s rein to the stirrup, pointed her towards home, and said “Shoo!”
She thought this was too good to be true and was looking around for the “catch,” but when she found that it was “fair dinkum” she set off like a Melbourne Cup Winnerjust in case I should change my mind. From here it was my plan to follow the backbone of the McPhersons west to the first of the four high lateral spurs, where I reasoned that the unfortunate liner might have crashed. For another two miles I was assisted by the track to the Valley of Echoes, another spot of surpassing beauty, opened up by my brothers in 1912. From here on it was trackless, lawyer‑vine jungle. And what is it like?… Imagine trees growing so closely together that their tops interlace in one continuous canopy! imagine that canopy so enveloped and smothered with leafy vine that it would be actually possible to travel for miles on the tree‑tops without coming to earth, so dense that it lets in only an occasional chink of sunlight on a bright day, dripping with moisture from the eternally brooding clouds.
And what of the floor of this jungle? Visibility is limited to ten yards by a tangle of tough green vine as dense as wire netting, and covered with murderous thorns. Great logs left by cyclones lie in the way‑ but do not stand on one. You will go knee‑deep into a wet pulpy morass, which is half fungus. Travelling in the jungle on a cloudy day is like travelling in a dense fog, and you can navigate by reckoning only. You can see by the map that there are so many ridges and so many gorges between you and a given spot, so you check them off as you go. “And how do you keep a straight course?” perhaps you are asking. Well, no course in this country can be exactly straight; you tack about to find the easiest way down the cliffs and the easiest grade up the other side of the gorge, but you know by your map that the big lateral ranges are running from south to north, and if you cut them at right angles, you must be going west. Then, too, the jungle is full of other signs to tell you the points of the compass. Northern, and eastern slopes are always matted with the heaviest growths of lawyer and raspberry vine, while southern slopes give way to forests of fern trees and great clusters of lilies. Also, the southern side of a tree is heavily covered with lichen and moss, while the northern side shows a smooth bole. It is a great help to have a knowledge of trees and shrubs which bloom in this area. Down in the lower jungles at the foot of the ranges, a certain species of tree will bloom six weeks earlier than the same species on the loftiest heights. At the lower levels, the tree will be going to seed, while at two thousand feet it will be blooming, at four thousand feet it will be in early bud. So with a good local knowledge of plants, it is possible to estimate your altitude very accurately, and since altitudes are marked on the map this is a very important thing. The same sliding scale applies to the nesting of birds. The prevailing winds in the McPhersons are from the south, and all trees in exposed places have a heavy lean to the north. So that all nature is willing and anxious to help, if you will only take the trouble to notice.
Late that afternoon I located a camp‑site which marked the farthest point of a previous exploration. That was in 1918, when Herb and I had gone to accompany the late Archibald Meston on a trip to Lamington Plateau by way of the border ranges. We had battled through the lawyer vine all that day and started for home next morning without having covered a third of the distance. The camp of that night so long ago was still a vivid memory. A high wind roared in the jungle, blowing our smoky fire with a snowstorm of ashes alternately towards and away from us.
Archibald Meston, affectionately known as the Father of Queensland, was a most picturesque figure. He was a journalist, historian, explorer and probably the greatest authority on Australian aborigines and native dialects. I shall always remember his keen old face and piercing eyes in the leaping firelight, as he told his eerie tales of early Queensland, while the ashes blew into his white hair and the jungle roared its grand‑organ solo overhead.
About 2 a.m., when Herb got up to rebuild the fire, a great yellow dingo was standing in the glow of the dying embers.
All these scenes came back very vividly to me as I stood looking at a charred log, which had survived the nineteen intervening years.
About sunset I was dipping down to the head of a gorge where water would be found for the evening billy. A tawny mass disentangled itself from the jungle floor ahead. It was a spotted tiger cat, which had been eating a freshly killed ring‑tailed possum. Tiger cat, which is now one of the rarest of Australian animals, and one of the most ferocious, climbed a small sapling to a head‑height, and regarded his first human visitor with a fearless and unfriendly eye. The tiger cat, while being one of the rarest of Australian animals, is nevertheless plentiful in these parts. The green twilight of the timber had deepened into blackness by the time water was found, and then from the moss banks and damp hillsides around the water there shone out thousands of points of green light, which were glow‑worms and luminous fungi.
If you have ever looked down on Sydney at night from Lapstone Hill, or on Brisbane from Mount Coot‑tha, and if you can imagine their lights turned to pale‑green, then you will have some idea of the illuminations of the fairy city which flanked my camp on the first night of the Stinson search.
The little glow‑worms are worthy of mention. They shine their green headlights on a sticky web so that tiny insects, attracted by the light, are easily trapped. There are many forms of luminous fungi. The largest is a fanshaped variety, which grows tier upon tier on rotting tree trunks like a phosphorescent staircase. A newspaper can easily be read by their light. Then we have a tiny toadstool kind, its little umbrella smaller than a threepenny piece, and showing quite a brilliant green light.
There is also a luminous thread fungus, which eats its way through fallen logs, leaves and twigs on the ground, and gives patches of brilliance like scattered nebulae from the Milky Way. At the height of the rainy season, the whole jungle floor may be lit with this irregular light. On thundery summer nights myriads of twinkling fireflies add a final touch to this fairyland.
With wet wood, damp ground and no blanket, sleep was just about impossible, but Nature did its best to keep me entertained. First, some black phalangers fought and screamed horribly in the vines overhead. I suppose they only lost some fur but it sounded as though there would not be an animal left alive by morning. Later, as the moon struggled out of a cloud mass, a large pack of dingoes commenced to howl away down the gorge. The tones of their howlings were spread over an octave, and I thought of a chorus of banshees. I thought, too, that dingoes howl in packs about dead bodies, and a nasty cold feeling got hold of me. Down in that gorge, there might have been… what?
The wind freshened during the night, and misty rain fell at intervals. Just before dawn, a light doze was broken by the unearthly screams of a powerful owl in the trees overhead. Few Australians know much about this bird. He is as large and strong as our great wedgetailed eagle. Mr. S. W. Jackson once told me that powerful owls were known to tear fully‑grown koalas to pieces. It is a great pity for nature‑lovers that a large part of the jungle wildlife is nocturnal.
A tiny night rambler in our timber is the doormouse possum, the smallest of our marsupials, about the size of a fully‑grown mouse; he sleeps through the winter in a nest deep in a hollow tree. To my sister, Molly, fell the honour of first locating this little follow in southern Queensland. She found one in daylight in the big timber a hundred yards from our house. The little animal was paralysed. We tried to restore it with food, but it died. Its body was received with much joy by Mr. Heber Longman, Director of the Brisbane Museum. A subsequent press notice brought an unexpected sequel; a self‑righteous busybody in Brisbane wrote to my sister, reprimanding her for “slaying a beautiful wild creature.” Such was her reward for trying to save the life of a little animal. It was ironical that such a letter should have been written to a member of a family which for a generation was the sole guardian of a wild‑life sanctuary.
