By Graeme Wheeler
The start of the May 1964 school vacation was a busy time for Margaret Howard and June Weston. While June’s car, a little Volkswagen was being thoroughly checked the two young women packed their travelling clothes, and by the end of the first week they were ready to leave. They had planned a car tour, a three-legged route that would take them through Gippsland, north across the Dividing Range to the plains of Wangaratta, then homeward to Melbourne along the Hume Highway, not a long journey but one that would encompass much interesting country.
Saturday, May 23 dawned fine, and with a small carton of refreshments, farewells said, they left the suburbs on the first stage of their trip. Both were teachers in their early twenties; they relaxed as they spun along, glad to be on the move at last, confident that their methodical checking had left nothing to chance. The Highway took them through the lush dairy lands of Drouin and Warragul, a sealed ribbon that traversed the foothills of the Strzelecki Ranges that paralleled it a few kilometres to the south.
Light of heart they skimmed along passing the smoky towers of Yallourn’s power stations and through the sickly cloud of Maryvale’s paper mills, emerging from the industrial pollution to the clean, fresh air of Rosedale.
Foster writer Graeme Wheeler has won second prize in the 2021 Bass Coast Prize for Non-Fiction with The Snow Girls, an account of the search for two young women missing in the Gippsland high country in the 1960s.
Graeme first wrote the story soon after the events described and was prompted to revisit it when he learned of the Bass Coast Prize. Now aged 93, he said he spent many happy hours revising the story and recalling the events. "At my age, there isn't much future, so your attention turns to the past."
The slow start next morning was quite in keeping with the casual nature of their trip, and ten o’clock had gone before they drove back through the town to the Lindenow and Dargo turnoff. Still sealed, the road wandered across the floodplains of the Mitchell River, at that time unbelievably green. Contented cattle grazed and farm after farm showed prosperity in neat, well-set-up homesteads and outbuildings. Flocks of ibis and heron foraged in dotted groups. The road swung north, the bitumen surface ending near Cobbannah. Travelling through forest and over hilly ridges to the valley of the Castleburn, they glimpsed the beautiful stretch of the Wonnangatta at Waterford, and soon after, the clearing in which nestled the hamlet of Dargo. High mountains surrounded the tranquil basin.
Relations of Margaret’s family ran the Bridge Hotel and there was a happy reunion when the girls arrived. Margaret had been to Dargo only a few months earlier, at Christmas, and the journey had whetted her appetite for travel. On that later trip in May, she hoped to continue across the high country to the spectacular Alpine Road connecting Mount Hotham to Harrietville.
Though it was Sunday afternoon there was a sprinkling of folk about the hotel, and while mingling among them the two enquired about the road ahead. They were told it was open, that cars had been coming and going through. A Forest Officer, attentive to the girls’ questions grinned as he observed; ‘There’s nothing to worry about on the road to Hotham: what do you think it is, a Redex trial?’
They phoned their families. The valley was so beautiful, the groves of walnut trees and poplars, verdant paddocks and gentle-eyed cows so enchanting, Margaret felt she had to photograph them. In the evening, a gathering around the log fire in the hotel lounge had swelled. Yarns of the high country were spun, and delighted at the way their expectations were being realised the women did not hurry to bed but eked out every bit of the experience until they could no longer keep their eyes open.
Morning came and they listened to its sounds; currawongs, kookaburras, ravens. It was so cold nobody stirred. Cows bellowed on the road, and gradually, about ten, the townsfolk came to life. Once up and moving, however, the travellers wasted little time in breakfasting, and just before noon said goodbye to their friends.
As they had seen from the hill when they arrived, Dargo lay along a secluded valley. They drove through it and continued north beside walnuts and poplars, autumn stark and yellow with moss. The little sedan growled past ruined cottages; there was a steep hill, a drop to the river again then a redoubled burst upwards as the corrugated track strove for the ridge top. Brief glimpses of the wild surroundings opened through the trees, views of the wonderful valley of the Dargo six hundred metres below. Improvements to the road were in progress with realignment and elimination of many hazardous spots, so speed was kept down.
