Surviving the Kimberley

By Michael Atkinson August 27, 2018
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To experience the predicament that almost killed two stranded German aviators in 1932, a modern-day adventurer sets off solo into the Kimberley with only minimal supplies.

“A CROC’S GONNA rip you straight off that raft, mate!” These were the not-so-encouraging words of a local in Wyndham, 2200km north-east of Perth, who farewelled me as I prepared my vessel for departure into the remote Kimberley.

It was nerve-racking setting off on this four-week solo expedition into the West Australian wilderness, to place myself in the same situation as two German aviators – Hans Bertram and Adolf Klausmann – who had been stranded in the Kimberley in 1932. I wanted to see if I could survive my way out of their historic predicament, with only the materials that had been available to them 85 years earlier.

After running out of fuel on their flight from Europe to Australia, these pioneering aviators made a raft using one of their seaplane floats and attempted to sail back to civilisation. After five weeks of hell – lost, with little food and water – they’d given up, but were rescued, on the brink of death, by local Balanggarra people.

I wondered if they might have had more success if they’d used two floats, instead of one, and roped them together to make a catamaran. To test this idea, I welded up mock seaplane floats out of 44-gallon (200L) drums, with bush logs lashed across the top, and attached an outboard engine so I could motor around to the remote bay where the seaplane had been stranded, near Cape Bernier.

I didn’t want to diminish what Bertram and Klausmann had achieved in 1932. They did an excellent job with their knowledge at the time. But I had a distinct advantage as a former military survival instructor with NORFORCE, an Australian Army Reserve unit mostly made up of Aboriginal people that patrols the Top End. I’d also been a military pilot with extensive survival training and tested my skills on many private expeditions.

So, on 7 June 2017, after 11 days of full-time raft construction, I set off from Wyndham for the ocean via the turbulent, croc-filled Cambridge Gulf. It took me eight days to motor the raft just 200km north-west to my journey’s starting point. It wasn’t easy. Strong trade winds created large waves that threatened to smash me up against exposed cliffs, and my shiny new engine began to quit and splutter.

I camped ashore each night amid the spectacular Kimberley surrounds to troubleshoot the problems. A complete strip and reassembly of various parts – mostly at night on beaches with plenty of hungry crocs lurking – eventually saw an improvement in my engine’s performance. After eight days, I finally motored into Seaplane Bay, named after the aviators. I can’t think of a more remote stretch of coastline anywhere in Australia.

From here on, I began to survive solely on bush tucker, with only the materials available to the aviators. I knew precisely what items they’d had because Bertram wrote a book in 1936 about the ordeal called Flight Into Hell.

This extract is from the story Surviving the Kimberley from Issue 145 of Australian Geographic.