Breakfast before dawn, and my last onion but one (should have brought more‑ roast onion is good). Half an hour from camp brought me to one of the most glorious cascades I have ever seen, as high and as beautiful as our own lovely Elabana, back near home. I thought that if my madcap search did nothing else, it would be well worth while in the discovery of this fall.
As I climbed out of the gorge from my waterfall, my tension increased, for I was on the first of the four lateral ranges, on any one of which I reasoned the wreck might be.
By 8 a.m. I was on the summit of its southern extremity, Mount Throakban, enveloped in white clouds. None of us had ever been to Mt. Throakban, though its great green cone away to the south‑east had beckoned enticingly to young explorers. It was not a dangerous undertaking, but it would have entailed a lot of hard work and time and there were many nearer gorges and peaks which would more richly reward exploration. The peak and its surrounding country are smothered in tangled growth of equatorial luxuriance and never a day of the three hundred and sixty five passed without cloud on its summit. Throakban might well have been named The Cloudmaker. It is the favourite breeding ground of the brief and violent local storms which are a feature of the McPhersons in summer.
Here I was on Throakban at last, waiting for the clouds to lift sufficiently to permit me a view. For fifteen minutes I stood in cool moist wind, looking into a grey blank, and then suddenly the racing clouds split, and a vast green sea of ranges and gorges came into view to the west. It gave a good view of the three remaining ranges in the plotted line of flight. Here and there were creamy white splashes which I knew to be trees in bloom, and then suddenly I saw something which made me jump.
Eight miles away by the map, on the third range, Lamington Plateau, just where it swelled up to join the border range, was a treetop which was light brown. In Spring, when trees are getting fresh leaf growths, it is not uncommon to see a brownish tree‑top, but this was late summer. The tree must have been dying; what had caused that? Natural causes? No; trees dying that way die a branch at a time. Lightning perhaps? But why in all that ocean of trees was this one freshly‑killed tree situated where the straight pencil line crossed my map? Fire? No natural fire had occurred in that dripping rain forest since the world began. But a hundred gallons of petrol… Swiftly the clammy clouds swooped down again; I put down my head and tore into the soaking green jungle, in my haste to traverse the gorges and jungled ranges which lay between me and that clue. The going was all blind; I did not see that tree again until I was twenty yards from it eight hours later.
Every here and there was evidence of cyclonic violence‑ trees that had split as they smashed off, leaving huge, jagged, yellow splinters pointing upwards. Other trees had been uprooted, their great buttresses lifting a mound of red earth twelve feet high. At one place the ground was paved with pithecolobium flowers. These have a brush flower of creamy white, and tips of the brush appear as if though they have been dipped in bright pink. On the morning after the cyclone had abated, little Rhelma found some which had been blown from the trees and she called them Fairy Paintbrushes. That night, after she had gone to sleep, I put her pretty ideas together and made them rhyme.
Hours of climbing and descending went by. At one point, on the edge of a two‑thousand‑feet cliff, I looked out across the Northern Rivers of New South Wales, spread like a green map and dotted with farmhouses which looked like mushrooms. Just a brief glance at it, and then I was scrambling down the next gorge.
It must have been pretty well noon, possibly a little bit either way, when the bottom of the gorge was reached, and hunger had been very evident for some hours. Lunch is often delayed by the uncertainty of water‑ well, here was water, tons of it or, should one say, gallons of it, pouring over an outcrop of brown volcanic rock. Masses of tree‑ferns were gathered round; great lilies were banked on either side; ropes of lawyer vine, with their palm‑like leaves, dipped in low festoons over this small torrent; on either side and meeting overhead were the ancient Antarctic beeches covered with moss, which dipped from the drifting spray of the waterfalls and from the everpresent moisture which goes with mountains almost eternally enveloped in cloud. All this scene I saw out of one eye; the other just saw the water, and its possibilities for the brewing of tea and having that meal, which was a couple of hours overdue.
Beech twigs sheltered by a great leaning tree were sufficiently dry to start a fire. It was as smoky as “Billy‑o,” but that sort of smoke adds to the tea a flavour which cannot be bought. While the billy was coming to the boil, the last of the onions went into the fire to roast, and a couple more rounds of toast were made. The quality of this toast cannot be recommended. A fire which consists of fifty per cent smoke, forty‑nine per cent blaze and one per cent red coals is not conducive to giving to toast the quality of the product which emerges from your electric toaster. There was still plenty of butter, the sugar was lasting well, so that, apart from the glorious waterfall which I had found that morning, that meal was the one bright patch. Packing up to go on was not a difficult matter this time. Half a loaf of bread was the largest item to go back into the little tucker bag.
Progress up the next range was very slow, for you cannot travel quickly when you have eaten comfortably, especially when the meal has been topped off with lots of black tea. At this stage, too, weariness was beginning to overtake me. The trip had not been just a matter of walking and scrambling over rough country, it had been a battle as tiring as if I had been forcing my way kneedeep through rough surf. The moral effect too was depressing, as more and more the seeming hopelessness of my task became apparent to me. The cheerlessness of the dripping underbrush, the grey swirl of the clouds through the timber, the silence of the birds and the lack of human company, all combined to bring my spirits to the lowest ebb as I climbed that first range after lunch.
It was about 1 p.m. when the top of the range was reached. A close check was kept on these ranges, so that my approximate position on the map could be estimated. Some time was wasted looking for a break in the trees which might permit a glimpse towards Lamington Plateau. I climbed a tree, but its top was in the clouds and a view was impossible. What should I do now? The answer was startling. From the direction of Lamington Plateau, about three miles away by the map, came a short, clear human voice, and then another. A human voice in that green wilderness‑ what could it mean? My first thought was that the call came from where my pencil line crossed the map‑ from where that dead tree was. Were they the men of the missing plane? Reason ruled this out. Even in the days of the Spartans, human endurance could not have gone so far. No, the calls obviously came from some searcher, someone as foolish as myself, looking in that vast area for a wreck which evidence had shown to be in the sea near Sydney. There was a strong temptation to answer that call, but an answer could only lead to confusion and misunderstanding, and might lead that man miles out of his way on a false trail; my decision was to hold my tongue until I reached Lamington Plateau. Then I would try to contact that mystery voice.
