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Hunt for the Harvard Mk II

Updated: Feb 25, 2019

What makes an adventure a success? Balancing on the edge of a rock in the middle of no man's land, surrounded by breathtaking 360-degree views made up of the Tasman Sea, rugged farmland and the Kaikoura Ranges? It was a question we were now pondering.

Our mission had been to find a North American Harvard Mk II aircraft that crashed in the 1940s and was last spotted in the '80s, but so far it had remained elusive. Did this make our mission a failure? The more I thought about it, the more I realised that that's the beauty of an adventure; it's the unknown, the challenges and experiences you hope to discover, but until you're in the situation, you have no idea what they're going to be.

When Scott mentioned a few weeks earlier while standing on the top of Mt Tapuae-o-Uenuku, that somewhere way down to our left was an aircraft that had crashed some 75 years earlier, I was more than a little intrigued. After doing some research, I discovered that during WWII Bluff Station, located inland from Kekerengu on the Kaikoura Coast, had been used as a training ground for pilots before they headed off to war. On March 22 1942, two aircrafts took off from the Blenheim Airport and headed south to Bluff Station. NZ989 was tail chasing NZ977 when they entered the Dee valley where they were unable to out-climb the rising terrain that quickly surrounded them. NZ989 stalled and crash-landed on an open slope while attempting a steep turn to exit the valley, with LAC (Leading Aircraftman) J. Voss managing to walk out and be rescued three days later. The leading aircraft wasn’t so lucky however, crashing into a group of trees and killing its pilot LAC Brian Heaps in the process.

NZ989 was located in April 1983 by E. Billman and returned to Aerotech in Auckland, and along with components from NZ977 and NZ1038, was restored in 1988. So that left the first aircraft for us to find and to say I was excited was a huge understatement.

Scott had spoken to a guy who is currently working at Bluff Station as a contractor, one of the few to have ever spotted the aircraft, to get an idea of where we needed to go. He even has images of him sitting in the cockpit. But ‘somewhere around here’ can be hard to pinpoint from so long ago, especially when topo lines are extremely close together and thick scrub now covers much of the area.

The ANZAC long weekend was chosen to attempt the mission and after telling Hamish Murray, who owns and farms Bluff Station (and who also happens to be my cousin) of our plans, he decided that there was no way we were going on this adventure without him. He only had one day to spare, though, so he would walk in and out on the same day while Scott and I were taking a tent and setting up camp overnight.

The weather forecast wasn’t the best, with a southerly predicted to arrive late on Saturday afternoon. An extra layer of merino was stuffed into my already bulging pack, as well as an additional pair of warm woolly socks, and with enough food to keep us going for a week, we set off in the 4WD for the hour-and-a-half trip out the back of the property to the start of the Dee.

I was confident. I had no reason not to be. Hamish is the closest anyone can get to a mountain goat while still only having two legs. His speed over rocks and up cliff faces left me wondering how we were even related. He would reach a spot and by the time I arrived, would already have looked at the map and be scouting the best route to take going forward. Scott and I were stoked that he was joining us, even if only for the day.

We wound our way up the riverbed for an hour or so, coming across goats that would stop and stare at us, some only ten metres away, most likely not having ever seen a human before. The rocks turned into boulders and the boulders turned into small cliffs and waterfalls. Luckily Scott’s giraffe-like limbs could boost us, and we were able to scramble and climb the rock faces and carry on up the river.

We arrived at the shingle scree, the main landmark we had been directed to find, then headed up and over to reach the other arm of the Dee. We’d been told if we carried on we would come across a waterfall that was 27 metres high, and on the other side, which was where we were headed, supposedly there was a 30-metre one. Scrambling up the scree behind the boys I was glad for my manuka walking stick, ensuring it wasn’t one step forward, three steps backward.

Reaching the ridgeline was enough to make the heart skip a few beats – it was steep! Looking at the map again we knew we were in roughly the right place, but how we got from where we were currently standing to down over the cliff face was a problem we were now facing. Sending Hamish off to have a look, he couldn’t see an obvious route down so it was time for a new plan. It was back down the scree we had just climbed, before carrying up and around to try and get at it from behind. It sounded so simple.

Arriving at the head of the creek, the only option left was up. While watching two billy goats have it out to claim supremacy on the cliff above me (just for the record, the old boy stood his ground), Hamish headed off once again to scout out the best route for us to attempt. Short limbs definitely lucked here out as the boys pushed and pulled me up through the bush until we popped out above the waterfall. Cruising along the ridge, we came across an opening from which we could look around while still heading up. Standing there and taking in the views, it was no surprise that these aircrafts must have come to grief very quickly. The rugged cliffs and scrub created a stunning backdrop as I looked back down the valley, with the moody nor’west skies above ensuring the landscape took on every shade of blue. Hindsight is a great thing, but we must have been so close to finding it. We knew it was yellow and in an open area, but unable to spot anything, we carried on our way.