Having nothing to guide them more detailed than an out-dated road map, the women covered another dozen kilometres without any visual cue as to their whereabouts. Stands of black sallees and candlebarks alternated with small openings, and after an hour and a half’s driving they reached the plains proper, a narrow finger of a plateau that broke in tumbling, scrubby spurs to the maze of creeks on its east and west. Approaching the first of the larger clearings, they reached their first fences and cattle grids, unaware then that they were part of a property managed by a pioneer family called Treasure.
The larger open plains to which they were climbing were indeed high, with an elevation of between 1400 and 1500 metres. Their particular shapes, not easy to see at ground level but clear on a survey map were of long straggly ridges, flattened on their tops and lying on an almost north-south line. Rising from Dargo to the alpine regions on the Great Divide, they were places of extreme beauty; in summer they were covered with carpets of puffballs, daisies, gentians, mosses and herbfields, while in winter, snow changed the entire scene, burying the grassed plains, decorating the trees with rime and pendant icicles.
Though temperatures in the high country could be hot, they were always lower than those of the plains. In winter, ascent of the Dargo road took the traveller into a sub-zero region that denied access to all but those on foot, making the vast area a pristine wilderness.
Across the range to the north of Hotham other plains opened up, higher, more extensive, more exciting. Taking in a magnificent triple prong of highlands, they curved from Bogong to Fainter and Feathertop, a mountain realm above the snowgums that offered stirring vistas and grand opportunities for adventure in any season.
When the Forest Officer in Dargo laughingly compared the road across the plains to a Redex trial, he could have had in mind its condition a few months earlier, for its surface then was little different from the natural terrain. Lines of outcropping rock protruded out of the track and a driver had no choice but to bump slowly across them, and on the snow plains the trail became quite devious in avoiding bogs through which the alpine streams meandered. It was not always easy to locate the correct route, some short cuts and sidetracks petering out in morasses. Travellers at that time carried axes and shovels.
But that was another era. The Volkswagen fairly flew over a newly graded surface, climbing to yet broader clearings, slipping like a wild thing between mottled shadows of the timber. After Treasure’s Plain was traversed, June and Margaret passed through a grove of snow gums before breaking out on to Gow’s Plain, the most expansive in the system. Three kilometres further it narrowed to Lankey’s Plain where snow lay thinly about. Delighted to see it, they congratulated themselves on their luck at finding the country so beautiful. Slowing to negotiate a cattle grid they glanced to the west, across a valley to a long spur and a mountain called Blue Rag, its highest point.
From there the broad plains dwindled, closing off in a narrow, contorted ridge along whose top the track turned and twisted. Subtly, the surface began to deteriorate, becoming wet and slippery with yellow slush spraying from the wheels as they bored on. The road climbed even higher, the car taking the rises comfortably until, not long after the last plain, they lost traction on a slope and skidded to a stop. Using bracken from the roadside and a tarpaulin they carried, the girls made slow progress uphill. June decided to back off and try it in second gear; it worked and she drove to the crest where she waited while Margaret walked up. Before starting again, a truck approached from the north, from Hotham, the two cars meeting abreast on the road. June asked whether they would get through without chains; was informed the track had some snow but was not too bad. As the vehicles parted, the women thought they should have sent a message back to Dargo, but they anticipated no more trouble. By then the other car was gone; the moment was lost.
Passing over a high saddle the road descended into a vast depression, still winding as it sidled the Blue Rag’s northern spurs. The bottom of the hill was four kilometres down and after reaching it they began another steady climb towards the pass at St Bernard, which was, as far as they could estimate, perhaps half a dozen kilometres away. There, they would join the Alpine Road and be in Bright by nightfall.
The higher altitude brought thicker snow patches where the road went through sheltered gullies. It was into one such small drift that the car came to another stop; the afternoon was well advanced and sunshine had reduced the track to slush. There was little discussion when they decided to return to Dargo. Although the main road should have been close, the women were wary of getting really bogged.
