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My Life

Chapter XIX: Australia

page 259

Chapter XIX: Australia

One day the Gull was lifted on to the deck of the s.s. Awatea, and, accompanied by my mother, I sailed for Sydney. Even when I waved goodbye to the vast crowd that came to say farewell I intended only to take a holiday in Australia, then return to my native land. Fate had other plans in store for me, however. On February 19, 1937, I arrived in Australia, and that very evening news was flashed through that an air liner bound for Sydney from Brisbane was missing with seven passengers and two pilots aboard. One of the pilots was a great friend of mine. He was a very skilful airman, and I thought highly of him. A cyclonic storm was raging to the south when the machine had left Brisbane.

My aeroplane was taken to Mascot Aerodrome, and mechanics worked all night to assemble the machine so that I could join the search that was being organized. The distance between Brisbane and Sydney is 500 miles; I felt confident that the machine was down in some clearing and would be found at any moment. Although the greater part of the route was mountainous and heavily timbered, it seemed incrediblepage 260that such a big machine could disappear so completely.

There were many aeroplanes taking part in the search, and as the days passed the number increased. Every morning I would take off at about five o'clock and fly for hours, passing over rough, mountainous country, searching ravines and thickly timbered areas, hoping to glimpse a sight of the big machine among the trees, and at other times searching the coast for some trace.

A strange feature was that hundreds of reports came in from different parts of the country, and the times when the machine was alleged to have been seen coincided with the regular scheduled times for it to pass over those places. People of undoubted integrity were positive that they had seen the air liner, and the search was narrowed down to the country between Newcastle and Sydney. I had a feeling that the machine was farther north, so made Newcastle my base and continued the search from there.

The quest seemed fruitless, and sometimes I would glimpse a wisp of smoke in the distance, perhaps fifty miles away, rising from inaccessible country, and would fly hopefully towards it, thinking it might be a signal, only to find an isolated bush fire.

Reports were most confusing. Some people were positive that the machine had come down in the sea: they had seen the wreckage—which on investigation proved to be great branches of seaweed. Some declared that they had observed signals coming from the mountains, and others were equally sure that they had heard the air liner crash in the bush.

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Black and white photograph of Jean Batten holding two trout.

Trout-fishing at Lake Wakatipu

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Black and white photograph of aeroplane flying over forest.

Searching for the missing air liner
Photo "The Sydney Morning Herald"

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Flying on to Brisbane I vainly continued my search. By this time I had spent approximately thirty-eight hours in the air and flown 5000 miles altogether. Tired and disappointed I flew back to Sydney. The day after my return the air liner was found high up in the ranges, on the border of Queensland and New South Wales, a charred, burned-out wreckage hidden in the dense bush. A young bushman made the discovery and heroically rescued two passengers, who were the only survivors.

At Mascot Aerodrome, where I kept my aeroplane, I used frequently to meet the famous Australian airman H. F. Broadbent. He was making final preparations for a flight to England to lower the existing solo record of over seven days. Frequently he would laughingly suggest that we should have a race back to London, and add that in any case I should probably set out to break his record immediately he established it. "The race is a good idea," I would reply, "but I could never be mean enough to try and take your record immediately. You can keep it for six months, anyway."

Although the summer was on the wane, the wonderful ocean beaches round Sydney were always crowded with a happy throng of bathers. Swimming had been my favourite sport from childhood, and Mother and I decided to take a flat at one of the beaches for the remainder of the summer. Sometimes I would go into the foamy surf two or three times a day, and lie for hours basking in the sun, listening to the long Pacific rollers thundering on to the beach. We explored nearlypage 262all the lovely drives near Sydney, and would often take my car high up into the Blue Mountains and picnic amid the glorious scenery. This to my mind was an ideal existence, and I often lazily thought of seeking out some Pacific island where I could spend the rest of my life in perpetual sunshine and contentment.

