Surviving the Kimberley
To experience the predicament that almost killed two stranded German aviators in 1932, a modern-day adventurer sets off solo into the Kimberley with only minimal supplies.
An adventurer re-creates a nearfatal 1930s outback disaster.
ACROC’S GONNA rip you straight off that raft, mate!” These were the not-so-encouraging words of a local in Wyndham, 2200km north-east of Perth, who farewelled me as I prepared my vessel for departure into the remote Kimberley. It was nerve-racking setting off on this four-week solo expedition into the West Australian wilderness, to place myself in the same situation as two German aviators – Hans Bertram and Adolf Klausmann – who had been stranded in the Kimberley in 1932. I wanted to see if I could survive my way out of their historic predicament, with only the materials that had been available to them 85 years earlier.
After running out of fuel on their f light from Europe to Australia, these pioneering aviators made a raft using one of their seaplane f loats and attempted to sail back to civilisation. After five weeks of hell – lost, with little food and water – they’d given up, but were rescued, on the brink of death, by local Balanggarra people.
I wondered if they might have had more success if they’d used two f loats, instead of one, and roped them together to make a catamaran. To test this idea, I welded up mock seaplane f loats out of 44-gallon (200L) drums, with bush logs lashed across the top, and attached an outboard engine so I could motor around to the remote bay where the seaplane had been stranded, near Cape Bernier.
I didn’t want to diminish what Bertram and Klausmann had achieved in 1932. They did an excellent job with their knowledge at the time. But I had a distinct advantage as a former military survival instructor with NORFORCE, an Australian Army Reserve unit mostly made up of Aboriginal people that patrols the Top End. I’d also been a military pilot with extensive survival training and tested my skills on many private expeditions.
So, on 7 June 2017, after 11 days of full-time raft construction, I set off from Wyndham for the ocean via the turbulent, crocfilled Cambridge Gulf. It took me eight days to motor the raft just 200km north-west to my journey’s starting point. It wasn’t easy. Strong trade winds created large waves that threatened to smash me up against exposed cliffs, and my shiny new engine began to quit and splutter.
I camped ashore each night amid the spectacular Kimberley surrounds to troubleshoot the problems. A complete strip and reassembly of various parts – mostly at night on beaches with
plenty of hungry crocs lurking – eventually saw an improvement in my engine’s performance. After eight days, I finally motored into Seaplane Bay, named after the aviators. I can’t think of a more remote stretch of coastline anywhere in Australia. From here on, I began to survive solely on bush tucker, with only the materials available to the aviators. I knew precisely what items they’d had because Bertram wrote a book in 1936 about the ordeal called Flight Into Hell.
IHAD TO solve three major problems these aviators struggled with. First, they couldn’t f ind drinking water. Using my northern Australia survival experience, I found it after a 40-minute search by following a nearby creek upstream until I discovered a pool.
Second, they couldn’t f ind food. During my seven days at Seaplane Bay I found enough to sustain me indef initely. My staple diet was 20 hand-sized scallops a day plus cockles, oysters, mud snails and f ish caught on an antique linen f ishing line. I ate boab nuts both raw and mashed into a porridge, bush cucumbers, kurrajong seeds, berries known as ‘dog’s nuts’, pandanus seeds, kapok f lowers and native mint plants.
I even made a tasty green-ant tea by dunking nests into a billy of boiling water and straining out the f loaty bits. This had the added benefit of reducing the number of biting green ants in my camp site – something anyone camping in Australia’s north can relate to.
The third issue was that Bertram and Klausmann were hopelessly lost. They could have found their latitude by measuring the angle at which Mintaka – one of the three bright stars of Orion’s Belt – rises or sets. I marked where Mintaka crossed two lengths of string placed parallel to the horizon and compared it with vertical by hanging a rock next to it.
This gave me an angle of 14 degrees. Along this latitude, the only section of Australian coastline with an east-south-east orientation is that of the northern Kimberley, making it clear where I must be.
I hatched an escape plan to the nearest civilisation, which, back in 1932, was the now-abandoned Pago Mission. It was inland and about 90km away over rough terrain, so it made sense to use the raft and sail close along the coast before setting off on foot for the f inal section. I sewed two bathrobes into a sail, as the aviators had done, and watched a massive saltwater
I sewed two bathrobes into a sail…and watched a massive saltwater crocodile cruise past the back of the raft.
crocodile cruise past the back of the raft where it was anchored on the beach. I made a note to remain alert and keep a large pole at hand when on the water.
I still didn’t know if my catamaran idea would work when I hoisted the sails for the f irst time. But to my great relief the raft pulled forward, my beach home for the past week slowly became smaller behind me and I was off.
I sailed along the coast for four days, covering another 70km. The strong winds eased and I made reasonable progress each day. It was diff icult keeping straight with my improvised rudder, but the trade winds helped blow me in the right direction.