It was only about three miles to the top of Lamington Plateau, but there were a range and two gorges in between. One range is the same as another, and one gorge the same as another. Three hours later, about 4 o’clock, I stood on the lip of what I believed to be Lamington Plateau. If I had held a straight course, my position would now be near that dead tree, seen eight hours earlier; but there had been no sun and no visibility, so perhaps my reckoning was all wrong. This, too, was the location of those calls. Well, that could easily be tested. Just a matter of waiting until my breath came back for one big “Coo‑ee.” It echoed sharply from across the gorge‑ a pause‑ then came the mystery call again, but this time so clear and close that it was a physical shock. It could not have been more than two hundred yards down through the timber to the left. I answered sharply and started down in that direction. A second voice joined the first. We exchanged calls to guide me through that thickly meshed tangle.
“Who are they?” I kept asking myself. “Members of a search party from Lamington district,” said Reason. “Survivors of the wrecked plane,” said a little voice. “There couldn’t be survivors from a crash in this country not after this time,” said Reagon. “Why are they on that line on my map where the dead tree was?” said the little voice.
But I put the little voice aside, and refused to become excited. They would be bush chaps, searching like myself. Well, a bit of company would be good after these two lonely days. Perhaps, too, they would be able to spare me a change of tucker, some meat maybe. Only twenty yards away now. What was this?… A big gap in the tree‑tops just ahead. I tore a piece of vine aside to get a better view. The great tree beside the gap was blackened by fire, right to its branches. God in Heaven! What was this? A numbness shot through my limbs, a sort of coldness that was worse than fear and worse than pain or shock, but was a combination of all three, a feeling that has stayed with me through the crowded months in between, that is with me even as I write.
Before I looked down, I knew that I should see a mass of smashed and charred metal. It was more than that; it was a horrible, unclean thing, which held the trapped remains of what once were men, a repulsive thing which I could not go near. The voices came again from below the wreck. Two voices‑ men alive, but in what condition? I stood for a minute, afraid to go on to them, afraid of what I should see.
Proud I saw first, his eyes far back in his head like those of a corpse, lying as he had lain for ten days on that wet ground with a broken leg that was green and swelling and maggoty. “My God!” I thought, “you have lain all these days in hell, and now I’m too late to save you.” Who can describe the anguish I felt in that swift second? Then I turned to Binstead. He tried to shake hands, a poor hand that was like raw meat. His legs too were like that; the cloth of his trousers was worn away by crawling over the rocks to bring water.
There was some talk, lots of talk; but who remembers what was said? The first sane remark I remember was Binstead’s. “How about boiling the billy?” There again we have a little echo of the influence of tea in our national life. It bears out too the thought that wherever men meet together under big trees, whether it be an occasion of pleasure or of work, adversity or tragedy, there is always the same reaction to the words “How about boiling the billy?”
The fire was hard to make with sodden wood that was like a sponge, hard too with hands that shook. Their story came out a little at a time, and it is pieced together here with some knowledge that has been gained since.
The great airliner, flying blind over ranges completely wrapped in cloud, had been caught in the down‑draft of' a cyclone of probably 100 m.p.h., and tossed instantaneously into the mountain. When a crash was inevitable, the pilot, Captain Rex Boyden, a gallant Digger, a War Bird, banked his plane sharply to starboard. This swift act in his last split second of life saved the lives of the three men on the port side of the machine. Two big trees were chopped off by the impact, then the machine hit squarely on the great tree which had been my guiding beacon. There is still some metal embedded in the tree sixty feet from the ground. The wreck dropped to earth.
The pilots, Boyden and Shepherd, slumped forward in their seats. Death was swift and merciful to them and to the two passengers on the starboard side, Roland Graham, and Fountain. The cabin filled with black smoke, and. then fuel from the burst tanks turned the wreck into a raging furnace. Proud, the first to recover, smashed a window and dropped through to the ground below.
Though his leg had a contused fracture he was able, with a desperate effort, to assist Binstead through the narrow opening. Then Binstead helped the young Englishman, Westray.
Although the whole thing had occupied brief seconds, Westray’s hands were badly burned. Binstead and Westray helped Proud to a safe distance from the flames. They congratulated one another on their deliverance, but they were not then to know that they had escaped death only to face a death that was far more terrible‑ the torture of starvation, exposure and despair.
The red petrol flames roared high amongst the trees and black smoke mingled with the swirling rain clouds, but the clouds and streaming rain screened the fire which might have served as a distress beacon. The wreck burned fiercely for many hours and provided a measure of warmth through that first long, net night. “Things might have been a lot worse,” thought the lost men. “We might have been in amongst those red embers. The hue and cry will be already going, land parties and search planes will be out tomorrow morning. With a bit of luck we shall be found by midday, or within twenty‑four hours at the most.”
Well it was for their hopes that they knew nothing of the active imaginations which were already tracing the airliner’s journey south, step by step, with seemingly irrefutable evidence‑ past Coff's Harbour, past Kempsey, past Broken Bay to within ten minutes of Sydney.
In spite of the confidence which the men had in an early rescue, Westray decided next morning to go out and speed up the relief party. To understand his decision it is necessary to know something of Jim Westray.
He was a brilliant young Englishman on a business trip to Australia, and New Zealand. A member of a prominent Warwickshire county family, he had spent many of his vacations climbing alone in the Highlands of Scotland. Mountains and the outdoors seemed to have been his main hobby. He was also a cricketer above the average.
This fondness for mountains and his sportsman’s love of the sporting risk helped to make light of his lone venture into a strange and terrible country, so that help might come more swiftly to his companions in misfortune. He went, and after the crash of his body through the vine and underbrush had faded from hearing, an occasional cheery call came back to the men at the plane.
Back at the machine there was work to be done. Proud was settled back near the wreck, the only place on that mountain where a broken leg might be kept straight. His leg‑ the bone was out through the skin‑ was roughly bandaged, with a splint of broken wing fabric from the plane bent round it. By this, time he was feverish. Water had to be found and carried to him, but how? Binstead raked in the hot remains of the wreck and found a large metal coffee flask with a loop handle. It seemed to be made to order for carrying water. Water was found about three hundred yards away down the mountain, three hundred yards of almost perpendicular range over rocks and through lawyer vine. It was a big effort for a city man. Binstead was not young; he was a successful wool broker in Sydney, who had done his travelling by car or aeroplane, and had never been called upon to engage in any violent primitive exercise. He was soon to show that though the training was lacking the material was good. That first trip was hard, as were the next two, but the thought of imminent rescue buoyed him up. However, days without food, and damp, cold nights without sleep or shelter or adequate clothing are poor food for optimism. Doubts began to come. Machines crossed over them each way on the daily service between Brisbane and Sydney, but in spite of the fires which Binstead made, the jungle roof hid its secret; blue smoke offers no contrast from the eternal blue of the ranges.