One day I had just returned home from my morning swim, when I noticed a large crowd of people on the promenade excitedly pointing out to sea. On looking over the bay I beheld an awe-inspiring sight, and one which I shall never forget. Black dorsal fins cut through the water, and the sea was lashed into a foam as three monster whales plunged again and again to escape a school of vicious thresher sharks. A fierce fight ensued, the sharks trying to force the whales into shallow water in an effort to beach them. When it was estimated that the whales were within only two hundred yards of the beach they turned about and headed out to sea. They were again attacked by the sharks, who followed them to the entrance of Sydney Harbour, where another fierce fight took place watched by hundreds of people.

To commemorate the landing of the Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli during the World War an Anzac Day was established, and is observed annually on April 25 with ceremony which compares with that of Armistice Day in England. That year I was asked by Canon Howard Lea to give an address during the Anzac Service at St Mark's Church, Sydney. This was an entirely new experience for me, as I had not previously been asked to speak in a church. I decidedpage 263to give my address on "Faith and the Elimination of Fear." That memorable autumn evening when I stood at the lectern in the beautiful little church and delivered my address will always remain vividly in my memory. All my life I had believed in faith as indispensable if one were to achieve success in any undertaking.

My return to New Zealand had been postponed several times, and now I found myself longing to see England once again. From my point of view the most logical way of making the journey was to fly, so I decided to make preparations for a flight back.

The solo record of 6 days 9 hours had been established by Mr H. F. Broadbent during a wonderful flight, and I knew it would be extremely difficult to reduce this time. Although I intended to use the same aeroplane, there was a considerable amount of work necessary, and the Certificate of Airworthiness needed renewing. The engine was given a complete overhaul by the De Havilland Aircraft Company, who also completed the other work required.

In order to make myself specially fit for the flight I trained systematically. The training took the form of physical exercises, skipping, running, swimming, walking, and horse-riding. My mother had never been present to see me land at the conclusion of any of my flights, so we arranged that she should travel by steamer to England and meet me when I arrived at Croydon.

The flight preparations went very smoothly, and I spent a considerable amount of time working out various schedules which I hoped would gain me thepage 264record. When work on the Gull was finished I flew the machine, and made exhaustive tests to check the efficiency of the various component parts, petrol-consumption, etc. By October arrangements were completed. The authorities were most helpful, and the Director of Civil Aviation in India cabled offering to waive all customs formalities during my flight across India.

On October 15 I left Sydney for Darwin, where I planned to spend two days waiting for the full moon, and also for good weather in which to start the record bid.

After taking off from Richmond I circled the aerodrome, climbing steadily to gain height to cross the Blue Mountains. Dark rain-clouds shrouded the mountains, and I climbed through a cloud layer to 8000 feet. At this height I was above the mist and rain and flying in sunshine. The shadow of the aeroplane speeded along on the silvery cloud carpet beneath. The light was reflected on to the clouds in such a way that the shadow of the Gull was encircled by a miniature rainbow of lovely colours. Once across the mountains I flew into fine weather and brilliant sunshine. Northwesterly winds prevailed, however, and the whole way to Darwin I had to fly against strong head winds. After landing to refuel at Charleville I flew on to Winton, where I stayed for the night. It is infinitely more difficult to fly from Australia to England than in the opposite direction. The main reason is that the prevailing winds are westerly, and therefore over a greater part of the route there are following winds. Frompage 265England one can await suitable weather, and set off on the first stage of the flight fresh from a good night's sleep. Flying from Australia means a long and arduous trip of 2200 miles across the continent to Darwin, the starting-point. Head winds retard progress on the route to England, and in October there is always the possibility of encountering bad weather or fog over Europe.

Leaving Winton at dawn I flew on across the vast tracts of Central Queensland. To minimize the effect of the head winds I sometimes flew only 100 feet above the ground. Herds of kangaroos hopped away across country at the noise of my engine, and great flocks of brightly coloured parakeets and galahs rose in alarm as I crossed the dried-up-looking Diamantina river.

