Barrington SAR X
Looking for Cessna 210 MDX
October 18/19 2008
Barrington Tops 1:25000
BWRS, WICEN, SES, RFS, PR.
A Cessna 210 aircraft VH-MDX, colour, cream and green, with five men on board, reported difficulties, then disappeared from radar over the Barrington Forest Area, at 19:39 on 9th August 1981. No further radio communications were received. The friends were returning from a fishing holiday in the Whitsundays via Coolangatta, over flying Taree and the Barrington rang to Bankstown.
To quote from an official report of the time, “The most probable crash area is the most heavily forested, rugged, inaccessible part of New South Wales.” No trace of the aircraft or occupants has been seen since.
BWRS has been involved in searching for the crash site as a Search and Rescue Exercise for a number of years. The aim is to provide a realistic environment where the various emergency services can show case there capabilities in a wilderness area and demonstrate their ability to combine and work together, under sometimes trying conditions. During one of these operations in 2003 the pilots son who was 17 at the time of the disaster, came up to Base and a number of us met him. This experience has made it a personal commitment for us to help bring closure for all the families and friends.
Geoff and I came here early to try and scout a shorter rout into a designated search area, on the south east slopes of Mt Paterson. My information was that the Paterson River has a long gorge section on the direct rout west from Burraga Swamp car park (the intended Operational Base Site). Study of the map does suggest a couple of possible crossing points, worth a try ☺
We arrived at about 13:30 after hamburger lunch at Paterson Township on the way. The car was parked in a forest clearing just to one side of the car park, to leave as much room as possible for Base. Interesting spot to park, giving a good foretaste of what all participants will experience for the next two days. Big rainforest trees with thick vines hanging from them, twisted and contorted into wonderful to see shapes, the liberal coating of green moss adding even more visual interest, made yet even more enchanting with the air moss draping down from every available twig. A delightful soft, benign peaceful place, quiet muted sounds, just an occasional bird call at this time of day, low intensity lighting due to the continuous canopy overhead, the thick bed of moist leaf litter makes for quiet walking. Randomly sun beams seep through the tree canopy, giving light and colour to there own unique mots of the forest.
By 14:00 we were walking down the old logging track shown on the map, quite overgrown now, lots of running water to make things a little muddy too. We took care to leave the track on the correct ridge heading down to the west. The little squad Etrex Vista gps is not getting good satellite reception through the tree canopy, so careful map to ground reading is the order of the day. It is a beaut sunny day with just a hint of breeze, ideal for walking, everything so green all around.
This ridge is good walking generally (for Barrington). Steep for a while after we leave the road, then lesser gradient until near the Paterson River where it steepens again, soon to a vertical cliff. It is hard to find a clear view but the river bed seems to be 30 – 40 m down with similar cliffs up the other side. An altogether rugged scenic place to walk, pity time was a constraint. The side creeks we followed down as possible entry points, each end in significant waterfalls about 20 m. Water flow in the Paterson is ok, not likely to cause problems crossing. The river was followed up stream trying to find a way across but nothing suitable presents its self. Around 17:00 Geoff studied the map and we headed to a level looking area as a camping site.
Camp is soon set to rights, with the fly up and a cooking fire blazing, now we can laze around and listen to the forest settle for the night. The day birds give their twilight chorus, soon replaced by the night birds waking chorus. The forest gently darkens around us as we lie back and sip hot drinks and prepare dinner. The WICEN comms team on Mt Allyn are contacted by UHF radio at the scheduled time and the message passed. “No short cut found. We will cross upstream at the Paterson Falls in the morning”.
Unfortunately Geoff was feeling unwell and has to retire early. I went to the nearby creek for extra water, in case of need. Very steep banks down, and on the steep slopes all about, glow worms sparkling, trying to outdo my torch, most enchanting. It gives me a warm feeling every time I see such beauty and remember occasions past. After I retired, we both heard a strange chattering sound in the trees immediately above us, wether bird or animal we were not sure and couldn't see anything by torchlight. This chatter kept up for a while, then twang something brushes the fly ropes as it seems to come down the tree trunk and then two sets of chatter calls move away :~).
I always feel the magic coming awake in such places, gradually you see more detail as the dark forest resolve from the night dark, at the same time the day birds start their dawn chorus. First just the solo here and there, then general chatter. We are very lucky in Australia to have such a prolific and varied bird life. It doesn’t take long to breakfast and break camp, one aim is to leave as little trace as possible so that in a short time no one will be able to tell we camped here.
There wasn’t far to go, but on the way Geoff found a gully with a 11 mm hand line in place to aid access to the river, just down stream from the falls. There were no sensible ways up the other side. As we crossed the saddle beside the falls, there was quite large area, cleared for a camp site and a fire place of heaped charcoal surrounded by stones. It is not hard to tell people have been here previously, pity they couldn’t have been more discreet. We easily descend to the river to view the cascades and waterfall. It is a delightful sunny day, pleasant temperatures, magnificent scenery and here the chuckle of the river tumbling through the stones. Care needs to be taken walking on those stones because they are very slippery and reminds me how much easier it was rock hopping along the Queensland rivers near Brisbane. We have UHF radio comms (WICEN repeater channel), from here which is excellent. Arrangements are made to meet team one at the start of our search area.
