Budawangs - May 2000 - report by Brett Davis
Four teenagers aged between fifteen and eighteen had planned a walk-through of the Budawangs from the northern entrance near Nerriga to Yadboro via Stiles Creek, Monolith Valley, and the south (?!) side of Mount Owen. After they were found they reported that they had become confused about their position as soon as they entered the park, even though they were still on fire-trails at the time. They eventually found themselves in Holland's Gorge, realised they were completely lost and battled their way up to the cliff-line below Mount Sturgiss where they lit a signal fire and waited for rescue.
Russ Evans coordinated the club's response to the Search and Rescue call-out. Lillian Koglin, Cyril Crutch and Jock Finlayson completed the first day's team, searching the area around the Castle as far as the Cooyoyo Creek campsite. John Goodwin, Alwyn Martin, Karen Davis and myself were the next team called in, with instructions to prepare for an overnight camp. Our third team was comprised of Denise Davies, Gwenneth Prior and John Prior, who were packed and ready to go - but not required due to the missing party being found.
My wife Karen and I first heard the news reports about four teenagers missing in the Budawangs on Monday night (May 1st), when they were already two days overdue from their four day walk. On Tuesday (May 2nd) we were contacted by Chris Cuthbert, the President of the Shoalhaven Bushwalkers, who asked us whether we could take part in the search effort. After some initial hesitation, we agreed to join the search on Wednesday morning, if needed.
When Karen and I got home from our regular Tuesday night tennis competition at 11:00pm that night, there was a message on our answering machine saying that we would be picked up at five the next morning by John Goodwin, a fellow Shoalhaven Bushwalker, and that we should be prepared to camp out on Wednesday night. We prepared our gear and were in bed just before 1am.
We rose at 4:20am to have breakfast and wait for John. He picked us up on time, then drove south towards the Ulladulla Police Station meeting point, picking up a fourth Shoalhaven Bushwalker - Alwyn Martin - on the way. Alwyn is in his sixties, fit, and very experienced. We arrived at Ulladulla on time for the 6am briefing.
The search organizers wanted two Shoalhaven Bushwalkers for a search team which would be covering a difficult, remote area that would keep them out overnight. The four of us discussed who should go and it was decided that Alwyn and I would be best. Our police driver went missing for about forty five minutes after Karen and I had told him we were repacking our gear, but he was contacted by radio and eventually returned to take us to the Forward Command post which had been set up at Yadboro. Alwyn and I joined a Sydney Bushwalker named Tony Mains and an SES guy named Norm Smith, the latter also a member of the Shoalhaven Bushwalkers.
We learned that we were search team Five Echo, and were to be choppered in to Styles Creek to descend into Holland's Gorge, searching along Holland's Creek down to the Clyde River and all the way back to Yadboro. A policeman was also supposed to accompany us, but at the last minute this was changed, leaving room for another Shoalhaven Bushwalker. After a quick discussion, and with John Goodwin insisting that she go, Karen joined the team, with John remaining behind to be assigned to other search duties.
Our helicopter flight was cancelled due to bad weather, so we hopped into a Toyota Landcruiser troop carrier for the long drive back through Milton, up the highway to Tomerong, out along the Turpentine and Braidwood Roads to Sassafras, and through the usual five gates to the new National Park entrance, where we discovered that our Bateman's Bay fire brigade driver Alex had not been given the keys to the padlocked gate. He was supposed to drive us to the Vines, which was about fourteen kilometres away - a three hour walk.
We looked for ways around and over the gate, and eventually tried bolt cutters on the lock. After a great deal of effort by Alex and Tony, the padlock was cut and we made our way south towards Newhaven Gap. Eight kilometres later we arrived at the old gate to the national park and found it locked as well. Unlike the first gate which was set in dirt which we had scraped aside to make room for the bolt cutters, the second gate was set in rock and concrete so the padlock looked to be out of reach. I manipulated the chain and the padlock and managed to get the top inch of the padlock out of the slot through which the chain passed. I got the bolt cutters and successfully cut the padlock and we proceeded down to the Vines.
It was now lunch time, almost five hours since leaving Yadboro, so we decided to radio Forward Command to let them know our position and to find out if we needed to proceed. Norm is an experienced radio man and tried calling Forward Command on a hand-held radio but he could not get through. We set up the second radio we had been given - a heavy, high-frequency set that required a T shaped aerial which stretched about twenty metres each side of the central wire. Two people were needed to hold the ends of the wire as high as possible while Norm operated the radio. We contacted Forward Command and were told to wait where we were until further notice. We had coffee and lunch while we awaited further instructions.
Two police motorcyclists soon joined us, on their way to search the fire trails between Styles Creek and the Nerriga entrance to the park, the route followed by the missing party on the first day of their intended four day walk. The policemen had re-padlocked the gates behind them, which would mean that Alex would have to wait at the gates until they had completed their search. Or he could cut the padlocks again.
