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Shoalhaven Bushwalkers Inc.

PO Box 403
Nowra NSW 2541

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The following information was taken from

Robert's Experience (the father of Chris)

Chris arranged his Expeditions II hike for April 26-29 (2000) as one of the final assessments for his Queen's Scout award. He had many expressions of interest from mates who wanted to come, but few willing to actually make a firm commitment to the time.

As the day drew nearer, he was down to his reliable mates Alison Robb and Steve Rowe. Lil' sis Karen agreed to come as well, although she was still rather unwell following a cold and wet camping few days at Wee Jasper, near Yass.

The group was well-prepared with camping equipment, provisions, maps, all-weather clothes and contingency plans with parents, Scout Assn. and Park rangers.

Wed 26 April:
Jeanne farewelled the four at the Nerriga entrance of the Morton National Park (North of Braidwood). The rest of the week went quietly, as we imagined the kids hiking steadily through the ranges towards The Castle then to Pigeon House Mountain ready for collection on Saturday.

Sat 29 April:
On Saturday I drove to the Pigeon House Mountain carpark (in the Budawang Range, west of Ulladulla), arriving about 4pm, in plenty of time for the 5pm rendezvous. Since they were not there, I went for a walk back along their path towards the mountain, expecting them to be on their way down. Several people I met had seen no sign of them, and back at the carpark at 5pm there was still no sign.

I left a notice in the car park, and, following our contingency plan, drove up to Yadboro which was on their track, and frequented by hikers and campers. No one there had seen our missing bushwalkers. This meant that they were seriously late.

The Castle

Next stage of the plan was that I should drive up to the Castle. However, it was dark, and I soon encountered a flooded section of the road. The car was having alternator problems, and I was fearful of its lights failing.

I studied my contingency instructions with difficulty in the dim light, did a U-turn with greater difficulty, and headed back to the Pigeon House carpark. My note was untouched, so I left it and followed my instructions to proceed to Ulladulla and raise the alarm. (By now I should have been snug in bed at Wamboin).

Unable to raise anyone at my various telephone numbers, I left a message on the Ranger's answering machine, with phone number of the Ocean View Motel. I called Jeanne at home, trying to be positive about the probability of the kids arriving first thing tomorrow. She was obviously concerned, but matter-of-fact about it, undertaking to call the Rowe and Robb families. I called in at the Ulladulla Police Station and reported briefly, and was instructed to come again early tomorrow (Sunday) morning.

Ensconced at the Ocean View, I received a return call from Alan Norman of the NPWS, who arranged to see me early Sunday at the Police Station.

Sun 30 April:
At 7 am I met Alan Norman and Acting Inspector Bill Carter, where we poured over maps and timetables etc. I agreed to drive back through Pigeon House and Yadboro to the Castle, having been assured that the flooded road was passable, and feeling more optimistic in daylight!

In lovely clear conditions, I checked again at Pigeon House and Yadboro, leaving more notes and talking with several campers and hikers. My spirits declined as I reached the limit of the road at the Castle.

Hikers who had traversed much of our group's region reported no sign of them (or anyone at all!). Back at Yadboro I encountered Richard Green, a NPWS officer and his most hospitable wife Gwyneth, at their marvelous bush home surrounded by the National Park. They provided solace over a welcome cuppa, and telephoned Alan N. with my nul-result report.

Back at Ulladulla, more pouring over maps and plans, and discussing the hikers' preparations, food supply, navigation aids, hiking/camping experience and group dynamics. I was feeling frustrated and helpless amidst the bustle, as other Police and NPWS people became involved and started planning to launch a search tomorrow (Mon). I had seen no smoke in the wilderness on my travels, and wished that we could have had a look by air that day, as conditions were perfect and rain was forecast for Monday. However, I was assured that hikers "almost always turn up" in the next day or so if they are delayed.

