The morning of 17 February 1937 dawned for Bernard O’Reilly with a peculiar scum of unbroken cloud deepening to a dull leaden appearance, the erratic breeze freshening and strengthening through the day. The next morning, “I awoke (to) a jungle roaring… hard-driven sleet. Low, wind-blown clouds tore through the jungle… like white racehorses. It was a wild, windswept day.”
There was no indication of the increasing cloud and strengthening winds at Archerfield aerodrome on that fateful Wednesday when an Airlines of Australia flight departed for Sydney, its first stop Lismore. It carried a crew of two and five passengers. The airliner was a three-engined Stinson model A, registered VH-UHH, City Of Brisbane. The splendid machines flew over the O’Reilly home in Lamington National Park twice a day. “We even set our clocks by them.”
Two mornings later at ten o’clock, they got the first word of the loss of an airliner, hearing about it on a cousin’s radio. Officials set up the most extensive search in Australia’s history, based on the aeroplane’s last sighting near Coff’s Harbour. In a week, it was established beyond doubt that the Stinson had been seen and heard by people, even recorded by a steamer off Barrenjoey Heads. In everyone’s mind was the same thought: it was lost to the ocean. Authorities said the flight bypassed Lismore because the pilots avoided worsening weather conditions in the area. It had simply taken a coastal route. (Remember, there was limited radio communication in those days and City of Brisbane carried no wireless.)
So why, then, would a sane man decide to go out in search of a missing aeroplane more than 400 miles (640km) from where it was last seen? On the Friday of the week after its disappearance, Bernard O’Reilly spoke with a friend who lived near the head of the Albert River. The friend, with his immediate neighbours, must have been the last to see the aircraft – and confirmed it was on or close to its regular flight path to Lismore. Taking a rule and a pencil, a line passing through the location of the friend’s house direct to Lismore was much the normal route; it also intersected four ridgelines in the McPherson Ranges.
Determined to force his way across the country, he began to prepare for a journey of several days. A loop of wire was attached to a handle to a two-pound jam tin, thus making a billy. He packed two loaves of bread, onions, butter, tea and sugar into a little tucker bag. Mounting an old chestnut, he rode as far as Mount Bethongabel, shooing the steed back along the path home after dismounting. From Bethongabel he intended to fight his way west, crossing the four ridges on one of which he thought he might find the wreck of a plane.
From that point on it was a trackless, lawyer-vined jungle. This first day was spent pushing down through a steep valley and back up the other side, deviating around obstacles but knowing he was heading west because of the north-south lines of the ridges he crossed. Overhead, the jungle roof was so dense it was matted in a continuous canopy, letting in only an occasional chink of light, even on a sunny day.
That night was spent near the head of a gorge where he found water for a billy of tea. The wood was wet, the ground permanently damp and he had no blanket, so he had little rest for the night. Black phalangers fought and screamed in the vines overhead and, later, a pack of dingoes set up a howl. Climbing out of the gorge the next morning, by eight o’clock he found himself atop Mount Throakban. With a fortunate break in the mist, he was able to survey the country ahead. There, eight miles and three ridges distant, was a tree of different appearance.
The tree must be dying, but why? Natural causes? No, if that were the case, it would die a branch at a time. Lightning? Perhaps, but wasn’t it a strange coincidence for a freshly dead tree to be exactly on his map’s pencil line? Fire? No. There had been no natural fire in these saturated forests since the beginning of time. Ah, but a hundred gallons of petrol…
Putting in a superhuman effort, he forced his way through gullies, ridges and heavy growth. At one stage, standing briefly on the edge of a 2,000-foot cliff, he caught a glimpse of the Northern Rivers of New South Wales spread out below him like a green map.
In the following eight hours he would not again see the tree until, suddenly, he found himself standing within twenty yards of it.
But what had Bernard O’Reilly actually discovered?
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