Turning the car around, they retraced their own tracks downhill then up to the Blue Rag, but though it was easy enough coming down, they could not climb out. The Beetle just slipped into slush. They laid more ferns and grass but just skidded without moving. Reversing their direction once more they slithered the three kilometres down to the drift in the cutting and gave up when the wheels spun again. They had gone no further than their first attempt; more vegetation was pushed beneath the wheels, but although the tread on their tyres was good, they were unable to move forward or back. The road at that at that point, known as the Marathon Cutting, was benched out of a hill and was quite narrow. With a bank above on one side and a steep drop on the other, the vehicle was effectively immobilised.
Being 4.30 and approaching dark, Margaret and June were prepared to spend that Monday night in the car with little apprehension, excited rather by the unexpected prospect of an adventure that at the time had no sobering overtones. They reasoned that the road surface would either freeze or melt during the night, enabling them to drive away in the morning. Ahead and behind had light snow cover; they were stuck in a thicker patch. After a bite from the refreshment box, they curled up in the car and slept.
Tuesday dawned and they were shocked at the change in the scenery. The situation was completely different. More snow had fallen during the night. Instead of the surface hardening, the entire landscape was plastered in white. They immediately saw the car would not be moving that day.
Surveying the wintry scene, their predicament became clear. Though their families knew their itinerary, they would not be missed for another week at the earliest. The Dargo folk would know nothing of their movements, since snow on the road would stop all through traffic. They were stranded!
The first necessity was to take stock of the situation, and they optimistically began an inventory of the car’s contents. There was more food than they thought – all nibbles and snacks – but when put together perhaps just enough to support them for the seven days they knew it would take before they could expect relief. There was half an Aberdeen sausage, four small tins of baked beans, some raw macaroni, cold toast from their breakfast in the Bairnsdale motel. They had tea, coffee, biscuits, butter, and soup in a thermos from the Dargo pub which they believed had broken in its jacket. Too valuable to throw away, the contents were filtered through a handkerchief to remove glass slivers. To their annoyance when the last of the liquid had been processed, they found the thermos intact. Like many others, they had been deceived by the tinkling of glass hidden in the flask.
Working out a rationing system, they counted off each day as one nearer to their being found, a fillip to their morale that occasionally fell into thinking things were getting worse.
They guessed they were between six and eight kilometres from the Hotham road but neither was prepared to take a chance and try to walk it, believing that if they became cold they could be in real trouble, and if they became wet as well, they could freeze. Their clothes, also on the inventory, were warm enough for such an attempt but footwear was quite inadequate. They wisely decided not to leave the car under any circumstances.
Now and again the growling of the snowplough on Hotham carried to them. They paused and listened. Through the still air they heard it again, calling, but single-mindedly resisted its luring promise of warmth and safety. Having the security of their car, the distant sound was an aural mirage and they rejected it.
The list of items was finalised on Tuesday and the car’s interior was cleaned up. Spreading the tarp on the snow, they kept it as a dry area and movements were restricted to it.
That first day of real isolation passed quickly. Both knew from the previous evening that it took an hour and a half to deal with the meal and prepare the car and themselves for the night. The suitcases were arranged so that June could lie full length along the driver’s side, while Margaret curled up in the front passenger’s seat. The lack of blankets was offset somewhat by their warm clothes and they even changed into nightwear for more comfort. Only once during the following days was the car heater used for warmth as they chose to save fuel in case the snow cleared enough for them to make their escape.
They counted on spending six days there, so once more settled down in a night of pitch dark, sleeping sporadically until midnight when they talked, and switched on the headlights. Large snowflakes were drifting down, reflecting glare, dazzling them. They slept again, but next time they woke the snow had stopped and the blackness was pinpricked with glinting stars.
