The mystery of the Green Mountains (Part two)

If you haven’t read Green Mountains Part 1 you can here.

Just a few hours earlier, Bernard O’Reilly heard faint bush cooees but made no attempt to answer, believing them to be other searchers. Not wanting to provide a false lead, he kept quiet. He kept his peace until he realised, after an eight-hour slog through dense bush, he stood withing spitting distance of the flamed tree that earlier aroused his suspicions. Waiting a minute or two to regain his breath, he issued a loud cooee. His call echoed back sharply from across the gorge ahead, only to be followed by a faint mystery call, the origin of which had to be no more than two hundred yards down the gulley. He clambered down, again cooeeing, with answering calls giving him direction.

“I knew what I would see, a mass of smashed and charred metal… a repulsive thing. Proud I saw first, his eyes far back in his head like those of a corpse, lying as he had for ten days on that wet ground with his broken leg green, swelling and maggoty. I turned to Binstead – he tried to shake hands with a poor hand that was like raw meat. His legs, too, from crawling over rocky ground to get them both water.” 

Four men, including the pilots, died in the crash while three survived. These were John Proud, Joseph Binstead and the Honourable James Westray, a young Englishman from a titled family. Proud and Binstead told of what happened. The aeroplane completely enveloped in cloud and flying blind over the ranges was caught in a downdraught which they thought might have been 100mph. When the captain realised a crash was inevitable, he threw the plane into a right-hand bank, saving the three men on the port side. They missed two big trees but hit hard into a third, the one that burnt and led Bernard O’Reilly to the site.

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Initially, the three survivors believed that with a bit of luck they’d be found by midday or within twenty-four hours at most. What they failed to understand was that the airliner’s course, with ‘irrefutable’ evidence, had been charted beyond Coffs Harbour, Kempsey, Broken Bay, and within ten minutes of Sydney. Without the vision and the stamina of a gifted bushman, a man who was prepared to follow the evidence of friends and family rather than the official record, they would surely have perished as had all others on the ill-fated flight.

By the morning following the crash, and despite their confidence in being found, Westray decided on an attempt to speed up the relief party that must by now be on its way. A fit young man who’d spent many vacations climbing English and Scottish mountains, and an above-average Warwickshire cricketer, he set off through this dreadful, tough country so different to that in his home country. 

The bushman knew there would be no rescuers on the way so, leaving his remaining food and some extra water with the two men, he set off on the same course taken by Westray. The young Englishman had the right idea heading downstream but was outdone by country so different to that which he understood. There were signs that Helmholzia lilies had snapped, occasioning a fall down a precipice. “Behind him… was the cliff where he had fallen… and miles of terrible streambed and waterfalls over which he had dragged his broken body… a feat of endurance beyond human conception.” He died propped up against a huge boulder, the stub of a cigarette still between his fingers. 

Bernard O’Reilly fought his way on until, as night fell, he found a clearing where he met up with a young chap taking pot shots at flying foxes. 

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“Where the hell did you come from?”

“I’ve found that missing aeroplane. There are two men still alive.”

He was at Christmas Creek. The township of Lamington was still nine miles further on. Once there, telephone calls were made organising two groups of men to begin a rescue mission. One group, led by Bernard O’Reilly and including a doctor, fought their way back the way the bushman had so recently come. The second group, led by another bushman and local resident, John Buchanan, hacked out a path along a previously surveyed route to enable the passage of stretchers. 

A number of brave people were involved: Bernard O’Reilly, with his foresight and the courage of his convictions; Proud and Binstead, surviving ten days as they did despite injury and privation; James Westray, the lion-hearted young Englishman who gave his life trying to save others met through accident; John Buchanan and all the other people who went out of their way to form the rescue parties. The record must be maintained in their honour.

It all happened eighty years ago this month and, as Bernard O’Reilly said, “Thank God for giving me the strength to complete the task.”

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I recently re-read the 1940 edition of Bernard O’Reilly’s book, Green Mountains and Cullenbenbong, long held by my family, and acknowledge the many excerpts in the article (all italicised.)

What did you think of John’s telling of this mysterious tale?

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