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The Melbourne Bushies

- Fifty years along the track (1940-90)

Chapter 14 - Search and Rescue

Barry Short

Federation Search and Rescue has always played a part in the lives of bushwalkers. A bushwalker develops survival skills and an acceptance of the bush and its lore. These skills and understanding have long been used to assist in searches for people lost in the bush. Over the years various members of our Club have attended numerous searches. Some have been successful, some have not; and many make interesting stories. Here are a few such stories.

One of the earliest searches in which Club members were involved was in 1949 when a walker, Alfred Howie, went missing on Wilsons Promontory. The Federation Search and Rescue had not as yet been formed, and this search helped to convince the police that bushwalkers had something unique to offer the community. The story of this search was told in the News , June, 1949. Twelve searchers arrived and stayed the night at Toora. By 5.00 a.m. the next day they were on their way to Sealers Cove - by boat. They arrived four hours later and commented on the picturesque sunrise they had seen as they sailed past the rugged coastline of the Promontory. They searched all weekend but found no sign of the missing walker. The News concluded:

Although the trip was a failure in regard to finding Mr Howie we are sure that the trip was a success in regard to co-operation with the police. We went down as a self-contained unit, the police only had to provide us with the transport from Toora to Sealers Cove, we had our own food and camping gear and this the police admitted was of great assistance to them.

We worked in great harmony with the police, taking our instructions from them after consultation with them.

This we hope is the start of a Search and Rescue Organisation of the Victorian Federation of' Walking Clubs.

The search in August 1953 for a young couple lost on snow-covered Mt Donna Buang for three to four days hit newspaper headlines. Kirk McLeod and Jennifer Laycock did not return home Sunday night. Their car was discovered on Monday and police and locals searched unsuccessfully on Tuesday. Search and Rescue was called and 60 members turned up ready to start searching at first light on Wednesday. The searchers were equipped to stay out for three days. The plan was to start from the summit of Donna Buang and search down the headwaters of Watts River, arriving for a regrouping and lunch at a predetermined stream junction. Bill Horton, our Search and Rescue representative (and later to become Club President), was the leader of the party that found the couple.

The search parties trudged through the snow, were duly posted at respective starting points and commenced searching downhill. The undergrowth was extremely thick but thinned out lower down where it was mainly beech forest. All except one of the search groups had arrived at the rendezvous point for lunch. Bill's report, slightly abbreviated (it has been published several times already), continues the story (Walk 1954).

It was decided to lunch and wait for Party 3, but as it had not arrived by 1.50 p.m. my radio operator (Arthur Birch) contacted them by radio and then very faintly contacted base. As all groups were together I thought it worth the trouble to see if there was any news from base. Being unable to receive messages from base we told them to listen in ten minutes later while Arthur and I climbed the low ridge opposite in the hopes that the additional height would improve conditions a little. We arrived on the flat, low ridge in a matter of minutes, but again could only contact Party 3, still on their way down to the junction, and not base. Though higher ground seemed to he some distance along the ridge, Arthur and I decided to climb higher before trying again, but had hardly walked 50 yards when we both heard a faint cry over on our left. Looking over we saw the white face and red jacket of Jennifer Laycock supporting herself on a log and looking beseechingly in our direction. We rushed over and found Jenny had crawled out from under a small 'humpy' made from two crossed logs with a roof of smaller logs and ferns, and that Kirk was in the process of crawling out. Leaving Arthur to support the girl, I rushed back to the junction to bring help. At first, when I shouted across the stream to the party for sleeping bags, tea, etc., they did not seem to believe me or realise what I wanted; but soon several of them hurriedly grabbed up their gear and hurried hack with me.

Though their clothing seemed to be dry enough I had most of it removed and replaced with warm woollen stuff. Jenny's shoes were difficult to take off as her feet were frozen and swollen, and her socks had to be partly cut off; but she said that she could not feel anything in her feet or hands. Kirk seemed to be in a similar condition, but a little more helpless than Jenny who could assist us in changing her clothes, and who could also talk a little.