Before dark, I made the round trip again, from Ulladulla through Pigeon House, Yadboro to The Castle and return. No reports from hikers, no smoke, no nothing. It was a melancholy trip back in the dark, thinking of my snug bed there and wondering whether the kids were camping happily along the way, or cold, hungry, injured ...

Good Ron at the Ocean View was happy to have me on at no notice for another night, and I made the depressing report to Jeanne that our group was now 24 hours overdue. She said that she would arrive in the morning, along with good friend Joe Mangion and son Richard, of Wamboin. They, and many others, were a great assistance and comfort through the ordeal.

Mon 1 May:
6:30 am at the Ulladulla Police Station is still a vivid memory for me. The surrounding road were jammed with rescue vehicles from the Police, Bush Fire Brigades, National Parks and volunteer bushwalking and rescue groups. Inside was a hubbub of people rubbing their eyes, drinking coffee, studying maps, talking on radios, gathering equipment and cat-napping in corridors. One group I spoke with had left home at 3am to come from Wollongong.

More consultation about maps and plans, distances, times, landforms, personalities and weather. Jeanne, Adrian, Joe and Richard arrived. We received instructions to wait at Pigeon House in case the hikers arrived, then headed off, then booked again into the Ocean View, hoping that we would be able to cancel the booking after finding the kids later that day. Alas, we were to spend another three nights there! At Pigeon Hose carpark, we met a friendly young policeman who was stationed there as well. He relieved the burden of waiting, and relieved our hunger by radioing for a generous supply of sandwiches which arrived at lunch time!

Soon after our arrival, the silence was broken by the unforgettable sound of a helicopter as it swooped low over the expected-arrival site, then headed back up the path that should have been taken by our group - first quite quickly (to attract attention), then back again in wide, slow sweeps to sight anyone who may be waving. The enormous sound of it evoked a strong feeling in me of gratitude for the professional and amateur resources that had been thrown in to help us. As it receded into the mountains I felt lonely, as though I'd lost a powerful friend.

Landscape near PigeonHouse Mountain -
difficult territory for a search -
particularly when shrouded in mist.

The day's outlook was particularly forlorn as the mist rose and fell and swirled around the peaks and canyons. Helicopters could be heard in the distance, dodging the mists and the cliffs. We seized on each Police radio message; most were routine, but there were several false alarms.

One helicopter crew thought they smelled smoke, but could not confirm. Another one saw footprints on a sandy creek-bed, but traced them to a camping group. They came back with leaves and sticks caught in the skids. The Southcare chopper was missing for 30 minutes, causing great alarm. It had been trapped in a canyon when the mist descended, and had to land in a small space out of radio contact.

A nother young policemen arrived in a station wagon containing an excited tracker dog. They had departed Sydney at an ungodly hour, and were to start immediately on checking the bush trails.

I had not really wanted other people around, perhaps thinking that I would have to "entertain" them, but in fact it was just marvellous that the Rowes and the Mangions were there. Joe was a real blessing and a comfort for Jeanne. Having lost their own son, Tom, the year before, Joe and Cathy now seemed very close to us and able to share supportively in this experience.

Here we are, waiting at Pigeon House:
AJ and Jeanne, our German camping friend,
Barbara and Kevin Rowe, and Dick M.

Poor Adrian was quite ill (which was why he did not accompany Chris on the expedition), and that made it all the worse for him.

As darkness arrived and we headed back to the Ocean View, I felt even more of a sense of failure and frustration, as we wondered as to the fate of our kids.

Tues 2 May:
Alison's parents Chris and Joy arrived early, joining our little encampment at the Ocean View. Consultations at Search Headquarters (Ulladulla Police Station) concentrated this time on the background of the kids, their hiking and camping experience, team structure, mental and physical health. We were concerned that Karen had started out with a sniffly cold, and Steve Rowe was afflicted with asthma which came on particularly in moist weather conditions and in times of stress. What a combination! (It seemed miraculous that, when rescued, both Karen and Steve reported that their medical condition was perfect during the hike!)