Passing Cloncurry I flew over very rough, mountainous country. At Mount Isa, the zinc-mining centre, the wind changed to southerly, and visibility became steadily worse. A heavy red dust-haze covered the country, and nearing Camooweal I encountered a bad dust-storm. Trying to keep the ground in sight I gradually lost altitude, until the machine was just clearing the tree-tops. The heat was terrific, and the Gull dropped suddenly in some violent bumps. The gusty southerly wind swept the machine along at a much higher speed than I cared to achieve at such a low altitude. As clouds of dust enveloped the Gull I lost sight of the ground, but a few minutes later managed to pick up the stock route leading to Camooweal.

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The machine suddenly flashed over a great herd of cattle, which promptly stampeded, and I hoped the drover would be tolerant in his thoughts of me. It was imperative that I should not lose sight of the track, for visibility was becoming even worse, and if I missed the isolated township of Camooweal my predicament would be serious.

Visibility was less than 400 yards when the Gull swept over Camooweal, and I realized that landing in the thick dust-haze was going to be a difficult manoeuvre. Although my altitude was only seventy feet and people could hear the engine, it was not possible to distinguish my silver aeroplane from the ground. As I knew there were radio masts 120 feet high I kept near the outskirts of the township and flew over the aerodrome. When I turned to fly back I lost sight of the ground completely. Shutting off the engine I glided down, straining my eyes to distinguish the ground through the clouds of red dust.

Suddenly the boundary fence appeared, then the aerodrome immediately beneath me, and levelling back I landed the Gull. As the machine ran along the runway I saw the blur of a motor-car ahead and followed it to the aerodrome entrance. The car proved to belong to the sheriff, who was accompanied by the matron of the hospital. They were very much surprised that I had found Camooweal in the dust and had managed to land.

Everything in the aeroplane was coated with a film of red dust, which had even permeated into my kit. It was impossible to refuel the Gull in the chokingpage 267dust, and all we could do was to arrange for a guard. The sheriff produced a tarpaulin, with which we covered the engine. Groping around in the dust, I was able to plug the air-intake, Pitot tube, and all the oil and petrol air-vents with waste cloth.

When we took my kit from the machine I suddenly remembered the two boxes of orchids which friends had given me just before I had left Sydney. "Flowers!" echoed the matron when I took them from the cockpit. "Why," she added, "I haven't seen a flower for two years!" She was delighted when I gave her some of the lovely blooms, and took them forthwith to show the patients in the hospital, where the orchids no doubt underwent rejuvenation treatment.

Although it was not yet noon there was no possibility of flying on to Darwin that day. There was no hangar, so I had no alternative but to leave the Gull exposed to the Bedourie, as they call this particular type of dust-storm which blows up from the moving sandhills near the town of that name.

When we drove to the tiny hotel it was impossible to see the blue gum-trees at the end of the main street, but the wind changed in the evening, and the air became clearer.

Next morning I said good-bye to the little community of Camooweal and took off for Darwin. Crossing the vast grassy plains of the Barclay Tablelands, I flew over some of the largest cattle stations in Australia, among them Brunette Downs, with an area of 5500 square miles, and carrying about 40,000 head of cattle. This great station adjoins the even larger one ofpage 268Alexandria, covering 10,700 square miles. On previous flights I had landed at Brunette, but on this occasion I flew on to refuel at Daly Waters.

Apart from the head winds and the Bedourie the weather had been fairly good on the flight from Sydney. Approaching Darwin, however, I met a thunderstorm of tropical intensity accompanied by torrential rain. When I crossed the bay to Darwin the sun was shining brightly, and the Japanese pearl-luggers looked like luxury yachts as they gleamed white against the deep blue waters of the harbour.

On reaching Darwin I felt more as if I were arriving at the conclusion of a record flight than just about to set off on one. A large crowd had assembled to see me land, and I was handed a great sheaf of telegrams and messages from well-wishers. After arranging for an engine schedule and for special weather forecasts I drove into the town.

