Lost in the Long White Cloud

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.

Patches of prickly  “bush lawyer” – so named for its tendency to grip you until it drew blood – only added to the struggle. Some of the other search groups, Tonkin learned through his radio, had managed to cover only 100 meters in an hour. Even if they saw what they thought they were looking for, it was possible they wouldn’t recognise it. It was the cruel paradox of this search: they were too busy concentrating on scrambling to really focus on what the bush might be hiding.

It was also 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 one was 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 aviation lore 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 history. 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? (read more)

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