There was no wind on Wednesday; the loaded snow gums hung heavily beside the road that had become a long, sloping white shelf. Sunshine lit ranges to the south, for the first time stirring deep feelings of wonder in the two friends. An aircraft flew over accentuating their feelings of isolation for they knew someone was there but could not be reached.
Repeating the routine they had developed, exercise on the canvas sheet kept both of them active while they generated inner warmth. Trying their utmost to keep dry, they resorted to the bushwalker’s trick of bagging their feet in plastic, and they enfolded them carefully when short sorties had to be made up the bank. It was so easy to get wet, so hard to dry off.
Kindling carried for a roadside picnic came in handy when Margaret lit a fire. On it she melted snow, boiling the water for a hot drink. Most other times their drinks were cold; wood was too wet to burn.
Between further flurries of snow, bursts of bright sunshine bathed the car and the girls ventured out of their tiny prison for fresh air. Temperature differences caused condensation on the inner surfaces of the machine and a problem of general wetness. From the windscreen it dripped over the occupants if not mopped away, and it was not long before the registration label peeled off completely. It was carefully dried and used as a book mark.
Margaret and June kept diaries, recording their feelings and events in detail. Though not spoken of until later, each decided to record the full story if they did not survive. Each also worried privately; ’What on earth will I do if anything happens to her?’
The food rationing worked; baked beans, nine at a time were laid out on a knife. ‘Do have another,’ they kidded, but when the jokes were over and thoughts of home surfaced, tears welled up and they cried.
Days ran into nights; time itself became blurred.
Thursday, it seemed, would never come, but when it did, they rose after 10, exercised, melted snow, rearranged space once more and checked the minute stock of food. Margaret cleansed her skin with face-cream, while for fun June set her hair. Another fire was attempted but wouldn’t catch. Inside the car the temperature was good, a comfortable retreat when it became too cold to be outside.
A large SOS was kicked in the snow bank in the hope that a passing aircraft would see it, but thick fog came in, not clearing until after noon. Carolling melodiously, currawongs visited them, flying up from deep gullies, but ravens, in the slate skies gargled their mournful notes or hung, black-etched on outspread pinions over the car. They brought a melancholy mood. Activity among the gums on the bank caught Margaret’s attention and she bagged her feet to scramble up and investigate. Finding nothing but another clan of ravens she faced them as they raucously abused her before flying away. June released some of the tension caused by the birds by walloping snow that had built thicker on the car roof with a golf club, spraying it in showers. It brought a laugh.
Though they both listened carefully to the radio, there was no news; just frustration. Nobody had missed them and that stirred pangs of desperation. June returned to reading her book; Margaret pulled out a jumper she had knitted for her father and began it again.
From where they were stranded the scene was breathtaking, but as the days dragged by, it moved them more to apprehension than joy, for with each pale dawn they saw the snow grow thicker on the trees and extend further over the hills and down the slopes. Their eyes turned frequently to the flat-topped mountain on the eastern skyline, its long, level ridge often stark and clear, at other times set with a mantle of clouds that spilled down its sides like a grey cloth. Their map told it was Mount Freezeout. The bank beside them blocked any view to the west but when they were exercising, the two of them often glanced back to the south, silently hoping to see a vehicle. There, the faint but unmistakable scar of the road sidling the Blue Rag cut across the spurs and their eyes turned to it time and again.
There was little difference in the way Friday came and went, and Saturday, except that it was the day their folks at home would be expecting them. The newscast came through on the radio, tantalising when static distorted the reception. What they did hear made no mention of them. June got cold and shivered frequently. She massaged her feet with chilblain ointment, and when they were warm wrapped her legs in a cardigan. The supplies were running out; there was no sugar, little coffee, few baked beans. It was the same cold, monotonous diet washed down with melted snow. They both succumbed to feelings of depression and cried, sharing a cigarette when the mood eased. All that afternoon the snow fell, not ceasing until dark. They listened for news but again there was no reception.
Tuning in on Sunday at noon, they found that interference wiped out those broadcasts too.