After changing their clothes we put them on two layers of sleeping bags and covered them up with several more, as it would have been too difficult then to get them into the bags. By this time some of the others had prepared some tea and we proceeded to feed them both warm sweet tea with spoons and they both appeared extremely thirsty.

The actual time of discovery of the pair was 2.15 p.m. and we had worked so rapidly that they were encased in sleeping bags and had their hot drinks by 2.50 p.m. It was shortly after this that Arthur managed to contact base long enough to pass a message back direct.

In the meantime, a group of four of the lads had sifted out from the helpers, and had commenced treatment of the pair. Nothing hot was allowed near the feet or hands and the badly frostbitten feet were not allowed to he touched but the legs and arms were massaged lightly to start circulation. This, and general massage (or rubbing), was continued by the four for some hours; warm liquids being fed to the patients at regular intervals. Instructions were issued to the four that they and their leader, Leon Langley, were not to tolerate interference from others and that all others were to be kept away.

Stretcher-making was commenced and a large fire lit; and all members, except those with definite jobs, were instructed to return to the lunch spot and make camp for the night, getting to bed as early as possible in readiness for the hard day ahead.

About this time, approximately 3.30 to 4.00 p.m., we heard the noise of the helicopter in the distance and immediately built up the fire and started adding green leaves, ferns, etc. to create a thick smoke. The helicopter soon sighted the smoke, and circled a couple of times before hovering for a moment directly above. Someone in the machine waved and then it departed, obviously satisfied that it was impossible to land or drop a cable to us.

By this time the two patients were settling down and feeling a little better, but the afternoon was quickly passing and I considered that by the time we had the patients on the stretchers and on their way we would only have an hour and a half of daylight left. It would thus be best to stay where we were for the night, especially as water was handy.

A large wall tent was pitched near the patients, two air mattresses were produced, and the patients transferred to the tent and put into sleeping bags for the night. Space was left at one side of the tent for the 'night watch' of one of the four attendants, each of whom took turns at looking after the patients during the night.

As several members were without sleeping bags, having donated them to the patients, they had to be accommodated in between other sleepers or under tents. Fortunately it was a comparatively mild night, so those people did not suffer unduly, though they had a minimum of sleep.

Next morning we were all packed up by 7.30 a.m.; but by the time the patients were fed, tidied up and lashed to their stretchers it was 8.30 before the procession moved off.

From the accounts of the various group leaders there seemed to he little choice for the best route out to Donna Buang, and we decided that the most direct route would be as good as any other. With nine or ten on Kirk's stretcher and eight on Jenny's (two down the river on a message to Bruce Graham, another two acting as radio link) only a total of five were available for track cutting.

After negotiating the stream, the slope of the ridge, with a well-cut track, was comparatively easy going and the stretchers soon caught up with the cutters so that some stretcher bearers had to go ahead to help track cutting. Eventually only eight carriers remained on each stretcher. The grade became much steeper and extremely rough, and we were glad to receive news of Gordon Coutts's [MBW] party near by (which comprised thirteen searchers who had arrived from Melbourne late that morning, and were sent in to assist when the news was received that the people had been found).

This party reached us a little before 11.00 a.m. As all the stretcher bearers were also carrying packs, but were still comparatively fresh, their packs were passed over to some of the shorter members of the new party, while the remainder were sent up to help with the track cutting. Progress was now much better for some time until the grade steepened and the logs became much more numerous and awkward. At about 1.00 p.m. the party stopped for a short, dry lunch and then carried on, shortly afterwards striking the snowline. Generally, the stretchers stopped about every ten minutes for a brief spell, but otherwise carried on over and under the numerous obstacles up the extremely steep slope, and a word of praise is due to all the bearers who struggled untiringly all day.

At about 3.15 p.m. numerous reinforcements arrived from all directions, and among these were two doctors who immediately checked the two patients quickly and gave them both two injections, one of morphia and the other to counteract frostbite.