Here Binstead had to make a fateful decision. It was obvious by this time that something had happened to Westray and that help was not forthcoming.
Through a gap in the trees Binstead had seen, many miles below, clearings which meant civilisation. Should he try his luck‑ try where a younger, stronger man had failed? Should he try to get out and save his own life while there was still time, before weakness or starvation made the effort impossible, try to get out and leave Proud helpless and feverish, Proud, to whom water was the breath of life? Never could a man be called upon to make a harder decision. Many a man has had a bronze cross pinned on his breast for some deed in the heat of battle, but to choose in cold blood a course which meant death by starvation and exposure is something different from military courage. Binstead could have made an effort to save his own life; it is not certain that he would have succeeded but one thing is certain, that if he had gone there would now be one more lonely grave on Lamington Plateau‑ John Proud’s.
More days and nights went by. Binstead was crawling now (his last water journey took five hours). He found some ropes of red berries which he carried back to Proud. The ropes were, held in his teeth and his greeting, “Here comes mamma bird,” is now a matter of history. The berries are not nourishing, but they keep the mouth from becoming dry. They are the fruit of a little palm, bacularia monostachya, and you will find specimens growing in the Sydney Botanical Gardens.
One remark I shall always remember. As the billy was coming to the boil, Binstead asked: “What day is it?” “Sunday,” I answered. He then turned to Proud and said, “You were right after all, old man.” Day by day Proud had scratched a diary with a pocket knife on a piece of wing metal from the plane, calmly setting down a record of what had happened, even after hope had gone.
On Saturday, the day before I reached them, an aeroplane circled above them for some minutes. It was Frank Buchanan, a young Beaudesert pilot, and the only other Queenslander with the same idea as myself. He had chartered the plane at his own expense, and if it had been possible to see the wreck from the air he would have found it before I did.
All this time I had been trying to collect my scattered wits and decide on some plan of action. Returning home for help was out of the question; it would be well into the fifth day before I could bring back a doctor and help from that quarter.
Home was twenty‑two miles away across difficult country. I knew that somewhere beneath the great cliffs on the New South Wales side there were settlements (the town of Tyalgum, later proved to be only a short distance from the wreck), but the great Border walls had only one point of accessibility in those parts and that was almost impossible to find from the Queensland side. Out of the mountains on the Queensland side the settlements of Hillview, Lamington and Christmas Creek were relatively close; these would be my best mark but a way had to be found out to them and, more important still, a way found back again.
I looked at Proud. To my judgment he seemed already beyond medical help, but if there was a chance for him a doctor would have to be on the spot within twenty‑four hours. In my own mind there were serious doubts as to whether he would live so long‑ that was the factor that contributed to my state of mind, the belief that I had been too late. The thing to do was to get to civilisation by the quickest route‑ very easy if you knew the quickest route or any route at all for that matter. The map would have been a great help, if I had known whereabouts on it I was supposed to be, but I could only guess and as in many other situations, guessing could be very expensive.
I made ready for my dash for help. The old maroon wool jacket which Viola had knitted for me in the previous winter I gave poor Binstead to help cover his rags. There was a brief glance at my map. If that gorge below was the extreme south branch of Christmas Creek‑ and this later proved correct‑ the first clearing would be about nine miles away. It was then 4.30 p.m. No chance of getting out of the big timber before dark. I threw down the map. It was of glossed paper, mounted on canvas. That night, Binstead spread it over his shoulders; it gave him some protection from the heavy rain.
My last words were: “I’ll. bring back a doctor and a hundred men.” It was easy to decide upon the direction, simply the shortest cut to the gorge. That way would have been taken anyhow; the Englishman had gone that way, and as it had been a day of miracles I had hopes of finding him alive also. His tracks deep in the wet leaf‑mould were easy to follow in country where no white man had ever
gone before. The first part of the journey followed Binstead’s water track, and there was more than one pathetic reminder of his journeys, here a large piece of torn clothing, there a shoe which had come off when there was no strength left to put it back.
I followed the Englishman’s tracks into difficult and dangerous country, down cliffs of loose rock covered with great bird’s nest ferns which give a false sense of security, down almost perpendicular slopes of loose earth, studded with tree‑ferns; down until suddenly, through a screen of palm trees, I saw the torrent, boiling white around great moss‑covered boulders. I looked for tracks, but there was no need. The Englishman had gone the right way. Who had taught him the old bushman’s trick of following running water when lost? I followed for about a‑third of a mile. Here progress was blocked by a waterfall which dropped thirty feet. The best way to get round this was to the right. The tracks went to the right, ahead of me. Here he made his fatal mistake. The cliff to the right was completely covered with giant helniholtzia lilies with sabrelike leaves, seven feet long. These gave apparently safe hand and foot hold to the bottom of the cliff. Westray was not to know that there is nothing more brittle or treacherous than those safe‑looking footholds. A mass of torn‑out and broken lilies told their own story. I expected to find him lying on the broken blue rocks at the foot of that drop, but found instead that he had gone on, crawling this time, miles down that torrent bed with its green, slimy boulders, round four more waterfalls. I followed with my heart in my throat knowing what I would find, and expecting every twist of the gorge to reveal it.
Ah! There was my man just ahead, sitting with his back against a big boulder. “Hullo!” I shouted. “Hoy, there!” He didn’t move. Must be asleep! I came round the front of the rock. There was no need of a second look. The Englishman was dead. There was a burnt‑out cigarette stump between his fingers. His right shoe and sock were off. He’d been bathing a smashed ankle in the torrent beside him; his face had injuries. He was facing‑ gazing, it seemed, down the gorge to where lay safety and civilisation, towards which he had unerringly gone from the moment he had left the wreck. Beside him on a smaller rock lay a silver cigarette case‑ Proud’s. I heard later that there had been a sharing up of cigarettes on that Saturday morning. I took a mildewed wallet from his inside breast pocket; my hand was shaking.
Westray was the name on his papers‑ J. G. Westray. There was currency, too, blue with mould. That wallet represented enough to keep a family in comfort for more than a year, and it lay in the pocket of a man who had died for want of attention and nourishment.
No time now to give way to the savage hurt which I felt; there were two other men dying for want of attention, and every second was priceless‑ the light was fading, and if I was caught in that strange gorge in a jungle night that was as black as the pit of hell, fatal delay might occur. So I ran off and left Jim Westray. Time will never remove that picture of him, sitting with his back to the rock.