In addition to being constantly imprisoned in the car, the growing stress under which June and Margaret passed those days brought on many headaches, and their diaries recorded frequent use of painkillers. Food was really in short supply but they still managed to joke when the meal were completed within two minutes.
‘Hope we don’t suffer from indigestion,’ June wrote.
All day it snowed and it was getting harder to keep up spirits. That night the car iced up both inside and out and everything seemed frozen stiff. Even the doors became sealed fast; the weather deteriorated even more.
Very real fears took hold on Monday. Were they not due back at school? How could their absence be overlooked any longer? It was winter, the 1st of June.
‘Something’s got to happen soon,’ they said, trying to bolster each other’s fading hopes. Wednesday would have to be a deadline. The day dragged on interminably. They resorted to prayer and meditated quietly.
Then it happened! All the pent-up hopes were released as the newsreader described their disappearance, and with the strangest feeling, they heard their names: ‘Margaret Howard and June Weston were last seen at Dargo last Saturday week,’ he said, ‘and fears are held that they may have driven off a mountain road in bad weather.’
Excited, tearful, they cried out; ‘Come and look for us, we’re here!’
The weird sensation of being presumed dead returned and before they went to bed, their prayers were more urgent than ever. They had reached the most trying time of the ordeal and knew how frantic their families must be.
Disturbed, fitful, they lay and waited.
John Howard and I were students together at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology during 1964. For the May vacation we had gone our separate ways, returning to study on 31 May.
Though we were working towards the same Diploma, John didn’t put in an appearance at the ‘Tech’ but at noon rang me and lost no time in unburdening himself. His sister Margaret and her friend June were missing. They’d left home more than a week earlier for a car trip through Gippsland, had rung from Dargo ten days ago and hadn’t been heard from since. They were teachers due back at school that day, but had been expected home the day before, and with no sign of them on the weekend, everyone was quite concerned. Both women were conscientious and the idea of them deliberately arriving late was unthinkable.
John went on to tell how he had spent that morning talking to Police, and his annoyance showed when he recounted the long, repetitive statements necessary to convince them he was serious. The girls were missing; that was true, but nobody wanted to act. He asked my help. ‘What do I do? Where can I look?’
Sketchily he retold me the facts, and being on walking terms with the Dargo High Plains, I suggested we could begin by searching the road across them. He followed my idea and decided that if there was no fresh news we’d leave the city that afternoon, drive up the Hotham road to Mount St Bernard and turn down the Dargo road at its intersection. Hastily throwing in food, sleeping bags and cold weather gear, we met about four and in his car turned towards the Hume Highway. We hadn’t gone more than a kilometre when I called to him to stop. In my haste I had overlooked the fact that any snow on Hotham would make the upper reaches of the Dargo road impassable; it would be better to go to Dargo and work our way uphill until we ran into snow. We may be able to search on foot then, but deciding the next move could wait. John accepted the sudden change of plan, spun the wheel and we sped east instead of north.
During the afternoon he had contacted the Police again with the same response. His inquiry had not been followed up and though Police were responsible for missing persons he determined to tackle the problem himself immediately; ask questions, get some answers. Reporters at Police Headquarters however, ran with a brief story, and though we did not see it until later, the evening paper carried the news. The radio also told of the missing teachers.
We stopped at Warragul and Sale to ask Police the latest developments but they knew nothing.
The run through Gippsland was quite familiar to me as I’d had little rural schools here and there all the way to Bairnsdale. Many a bend in the road or bridge or town reminded me of incidents during dozens of trips back and forth, and my reminiscing eased some of our tension. Once, when following on my motorbike, I observed a mad outburst of road rage from the driver of a timber jinker whose frustration at not being able to overtake a tiny Renault ended with his bashing the sedan with a hammer. Another time, beside the Darnum embankment, I stared when couplings of the Melbourne train separated, the red-blinkered R Class steamer hauling away the front carriages while the rear ones glided sedately to a stop.