From then on, with frequent changes of stretcher parties through clear open forest, the summit of Donna Buang was reached at approximately 4.00 p.m. where the patients were transferred to a waiting ambulance.

Kirk McLeod made a complete recovery but Jennifer Laycock lost both legs due to frostbite. It took the whole day to carry the two stretchers out just several kilometres. Sometimes the searchers themselves got into trouble. This occurred during one of the longest and most arduous of searches on Mt Baw Baw in June 1955. Mihram Haig became lost from a Queen's Birthday weekend ski club working party and a full-scale search was instituted to find him. Melbourne Bushies were involved in this search through most difficult terrain for eight days. David Halley, a 19-year-old walker from the Catholic Walking Club, became lost himself, and his story was printed in Walk 1956.

When I found I had become separated from my party, I was not unduly worried, as I had been given instructions to proceed to Mt Mueller and I expected my companions to arrive shortly after. I had never spent a night alone in the bush, but I was not concerned, as a true bush lover never feels lonely there. When, next morning, my party did not show up, I decided I was lost and that I would have to rely on my own ability to get me back to the road. After the hard scrub-bashing trip up, I knew that this would not be easy and, remembering instructions which I had received in my junior days with my club I pushed my way through a mass of tangled scrub to reach the nearest ridge so as to get my bearings. To my disappointment I could not pick out any landmarks, as this wild country is just a succession of densely-wooded ridges, and, having no map, I could not distinguish one from the other.

It was then that I decided to bash my way down to a creek in the valley below, because I felt that, in time, it must lead me out. Following a creek in this type of' country is a difficult and hazardous experience, as I discovered after having fallen into it on numerous occasions. One of my grimmest moments was when I tried to negotiate a waterfall. Having slipped halfway down, I realised that I could not continue, as the going was too dangerous, so I tried to scramble up the falls again. To my dismay, my foot caught in a crevice and with the water pouring down on me, I tugged and tugged until I, at last, released my foot and dragged myself up over the rocks. This episode unnerved me a little, but with a few other unhappy ones, I put the incident out of my mind and continued on my rock-hopping journey downstream.

In my earliest days in the club I had been told that, if lost, a hiker should immediately ration his food, and I had been doing this from the beginning of my long trek down from the ridge. I was determined to make it last until I found my way out or was found. At no stage did I panic, as I felt that it was most necessary to keep a level head and not jeopardise my chances of being discovered or of making my way out of the bush myself.

Gwynnyth Taylor being carried with broken ankle
Gwynnyth Taylor being carried with broken ankle, Cathedral Mountain, Labor Day weekend, 1958.

It was a tremendous relief to me when, after six long days in the most rugged country I have ever encountered, I heard voices and knew that help was at hand. The sight of those stalwart Forestry Commission officers was more welcome than words of mine can express. I would advise all bushwalkers that, if they must get lost, let it not be in the Baw Baws.

After finding David Halley the search for Mihram Haig was abandoned. He was never found.

Another search had tragic consequences. In January 1961 Freda Hargreaves was reported lost in The Bluff - Mt Magdala - Macalister Springs area. At the time a lot of unfavourable publicity for MBW was generated by the press misreporting and by Freda Hargreaves's refusal to accept the rules of the Club prior to going on the fatal trip. Ian Phillips takes up the story:

I never met (alive) the lady concerned but some little time before the end of 1960 she had participated as a visitor on an MBW Club walk. It was apparent that she was not suited to the rigours of an extended walking tour of the type on the Christmas programme of the Club that year, even if she had satisfied the experience hurdles then operating for participation in longer walks.

John Brownlie, in an attempt to be helpful, showed her a programme from a Sydney walking group. This included a modified fixed camp or two, moving, as I recall, from place to place by car. This, John suggested, would be very suitable for Freda.

She approached the Sydney group, using John's introduction, but put her name down for their leading Christmas trip which was something like The Bluff - Macalister Springs - Snowy Plains et al. The Sydney group accepted her on the trip in the belief that she had the support and nomination, as it were, of John Brownlie.

