Saphira hikes the 37km off-track Stinson Walk on a historical hike lead by guides from O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat. Can you imagine searching for a downed plane in uncharted Queensland rainforest, dressed in a 1930s getup? That’s what Bernard O’Reilly did.
O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat, situated on the edge of Lamington National Park in South East Queensland, is a familiar name to many. I’ve hiked in the Green Mountains here several times, with its cool rainforests and expansive ranges. I knew vaguely that a plane crashed into the mountains near O’Reilly’s sometime at the beginning of the last century. I didn’t know much more.
I was invited to take part in the Stinson Walk, a guided trip hosted by O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat this May. The walk retraces the steps of Bernard O’Reilly as he searched for the Stinson airliner, which went missing in February of 1937, and as he ultimately rescued the two remaining survivors. As I came to learn, it is one of the most dramatic stories in Australian aviation history, centred right in the Green Mountains which have been familiar to me for so long as a hiker.
The 37km walk is a ‘pink ribbon track’; meaning it’s a bushbashing adventure with no clear track. Luckily, you’ll be guided the whole way. The Stinson Walk is perfect for intermediate hikers looking to transition to harder, off-track hikes without the worry of getting lost. If you can hike 25km with a loaded pack, or have done the likes of Mt Barney or Mt Superbus, this walk will be a great challenge for you.
The walk touched me more than I expected. Walking in Bernard’s footsteps gave me a glimpse into the sheer courage of this man. Luckily, the guided walk differs from Bernard’s mission in several ways. While Bernard trekked with a rudimentary map through virgin rainforest, without a tent or sleeping bag, the Stinson Walk is guided by experienced hikers and paired with 2 nights at O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat.
On Friday night, we arrived at O’Reilly’s and listened to ‘Big Pete’, a second-generation O’Reilly, relay Bernard’s experiences and the significance of the event. O’Reilly’s is a family business and the story of the Stinson rescue is quite obviously close to the hearts of the family even today. After hearing the tale, we pored over the maps, studying elevation charts, and facing the challenges of the walk. I secretly worried: was I cut out for this? Would I be able to keep up?
Hiking In The Pre-Dawn
It was barely Saturday (2.45am) when we woke up for breakfast in the dining room. We fuelled up on bread, fruit, granola, yogurt, and honeycomb for our big day. At exactly 4.04am, our laces were tied, our headlights on, and our provided lunches packed. We crossed the road from the O’Reilly’s right onto the Border Track. Matt, armed with a pair of garden scissors to cut away the upcoming lawyer vines (a.k.a wait-a-whiles), set a cracking pace.
The clack of our hiking poles was the only sound in the biting black night.
The light from the rising sun poured into the forest, a welcome change from the darkness. Topaz yellow leaves sparkled above, and I breathed in the new day. As we went on, the bushwhacking really began. The feeling of lawyer-vines shredding skin became familiar. Little pink ribbons, every ten metres or so, marked our way.
“From here on it was a trackless, lawyer-vine jungle. And what is it like? Imagine trees growing so closely together that their tops interlace into one continuous canopy… And what of the floor of this jungle? Visibility is limited to ten yards by a tangle of tough green vine as dense as wire netting, and covered with murderous thorns… “And how do you keep a straight course?” perhaps you are asking. Well, no course in this country can be exactly straight…”
Past Trees That O’Reilly Climbed
By 9.00am, we were at Mt Throakban for our first brief rest of the day after what seemed like never-ending uphill hiking. We ate cheese and crackers and muesli bars from our pre-packed lunches, sitting on the very trees that Bernard was rumoured to have climbed up to look for the plane wreck.
“None of us had ever been to Mt Throakban, though its great green cone away to the South-East had beckoned enticingly to young explorers… Here I was on Throakban at last, waiting for the cloud to lift sufficiently to permit me a view… then suddenly I saw something which made me jump. Eight miles away by the map, on the third range, Lamington Plateau, just where it swelled up to meet the Border Range, was a treetop which was light brown… The tree must have been dying; what had caused that? … no natural fire had occurred in that dripping rain forest since the world began. But a hundred gallons of petrol…”
We went on. It was hard to imagine how Bernard would have got through in the dense virgin rainforest. We struggled enough on a footpad which had been worn by 80 years of footsteps. Amongst the lawyer vines and candle flame bushes Matt showed us the Walking Stick Palms with their luscious red berries; surprisingly, I learned they were edible. They had provided flavour, but little nourishment, for Bernard and many of the rescuers back in 1937. From then on, I happily snacked on these berries, which were reminiscent of tiny red apples (mind the core!).