Miles behind him at the wreck lay the two stricken fellow‑passengers whom he had striven to help, even unto death. Behind him, too, was the cliff where he had fallen and in between wreck and cliff were the miles of terrible stream‑bed and waterfalls over which he had dragged his broken body‑ a feat of endurance beyond human oonception. Around him in the green twilight of the lofty jungle was the unearthly beauty of palm, fern, orchid and vine; beside him tumbled the wild creek and from round a bend the organ note of a waterfall dropping into a deep, black pool. But he faced, unseeing, down towards the land of people and everyday things, the goal he had tried for- cities, England, Home.
It is given to few men to die so gloriously in the service of others or to attain such heights of self‑sacrifice and manly endurance. All red‑blooded men should envy Jim Westray, who sleeps in his orchid‑covered grave amidst some of the most beautiful scenery in the world‑ another little spot “For ever England.” Westray did not die in vain; a million young Australians will be richer for the example of his sacrifice.
So I ran off and left Westray, his wallet in my pocket burning against my thigh, ran down the treacherous stream bed, falling against rocks, getting up to run on, numb and blinded by shock and emotion, down waterfalls, waistdeep through pools. Night closed in. Nothing now to guide me save a grey reflection on the water; was there no end to this? Was I lost? Was this Christmas Creek gorge? Were there cliffs and high waterfalls in front of me? Would someone find me sitting on a boulder, gazing… gazing?
All track of time went, and all feeling from my body. I seemed to be running an obstacle race in the bed of a black underground river, miles down in the earth, one sharp thought only in all the chaos, “Hurry! Proud is dying.”
A break in the timber to the left, and the jungle gave way to great white gums, which towered dimly above. I left the water and turned across open flats, which were good travelling; then I struck a broad timber track. Suddenly, close by, the crack of a rifle. “Hoy!” I yelled with more relief than I’ve ever felt.
“Hoy!” came back a cheery, youthful voice. “I’m just having a pot at some flying foxes!” and then‑ “Where the hell did you come from?”
By this time there had come within the light of his hurricane lantern a vision with wet hair in his eyes, torn clothes, dripping with sweat and creek water, with a
stubble of whisker and some dried blood to make the scarecrow complete.
“I’ve found that missing aeroplane,” I gasped. “And there are two men still alive.”
The news was through. To how many people in Australia next day did those words bring a thrill‑ not of joy or happiness, but of horror! To expect seven dead men so long after the crash was the natural though terrible thing; but two men, suffering severely from shock and injury, alive on the eleventh day, without food, shelter or medical attention- men who had already been through worse than death‑ what was their condition now? Could they possibly be saved? How many people will forget the horror of the picture first conjured up by those words, “Two men STILL alive.”
Swiftly my questions were answered: he was a Buchanan. Yes, this was Christmas Creek; Lamington was nine miles away; Yes, I could “telephone from our house at Lamington,” and he would ride down and show me the way.
“There’s some tea in the billy,” I was told. “Have some while I run in the horses.”
Sitting on an empty kerosene case, swigging tea that was hot and strong and black, I came steadily back to earth, back too to the consciousness of a thousand cuts and thorns, bruises and aches, of wet smelly clothes that clung to me; they were to continue to cling for another forty‑eight hours.
There must be reserves in all of us which are not apparent until called upon. As I sat on that box I felt myself to be done; it was a state that could only be described as complete exhaustion; there seemed to be no question of carrying on even though my mind refused to quit. But for the thought of what was behind me I’d have sunk to the floor, wet clothing and all, and slept the clock round. I think it was the very agony of the knowledge that those men would be let down after all that burned through me and gave me the nervous energy to go on, after bodily strength had given out. I rose and carried on for two more nights and days.
The horses were ready. I remember lengthening my stirrups. They had been too short for my long legs. The leathers were stiff and the buckles hard to work. The horse fidgeted and I thought him flighty as we left the friendly lantern for the dark track. I never did like a strange horse at night. Again time ceased to exist; there were deep creek crossings, with water that came to the saddle‑flaps and inky patches of underbrush lit by fireflies. At last the mountains began to fall back and we came on over flats and farming land, and cleared country with great grey gums at intervals along the road, then a house that owned a utility truck. Henry Burgess sized up the situation at once and in as little time as it takes to tell we had paddocked our horses and he was speeding us on.
Lamington at last, and John Buchanan’s house with a telephone. John met us on the steps. John, a lean, slowspoken bushman with greying hair, showed no frenzy of excitement at the news. He is typical of a generation of men who have cut their living from the virgin bush, who have had to depend on their own resources to overcome each new obstacle as they met it, who had done their own thinking and had been their own advisers. His questions were practical and the motive behind them constructive, to the one end of getting the live men out as quickly as possible. It was steadying to find a man so strong and calm when my nerve was going. The first thing to do was to ring Airlines of Australia, and from them I received a mandate to organise the rescue as I thought fit, since I was on the spot and knew the conditions. I was fortunate to have at my elbow the man who knew more of Lamington Plateau than any other. This done, we got Bob Stephens on the telephone. His brothers also plugged in on the party wire, and a hurried conference took place. The plan of action was swiftly decided upon. Five minutes it took but five years of study could not have revealed a flaw in it, or any means by which the stricken men could have been brought to hospital one minute sooner than they were.
John Buchanan was to take every man that could be mustered up an open forest ridge on to the low end of Lamington Plateau and at dawn commence cutting a track up the gradually sloping backbone of the range to the wreck, over which the stretchers would be carried out. I was to lead another party, comprising the doctor, the four Stephens brothers, and a few neighbours‑ picked men carrying medical supplies, nourishment, and waterproof covering, back up the gorge down which I had brought the news, the shortest way to the wreck. The doctor was to come out by car to Stephen’s, and his party was to cross a narrow divide into Christmas Creek gorge where I was to meet it at 2.30 a.m.
What a splendid thing in the moments of greatest emergency to have a man like Bob Stephens to lean on! Bob was a captain in the A.I.F. Quick, constructive thinking is a habit of his, and obstacles are made for him to overcome. What a splendid thing, too, to have had on call John Buchanan, with his quiet confidence, the one man in the world I would have picked to lead that cutting party through fourteen miles of soaking green hell, without visibility, or even the sun as a guide!
The plan made, we rushed on to the township of Hillview, to organise the track‑cutting party, and to get all available brush‑hooks and axes, food for an army of men, and packhorses to get it to the plateau.
To the safe keeping of the postmistress, Gracie Silcock, I gave poor Westray’s mildewed wallet. To Gracie must go most of the credit for getting together the volunteers; she stuck to her telephone all night, calling numbers, explaining where to go and what to take, and all this in between floods of incoming press and radio calls and “long distances” from incredulous relatives and friends. I rushed to the store and ordered incredible amounts of bread, butter, tea and sugar and tinned food; a final thought was a large quantity of flat files for sharpening brush‑hooks. Time flies swiftly when moments are precious; here was 1.30 a.m., and I had to rush off for my rendezvous with the doctor’s party. I had thought to get a change of clothing to replace my wet things but there hadn’t been time. It didn’t matter, anyhow, because rain had started again before midnight, heavy drenching
showers driven down the gorge from the mountains on a strong, cold wind, cold rain that would be making extra hell for those poor devils back up on that high range where the temperature would be ten degrees lower.
