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.

Australian Geographic - - Contents - STORY AND PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY MICHAEL ATKIN­SON

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.

Af­ter 11 days into the sur­vival phase (top), I felt dizzy and weak much of the time. Right down to the gog­gles, my clothes repli­cated those of the stranded avi­a­tors Adolf Klaus­mann (above far left) and Hans Ber­tram (above cen­tre), seen here with their Abo­rig­i­nal res­cuers.

My four-week solo Kim­ber­ley jour­ney recre­ated the 1932 ex­pe­ri­ence of stranded Ger­man avi­a­tors Hans Ber­tram and Adolf Klaus­mann, but in ad­di­tion, I made my way to their crash site and back, cov­er­ing 490km of mo­tor­ing, sail­ing and hik­ing.

Al­most ev­ery part of the wa­ter lily – from the roots and stems to the flow­ers and seeds – is ed­i­ble. This wa­ter­hole saved the lives of the avi­a­tors af­ter their raft was blown out to sea for five days.The joy of catch­ing a fish was so much greater when my sur­vival de­pended on it. These ed­i­ble berries called ‘dog’s nuts’ (be­low right) tasted bet­ter than they sounded.

My last line of de­fence against crocs was harsh lan­guage and this pole. I held it at the ready a cou­ple times, but the rep­tiles never came closer than a car-length or two.

The be­gin­ning of my over­land walk­out was un­com­fort­ably tough and it didn’t get much eas­ier. It was rough coun­try to walk, but the view wasn’t too bad.

This jump across the croc-filled Drys­dale River was right on the lim­its of my phys­i­cal abil­i­ties. I later had to swim back to fetch my re­main­ing gear.

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