Watching the reconnection provided an entertaining half hour, even as much as the time I breasted a rise in my new Anglia and ran into a flock of chickens on the road. Feathers were still drifting down when gangers from the rail line raced towards me, retrieving any bird not too badly pulverised.
‘Perhaps I should see the farmer,’ I spluttered.
‘Don’t bother, we know him, we’ll explain,’ they said.
So I drove on, watching in my rear mirror as the navvies stuffed birds into their overalls before disappearing back where they came from.
There was a fellow known as ‘the hermit’ who lived under a bridge in the foothills near Yarragon. Whenever I sped over it, the logs clanged and rattled like a xylophone. The mirror again showed the scene behind; an unkempt figure with raised fist engulfed in my dust.
Well into the night John and I travelled, arriving at the neat village of Briagolong. At last there was some positive news; the local Police had been informed that the relatively new Search and Rescue Section was on the way and would put up in the Briagolong Hotel. We checked in there about ten, explained our mission to the publican who suggested we doss down by the fire in the lounge. In no time we were asleep.
If any man knew the Dargo region it was Jack Treasure. Second youngest in a family of four, he was born in the old homestead on the High Plains in 1913, the third generation of Treasures to work cattle and horses there. Only twenty years after the pioneers had opened the country, his grandfather took a lease in 1878, he and his wife trading as a sideline with miners on their way to the gold diggings at Grant and Crooked River.
Eleven children were raised over the years, one of the sons, Harry, taking over the father’s lease, extending it to cover most of the high country. Following Jack’s birth the family moved to Castleburn, twenty-eight kilometres south of Dargo, working it during the winter, driving their Herefords back to the mountains for summer grazing. With his two brothers and his sister, Jack assumed control of the property upon the death of his father in 1961, maintaining Rockalpine, the mountain homestead complex and Castleburn, both places testimonial to good husbandry and sympathetic management of the environment.
Awareness of Jack’s surroundings prompted many lines of verse from the cattleman’s pen, simply written statements from the heart telling of his love of the land.
Often, his particular knowledge and bushcraft had been called on to seek and find shooters, fishermen and inexperienced walkers who became lost in his territory. He figured in many such incidents, most of which went unreported, and as a guide accompanied Cleve Cole on the first leg of his disastrous snow trip in 1936. One of Jack’s boots was burned by a log that rolled out of the fireplace while he slept with Cole in a hut on the Dargo High Plains. Meeting Mick Hull and Howard Michell at St Bernard, the foursome reached Hotham, but with inadequate footwear, Jack had to withdraw from the venture.
The others walked on across the mountains to Bogong; a blizzard disoriented them on the summit and for five days they blindly sought the right route down. Tragically, Cole succumbed. It is conceivable that the burning of a boot, a mundane but fateful event, cost him his life for had Jack gone with them in his role as guide, he would have got everyone off the mountain much earlier, a fact the mountain-bred cattleman declares and which one may readily believe.
Around noon on the Monday the girls were due at work, the Weston family phoned the Dargo hotel with the news that June and Margaret were not home, and asked if the hotel had any information. Perc. Lee, the publican rang off, unable to help, but contacted his friend, Jack Treasure, seeking his opinion. Treasure had no idea what may have happened but decided to search the road as far as St Bernard, as John and I had planned. It was suggested that the girls may have skidded off the road, so preparing his Plymouth, Jack tossed in a jemmy, then picked up Lee who joined him.
Leaving Dargo at 2p.m., Jack and Perc. systematically searched the road as far as Rockalpine, checking all the station buildings. Satisfied nobody had been there, they pushed on across Lankeys Plain where snow lay thicker, and then up to the pass beside the Blue Rag. They were about sixty kilometres from Dargo. With deep snow around, Jack left the car at that point, not keen on driving down what could be a one-way slope. He and Lee walked along the snow deciphering faint car tracks. Further down, Treasure’s quick eye noted skidmarks and remnants of grass tufts left by a vehicle attempting to remount the crest of the rise.