The newspapers and radio were now reporting the event. John Hood, our Scout Group Leader, was interviewed on television news about Chris's hiking and leadership experience, and how they would cope.

Now that the hikers were 60 hours overdue, it was decided to establish a base at Yadboro, to allow local refuelling of helicopters and support ground parties. Weather consultations deteriorated, as the fog descended again. "The families", as we were now known, were to stay with the Forward Command Post, be available to provide any information that may help, and to keep in touch with well-wishers and "helpers" who may be inclined to rush off into the bush and cause more trouble.

At Yadboro, we were humbled by the sight of the collected rescue resources - numerous vehicles and tents including a Bush Fire Brigade kitchen, electricity generators, mobile radio-command post, ambulances with paramedics crews, Volunteer Rescue Service with their big radio antennae etc.

A truck shuttled helicopter fuel to the site in 44 gallon drums. In the occasional drizzling rain the area around the Kitchen became messy, and a truck load of hay appeared. The single lean-to toilet at Yadboro was grossly inadequate so a truck load of Port-a-Loos appeared.

Senior Sgt. Mark Powderly of the Police Rescue Service took command of the operation. He kept closely in touch, reassuring us with his frequent invocation "TRUST me - we'll find them!". Working from his command unit truck filled with maps and radios, Mark kept us up-to-date with his search plans and contingency arrangements. He urged caution as our hopes were raised with each announcement of a possible clue, and cheered us up following each revelation of a false alarm.

The Police Dog Squad and the Police Trail Bike Unit came through and were winched into isolated trails. Helicopters collected the Visitors Books from peaks at The Castle and Pigeon House to search for clues. Now we had helicopters from the Police, South Care, National Parks and a local grazier called Alfie Crump (who refused any payment for his three days of searching).

We were given a tent and promised "protection from media". Peter Cornelius, the Police Emergency Management Officer was to be our media-liaison. Television helicopters came and went, but they were requested to leave us alone, and we were never accosted. We received some written questions about the kids, the hike, the Queens Scout scheme, etc, and returned a response.

We met many wonderful people who had come from far afield, including Newcastle, Blue Mountains, Sydney and the South Coast. They all had stories about how they had been contacted, dropped their family commitments and jobs, and just wanted to do whatever they could to help.

Dorina Van Kampen came with others from the Blue Mountains and was rewarded with a fractured ankle. She was airlifted out to the Shoalhaven District Hospital.

As darkness and increasing drizzle forced another end of operations, the trip back to Ulladulla was one of the worst times. Where could the kids have gone wrong? Why could we never see any smoke? Were they still together? Were they cold or wet? Did they still have any food left? And of course ... Was anyone injured?

Checking our answering machine at home (from the motel), was full of messages, from family members, friends, people from work, people from school, people from the church, people from the scouts, and people from the media.

Wed 3 May:
Again the day started clear and bright, but as we headed toward the Yadboro Base Camp we headed into patchy mist. This was about my sixth trip up the road, which was now wet and slippery, churned into a quagmire by the heavy traffic, particularly trucks.

The Base Camp had expanded, with many more vehicles and tents etc, as additional teams joined the search effort. We really wondered whether today would bring some good news!

All day we wandered around talking with people, learning about how they came to be here, where they came from and why they were willing to lose days at work, spend money and time to search for lost strangers.

Police Chaplain Rev. David Robson (Presbyterian Minister at Nowra) was with us for the duration, quietly talking with people, building their sense of community, providing reassurance and liaison among the many groups. The Fire Brigade kitchen became the "village centre", as hundreds of hot meals of amazing variety were dished up to all and sundry. This made a big difference to the wet and weary ground parties returning by truck and by helicopter.

We had a wizened-looking bloke, respected by locals as "knowing this place like the back of his hand" and described by Adrian as a "hard-core bushwalker". He was apparently over 79, but lead ground parties and advised on the landscape. Making light of his exertions, he joked "I never thought I'd have a ride in a helicopter by the time I reached eighty!"

