My last the story told of the rescue of an injured cattleman in the rugged mountain country beyond Heyfield. It was the story of a brave young man who landed his aeroplane in very inhospitable country and took off despite great hazards to get the injured man to hospital. It was the story, too, of others who hastened to give assistance, with a warm-heartedness that is characteristic of folk in the more remote parts of our country.
I want to tell you now of a similar rescue of an injured man in the same district; to illustrate once more the prompt and energetic response of ordinary people to a call for help. Man’s faithful friend – the horse – figures prominently in this story. Indeed, in the bush it often happens that a man’s best friend is his horse, for circumstances are very different from those in a town or populated area where it is an easy matter to ring for a doctor or call an ambulance when an accident occurs.
On January 16th, 1944, Robert Goldie a cattleman of Valencia Creek, Briagolong, sustained a fall with his horse on the steep and rugged mountainside about eight miles down the south-east slope of Mount Wellington, at the head of the Burnt Yard River. Rex Miller (owner of the famous Miller’s Hut on Mt. Wellington) and a boy named Bill Jones were with him, and they placed their friend on the only piece of level ground in the vicinity. Night was falling and the boy set off for help, a distance of some 46 miles to Miller’s home at Upper Maffra West. Miller, meanwhile, stayed with the injured man.
The night was dark and soon Bill Jones had to let his horse have its head to pick its way over the rough country. Reaching the track on Mt. Wellington, he followed along the Razor Edge and down the steep miles-long descent to the valley of the Avon. The slope here is as steep as one in one in places – earning for the locality the name of Purgatory Spur. Jones hurried on thinking only of bringing help to the injured man. Parts of the track ran along narrow ledges where the slippery rocks are dangerous even in daylight. It is when travelling tracks such as these at night that one thinks of the lines from Banjo Paterson’s “Man from Snowy River” – “Where the horse’s hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride” – for sparks certainly fly from the contact of the horse’s shoes on the rocks, and showers glint if the horse should happen to slip.
It was morning when Jones reached Miller’s homestead. He got in touch with Mounted First Constable Draper, of Heyfield who quickly took charge of the rescue, organising two plans, recovery overland, and recovery by air. One of the locals who had joined the R.A.A.F. thought a Moth aeroplane could be landed at Wombat Plain on Mt Wellington. Draper arranged with the officer commanding the Military Aerodrome at Sale to attempt a rescue by air and organised a pilot to take a look at the feasibility of landing, and a doctor to see to the injured man, as well as putting out the call for volunteers to make their way to the site of the accident. They were to depart at 2:00 p.m. that day, but when Draper reached Miller’s house, Jones said he had to get another horse as his was exhausted. They worked to catch a horse, but discovered it had no shoes. They then caught three more horses, one for the doctor, one for the pilot and a pack horse. All had no shoes. Draper set to work and shod all four as quickly as possible.
That afternoon Mounted First Constable Draper and Bill Jones finally set out at about 5:00 p.m. from Rex Miller’s place with Dr. Richard Bligh (of the R.A.A.F.), and R.A.A.F. Pilot Officer Ray Kelly. They led a pack horse loaded with a stretcher, a few blankets for the patient and hastily gathered supplies. Pilot Kelly’s mission was to find out if a plane could land and if so, he was to signal the information to the pilot of an aeroplane which two days later would fly over Mt. Wellington. The relief party had a hazardous trip. Pilot Kelly had never ridden a horse, and to make matters worse, darkness set in when the horsemen reached Joanba Hut. There was no moon and by the time the junction of Navigation Creek and the Avon had been reached the men were unable to see the track.
Jones’ horse would not cross the creek. Matches were struck, when presently the horse the doctor was on moved ahead. It had been there before and could be trusted to lead. They followed all night along the rocky gorge, their horses stumbling in the dark, and by midnight they reached Miller’s Low Block. Another party, led by Mounted First Constable George Kennedy of Briagolong joined them. Kennedy’s party set off for Wombat Plain with Pilot Kelly, and Draper’s party went on to where the injured man was lying. The doctor gave Goldie morphine injections and they put him on a horse. Draper had left word far and wide that Goldie may have to be carried out and people in plenty were turning up. Some of them went on to assist in clearing a landing place at Wombat Plain.