‘They tried to come back,’ he mused. ‘They never reached St Bernard.’
The full import of the skids hit him. ‘My God, they are still out there!’
The realisation that the girls could be half a dozen kilometres from them excited both men, but without the proper vehicle they could achieve nothing. Jack hurried the Plymouth back to Dargo.
Locating Greg Phelan and Graeme Websdale, a friend with a Scout four-wheel-drive, the cattleman turned again in the dark to the High Plains. As he left Dargo, he was not aware John and I were even then bedding down in the Briagolong Hotel, ninety kilometres to the south, nor did he know of belated Police plans to search the area. Without stopping, Graeme tore past Rockalpine, hurried across the cleared land, circling the heads of Frosty Creek before reaching the Blue Rag divide. With four wheels engaged, the truck churned down through the snow. Tension had grown in the confined cab as the travellers waited to see what each bend revealed.
‘The Marathon Cutting is the likeliest place,’ murmured Jack. ‘If they’re not there, they could be over the side.’
The low night temperatures had firmed the surface. ‘The next bend,’ said Jack.
Websdale, driving, pushed the Scout into the curve. The men could not take their eyes from the slope that glared in the truck’s lights. It straightened and a pale shape materialised. It was the Volkswagen.
‘Stop, something’s wrong!’ shouted Jack in an instinctive response to strange movements at the car’s windows, flapping, that was soon perceived to be arms thrust out, one each side waving wildly.
Websdale engaged gear again and closed the gap between the vehicles.
On the hotel floor, John and I slept sporadically until about midnight, when a heavy van pulled up out the front, waking us. Hammering on the door shattered sleep completely; lights went on and the publican opened to six men. Crowding around the almost dead fire, they resurrected it with more wood and warmed themselves. They were from the newly formed police Search and Rescue Squad, a detective and a Forest Officer. As we listened, it became obvious the exercise was regarded as a bit of a romp.
‘Girls lost up here? You’ve got to be joking,’ they laughed.
‘Then why have you come?’ I asked.
‘We have to follow up every report,’ was the answer. ‘Our truck is new and this will be a good chance to try it out.’
The squad leader, who impressed us as a reasonable chap, listened in silence to the talk and banter then suggested all go to bed, but with customary inevitability, the bar was opened and the new arrivals settled into drinking.
Sometime later the Forest Officer sidled up. ‘I suppose you blokes understand this is a total waste of time and money. Your sister and her friend will be camping, snatching an extra day or so off work. I see a lot of this sort of thing in my job. That’s where they will be; picnicking down at Lakes or somewhere.’
In our bags on the floor we inwardly seethed, waiting for the tormented hours to pass when we could get to sleep again. Mercifully, about 2.30 the men of the squad ran out of babble; the bar was closed and the Briagolong Hotel fell silent.
It seemed we’d only been asleep a moment when the telephone jangled in the corridor.
The squad leader answered, said ‘yes,’ listened, replied ‘right, we’ll be there in the morning,’ and hung up.
With a self-consciousness that telegraphed the message before it was uttered, he announced to all and sundry: ‘That was Dargo. A cattleman called Treasure found the two girls tonight and has just brought them in. They’ve been stuck in their car in the snow for a week.’
It was 3.00 am.
With the excitement induced by the radio news, all chances of sleep faded as Margaret and June waited for the longest night to pass. They had experienced loss of memory, not able to recall whether they had just done things an hour before, yesterday or today.
Time was out of joint, and when June looked out the back of the car and saw a trio of moons she thought: ‘I won’t say anything to Margaret. She’ll be upset if she thinks I’m going off my head.’ But she looked again. In the dark, two moons blazed out. Together, the girls realised they were car lights. In panic they grabbed for the door handles, but the doors had frozen up and wouldn’t open.
Margaret screamed: ‘Wind down the windows; wave; they’ll go past!’
