BUSHWALKING - Contributor John Walch (ex-Teacher, Patron, Secretary/Treasurer and original Editor of the website)

[Compiler's note: Bushwalking was a life-long interest of John’s, inspired by his time teaching at Katoomba, and here he recalls an “Episode” that taught that young teacher a lesson he would never forget!]

The saying "All's well that ends well" is true enough but sometimes what finishes well can mean nightmares for the person who thinks of what might almost have been.

I decided to form a hiking group which would go on a weekly walk in some part of the Mountains. This would give the boys some chance to see at first-hand the bush and its wonders, as well as being a useful break from the confines of their boarding-school environment. They would learn basic bush-craft and develop some survival skills. Boys from the metropolitan area with little experience of this type of activity and boys from overseas stood especially to profit from these outings. We started with simple walks along well, sign-posted and well-defined paths: the Narrow Neck peninsula, Mina Ha and the Valley of the Waters, among others.

The group was becoming a close-knit unit and individuals were getting more used to the bush and its ways, as well as enjoying the cooking of their own meal over their own fire, learning to leave the place tidy and all the other things that go to make a good bush-walker. It was time to present them with a greater challenge. The walk I had planned would take us along the Narrow Neck peninsula, but after the Rainbow Falls we would leave the track, and head down into the Megalong Valley by way of a little-used and not very well known path along the cliff wall. There were some rock passages to go through, a few narrow ledges to negotiate and a few fallen trees to take us over steep gullies. The track ended with a steep descent into the valley 300 meters below. It was not for the clumsy, but there was no climbing as such and no real danger, providing everyone was careful. At the bottom of the valley was a clear stream where they could lunch; swim and skylark until we headed out again via the Devil's Hole.

They heard the plan and agreed. But there was always the danger with these fit young chaps that someone would do something silly or suddenly develop the need to prove something to the others. My main fear early in the hike was that we might come across a snake and someone would get bitten if they tried to confront it. This would mean abandoning the trek and carting someone back to school for help. The group -stopped at a spot where we would move off the main track and head for the lip of the mountain. This meant moving through low bushes and long grass for quite a while. I said to them: "Now listen. There could be snakes about this weather. You can see the type of stuff we've got to go through. I'll take for granted you guys are brave. You don't have to prove it. So if you see a snake, step back and let it go on its way. You won't have much chance to get out of the road if you try something fancy with all the thick scrub so don't.”

No-one said anything.

I took the lead to show them the track, such as it was, and we followed till we came to a natural bridge right below the cliff, the beginning of a watercourse we would follow to the bottom. It was terribly steep, but that only added to the challenge. The routine was now established that we would stop every kilometre or so for a breather and to let the slower ones catch up. It was also a chance to give any special directions for the next part of the hike. "From here we go straight down. You can see how steep it is. Grab the trees if you get up too much speed. There's the odd ledge so take it a bit easy. Now hear this: if you kick a rock or see one rolling down, for God's sake yell so those in front can get out of the road. Got that?"

No-one said anything.

I took the lead to show them the way. Down we went at a tremendous pace. After a few minutes we reached a flat spot where they stopped and waited, all except Larry, a roly-poly type who was always a bit slower than the rest, but was such a good-natured guy that everyone loved his company. Suddenly there was a yell: "Look out below" and at the same time a big rack came whistling down the slope. Those on the ledge saw the rock and there was a hell of a scatter. Everyone took any available cover: a tree, rock ledge, whatever. Just when they were congratulating themselves on how smart they had been getting out of the road someone yelled: "Over here quick! Johnny's been hit" Poor kid. He had almost reached the shelter of a tree, almost but not quite. His body had been behind the tree but his right leg was caught in mid-stride by the rock which had taken a huge slice out of his calf. Another millisecond and he would have been alright: one half step was all there was in it. But there was no use thinking of that now.

