It's like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, only you're not sure which haystack to look in. Oh, and you also don't know if there's actually a needle to find in the first place.
I'm head-down, bum-up rummaging through thick bush with bushwalker-cum-filmmaker Stephen Cooke (Cookie) in southern Namadgi National Park near the old Bobeyan* Homestead, one of the few parts of the park spared in last year's firestorm.
And what are we looking for? Well, we're not exactly sure. We're on the hunt for some sort of physical evidence of a fatal dray accident that occurred on an old bush track on June 24, 1850. Yup, that's almost 171 years ago. Talk about being on a cold trail.
Cookie first became aware of the tragic accident while diving into a rabbit warren of pioneer stories for his documentary Finding the Namadgi Trail, in which he is chronicling the much-loved park's rich past.
Records about the accident are hard to find.
"All we really know is that Thomas Westerman, his wife Mary and their baby daughter Mary Ann were riding home from Queanbeyan to Bolero Station (near Adaminaby) when the dray crashed about four kilometres south-west of Bobeyan Homestead," he explains.
To help his quest to discover the location of the accident, Cookie has enlisted the help of Steve Brayshaw. An Adaminaby luminary, Steve is also the keeper of Brayshaw family history in these parts. In fact, his great-great-grandparents, Will and Flora Brayshaw, had recently moved into Bobeyan Homestead when the crash occurred.
"I've always been told the accident was on this corner," says Steve, pointing to the tight right-hand uphill bend on a long-disused track just above our search area.
Immediately after the accident, Thomas, who apparently survived relatively unscathed, brought his wife and their baby back to Bobeyan Homestead. Whether or not they were already dead or just badly injured has been lost in the mists of time.
"One thing we are sure of is the final resting place of Mary and Mary Ann," explains Cookie. "They are buried in a bush grave near the homestead."
With no luck (surprise, surprise) uncovering any hard evidence at the likely crash site, the remote graves are our next stop. We only find the final resting place of the two Marys as Steve still has the GPS co-ordinates in his phone.
"The graves used to have a picket fence around them," he puffs as we labour through shoulder-high grass to an old tree where a couple of star pickets mark the graves. Also buried here is Sarah Brayshaw, one of Will and Flora's 14 children, who died from diphtheria at the age of just 6 in 1865. It's a lonely and forlorn place, like so many bush graves.
As a cold southerly starts to bite, we can only imagine how tough life was for the first European settlers of this far-flung place, especially in times of tragedy, which this valley seems to have had more than its fair share of.
In fact, just up the road between the old homestead site and the Bobeyan Road is a small cairn of quartz stones, the site of another accident that rocked the local community. It was at this very spot that Davey Brayshaw, Steve's great-great-uncle, was found dead by his brother Richard on August 31, 1931.
"His stirrup irons were still on his feet and his horse was also found grazing nearby with saddle on and both stirrup leathers broken," reveals Steve. "An inquest concluded poor Davey had died from shock and exposure after falling from his horse while riding back from visiting his brother Richard at Bobeyan Homestead two days earlier."
Anyone who has camped out in Namadgi during winter will know how the temperature plummets once the sun drops. It must have been especially cold that year, as snowstorms slowed the transport of Davey's body to Adaminaby for burial.
"Finding his brother dead must have brought back terrible memories for Richard," reflects Steve as he crouches at the cairn, adding "many years earlier, when he was just 24 years old, Richard and Davey found their brother's body, drowned in the Murrumbidgee River near Bolero."
These days most bushwalkers who trudge along the Old Bobeyan Road unwittingly pass the quartz cairn, as well as the site of the lonely bush graves, completely unaware of the stories of sorrow that have unfolded along this section of road.
It's heartening to see the spotlight shone on Namadgi's long-lost pioneering past. I can't wait to watch the documentary.
Soon after my visit to Bobeyan, Cookie returned to the likely location of the crash with Dave Holland, an experienced metal detector operator. During a meticulous search (approved by the ACT Parks Service, which has been supportive of the documentary) of the area, the duo discovered a metal artefact resembling an axle pin.
"It's heavily corroded and has a bit sheared off," reports Cookie. "If only we could somehow prove it was from the Westermans' doomed dray, it might help confirm the location of the crash."
While Dave believes the pin "was definitely made by a blacksmith during the 1800s", whether or not it is from the dray in question is, of course, anyone's guess.
"Proving that is one step beyond us," says Cookie.