Hours passed as we tackled the rainforest. Eventually, we reached our next goal: Point Lookout. Here, there is a large clearing, and we rested our weary legs. It was 11.00am, and we had been walking for 7 hours without much rest. We feasted on our prepared lunches; a huge chicken and cheese wrap, chocolate bars, fruit, and more muesli bars and crackers.
“While the Billy was coming to the boil, the last of the onions went into the fire to roast, and a couple more rounds of toast were made. The quality of the toast cannot be recommended. A fire which consists of 50-percent smoke, 49-percent blaze and one-percent red coals is not conducive to giving to toast the quality of the product which emerges from your electric toaster. There was still plenty of butter and the sugar was lasting well…”
We started our descent to the site of the crash. At the clearing which has been used 80 years prior as a camp to stabilise the survivors, we sat around solemnly as our guide, Ben, read an abstract from Bernard’s recount Green Mountains. Ben is an exuberant and incredible adventurer, and provided a lot of entertainment on the walk. But at that time all were hushed as we listened to him describe the state of the survivors when Bernard found them. It had been almost 10 days since the crash when Bernard found Josiah Binstead and John Proud propped up against the wreckage. Four men had died instantly in the crash. We left our bags at the clearing and walked down to the wreckage. All that remains is a few rusted pieces of the Stinson, and a grave for the four lost men; Rex Boyden, Beverley Shepherd, Roland Graham, and William Fountain.
“There was some talk, lots of talk; but who remembers what was said? The first sane remark I remember was Binstead’s, ‘How about boiling the Billy?'”
When Bernard talked with Binstead and Proud, he learned that a third survivor, James Westray, had set down the very steep slope toward Christmas Creek below. Bernard gave Binstead and Proud what little food he had left and went hastily in the same direction to send for help and find Westray. With able bodies, hiking poles, and good shoes, it took us almost 2 hours to get to the bottom. This was a very hard part of the walk. We tallied our falls and our butts went brown with dirt.
“My legs had to be driven, forced like things that were almost dead, but there were no complaints now; over these boulders and around these waterfalls Westray had dragged his broken body. Away up above, without shelter in the cold driving rain, were two tortured, dying men, who could still joke on the eleventh day after the crash. God forgive me if I ever complain again.”
After much struggle, Christmas Creek came into sight. We left our bags by the edge and went upstream. The vegetation down near the creek was a mix of palms – which don’t survive higher up – and ghost gums. A paradise which holds the grave of Westray, who died going over a waterfall upstream. It was hard not to think how Westray’s mission to get help sustained Proud and Binstead in those cold and wet nights. When Bernard found him, “he faced, unseeing, down towards the land of people and everyday things, the goal he had tried for: cities, England, Home.” He was 26.
It was a sombre mood as we headed back to our bags. I took off my shoes, and dangled my aching feet in the stream. I contemplated the story of the Stinson crash amongst the towering trees. The sun was starting to sink, however, so we soon set off again.
A Well-Earned Feed
The last part of the hike, where Bernard starting running frantically as dusk loomed, was 6km along Christmas Creek. We crossed the creek and went down to meet our bus. We were welcomed with a fire, baked spuds, an esky of beer, muffins, and a Billy boiling for the tea. This was the fitting end to 13 hours hiking.
We drank the tea deeply, and watched the sun cloak the trees around us in gold. As night fell, we clambered onto the bus, falling asleep quickly for the 2-hour round trip back to O’Reilly’s. Hot showers put life back into our bodies, and soon we were feasting on salmon and steak platters, curry, and fries back at the restaurant.
This walk is no doubt a bucket list item. In the words of Big Pete, “No one told Bernard to go out and look for a crashed plane… I think no one finds the walk easy, and you realise the plane came down in an isolated place and getting there without a track was a good effort on Bernard’s part”. Being able to combine hiking and history and retrace such a heroic journey in the Green Mountains was incredible. The hike is great for transitioning into harder levels of hiking, whilst retaining luxury, comfort and good food at O’Reilly’s. The Stinson Walk has become one of my all-time favourite hikes I’ve done in South-East Queensland. Doing it with a team led by charismatic and experienced guides was so special.
If 37km seems out of your fitness range, there’s also the Rescue Route, which goes up the steep final section from Christmas Creek to the wreck and back, 20km round-trip. The next Stinson Walk will be held 10-12 August. There’s a maximum group size of 20 people, so book your accommodation and the trip soon. If the dates don’t suit, get together a crew of at least 4 and contact O’Reilly’s about an alternative trip.
The Stinson Walk is a must-do hike in SEQ. I’ll remember this hike for years.
The Stinson Walk Experience is $399 including guided walk, meals and transfers. Accommodation booked separately. The author hiked for free to produce this article.
Feature image by @_thelittleadventurer