Our rout up the other side is just a gentle grade almost as if it has been a road in the past, mind you this soon changed and we were finding our way over the loose scree on the steep forest floor. Still a magnificent primeval place, balm for the soul. Giant trees and vines still in subdued light, mossy logs, air moss, ferns. But even paradise has thorns for the unwary: -
The map suggests that there is a “bench” just above the 700 m contour which should be easier walking and so it proves. We wander on enjoying the interesting walk and gain another 150 m to the start of our search area above 800 m contour line. Arriving at 12:00 to lunch while waiting for the rest of the team to arrive. They left Burraga Swamp at 07:30 and crossed the river at a position further up stream and thus have further to come. Mark and Chris (BWRS), Paul and Jost (Waverly SES), join us about 12:20 to enjoy the views through the trees to, Mt Ben Bullen and Mt Lumear and on the Mt Allyn Range, while lunching.
Mark then lead us to the 900 m contour the upper level of our sweep area, on the way he sees a fishing hand reel lying on the ground. An instant adrenalin serge, the party on Cessna 210 MDX had been on a fishing trip. There is some other rubbish scattered about, then a tent scrunched up against a tree. Some plastic bags nearby contain a big, fine, nylon net and some rubbish. We check things out and find food containers with later 1990s use by dates suggesting this stuff is only around 10 years old. We can hear the initial excitement when we radio in but this calms down as they realise it is abandoned camp from, either, a drug plantation, or illegal native bird capture for export. on the top and bottom boundary. The end point of each sweep is delimited We conduct a sweep 50 m around the site as best we could but much of the area is too thick with vines and overgrowth to search thoroughly in the time available, but we would probably have seen something as big as a crashed aircraft. Mark and Geoff find indications of a road totally overgrown by wild raspberry, which adds weight to the assumptions of an abandoned camp.
Our search pattern is a contour line sweep with the limits judged by altimeter by a creek. When we reach the creek the lower marker stays put and the others file past to space out below, with the other altimeter lowest, we then sweep the other direction, first south then north and so on. This is a very varied area to sweep, some relatively flat other very steep, some nice open forest, tall trees with big vines and hanging moss, other thick undergrowth and vines impossible to search in the time available (we would need hours on each small area and we would need scratch proof clothes and some sort of scrub bashing equipment, such as machetes, which would have increased our pack weight and probably slowed us down walking into the area as well). Around 17:00 we locate a relatively flat place near water to camp and call it a day.
Soon the tent and flies are up and a cooking fire going. A pleasant place to rest up, tall trees, full canopy overhead little ground cover. Some fallen eucalypt wood suitable for the fire, is found on the spur just over the runnel to our north, (most rain forest wood is spongy and tends to hold moisture so burns only with a lot of effort, eucalypt wood is dense and dry and burns well). I’m not sure why this one spur has mostly big Blue Gum trees, when generally we only seen the odd remnant specimen here and there.
It is hard to see the stars through the tree cover but later when the moon rises, a magic place reveals with the forest giants silhouetted against the gentle light penetrating down. Not many bird calls heard tonight, perhaps it’s our chatter or perhaps it’s because we are at a higher altitude (or perhaps the bird trappers were too good at there job), but there is a lyre bird.
Another perfect day dawns gradually lightening sky, limited dawn bird chorus, everyone still at peace with the world. No fluster or bustle everyone knows what needs to be done and we are away searching by 07:30. We only need a few sweeps to cover the area down to below 800 m contour and it’s then back to the camp site to pick up packs and about 09:40 heading back out. Mark and Geoff set course for the Paterson Falls crossing. Most pleasant walking and searching, scan to the left, scan to the right, scan behind, scan overhead behind to in front, left and right, just because we are out of our area doesn't mean we stop looking. We meet up with Keith’s group, team three, on the way down and follow them into the Paterson, (this was their search area and they know the best ways now). In the Paterson we meet up with Paul and team two, this makes fifteen of us to enjoy lunch together and catch up, in the bright sun beside the flashing, dashing, tinkling water. I have said before a most picturesque place.
Then it is only a matter of a walk up the spur to gain 400 m height and along the old logging road to Burraga Swamp. I was flagging a little and took a bit longer than the others, glad I’m still working on my fitness after my ankle injury. Back at Base in the saddle between Mt Allyn and Mt Allyn Range we meet the others, team four, WICEN, and Base team, for the debrief. A good operation and everything went well, importantly all teams worked well together, after all we are all professionals. I am glad to see Rog from Police Rescue has made it despite being on sick leave after being crook for a few months, it has been a long drive for him.
Well folks another Barrington SAR X over. Thank you for your company. I am very please to see how well the different agencies worked together in difficult terrain to achieve the search objective. We may not have found MDX this time, but we sure had some real training. From my point of view we also had a real bushwalk. I hope to keep doing this search until we are successful and can bring closure to the families of the crash victims. It isn’t easy terrain or vegetation but this is real life. © Dug Floyd October 2008.