The horses were caught again and we went off into the dark at half‑gallop. Suddenly, the horses reared and plunged as the powerful headlights of a car shot over a hill behind us. It was the first Press car, and its occupants wanted a statement and a flashlight photograph, but there were men higher up who needed brandy more than these fellows needed their copy, so I gave my brief apologies and galloped on, on past the region of cars, plunging through the deep creek crossing, iron horseshoes clattering on submerged rocks, past the last trace of civilisation to where the gorge closed in and the big timber began; on, until a fire shining dimly through the trees and falling rain showed that the doctor’s party had beaten me to the spot.
Greetings were taken for granted; billy‑cans were on the fire and near the boil. Here was my first look at Dr. Lawler, a well‑made young man, who looked as though he could stand the frightful gruelling which I knew was ahead of him. His professional work began sooner than he expected; I was in need of some small attention. The pause before the billies boiled gave me a chance to strip off my sodden, stinking clothes and wash some of my fatigue away in the icy water of the creek. Then the billies were boiling and we were scalding our mouths with good old tea. It is strange how hot tea can shoot warmth through a cold wet body, and yet in a heat wave can be more cooling than ice water. As the Cornishman said of his ale, “In summer it do cool ‘ee down, and in winter it do warm ‘ee up.”
There is still a clear mental picture of the men standing with their mugs of tea; their faces, shown strongly in the firelight, had a queer strained look, steam curled up from their sodden clothes, large drops rained down from the leaves of a huge Moreton Bay fig overhead, hissing into the hot ashes. For yet another night and two more days, that band was still together, still in wet clothes, still without sleep, but with faces that had aged ten years.
Now we were under way, a fantastic file of lanterns and torches. The introduction was a strong one for the party, a creek crossing a chain wide and thigh‑deep, floored with slimy boulders like pumpkins; but there were miles of that ahead. We came out of the stream bed and slashed into a thorny wall of raspberry and wild ginger, across great logs six feet high. Back to the stream bed again, and then we tried our luck on the opposite side, got on to the side of a cliff before we knew it, got down to terra firma on vines, and started on up the creek bed again. Over and round the slimy boulders, as large as bales of wool, rain water trickling between our shoulder blades, and creek water washing about our thighs. Now and then a man would fall full length in the water and Lawler, throwing aside his bedside manner, would yell: “Mind that bottle of ether.” Language, the only outlet for our feelings, was getting a lot thicker as we went.
By fltful light of lantern and torch I got some idea of the torrent bed which I had traversed in darkness earlier that night. Earlier that night! Could it have been the same evening? Surely it must have been twelve months ago, and two years since I left home! Came wet, grey daylight, and here speed was possible. In my pocket was a fresh clean handkerchief‑ borrowed‑ which I spread over poor Westray’s face. He was gently carried from the creek to the mystic circle of trees where he now lies. We went on, a very silent band now. Time ceased to be. One slippery boulder was like another, one fall was like another, one hour like another. Even the strongest were showing strain. My legs had to be driven, forced like things that were almost dead, but there were no complaints now; over these boulders and round these waterfalls Westray had dragged his broken body. Away up above, without shelter in the cold driving rain, were two tortured, dying men, who could still joke on the eleventh day after the crash. God forgive if I ever complain again.
It was about 3 a.m. when we left the camp‑fire. Ten a.m. found us still climbing over slippery boulders in the creek bed. The country between the wreck and the open country where I had gone, hell‑driven, in three hours, took eight hours to cover.
Bob and I got to the wreck first. Briefly, he shook hands with the two men, and then, in his practical way, set to work building a fire without a second glance at the wrecked machine. My haversack was off and brandy, eggs and milk were whipped up in a pannikin. “Only a tablespoonful each, every ten minutes,” Lawler warned. “This is what I should have had for you yesterday,” was my apologetic remark. “It was worth waiting for,” said Joe Binstead.
Some time later, the doctor and the rest of the party being a little distance away, I disregarded the ten‑minute rule and gave the men an extra quick one before handing over to Lawler. The doctor, wan and exhausted, did not pause a moment to rest, but went straight to work on Proud’s leg. Gordon Stephens rushed off for more water from Binstead’s little creek‑ the doctor needed lots of hot water. Less than an hour later he told me confidently that Proud’s life and limb would be saved. The very maggots which seemed to make the case so hopeless had eaten away the gangrenous flesh and checked the spread of fatal infection. Nature, with her own antiseptic, had protected a man beyond the reach of medical aid. I was to find out later that during the Great War many a Digger’s life had been saved by flies.
A track was swiftly cut to the top of the plateau, and a little tentlike shelter, large enough for the two men, was erected. Thin, strong saplings were cut, threaded through chaffbags, and lashed to cross‑pieces with clothes‑line rope, to form stretchers. By early afternoon, the men were in their new home, sleeping with the aid of sedatives.
In the meantime, others of the party had made a start to cut the track back along the range‑top, to meet John Buchanan’s cutting party. Lack of visibility and a crescent-shaped creek gorge threw our men out of their reckoning, but contact was made with the other party about sunset. Many of Buchanan’s men had gone back towards civilisation for the night, but a band of men with Sid Smith in its van came through to our camp. Sid, himself an old Digger, who worked like a tiger and swore like a bullockdriver, looked, as did the others, like a man who had done five days’ work without resting, and that was about right too‑ they had done five days’ work in one; they had worked with the savage desperation of miners whose mates are entombed; they had worked for a Cause, the divine spark which turns men into supermen.
Later, around dark, many more men came and joined the group about our smoky fires; prominent among these was the bearded, long‑haired figure of Charles Burgess, the Hermit of Lamington, who did splendid scouting work that day for Buchanan’s party. The Hermit dwells in a cave down on Christmas Creek, and lives almost entirely on corn which he grows, grinds into meal with a little hand‑mill and bakes on the coals in unleavened cakes. The one great precept of his simple religion is, “Thou shalt not kill,” and this he carries:out so thoroughly and sincerely that he refuses to wear leather boots, because they involve the killing of animals.