They kept flailing frantically, saw the lights stop a short distance back, blinding them. They slowly came closer. Trapped, the women searched the glare for figures. They heard the scrunch of boots but could see nothing.
Then a shadow formed in the light, a shape that firmed into the frame of a large man that filled the window space. Big shoulders, big hat, a glowing cigarette. His face could not be seen but by the movement of his head they knew he was studying them. Then he spoke and his voice was gentle. The tension of the moment dissolved when he asked, quite matter-of-factly, ‘And what the hell do you young ladies think you are doing out here?’
They wanted to hug and kiss their rescuers, to jump with joy, but the cattleman kept them still until he was certain they were all right. He gave them warm drinks from a thermos, and cigarettes, and his two companions helped move them from their car to the utility.
Behind the wheel, Websdale started up the snow towards St Bernard. The closest hospital was at Bright and Jack determined to take the girls there but the drifts were too deep; they had to turn back. In its own wheel tracks the vehicle floundered south, climbing back to the High Plains. Margaret asked about the figures huddling behind them on the open tray, but Graeme just grinned. ‘They’ll survive,’ he said.
We didn’t bother with breakfast. Eager to see his sister, John sent the Valiant up the decrepit Freestone Creek road as fast as he could, reaching Dargo about nine.
Awakened, Margaret and June ran along the veranda, holding him in a tight embrace. Tears flowed, but the ordeal was over, there was nothing but relief.
When that initial surge of emotion was spent, the girls briefly recounted how Jack Treasure had appeared out of the night, had brought them down and sheltered them from reporters, who, hot on the scent, had reached Dargo before us or the Police.
The Search and Rescue Squad came in while we were talking. They looked awkward. ‘We’ll go and tow the car out,’ they said.
Avoiding my eyes the Forest Officer shuffled past. I called to him. ‘Tell me more about that picnic at Lakes Entrance.’ He glared back but anger got the better of me. ‘You know what; that cattleman was out searching all yesterday and last night while you mob were yabbering. There’s more man in him than all you lot rolled together. Think about it!’
The plight of the girls, the pros and cons of their actions talked out, John and I clambered into the back of the Police van and were driven up the long hill, rumbling through the timber until the first of the clearings was reached. The Forest Officer caught up in his Land Rover as we crossed One Pole Plain. Patches of fog hung here and there softening the colours of the moss-covered gums.
I told John of a trip I had done years earlier when the road was so bad it took us four hours to do the twenty-four kilometres between St Bernard and Treasure’s Rockalpine.
The van ploughed on in Websdale’s tracks until we reached the Volkswagen. As we drew to a stop, John surprised me when he produced a camera, a Rolleiflex, from beneath his parka. He explained that a fellow at Dargo had shoved it into his hand and asked him to take some pictures. ‘It’s new to me,’ John added. ‘Do you know how to use it?’
While the team shovelled snow away and pushed the VW around, I filmed the performance, having to guess the exposure. It was the only camera there.
With no hope of being driven, the Beetle had to be towed many kilometres out of the snow, and it was just on dusk when we dropped to the lights of Dargo. June and Margaret were gone, taken home by other respective brothers.
Our work finished, John and I were on the point of leaving in the VW and the Valiant when a stranger came out of the dark, and seeing the Rollei around my neck exclaimed; ‘Aha! So you’re Damien Parer! Did you get any shots?’
‘I ran off the roll,’ I replied as I passed the camera to him. He took it, rushed away, flung ‘thanks’ over his shoulder and was driving flat out down the road before I could ask any questions.
It had been a shattering night and a wearing day, and we relaxed on the homeward run, the crisis behind us.
And S.J. Treasure? Of course he became friend of the families. They never forgot his response in an emergency; how he moved with decision; how he did something when swift action was needed.
When I look at the photographs I made of that lonely road – the Sun gave me copies – I’m stirred again to admire those two women who handled themselves so well during that ordeal in the high country.
I think, too, of the mountain cattleman. His kind will soon be history; I feel we will all be the poorer for their passing.