When I think back, always with a shudder, over this scene there are three faces! can remember: Larry, ashen-faced high up on a ledge; Vincent, a Malaysian, now white as a sheet far he had felt the rock pass over his head as he flung himself flat on the ground; and Johnny, his little face drawn with fright as he lay there with blood pumping out of a severed artery. You tell yourself this sort of thing won't happen, and you keep hoping it won't. I had never had to face such an emergency, and had done everything I could to avoid this situation arising but here it was. Calmer, more expert, folk would have been able to sort things out logically: stop the bleeding, immobilise the leg, make a stretcher, comfort the patient, call for help. All I could think was: "Here I am with 20 boys in my care. None of them has the -slightest idea of where we are or how to get out of here. This boy is going to die if l don't get help of some sort. I must get help, he has to get to hospital or I'll lose him!” Blind senseless panic!! The nearest house was at least an hour away and there was no other way to get there than on foot. This is the pitiless side of the bush and the mountain..; you are totally on your own resources.

I said to the boys: "I'll just have to go and get help and be back as quickly as I can. Meantime see if you can move him down towards the road a bit, it's that way". From the group I picked John H., a country boy, something of an athlete, with a good deal of common sense. Once we reached the road along the Valley floor he could dash ahead and get help. Shortly afterwards a four-wheel drive came belting along the road. "Hop in. John will wait for the doctor and ambulance. It sounds as though we had best find your group as fast as we can."

Another shock.., from the road it was impossible to see more than a few meters into the bush and harder to see the exact spot where we had left the wall of the cliff high above to begin the trip down... in other words I had no idea what track my group was taking to get to the road and I couldn't see them. Not a hope in the world. With the local farmer trying to drive as fast as possible and his passenger trying, hoping, to see some of the party we got nowhere. Anxiety took over. I said: "Look, they've just got to be here somewhere. Let me out. I've just got to find them."I did, but it took at least an hour of thrashing through the undergrowth, over logs and rocks, and tearing free of "wait a while" vines that seemed to be everywhere. All the time I was wondering where on earth they had got to, if with their little knowledge of this part of the bush they were just wandering about. "Is he dead or alive? Oh God let me find them soon! Coo-ee!!”

Finally there was an answer, and in a few minutes I had found them. I went straight to the makeshift stretcher they had organised, where Johnny was lying weak and pale but still alive. There's a doctor on his way and an ambulance coming to take you to hospital. You’ll soon be O.K. little mate". No-one said anything immediately but with Johnny gone in the ambulance the details gradually emerged as we made our way to the lunch spot.

Michael had taken charge of things. He always carried an Army shell bandage on all our walks and a few first-aid odds and ends. Usually everyone was amused by this...they weren't laughing today.

Dave, a thoughtful boy who had done a bit of reading in medical books, knew enough to find the pressure point in the groin and stopped the bleeding.

Michael had applied his famous shell bandage; others of them had pushed saplings through the sleeves of a few spare coats and jumpers and had made a stretcher.

Those who weren't big enough to carry had found the best way down to the road. They had toiled for two hours down a slope so steep that it was hard to walk. No-one said how hard it had was enough that their little mate was safe.

Sixty -stitches and a month in hospital put Johnny back on his feet, his life due to the boys who had saved him rather than to a teacher stupid enough to panic in an emergency. Transport came to take the boys back to school. I climbed out of the Valley on foot. I needed time to think. The bush closed round me as if nothing had happened...if you venture in you must rely on your own resources. Perhaps to have told this story will be a suitable way to thank these boys for saving a comrade's life... somewhere there is a man walking round today who owes his life to these brave young men rather than to a teacher who panicked. Perhaps we all learned a lot from the day.

[Postscript comment courtesy of President Mike Yeo: Wasn’t that a great read? Many will recall the event as they were there. It would be great to identify the 20 for the record. John Walch recalled some names like David Lamb, Dennis Leman. John Loane was the patient, John H was John Honeyman, Larry was Gary Woods from Cowra (christened Larry by Graeme Male reason unknown). Dave was Dave Manning and Michael was me.]