The party met Freda Hargreaves for the first time in Wangaratta and from there events took their course.

It was quickly apparent to the Sydney group that Freda was a handicap to the party and would probably be incapable of' completing the whole trip. Discussion began, I believe, about how she might go back from say Macalister Springs. However that did not happen, as in the vicinity of a camp site near Mt Magdala, she went missing. After a fruitless sortie, the Sydney group sent a group out for help.

The initial response was from the police, followed the next day by a call out of the Federation Search and Rescue group. I was not in the first wave but left Melbourne on the afternoon of the second day of searching.

In contrast to early searches, the organisation was good, at least from my perspective. The precursors of the State Emergency Service were in action, co-ordination and communication by the police, transport by the Army, comforts by the Salvation Army and so on. And press coverage without restraint! Further, unlike the winter searches at Mt Donna Buang and Mt Baw Baw, the weather was not a problem and the area searched was familiar to most Search and Rescue members.

By various means and after some waiting and assembling, my group was driven by Army drivers up a new jeep track to the area around No.1 Divide. There, we were told, was the advance base and from there we would receive our detailed search instructions. By this time there were parties searching in the watershed of the Jamieson River who were out for several days before returning to base. I never received those detailed search orders as, in the twilight, news came that Bill Bewsher had spotted clothing from a helicopter - a press charter, I think. Further sweeps located Freda Hargreaves's clothing and then her body. Whilst it is not clear what happened, she had found her way onto the face of Mt Magdala, fallen and, unable to climb up, made a rope of her clothing in an attempt to get down. This, not surprisingly, broke and she fell again. In this process, she broke her leg and ultimately died of exposure.

But that was not all known at the time.

With others, I was dispatched back down the jeep track. The plan of action was that some mountaineering types would climb down with ropes to the body, secure it and lower it to a stretcher party waiting below. The body would then be carried out down a spur to a road. I was to form part of the party waiting below.

This all went more or less smoothly, apart from a belay point giving way whilst the late Miss Hargreaves was en route to terra firma, no doubt compounding the damage she sustained. A stretcher party of twelve then carried her out to a bulldozer from the Forests Commission which came up the spur to meet us. All concerned were very grateful for the relief, for whilst the burden was not heavy, the task was far from pleasant. The last I saw, Miss Hargreaves was strapped to the protective canopy of the bulldozer, which unfortunately managed to clip a dead tree that predictably fell on the canopy. No one envied the task of the Coroner's assistant.

And so the slow return by bus to Melbourne, arriving a little before dawn. The drive home in the powder-blue police car of the day concluded a rather anticlimactic search. It only remained to explain to one and all how the matter was misreported in the press and to try to sort out relations with the Sydney group, whose Christmas trip had taken such an unfortunate turn.

Mt Donna Buang seemed to be a favourite place for getting lost: one weekend in September 1966 fifteen teenagers got lost at the snow while sightseeing. By Monday night five had still not been found so Search and Rescue was called out.

I, Barry Short, was one of about 40 bushwalkers who turned out and were taken by police bus to Warburton and bedded down in the local hall for the night.

We were up at 5.00 a.m. and given breakfast. We were to search the north flank of Badger Creek. Thirty bushwalkers were to go around to Healesville and he brought up this route and the remaining 12 of us were to drive to the summit of Donna Buang and go in that way. We were dropped at the Turntable and tramped through the snow to the summit and on to the junction of Mt Riddell Road and Mt Juliet Road.

We contacted base by radio and were told that they had an unconfirmed report that the five teenagers had been found. While we waited the wag of the party tuned the radio into the broadcast band, 'to get the news'. We were greatly amused to find the stations already trumpeting the fact that the teenagers had been found.

The party that had found the five teenagers had been moving upstream along Badger Creek but were not clear as to their exact position, so one searcher and one of the lost teenagers climbed up the side of Badger Creek to reach the road on which we were waiting by coincidence within 300 metres of us.

