Saturday, July 13, 2013

Lost in the long white cloud

The plane was a Ryan B-1 Brougham.

It’s an 85-year-old mystery that would rewrite aviation history. Charles Anderson goes deep into South Island bush to chart the fateful journey of the Aotearoa and the obsessive search for a plane lost for almost a century.
For an extended interactive multimedia version of this story, including a short documentary, visit 

 2013 -Awaroa: The land slipped and crumbled beneath his feet. It had been several hours since Gerry Tonkin began the search and while the topography around him had shifted wildly - rolling from shallow gravel gullies, to sharp gorse ridges - the scene in front of him had not. Dust and dried leaves and blackberry bush layered the floor, and thick woody vines of supplejack wrapped and sprawled their way through regenerating forest. "Spider web gullies," they were called. 

"We told ourselves we are going to find this thing," Tonkin said, grabbing the exposed roots of a beech tree to haul himself upright. There weren't any easy paths. Holding a small rusted scythe he cut away at the branches that fell constantly into his face.

It was hard to know what their target might look like after all these years. It was meant to be thin metal tubing crisscrossing its way down to a tapered end. They were told it might look like a windmill fallen on its side.

All searches were different, but this was one of the few times that the volunteers weren't racing to find someone alive.

Deep in the thick green labyrinth, a few kilometres from the Awaroa Inlet, they were searching for a piece of New Zealand history lost for 85 years. It represented the forgotten heroism of an age - where an individual could aspire to great feats at great peril. A find would rewrite a little-known piece of New Zealand aviation lore. It would give two young men credit for conquering the unconquered. And it would bring closure to two families who have long lived without an answer to the question: what happened to George Hood and John Moncrieff?

Tonkin and his colleague Bevan Bruce cantered down the hillside. Light broke through the canopy and illuminated the thin streams of dust that puffed up behind the men.

In a gully, surrounded by the monotonous buzzing of wasps, Bruce pulled out a map and compass.

"Even SAR [search and rescue] teams get lost," he joked.

They had been scrambling for hours with little progress. But to be a search and rescue volunteer you had to be an optimist. Sherp Tucker, the longtime and unofficial leader of the group, had a saying: if you don't think you are going to find anything, go home. To him the glass was always half full. It was always a quarter full. It was always an eighth full.

"You have to believe that," he said before the search began. "It helps you believe in yourself." 

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