I can say, without hesitation, that that night was the worst in my life. Two smoky sodden fires for thirty wornout men, no shelter from the wind and rain which doubled as night fell; it seemed years since I had felt warmth or had dry clothes on my body. Nobody made any pretence of trying to sleep. Most of the men stood up all night. And all the time I was sunk in the pit of misery and dejection- the outside world was shouting my name and frenzied journalists were searching for new words to describe my feat of bushcraft. Bushcraft! What a poor over‑worked word that became! Any person who had studied the topography and vegetation of the McPhersons would know that no matter how thoroughly he was equipped with bush instinct, a man might search there unsuccessfully for fifty years. This fact should be noted, and due credit given to my mother, who was saying her prayers back home.
Back home! What was happening? I tried to imagine, and then gave up. I was not to know that even then Viola and Rose were riding in the dark and wet up the slippery slopes of Lamington Plateau on the freshly‑cut track towards us, Rose with her trained nurse’s experience to assist Dr. Lawler if necessary, Viola to look after me. The word had reached home at 10.30 on Sunday night, I heard later, and soon the household was up and about. Joe ran up to Goblin Wood to tell Viola, he woke her and lost his voice and could not say a word. Nobody could sit down or keep still, shock rather than excitement was their condition. But in all this excitement Mother’s remained the one cool head. She calmly set about building up the dead fire and made tea for the excited ones. Soon our house was flooded with telephone calls in much the same way as was Hillview. Nearly all of these calls were erroneously made by people who believed the O’Reilly Guest House to be the scene of events, instead of being far removed from them. Viola, Molly and Rose took, relays at the telephone until morning.
And then with the morning Viola, Rose, and Mary Doherty set out on their ponies for the long wet ride across the lowlands. Instead of tackling the two‑day trip through the ranges on foot, they rode down the Stockyard Creek track, thence across the cleared foothills to Christmas Creek above Lamington. Many times on the way they passed dairy farms, deserted when their owners, rushed off in the night to the rescue. Here were unmilked cows, restless with their bulging milk‑bags, and poddy calves which bellowed for food. Once Rose stopped to lift a little weak calf out of a pen and restore him to his fretting mother over the fence. Darkness caught them long before they reached the depot at the foot of the plateau where the ambulance cars waited. It was from there, after some food and a rest at a log fire, that they set out again in the small hours on that dark and dangerous journey. They too had not slept in two nights and it was fitting, I think, that they should have been the only womenfolk to get right on to the job and share in the hardships of the rescuers.
The late‑comers to our fire had brought news that an army of men was assembling at the foot of the range to help with the work next day, Tuesday. A canteen had been established there by local women workers, and a prominent firm of storekeepers in Beaudesert sent, free of all charge, a truckload of provisions to feed the rescue party. They told, too, of an army of newspaper reporters and photographers, movie newsreel men, radio announcers and experts, and a host of people who were there in the capacity of sightseers.
About an hour before dawn, Bob called for volunteers to carry billy water for breakfast. An atmosphere of cheerfulness spread about through the men, partly at the prospect of tea and tucker but mainly, I think, because of the proximity of daylight and action. As we were drinking down the last of the tea, the bronze cuckoos commenced their pre‑dawn wailing, and a faint grey light showed between the slits in the tree‑tops. A deluge just before the light came eased off and allowed us to take down the waterproof coverings and arrange them across the stretchers. Then came the yellow robins ringing “Chop, chop!” and with it the strong light. Steadily and without luss big strong men took their places, the word was quietly assed, and first Binstead’s and then Proud’s stretcher started off along that little tunnel which led for fourteen miles through the wet, green tangle. The last phase of the big work had commenced.
Bob, Charlie Steinhardt, Charles Burgess and I started ahead with our brush‑hooks, slashing loose vines and spikes which might trip the carriers; behind the stretchers came the reserve men, carrying food and odds and ends of gear. There was no stopping for a rest. When a man tired, another took his place; the cavalcade kept moving. Round the bend ahead came a number of rain‑sodden men, the leader a tall chap with a drooping hat and a wet cornsack over his shoulders. He strode forward and grabbed my hand. He was brother Herb. Something caught inside me. I choked and said nothing. The men behind him were my cobbers from Kerry. They hadn’t much to say, but the feel of their hard hands was good at a moment when I felt like “selling out cheap.” They had been cutting on the previous evening and had spent the night under a beech tree a few miles back. Another mile of slashing, and dimly round a bend through the rain came two familiar ponies, one a cream and the other a blue‑grey. There was no mistaking them‑ Roufe and Blue Boy, our stocky half‑brothers from home. In the dim light the ponies were more easily recognised than their riders, but I knew before I could see clearly that they must be Viola and Rose.
Although I was hatless, Viola would have passed me without recognition, such was the change that the few days had made. They had telegrams, one for Binstead and three for me. They had ridden off from the camp‑fire down by the ambulance cars at 2 a.m., and after five hours’ riding, mostly through the dark, they came up with us.
Viola had started out with dry clothes for me, but the bottom had been ripped out of the saddle‑bag in the timber and the clothes, together with their provisions, had fallen by the wayside, but nobody cared. Rose gave me her knitted jumper and even over my wet things it made a great difference to my comfort.
In charge of Proud’s stretcher was John Rosser, whose ceaseless vigilance and commands of “Higher left,” “Lower back”; or “Higher front,” kept the stretcher always perfectly level and relieved any strain from the injured man’s leg.
John Rosser had been the unsung hero of a drama which stirred our district in 1931. Very early one morning in October of that year, little James Doyle, aged nineteen months, strayed away from his parents’ home on the Albert River, above Kerry. By evening over a hundred people had joined the search, which went on for two nights and two days. On the second day an aeroplane searched, but unsuccessfully. Rose and I spent two days and nights of fruitless tramping. On the second night Rose had a nasty experience. She was searching alone on a lonely flat up Lefthand River, when she saw in the light of the half‑moon two big dingoes tearing a small body on the ground. She drove the dingoes away and then found to her relief that they had been eating a freshly‑killed calf. On the second morning, over fifty hours after he had disappeared, little James was found by John Rosser, just in the nick of time. The toddler had travelled over five miles and had crossed a rugged range.
Something I shall never forget was my meeting that morning with the two brothers of Captain Boyden. We exchanged handshakes and a few words under the streaming trees. It was as unforgettable as the afternoon, a week later, when I met his mother.
One may readily understand the gratitude of the rescued nen, and the feelings of people when dear ones they have mourned as lost have come back from the grave. The most touching thing in the whole sad affair was the gratitude of the mother and brothers of Rex Boyden, and the mother and the young wife of James Westray, gratitude for definite word of their lost ones, and the knowledge that they had had a Christian burial.
About mid‑morning, while carrying Proud’s stretcher, I tumbled badly twice. I was relieved at once. Only will power had been keeping me together, and now with extra help arriving every moment and the end of the job in sight, the old legs refused duty.