More intensive questioning followed, exploring the psychological state of the teenagers, their relationships as a group, bushwalking and camping experience, and how they might manage a crisis. We recounted Chris' Expedition I experience, where one member of the party became separated over night, and how the group worked through the options to seek help and eventually find the lost sheep. We arranged for someone at Wamboin to get into the house and retrieve photographs of the kids.

I went for a little walk up the road towards The Castle with Joe. We talked about his son Tom's death in a road accident the previous year, and its effect on the family. Joe was unfailingly cheerful and optimistic about finding the kids, saying that he could just imagine them snug in a cave, making smoke and awaiting searchers, or still progressing along the track towards us.

At 4:30pm everyone more miserable than ever, as the kids were now four days overdue, the light was failing, and more drizzling rain coming in. People were starting to pack up from yet another day. Then Mark appeared at our tent with a little crowd behind him, and announced very quietly "Remember, I said 'TRUST me'? Well, we found them."

There was silence for a moment. Then .. "What ... say that again?" said someone.

"We found them."

Screaming, shouting and whistling from all over the camp - hooting and tooting and backslapping. Tired, wet and grimy policemen, fire-fighters, bushwalkers and tea-ladies weeping and hugging.

"Are you QUITE sure?" asked a skeptic.

"Yes, yes - there's no doubt - and they're all OK!" said Mark. "They're in Holland Gorge, found by a ground party - the Shoalhaven Bushwalkers. A chopper is on its way to bring them out. Trouble is, it's almost dark, and rain starting. They won't be able to come back here, they'll have to go to HMAS Albatross at Nowra."

Suddenly, Commander Mark looked terribly tired, and we could see the effects of those long days where everything seemed to go wrong, and the long nights working over grids and maps, planning, telephoning, calling-in favours and negotiating resources.

Peter Cornelius asked if we could speak with the media, who had been waiting around for three days. We gathered for the cameras and answered a few questions (eg "How do you feel?" !!!). It has been very strange since the event, seeing this interview on replay from the TV news.

It was disappointing for the people not to see the kids flown back to camp, but they accepted that the weather made it impossible. At least they wouldn't have to stay out another night. In fact several teams, including the one that made the discovery, did have to stay out, and be retrieved the next morning.

The next difficulty was getting out. The road to Yadboro was impassable, so we had to go farther into the mountains and around Clyde Ridge. Not very nice, because it was dark and raining, the road was slippery, unfamiliar and contained many unmarked Y-intersections. To top it off, our windscreen-wipers failed the moment we departed Yadboro! It was an arduous trip back to Ulladulla for the little convoy of police vehicles and cars. It was sort of special sliding off the road and being pushed back by a team of policemen!

Ulladulla Police Station was a blaze of lights, with television and media crews and onlookers crowded around. The road was cordoned-off so we could slip in around the back. More celebrations inside, as we (the families) were directed into a cleared room (the kitchen?) to await the errant bushwalkers. Soon they appeared, having been carried by the Southcare helicopter to HMAS Albatross, showered, banqueted and clad in surplus Navy overalls then conveyed by police car to Ulladulla.

Much cheers and hugs and tears and starting to tell the stories. A huge pile of boxed pizzas arrived. to add to it all.

Many people were waiting outside, so the kids agreed to face them for a few questions.

The blaze of flashlights and cameras was all a bit much after seeing absolutely no person for eight days in the bush, but the Famous Four managed OK, answering questions and not doing too badly.

T After promising to return tomorrow morning for debriefing, we drove back through the crowd for our really-truly last night at the Ocean View, this time all together.

Thurs 4 May:
Debriefed at the Police Station - More maps, charts, timetables, questions, laughs, thumping on backs, expressions of gratitude and congratulations. We agreed to go to the Milton Heliport to welcome back the teams, including the people who found the kids, that were being lifted out from various places in the mountains. It was a sparkling bright morning, unlike the previous afternoons.