At 10 a.m., as arranged, an aeroplane flew overhead, dipping low to signify that the pilot had understood the ground signal. Swiftly it disappeared in the direction of Sale. Sometime later a Moth plane appeared and bumped down on the improvised landing strip. It was probably the first aeroplane to land on this eastern part of the Great Dividing Range. As the ground was rough and covered with small shrubs and Goldie was a heavy man, a longer strip had to be prepared for the take-off. Finally, the motor was started, and the engine revved up. Slowly it commenced its take-off, gathering speed, and the anxious watchers held their breath as the machine disappeared at the end of the strip over the wall-like edge of Mt. Wellington. Later it was learned that the pilot, Wing Commander James Hepburn, and his passenger had had a narrow escape from disaster as the plane dropped hundreds of feet before it became properly air borne.
Just before the plane took off other helpers began to arrive. Men from near and far began to flock to Mt. Wellington in case they were needed as a stretcher party if the plan to use the aeroplane failed. They travelled on foot or horseback and by night about 80 had arrived. All were delighted that Goldie had been flown out to hospital. With cares relieved, all joined in a convivial evening in and around Miller’s Hut and the next morning set off in their respective parties for home.
Goldie made a rapid recovery in the Gippsland Hospital. Wing Commander Hepburn received the Air Force Cross for his brave services, and in 1944 it was the highest landing ever made on the mainland of Australia.
Written circa 1956 when Bruce G. Draper was around 15 years old and his father, Jim Chester Draper was 51.
Note: included in the various rescue parties were – Wing Commander (sometimes referred to as Squadron Leader) James Andrew Hepburn (Chief Flying Instructor at the RAAF Base East Sale), Mounted First Constable Jim Chester Draper (Heyfield), William (Bill) Jones (who brought news of the accident), a medical officer (Dr. Richard Bligh, RAAF), and an assistant (Pilot Officer Ray Kelly, RAAF), Rex Miller. Cr. Wattie Killeen, Mounted First Constable George Kennedy (Briagolong), Messers. Pat Smyth, William (Bill) Gillio (a well-known local bushman from Briagolong), H. Redwood, and Andy Estoppey (a stockman from Briagolong). Messrs. Kevin Molphy, A. McFarlane, Fred Horstman, Jack Higgins, Barnie Higgins, Hughie Bourke, Dunsmuir, Norm Chester, Stan Chester, Arthur Rumpff, (Richard) Juer Rumpff (the Rumpff family were early settlers of the district), Eric Cumming, Bill Cumming, George Wilson, Andrew Wilson, Jim Monds, James (Jim) Monds, Harry Monds, Cecil Monds, Dan Flynn, Jack Flynn, Harold Gay, Roy Gay (from “Medowra” north of Glenmaggie), Eric Cole, Jack Horstman, McMichael, Mick Higgins snr, Mick Higgins jnr, and Cr. George Gray. Messrs. Pat Killeen, Ron Harvey, R. Kincaid, J. Fixter, Allan Greaves, Ivan Morley, Cyril Hurley, and L. Goodwin. Source: Gippsland Times, Mon 24 January 1944, trove.nla.gov.au, Reminiscences of Jim Chester Draper and this story. Some sources indicate that the pilot was in fact Group Captain Bill Garing who served as commanding officer of the No. 1 Operational Training Unit from August 1943 to February 1944. However, newspapers of the day reported that it was James Hepburn, which is consistent with this account, and also with the fact that he won the Air Force Cross at the time. The injured man was probably Robert Lewis Mathew Goldie, born in 1878 in Bright, Victoria and died in 1962 in Traralgon, Victoria. His children were born in Stratford, Heyfield and Maffra.
Additional background from the reminiscences of Jim Draper:
“The pilot signalled the Moth, which landed easily. However, the smooth wheels spun on the heath with the weight of the passenger and the plane had not reached flying speed when it went over the edge of Mt. Wellington. Luckily it was the gable end with a drop of thousands of feet. However, the watchers thought the plane would crash and we were almost stunned to see it come back overhead. Goldie was in Sale Hospital in no time. There were probably about 80 people arrived by this time to carry the stretcher. The distance was about 80 miles. It is doubtful if he would have arrived alive if he’d been carried. He was a good 16 stone weight. After we got back Bill Haynes at the Commercial Hotel, Heyfield said to me, “How many men were hurt in the bush? Eight people demanded a bottle of whisky”. Whisky was rationed at the time. Probably the same demands were made at Maffra hotels. We got down to the Avon River and camped. The whisky was used. I had taken some oats for the horse and some food but forgot about camping. The doctor had two blankets and loaned me one. However, there was frost the first night and I felt the cold.
We arrived back at Heyfield in the evening to find there was a fire which had burnt from Toongabbie to the Heyfield-Rosedale Road. I took over the Fire Brigade that night and watched the edge of it for another 12 days”. Reminiscences of James Chester Draper, 1991