While we will likely never be sure of the origins of the pin, which as it was found in a national park must remain in situ, its discovery will no doubt add a further layer of intrigue to the narrative in Finding the Namadgi Trail.
* I have used the traditional spelling of Bobeyan, as opposed to Boboyan which appears on modern maps.
Finding the Namadgi Trail
The Documentary: Canberra filmmakerStephen Cooke is hoping to screen Finding the Namadgi Trail later this year. The documentary will feature several historical re-enactments, including of the 1850 dray tragedy.
Bobeyan Homestead: You can walk to the homestead from the locked gate along the Old Boboyan Road (South). The old road takes you past Davey Brayshaw's cairn, which is about 15 metres off the left hand side of the road and about 1.2 kilometres past the locked gate, and you can't miss the old homestead with its chimney standing sentinel about 1.1 kilometres further along. The graves of Mary Westerman and her daughter (along with Sarah Brayshaw) are a few hundred metres north of the homestead under a tree. Some bushwalking websites list the co-ordinates of these sites.
What's left: The original Bobeyan Homestead was built between 1839 and 1844, and the newer one in 1866. After years of being vandalised, it was demolished by the Parks Service in the early 1970s, a time when the conservation of non-Indigenous cultural heritage in Australia was sadly still in its infancy.
Did You Know: During the mid-1800s, Will and Flora Brayshaw raised 14 children in the Bobeyan Homestead. Richard Brayshaw was the last surviving Brayshaw on the property when it was sold to the Lutons of Shannons Flat in the 1950s. As part of the sale agreement, Richard was "to be looked after by the Lutons for the rest of his days".
According to high country historian Matthew Higgins, Richard was a prolific reader while at Bobeyan. "He read so often by the fire at night that the front legs of his chair became charred," reveals Higgins in Rugged Beyond Imagination: Stories from an Australian Mountain Region (NMA, 2009). Richard died a bachelor, aged 89, a couple of years after leaving Bobeyan. Ironically, one of the books that apparently took pride of place on his bookshelf was a volume about matrimony.
"He read about it, but didn't do it," reports Higgins.
WHERE IN CANBERRA?
Clue: A glass and a half. Bonus points if you can guess the year.
Degree of difficulty: Medium - Hard
Last week: Congratulations to Peter Lindeman of O'Connor who was first to correctly identify last week's photo as Beachcomber VH-BRC, an Ansett "Short Sandringham" Flying Boat photographed near Old Adaminaby on Lake Eucumbene in November 1972.
Peter just beat a flood of other readers including Max Rowe of Hawker, Alexander Hood of Lyneham, Gerry Corrigan of McKellar and Peter Knobel of Calwell to the prize, with many others reminiscing about the nostalgic photo.
Max Brown of Weetangera remembers being on this very plane, possibly at the time it was photographed: "On the day, the flying boat made two flights from Lake Eucumbene to Canberra and return. My mate Ockie Wallace brought his boat to the lake, where I caught a trout before Ockie, I and others took the second flight. A great day out." Gee, wish I was there.
Others, like Kay Stuart of Charnwood, recall flying from Sydney to Lord Howe Island on one of the Ansett flying boats in the 1960s. "I remember in 1968 landing on the lagoon at Lord Howe and being able to see right to the bottom as the water came halfway up the rear porthole," reports Kay, who, coincidentally, is about to return to Lord Howe for her first visit since her honeymoon. She'll be on a standard aircraft as the flying boats were retired from the route following the opening of the island's runway in 1974.
Many readers, including Peter Knobel of Calwell, were also quick to point out that the Beachcomber is now sitting in Solent Sky, an aviation museum in Southampton, England. David Foote reports he even got a chance to "look inside her a few years ago" and reports "the lovely flying boat is preserved in its Ansett colours".
David also reports that "apparently after Ansett, the Beachcomber was sold in the Caribbean to the husband of actress Maureen O'Hara. The aircraft had a bar and a special drink-holder for Martini's when Maureen sat next to her husband when flying".
For the record, the Beachcomber is one of only three Short Sandringhams that haven't ended up in an aviation graveyard. According to aviation buff Royce Wilson, "the only airworthy one is at the Fantasy of Flight Museum in Florida, and there is another currently under restoration in France".
The photo was sourced from Geoffrey Goodall's website, goodall.com.au, a fantastic repository of information on Australia's aviation history.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and suburb to email@example.com. The first email sent after 10am on Saturday May 15, 2021, wins a double pass to Dendy, the Home of Quality Cinema.