We reported their arrival to base and left two of our number on the road with them. We set off with a few packs, containing dry clothes and sleeping bags, down the side of the mountain. Before long we were sopping wet from the thighs down, our parkas were streaming water and covered in mud, snow kept cascading off the undergrowth. We soon dropped below the snowline, but it didn't change the pattern of fallen trees, thick scrub, dogwood, beech and fern trees everywhere. It took at least half an hour to get to the other teenagers and searchers.

Two of the teenagers were still capable of walking so they were escorted out by some of the bushwalkers. The other two, a girl aged 12 and a I5-year-old boy, couldn't walk and had to be carried out. Groundsheets were spread out and their wet clothes changed for dry ones. As the thin nylon socks were peeled hack off the boy's feet I could see the blue-black of his toes - a colour I have never forgotten. We slid the girl and boy into sleeping bags and set about making stretchers from poles cut from the bush.

By now the rest of the bushwalkers, who had been brought in from the Healesville end, had arrived and people were everywhere. Soon the bushwalkers began to cut a track straight up the side of the valley. I, too, gave a hand with my machete. The stretchers came up behind us, eight men to a stretcher carried shoulder high. About halfway up they changed over stretcher bearers. I handed someone my machete and took up a position at the downhill end of one stretcher. The occupant was lashed in and covered completely by a groundsheet as protection against water coming off the scrub. 'And who have we here?' I said, trying to be cheerful as I lifted the groundsheet flap. It was the bright eyes of the girl that I saw looking at me. She had been a tower of strength to the boys, so we had been told. 'Will we be on the road in 10 minutes?' she asked. I muttered something about it not being far now as I looked up at the steep mountainside and endless scrub ahead. I tucked the cover back about her face.

Up with the stretcher onto our shoulders and off we moved. I would not have liked to have been her, lashed into the stretcher, probably feeling awful, couldn't see a thing and being unavoidably rocked about as she was carried around, over and under trees, and over holes. Sometimes we had to let go of the stretcher and duck around a tree we were heading straight for, other times we seemed to be carrying no weight, the next moment we each felt we had it all.

At last, there in front of us, was the road and an MMBW 4WD vehicle. With a sigh of relief we put down the stretcher, unstrapped our patient and lifted her into the vehicle. The boy was put in beside her and they were taken to hospital. We returned to our packs and awaited our transport. Sixteen of us plus packs crowded into the vehicle and slowly made our way down the mountain. It was dark before we got very far and at times it rained, but finally we arrived at the search headquarters, then on back to Warburton and a hot meal before returning to Melbourne by police bus.

Search and Rescue practices were held once a year to get people familiar with search procedures. They were often hard work and it seemed to me as I pushed through thick scrub trying to keep in line with those on either side of me, constantly falling down holes, getting tangled in wire grass and climbing through fallen trees that it was just as well we were making an awful lot of noise as even at this slow pace it was difficult to search the area adequately. Hopefully the lost person would hear us and call out.

As visits to the snow became more popular with the general public, it was obvious that eventually Search and Rescue would increasingly be called out to search for someone lost in the snow. With this in mind a practice search on skis was arranged in July 1977. It was to take place behind Mt St Gwinear in the Baw Baws. Graham Wills-Johnson went along:

Friday night we slept in a hall in Rawson and Saturday morning we were taken to the advance base at the mill site on the road to Mt St Gwinear. Like most others I suppose, I was wondering whether my poor skiing technique was going to disgrace me, or even prevent me from being able to keep up. So when we were moved off I was surprised to find that two of us had quite a long wait at the top of the steep part of the climb before the rest of our section caught up.

We had been assigned an area to search and our leader had to mark where we'd been by making purple patches in the snow by dropping Condy's crystals as we went. This, I think, was meant to show other searchers that these were our tracks, not those of the lost people.