The Administrator of the Northern Territory, Mr Abbot, had sent a representative to welcome me, and I was invited to stay at Government House while in Darwin. Mr and Mrs Abbot were most charming and hospitable, and I felt greatly refreshed after tea on the veranda of their home. Government House is built on a rise overlooking the bay. Wide terraces slope down from the cool veranda to the sea, and in the garden grow tall palms and lovely tropical flowers, including hibiscus and bougainvillæa.

With the Administrator and his wife were their two daughters, who contributed to make my stay in Darwin a very happy one. During dinner on the evening of my

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Black and white photograph of Jean Batten standing next to two anthills.

Magnetic anthills near Darwin

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Black and white photograph of official document.

Customs clearance document from Port Darwin

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arrival I mentioned flying over hundreds of giant anthills on the way from Daly Waters. On all my flights over the Northern Territory the sight of these anthills dotted among the trees had never failed to fascinate me. When Mrs Abbot offered to drive me into the bush so that I could see some of them at close quarters I was delighted.

Next morning we drove many miles along tracks in the bush, until we finally arrived at a clearing which bore the name of Cemetery Plain. This name, although gruesome, was appropriate, for ranged round this open space were large grey mounds looking exactly like tombstones. These were all magnetic anthills, so called because, strangely enough, they all face magnetic north —in whatever part of the country they happen to be built. This uncanny fact has never been explained. Two or three feet thick at the base, they tapered very finely at the top, which in most cases was rounded and about fifteen feet high. If a portion of the hard, cement-like structure was broken away the ants immediately set to work to repair the damage. The sickly-looking little white ants do not apparently like the sun, and work always in the dark, as there was no sign of them until we broke off a piece of the structure and found thousands in their tiny cells.

We drove farther into the bush in search of a giant red anthill, and eventually came upon one almost thirty feet in height. Although not quite as interesting as the magnetic ones, it looked most imposing towering among the gum-trees. The sergeant who accompanied us went ahead, beating the undergrowth in case therepage 270were any snakes about, and we followed him through the tall grass to inspect the giant at close quarters. It was thick through from base to summit, composed entirely of red earth, and looked almost as if it had been made by human hands, for it seemed incredible that such an imposing structure could have been built by tiny ants.

On the drive back I kept a look out for little native koala bears, but there was none to be seen, nor did I glimpse a crocodile during my stay in Darwin.

A native meeting, or corroboree as the aborigines call it, was to be held in Darwin, and arrangements were made for me to watch the dances. The corroboree took place in the native compound, and when we arrived there was a great deal of excited chattering coming from the trees where the aborigines were making preparations. We had to wait a considerable time before the native musicians appeared and, squatting on the ground, commenced playing their weird instruments. There was a bloodcurdling shout as the aborigines rushed forth from the trees on to the clearing and commenced the dances. On their dark bodies were painted most elaborate designs in white, and they were clad in loincloths of bright colours, and many wore feather headdresses. Only the men took part in the dances; the womenfolk were seated at a respectful distance. Two of the natives were painted from head to foot with a dull pink shade of paint, and I learned that this signified that the corroboree was a peaceful one. The dances were different from anything I had ever seen. They were really action dances, and thepage 271mimicry was amazingly clever. There was none of the precision of the Maori dancing; instead each dancer played a part, and the result was really a native ballet. Although the aborigines are mostly tall and thin all the movements were very graceful. Each dance seemed to finish with the same tremendous stamping in which all took part, jumping harder and harder, until the ground shook and clouds of dust rose into the air. One dance portrayed catching the turtle, another spearing the crocodile, and perhaps the most spectacular was the pelican dance.

The afternoon before leaving Darwin I spent some time at the aerodrome checking the compass for magnetic deviations, studying weather charts, and making final preparations for the flight. My stay in Darwin had been a pleasant one, and it was with reluctance that I said good-bye to all my new friends. The Administrator and Mrs Abbot with their two daughters accompanied me to the aerodrome to bid me farewell and God-speed.

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