After lunch the word came through that we were to proceed with our original plan. We quickly packed up the HF radio, which I volunteered to carry as I had plenty of room in my pack. We soon met up with a freelance volunteer search party who told us they had been down to Styles Creek, in to Hidden Valley and up on top of Mount Sturgiss, without sighting or hearing anything.
We had originally intended dropping in to Holland's Gorge and camping next to the creek overnight, but the delays caused by the grounded helicopters, the long drive, the locked gates and the enforced wait at the Vines meant that this was no longer possible. Dark Brothers Cave in Hidden Valley was suggested as one potential overnight camping spot, as were Styles Creek and a camping cave on Mount Haughton. We soon passed the turnoff to Hidden Valley, deciding to press on as we still had plenty of daylight left. It was here that I brought out my whistle and busted everybody's ear-drums with a shrill blast. If the missing party was in the area, they would sure know that we were around, and hopefully respond by voice or whistle as well.
By the time we arrived at Styles Creek we had decided that the Mount Haughton camping cave would be best. We had been walking through rain, and a wet camp at Styles Creek was not a welcome thought. The five of us had a quick discussion about which way to cross over the swampy, heath covered plain to the camping cave on Mount Haughton, with Tony suggesting a direct route he had followed before, and Karen and I preferring the excellent foot pad we had followed on a walk with John Goodwin and Sue Bosdyk and her son earlier in the year. Tony was pretty insistent that his way was the best, but Karen and I convinced him, somewhat reluctantly to follow our path.
I argued that it would take us near Pagoda Rocks and Mount Sturgiss, where we could use the whistle to hopefully locate the missing party if they were in the neighborhood. I also pointed out that it would also take us along the ridge which separates Styles Plain from the drop-off into Holland's Gorge, so we could check out the best way to tackle the gorge and hopefully find the track which supposedly leads down into it. This low ridge on the east side of the plain is part of a major watershed. Styles Creek flows into Sallee Creek which flows into the Endrick River which eventually makes its way into the Shoalhaven which flows past Nowra to the sea. Water falling on the eastern side of the ridge, however, runs down into Holland's Creek and then into the Clyde River which makes its way south and east to Bateman's Bay.
Shortly after heading out across the plain, a helicopter approached us. We strung ourselves out so that the crew would see that we were a party of five, not four, and Norm donned a bright orange jacket with the SES initials emblazoned across the back. Despite this, and despite our not waving, the helicopter landed. A crewman got out and talked to us, finding out who we were and what we were doing. He offered us some spare supplies after we told him that the delays we had experienced would mean that we would now be out for at least two nights, something none of us had expected. He gave us half a dozen bags of emergency rations - jubes, lollies and chewing gum.
The helicopter crewman also gave us an interesting bit of news. A search team somewhere near Mount Tarn had reported hearing voices in Holland's Gorge. We wondered if this had been the reason for the enforced delay at lunch time, and gave us some hope that our search would be successful. Everyone in our group had agreed that the most likely place for the missing party to become lost was in the area west and south of Mount Owen, a view obviously shared by the search organizers who were concentrating most of their manpower on that area. We had believed that our search party was not destined to find the missing teenagers, but was actually intended to prove that Holland's Gorge and the Clyde River did not contain the four kids.
After the helicopter had taken off, we continued along the footpad, pausing every few hundred metres to blow the whistle and listen for any response, but the only sound we heard was the patter of rain on our hats and backpacks. Shortly before 4:30pm, with about an hour of daylight left, we passed a small rock cairn and an indistinct foot pad leading down into Holland's Gorge. A little further along, on the side of a small rise, we stopped again and blew the whistle. A few seconds later we heard a whistle in response.
All five of us looked at each other, with disbelief written on everyone's face. Was this the missing teenagers? Or had another search team been sent into the area? The whistle was soon followed by the sound of young voices, shouting to us from the base of the cliff-line on Mount Sturgiss. It was difficult to make out their words distinctly, but we were fairly sure that this was the missing party.
"What are your names?" Norm shouted.
"Karen, Chris, Steven and Allison!" came the reply.
It was the missing teenagers! I got the HF radio out of my pack so that Norm could contact Forward Command. Tony pointed to the base of the cliff and said that he could see a fire up there. He started across the low heath and I grabbed a bottle of water and went with him, leaving Alwyn and Karen to help Norm set up the radio.
Tony and I initially followed a direct route towards the cliffline, but soon found our way blocked by a steep, overgrown gully which disappeared down into Holland's Gorge. We tracked left across the side of the gully for a few hundred metres, Tony in the lead like a rampaging bull elephant, knocking aside everything in his path. He was not wearing a rain jacket, and soon became totally drenched. We finally dropped down an almost vertical slope covered with long grass and bracken before climbing down a small tree to the floor of the gully.