We came together after finishing the first section and the police commented that it was going well but had we noticed how quiet it was. If we were looking for people lost in the snow, shouldn't we be shouting or making some other kind of noise? After that we all rather self-consciously tried to make a bit more noise, but it never really got off the ground.

We had just been moved to another section when the shout went up that the 'victims' had been found (there was always somebody told off to be the 'bait' for the searchers to find on any Search and Rescue practice). Having the 'victims' found so early in the piece was definitely not the intention in fact they were not supposed to be found until Sunday. We had been instructed to individually take what we thought we would need to have with us in order to survive in the snow overnight if it came to that, but still be mobile enough to he able to search effectively during the day. The 'victims' said we'd all been much too fast coming up the mountain behind them (they'd left the base not that much ahead of us) to give them time to get to where they were supposed to hide out for a full 24 hours.

So that only left the last phase of the planned exercise. One of the 'victims' was supposed to have a broken leg, and we had nothing but skis, tree branches and whatever we were carrying to tie it all together into a stretcher to get the casualty out. Quite an effective stretcher was made out of skis and stocks and octopus straps. We were all pressed back into service when it came to hauling the casualty, trussed up rigidly, back to base. It was rather a struggle to get him up over the steep crest of the first ridge, and he rebelled at the rough treatment and uncomfortable conveyance upon which he was being dragged over the snow, and refused to let us take him any further. Thus, rather prematurely, finished our Search and Rescue ski search.

By the time a real ski search took place, proper ski stretchers had been procured.

Graham, like many of us, was involved in other searches as well. In October 1980 he helped search for two intellectually disabled teenagers in the Lerderderg area. This is his account.

Twenty-one Search and Rescue members were taken by the police bus to Blackwood that evening and briefed for the morrow. We were told the 18-year old boy had been found, but the 15-year-old girl was still missing. She was an epileptic and not likely to talk to us, in fact she was just as likely to run away as come to us if we found her.

We were up at 4.45 a.m. and breakfasted and ready to go by 5.50 a.m. We were taken to the Lerderderg River and on to Yankee Creek where the boy had been found. We were put into groups spread right across Yankee Creek gully and started moving upstream at about 7.00 a.m. We had been going for about an hour when I saw something off to the side. I investigated and saw it was a piece of nylon - it looked like a hood of a parka which had been ripped off. Then I saw a very wet brown Adidas-type shoe. We'd been told to look for 'black school shoes', but that didn't stop me yelling for a halt. The line stopped and we radioed our find to base. We were told not to move as they would send in the dog squad. Two policemen and two dogs eventually turned up. One of them

came up but neither man nor dog seemed much interested in the finds but I was questioned as to where exactly I had walked. Then the harness was put on the dog and he was told to 'Seek!'. They gradually got out of sight but eventually returned not having found anything, saying the scent must be more than five hours old. We were told to leave the site marked and continue searching. Later word came through the radio that the parka hood and shoes were definitely the girl's.

We continued searching until around 11.00 a.m. when we received word over the radio that the girl had been found two miles away. She was found walking on a road by a police trail-bike rider. She had made good progress for someone barefooted, and far from running away when she was spotted, she grabbed hold of the policeman and wouldn't let him go for anything.

They got us back to base quite quickly. We saw no sign of the girl; we supposed she had been whisked off to hospital by then, although the consensus was that apart from sore feet there was very little wrong with her. We returned to Melbourne later that afternoon.

These are only a few of such stories. Each member of every search party has his or her own store of fascinating tales to tell. I have tried to pick out searches in which our Club members played a more prominent role, but there are no written reports and so we have no way of knowing which of our Club members attended which search. So for the most part the stories are locked away with the individual people concerned and only come to light when yarning around the camp fire or on some other similar occasion.

All members of the Federation's Search and Rescue section were honoured by the Victoria Police when on 11 September 1989 they were presented with the Chief Commissioner's Certificate. The citation reads, 'For outstanding service to the community and significant assistance to the Victoria Police Force in the area of search and rescue over a period of forty years' - a compliment of which all searchers can be justly proud.