We met many people for the first time, and some who we knew from the Yadboro camp. A BP tanker of helicopter fuel which was stationed there became bogged, and a local tractor appear to tow it out. The lady across the road appeared with tea and scones for the multitude - typical of the urge to help that was apparent everywhere.

It was just marvellous to see the helicopters arriving through the morning, disgorging the teams who had spent another night in cold, wet conditions, now rejoicing with us in the success.

They were fascinated to meet the kids, not at all critical of eg "How could you get lost and cause all this trouble?" They were just thrilled to have been a part of the successful outcome. Here's Mark Powderly and Chris and Bill Carter (always immaculate!)

As usual, rain developed after lunch and followed us all the way home. With no windscreen wipers it was another arduous trip. The poor old 20-year-old Commodore did well, having travelled over 1000 kilometers, much of it in second gear on corrugated, dusted, or muddy conditions.

It was weird arriving home five days after I departed for a five-hour return trip on Saturday! Sootie, who had been cared-for by neighbours welcomed us deliriously. Many neighbours appeared immediately and over the next few days, with foods and various extravagances for us. There were untold messages to return and media calls to be answered.

The important thing was that we were all there!

*** * ***

Our helpers included:

NSW Police:
Particular officers:
Acting Inspector W. (Bill) Carter, Shoalhaven Area Command, Nowra
Mr Peter Cornelius, District Emergency Management Officer, Wollongong
Senior Sergeant Mark Powderly, Police Rescue and Bomb Squad, Sydney
Staff at Ulladulla Police Station
Polair Rescue Helicopter, support and crews
Rescue Squad
Dog Squads
Air Wing
Radio Field technical Unit (Warilla)
Trail Bike Squad
Emergency Management Officer
Police Chaplain

NSW Ambulance Service
Had vehicles and paramedics waiting around for three days

Australian Search and Rescue (AUSSAR) in Canberra
Supplied grid search patters for air operations.

Royal Australian Navy
Supplied and operated a number of Squirrel and Sea King helicopters
And provided hospitality to the lost waifs on their rescue!

National Parks and Wildlife Service provided
- experienced field staff for organisation fieldwork,
- helicopter, support and supplies,
- solace and support for the families!

Southcare Rescue Helicopter (from Canberra)
Worked very hard for the entire operation,
and carried the kids (and their leaches) back to HMAS Albatross!

Alfie Crump
Provided and operated own helicopter for three days at no cost

McDonalds Aerial Patrol, Wollongong
Twin engined fixed-wing aircraft, providing
SAR continuous cover and Radio relay for helicopters in valleys.

Shoalhaven City Council
Supplied a large Foward Communications Vehicle and field radio equipment.

BP Australia
Provided a tanker of helicopter fuel at reduced cost.

Supplied satellite telephones

NSW State Emergency Services:
Nowra SES
Ulladulla SES

NSW Rural Fire Service:
Shoalhaven City
Eurobodalla Shire
Large field kitchen, fabulous staff and unbelievable food!

NSW Volunteer Rescue Associations:
South Coast
Batemans Bay

Bushwalkers Wilderness Rescue Association
Coordinated all the bushwalking clubs.

Bushwalking Clubs:
All nations Club
Brisbane Waters
Canberra Bush Club
Catholic Bushwalkers
Coast and Mountain Walkers
Shoalhaven Bushwalkers
Southern Adventure Society
Southern Highlands Club
Springwood Club
Sutherland Club
Sydney Bushwalkers
Three Peaks Club
UTS Outdoor Adventure Club
Wild Dogs Club
Yarrawood Club

Ron at the Ocean View Motel, who wouldn't take any payment for our many telephone calls.

And the hundreds of people who gave us real support and maintained our spirit during the ordeal. They included not only family and friends, but contacts from work and school, Church and Scouting groups and neighbours, but also a great many strangers who recognised us from television etc, and expressed their feelings of anxiety and joy at the outcome.

*** * ***