We quickly climbed up to the cliffline, taking turns in the lead to find the best way through the occasional rock falls which dotted the slope. We called out but received no responses from the kids. I blew the whistle with the same result. We moved to our right, along the cliffline, continuing to call and whistle.
A helicopter came up the valley and landed near the rest of our search party, the noise of its engine preventing further attempts at communication. We could not believe how quickly it had arrived on the scene. A second helicopter flew by, much larger. It sounded like a scene from Apocalypse Now. Tony and I reached the fire and found a girl standing beside it. She looked fit and well, and had already put on her backpack, ready to go. She was smiling broadly, almost crying with joy.
"You are the first people we have seen in eight days" she said. "You can't believe how happy I am to see you!" We would later learn that this was Karen, the fifteen year old sister of Chris, the eighteen year old leader of the group.
"Where are the others? Are you all okay?" we asked.
"They are just packing up the tent and the rest of the gear. They will be here in a moment."
"Have you got water?" I asked.
"Yeah, we have been getting if from drips off the cliffs near the cave."
It had taken us the best part of half an hour to reach the signal fire. It would be touch and go whether we could get back to the helicopters before dark. The cloud was getting lower too, and I was not sure whether the copters would be able to fly in those conditions. I hoped they would be there when we got back. We talked for another few minutes until the other three arrived. During that time, Karen must have said "You can't believe how happy I am" at least a dozen times. Tony led the way back along the cliffline, the others following behind him. I scattered the ashes of the small signal fire and put it out with the water I was carrying. I caught up with the group when they were slowed down by a difficult section of rockfall.
Tony led us past the point where we had climbed up to the cliffline until the gully below flattened out. I spoke with Chris as we hurried along, learning that they had been basically lost since the very first day, and had spent the last few days in the cave, trying to catch the attention of the helicopters, their efforts hampered by cloud and rain.
We were moving as quickly as we could, but when we were about two hundred metres from the choppers, the larger one took off and slowly moved away. Fearing that the smaller helicopter would do the same, we increased our pace even more. I later learned that the smaller helicopter was just about to leave as well, but suddenly they saw us through the gloom of the rapidly approaching night. The four kids were quickly loaded into the waiting chopper.
The rest of us awaited further instructions from the chopper crew. One of them came over and said "We can take one more person."
"You go, Tony" I said quickly. "You're drenched and you will freeze out here." There was just a moment's hesitation before he accepted the logic of the argument and grabbed his pack. Norm, Karen and I moved away a short distance as Tony climbed aboard the chopper.
"Where's Alwyn?" Karen suddenly asked, shouting above the din of the helicopter.
"Isn't he with you?" I said.
"No, he went after you and Tony about ten minutes after you left."
"Didn't you need him to help with the HF radio?" I asked.
"No. The other radio worked fine from here. We didn't need to set up the big one."
"(Expletive Deleted)!" I said. "We didn't see him. And the gully between us and the kids is more like a ravine!"
We agreed not to tell anyone about Alwyn's disappearance until after the chopper had gone. While we watched, it rose about two metres into the air and hovered for about a minute, its headlight shining like a beacon.
"What's taking so long?" we thought. Pretty soon we had our answer. The door of the helicopter opened and a pack was unceremoniously dumped out. Then another, and another. Five packs soon littered the ground. The chopper slowly moved forward, rising slowly. In the distance we saw the light from Alwyn's torch moving towards us along the track. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief. Almost a year later I contacted Tony and asked him what had happened after he had climbed into the helicopter. This is what he wrote -
"The pilot then tried to take off, in vain. He barely made it off the ground. "Throw the packs out!" came the command from the pilot. "Let me out!" I said, not wanting to be separated from my pack. I had no choice in the matter; time was of the essence. The side door opened and out went all five packs. What a horrible feeling. I don't know how the kids felt at that time but I felt terrible. Everything I had was in my pack. We were left in the clothes we were wearing - soaking wet and covered with leeches. Needless to say there was a lot of fun over the next half hour with leeches crawling all over the inside of this chopper full of people. The paramedic put on his rubber gloves and tried to keep the girls quiet by picking the leeches off and putting them somewhere (?). The navy guys were great, considering visibility was down to about ten metres when we took off. They flew us to Nowra (HMAS Albatross) air base where we were met by an ambulance, which took us to the naval hospital. On arrival we were given hot food, drinks, shower and navy overalls.
The news film crews in the mean time were being kicked off the base and trying to negotiate an interview. Eventually the police gave in, with the permission of the kids, to a short interview and film footage while leaving the hospital. We were then transferred to Ulladulla Police station by police car where the kids were again interviewed by all the necessary people and allowed to see their parents for the first time in over a week.