Quickly we were joined by other groups of wet and worn men from the previous day’s cutting party, their faces and hands and arms torn with lawyer and wild raspberry. One man who looked “all in” was Digger Jack Bishop. I especially remember too, big Bill Hayes, of Hillview, himself a tiger on the football field, who was a tower of strength to the party.
In the course of this story, I have mentioned the names of men here and there as they come into the narrative, but there are thirty and more whose names should range alongside, who took an equal part in the hardship and back‑breaking toil and whose share in the glorious work will never be forgotten. And where will you find better men than those who carried the stretchers from the top of the plateau, down and down, and right down that last steep range to the waiting ambulance cars below, the men in front with the stretcher bars held above their heads, the ones at the back with the bars below their knees in order that the sick men should be kept on an even keel? At one point where the mountain broke away sharply, a stout rope was put round an entire stretcher party and anchored to another group of men, who steadied them down the declivity.
Slowly and resolutely the carriers tramped down the last long slope, down at last to where the creek flat swelled up to meet the ridge.
Let us draw the curtain for a moment, while the men who came back from the grave are restored to their families.
And then, eleven hours after that start in the grey of dawn, Binstead and Proud were put into the ambulance cars; the big job was done.
I feel that some comment should now be made on what has been said about the cause of the disaster,
It has been suggested in some circles that the pilot was flying too low. That is very unfair. If you trace the course of the airliner from where it was last seen to where it crashed, you will find it crossed two ranges both higher than where the crash occurred. What is the answer? The plane was forced down. It is a cowardly and despicable thing that irresponsible, ill‑informed people should attempt to fasten blame on a man who cannot come forward to give an account of his stewardship. I do not wish to include within the scope of these remarks men who had to give evidence under oath‑ naturally they were compelled in conscience to tell the truth as they thought it to be; rather these words are intended for unthinking people who would lightly seek to take away the reputation of a man who was a splendid airman.
Boyden was no amateur; he learned his flying in that hardest of schools, the Great War, and the men who went up in those flimsy crates and faced von Richthofen’s guns were not wanting in either courage or skill. He lost his plane and his life in battling with Queensland’s oldest and greatest enemy, the cyclone. What is a light aeroplane to a cyclone? Cities have been razed in such winds. Who remembers the Yongala and the Waratah, two great steel ships which disappeared with all hands? No trace of them was ever seen.
Here is some information for which we are indebted to Gordon Stephens who lived in the last house up the Albert River under the shadow of Mt. Widgee and directly in the line of flight of the Stinson that day. Gordon is a keen observer and I had every confidence in his opinion; also, he was one of the last people to see the plane in flight.
He stated that at the time the aeroplane flew over there were two levels of cloud, one a smother of low white cloud which partly concealed Mt. Widgee and poured down through the gorges completely hiding the high backbone of ranges beyond, the other the ceiling of the cyclone itself; this he estimated to be at least fifteen hundred feet above Mt. Widgee. As the plane went over, still climbing, its wings were seen to cut into the high ceiling and it finally disappeared into that bank. Since Mt. Widgee is well above three thousand feet, this would place the
altitude of the plane above Stephen’s at little short of five thousand feet, and it was obvious to him by the sound of its motors that it was still climbing. Even at the same height at which it passed over Gordon’s house, the plane would have cleared the point where the wreck occurred by nearly two thousand feet.
And that is why the Stephens brothers and their immediate neighbours who were the last people to see the plane in flight did not consider for one moment that it could have got into difficulties over the McPhersons. To understand the manner of down‑draught which caused the disaster, it is necessary to understand a little of the geography of the McPherson Range. On the southern side, from which the cyclone blew at its greatest velocity, the range rises from low coastal country in great sheer ramparts for from three to four thousand feet. The cyclone, striking full against these mighty walls, was forced up in a great arc at more than a hundred miles an hour. It is an established scientific fact that the descending section of this arc has even greater velocity. Back a few yards from the edge of the cliff, where the wind screamed like a thousand demons, was a dead calm in which it would be possible to light a cigarette with ease. Ample proof of the destructive force of the down‑draught is given by the fact that trees along the main top of the range had barely a leaf disturbed, while in the bottom of sheltered gorges, half a mile back on the northern side, the destruction of timber almost passed description.
There has been something on my mind since the crash, and this seems to be the place to say it. We all know that the safety of aviation has been built upon the lessons of a thousand disasters. What then, is the lesson of the Lamington crash? To me it seems this: there should be at each great aerodrome a disinterested official (preferably a Government official) with full knowledge of wind and air conditions along immediate air routes, who should have power to ground a plane if in his opinion the occasion warrants it. I am not suggesting here that such a state of affairs would have prevented the Stinson crash, but is it fair that a pilot, whose job is such an exacting one, should have the added responsibility of deciding whether or not a passenger plane should go up in bad weather? There are too many factors which may cloud his judgment‑ keeping faith with his passengers who expect to get through, loyalty to his company which has a splendid all‑weather flying record, and lastly the old slogan, “The air mail must go through.” It seems to me that the final decision should rest with someone who owes no loyalty to the service.
People have asked me why Westray attempted to climb down those cliffs which he knew to be dangerous. The answer is simple: the cliffs were between him and civilisation, and men of Westray’s stamp do not turn back from a job because it becomes dangerous. He had gone for help and for him there was no turning aside from his purpose. He had already negotiated country far more difficult than where he fell, cliffs which I found to be extremely dangerous, and I was not handicapped by two badly‑burnt hands.
Of all the ravine beds which I have traversed in the National Park area, that which Westray had to travel down was the worst. It would seem that the fire demons in making it had done everything their spite could conceive. Between towering volcanic cliffs was the stream bed, choked with great blocks of lava, green with slime and moss. Here and there huge trees had been torn from the cliffs by the cyclone, their heads smashed into the gorge but their great trunks wedged upright along the cliffs‑ there was not room for them to fall into the choked stream bed. Everything seemed to be conspiring against the rescue. Time was going. “If I don’t get out of this Gorge tonight, Proud will die before help comes,” was my thought. It must have been just after the place where Westray fell that I lost my head and began to run and leap across the gaps between the slimy lava rocks. If I’d slipped, I too should have been smashed up and help would never have got to the men, but I thought, as far as I was capable of thinking, that they would die anyhow, if I didn’t get help that night.
It is like a dream now‑ that wild run. I was quite mad‑ my heart had been wrung out with horror and with pity‑ no one who looked upon those poor survivors could help praying, as I did, that God would “Let me live long enough to help these men.” I knew that I was sobbing and that I paused only when tears blinded me. I remember too that the shock and jar of leaping and landing on these rocks at top speed was telling on me, even though I was in splendid condition, but I was given strength to complete the task.