I’d taken three camera drones with me to capture both video and still images of my journey – and any encounters with crocs – from the air, and hand-launched them from the raft each day. It was dangerous with the spinning blades, so I always wore my aviator hat and goggles to protect my face. Plenty of people have needed surgery to faces and fingers when catching drones on dry land in calm conditions, so it was always a relief to get them safely back on deck.
Anchoring at one point, a few days later, a large croc approached, so I dropped everything and picked up the pole I kept handy for such occasions. The reptile dived below at close range and didn’t reappear, so I disembarked gingerly, trusty pole at the ready. During a midday stop on another day, I looked for the cave where Bertram and Klausmann had finally given up hope after repeated attempts to sail and trek out. They had waited out their last days before their rescue in a sandstone cavern overlooking the waves.
I eventually found it using Bertram’s book and notes taken from the WA Maritime Museum, in Fremantle. Sitting down and looking out to sea from the cave, I felt a link with these two brave airmen, despite the 85 years separating us. A lack of food and extreme isolation amplifies emotions and sharing similar circumstances with them channelled my empathy.
I later interviewed a direct descendant of the rescuers, Matthew Waina – a Balanggarra man who lives in Kalumburu. His account, passed to him long ago by elderly relatives, precisely matches the aviators’ story after 85 years, a testament to the accuracy of Aboriginal oral history.
One afternoon, towards the end of my voyage, a bunch of small tourist boats appeared out of nowhere, and when I rounded the next cape I found the mothership, True North. Its chopper
pilot, Alan Carstons, who’d seen my expedition reported on ABC News, motored out to meet me. He kindly offered food and drink, which I reluctantly declined. It’s one of the great things about going into remote areas that people are always kind, courteous and generous. Apart from an Australian Coastal Surveillance Organisation ship, which sent some off icers on inf latables to check me out, these were the only souls I saw for many weeks.
Fishing was difficult with my antique gear, but I managed to catch three f ish in total; one was a good-sized wrasse. I had limited time to forage because I was on the raft all day, so, other than bush passionfruit, boab nuts and the odd f ish, I wasn’t eating much. The tides were too high for collecting shellf ish. As a result, I started to feel lethargic and dizzy and saw stars when I stood up.
FINALLY, ON 25 JUNE, I sailed close enough to Pago Mission to start my 70km hike overland. I lightened my gear for the walk out, because I knew the terrain would be diff icult. The f irst 50m involved climbing a sandstone cliff with loose rock and dead trees threatening to slip off and take me with them as I clambered from ledge to ledge.
I used the Sun to maintain a rough 250-degree heading to the abandoned mission. I had no way of carrying water, so, when the creeks weren’t running in the right direction, I gambled and struck out over dry ground. These short cuts paid off, but I got very dehydrated at times.
I ate pandanus, cabbage palm, bush almonds, lily roots, bloodwood galls, grubs and raw f ish scooped up with my bare hands from drying creek beds. I carried 10kg of modern camera equipment and a small swag of historic survival gear that weighed about 5kg and included a blanket, billy and strip of canvas. The weight of all this, combined with up to 30km of walking a day over punishing uneven terrain, played havoc with my feet.
While walking, I had plenty of time to ref lect on the treatment of the Balanggarra rescuers of Bertram and Klausmann. Astoundingly, before the aviators were found, the Australian authorities had already assumed that Aboriginal people had murdered them. This led to nine of them being chained up in the search party. Despite the indignity of this inhumane treatment, they searched on and eventually found the lost Germans.
These Aboriginal men were valuing the lives of others, even as their own lives were not being valued. The generosity of the Balanggarra people of the northern Kimberley continues today. After so much has been taken from them, they still very kindly allowed me to access their land for this adventure.
After jumping from bank to bank and an unplanned swim across the croc-f illed lower reaches of the Drysdale River, I eventually reached Pago Mission, exhausted but relieved. The mission is now abandoned, so I walked on into the night (on a track, what luxury!), hoping to f ind a camp site I could hitch a lift from to get some real food. A wide creek cut the track and a pair of croc eyes was visible, so I slept nearby until sunrise and continued the next day. I eventually got to a bigger dirt road and hitched a ride with the first four-wheel-drive that appeared. On 29 June I was dropped at the township of Kalumburu, where I downed three iced coffees and devoured a Cherry Ripe chocolate bar. My shrunken stomach was f illed to breaking point.
It took me four more days to go back and recover the raft. This involved hitching rides in a boat, car, helicopter and even a mail plane – as well as another 100km stint on the raft, which is now proudly on display at the Kalumburu Mission Museum.
So, is the Kimberley hell or paradise? I’m going with paradise. My trip was hell at times, but that’s my fault for deciding not to take any food…not to mention f loating about on a wind-battered coastline on a dodgy raft. All up I had sailed, motored and hiked about 490km.
But I believe I came back with a better idea of the ordeal that Bertram and Klausmann had faced – and I had proved to myself that it was possible to survive unaided, which is exactly what I had set out to do.