The Ulladulla Police and Search & Rescue treated us well with more food, drink and protection from the media. Thanks to the navy guys, we got our packs back the next day, along with all the other searchers that were flown in the previous day. It was a great effort by a lot of people working as a team that ended with a good result."
Back to our story. The chopper continued to circle, rising higher with each pass, and then it was off. Alwyn joined us as we watched it go. We quickly donned our packs and took off up the track. The cave was still twenty or thirty minutes away. Finding our way through the trees up to the cliffline on Mount Haughton in the dark was not an attractive thought, but surprisingly, with Karen in the lead, we managed to locate the track and stay on it all the way to the top.
This would be the fourth time that I had camped overnight in the camping cave on Mount Haughton. It was starting to feel like home. Alwyn, Karen and I set up our ground sheets, mats and sleeping bags on the main flat area, while Norm set up on the smaller ledge nearby. Alwyn and I went a few hundred metres along the cliffline in a vain attempt to find water but returned empty handed. Norm found a small soak only a few metres from the cave. This turned into a small, running stream as the rain got heavier during the evening.
Karen cooked a dinner of rice and onions, and we also dined on bread and shared our chocolate covered liquorice sticks with the others. We were in bed sometime around 8:30pm, snug and warm, and still disbelieving that we had been instrumental in the rescue of four teenagers lost in the Budawangs. Norm had radioed Forward Command earlier to learn of their plans for us in the morning. He was told that he would have an answer in the morning, and to turn on the radio at 7am for further news.
After a very rainy night we were awoken by a cacophony of birdsong in the predawn light. We breakfasted and slowly prepared to leave. Norm radioed in and we were delighted to learn that we were to be airlifted out, along with the dumped packs, later in the morning. We were to proceed back to the packs and await further instructions.
A short time later Forward Command called us to say that John Goodwin wanted to confirm which Shoalhaven Bushwalkers were in Five Echo. Norm relayed the names of Alwyn, Karen and myself. Later when Norm called in, Forward Command repeated the request, wanting to know if Norm Smith was in our group. Norm said that they were talking to Norm Smith, and everyone was amused.
The weather had slowly improved since dawn, and all of us believed that conditions were okay for a chopper 'extraction'. We walked back down to the packs, arriving at about 9:30am, only to learn that we would be the third and last team to be airlifted out of the area. An hour later we watched a Sea King helicopter - the big one - as it flew over Sturgiss to pick up a search party somewhere on the other side of Haughton. A half hour later we saw it fly off towards Milton from behind Mount Tarn. An hour or so later we saw two helicopters over Tarn, assuming correctly that they were picking up the second party.
At about midday the Sea King finally came in to pick us up. We loaded all the packs on board and clambered in. Up front, the second search party looked on, smiling. There was no way to communicate above the noise of the engine and rotors. Karen had a window seat and enjoyed fine views of the Castle and Pigeon House as we flew by, but I had limited vision through a small window on the other side of the chopper. Pretty soon we were on the ground in Milton.
John Goodwin was there to meet us, as was Chris, the leader of the teenagers, and his parents. Also on hand was the search organizer, who gave a short speech of thanks to the last two search parties to be extracted. Chris gave a little speech of thanks as well. Our jobs done, we soon grabbed our packs and headed for John's van, remembering only at the last minute to return the two radios we were carrying. John dropped Alwyn at his peach farm on the highway, and Norm at his home in Tomerong, before taking Karen and I home as well. It had been an unbelievable thirty six hours.
If we had been helicoptered to Styles Creek instead of transported by car, the four teenagers would have been found on the Wednesday morning instead of Wednesday evening. If we had followed the route suggested by Tony across the boggy plain between Styles Creek and Mount Haughton, we would not have found the kids until Thursday morning. If we had not used the whistle we would have trooped down into Holland's Gorge and not found the kids at all. And if another search party had been sent in our place, they would have been the ones to find them.
We were lucky. Lucky to have been chosen. Lucky to have been sent to the right location. Lucky to have only walked for two and a half hours when other teams had walked all day. We were also lucky to have the camping cave on Mount Haughton to spend the night in - others spent a wet night in tents. Karen and I felt guilty that we had been safely ensconced in the relative luxury of the Haughton Hilton.
When the search organizer was giving his little speech at the end, he said he appreciated the trials and hardships that we had gone through during the cold, wet night we had spent in the wilderness, Karen turned around to me and said - "But that's the kind of thing we do for fun ..."
The following links show related stories -
Navy News article about the May 2000 Budawangs Search
Various newspaper stories about the Search
Robert James account of the search for his son and daughter
Chris James successfully completing his Queens Scout program
Ralph article from 2001 featuring Stephen Rowe, one of the rescued
Below is a summary from Russ Evans concerning the rescue.