Lunch was spent perched amongst the tussocks and spaniards, careful not to get one confused with the other, before heading up and over the another ridge and down into the next basin. Hamish had a cut-off of 2.30pm, which allowed him enough time to retrace his steps back down the riverbed to his vehicle before dark. Not that this mountain goat needed that much time without me holding him back! When we finally made our way up to the ridge he had already climbed up, along, down and around before we spotted him (well, he spotted us!) in the next valley over. We had a final look at the map, to check, check and triple check our location again before Hamish took Scott’s PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) and made his way back down to the truck.

Scott and I headed down towards the river in search of flatter ground to pitch our tent for the night, just as the skies were turning grey with the predicted southerly rolling in. I stopped and looked around; we were well and truly in the middle of nowhere. And it was incredible! Finding a spot on the edge of the manuka, Scott’s boy scout skills were almost second to none. Almost. That was until we discovered he had forgotten the matches! Surely not, but yes, after emptying both our packs there were no matches or lighter to be found. I thought it was quite amusing. Scott, however, didn’t find it the least bit funny. How was this Pom going to survive without his evening brew?

With daylight hours still up our sleeve (and no hot water to boil) we headed off again for another search, enjoying not having the weight of our packs on our backs. We knew the aircraft had taken out the tops of two trees, which were apparently quite obvious, so we stumbled around trying to find them. But with 75 years now passed, we had trouble figuring out if the branches had just rotted, or in fact, had their tops swiped off. It was now starting to get late, and if we were out for too much longer we would be cutting into some very precious evening hunting time. Scott hadn’t carried his gun all this way to not at least have a look.

So while Scott spotted chamois on the hill far away, I too spotted them, the only difference being mine never moved (yes, they were rocks), but I did see the stag! No shots were fired, and as the heavy drizzle turned to rain, we decided to call it a day and head for the tent to eat our delicious, cold, dehydrated meals. I drew the line at cold coffee though! With the gentle pattering of rain on the tent, I nestled into my sleeping bag and had one of the best night’s sleep in a long time.

We woke to the sunlight peeking through the trees, and quickly ate our cold porridge before packing up the tent and getting on our way. We had decided not to retrace our steps and keep searching for the aircraft, instead opting to mix it up a little and head a different way out. It wasn’t long before we were down to one layer, with a bead of sweat forming nicely on our foreheads from the morning sun. The views were breathtaking; more than once we took the opportunity to stop and soak up the scenery.

Spotting a falcon perched on a rock about 30 metres above us, we stopped to watch it. But it had no interest in us, and after a few minutes it took off, wings tight by its side as it dive-bombed a charm of finches hidden in the grass not even ten feet from us. Missing them on the ground, it then proceeded to put on a spectacular display as it chased them high in the sky. The finches managed to live another day, but for us to witness something like that in such a remote and incredible landscape was something I won’t forget in a hurry.

We stayed high and sidled our way around the edge of the grass line, just below the rocky face of Mt Tapuae-o-Uenuku, crossing crystal-clear streams and coming across plenty of animal sign. How anything survives up this high is beyond me. We were in the middle of autumn; the sun was shining but still I kept my merino layer on the whole time, with just enough of a cool breeze to make us aware we were in god’s own country.

We had planned on heading along a ridge, which had created our horizon for most of the day, however with time against us, we decided to walk down a route we knew would get us safely out on dusk. But not before I made Scott take a picture of me with nothing but mountains as a backdrop. We were so high, in fact, that I could get reception on my iPhone, so we checked in with the homestead and informed them that we would be back in time for dinner, and a hot cuppa!

The final couple of hours were spent trading stories as we snaked our way down the valley, occasionally stopping for Scott to spot the elusive chamois, but today was not his day. We covered almost 20 kilometres over the two days, including 2,000 metres of elevation, and while some would argue that our mission was unsuccessful due to not locating the aircraft, it was up there with one of my best adventures to date.

But don't worry, this mission is definitely ‘to be continued…!’


UPDATE: Mission accomplished! On Saturday 23rd February I went back and found the plane. I can't believe how close we were to it the first time, literally 50 metres away! The second plane, located further up the valley, has also since been found. The weather started to roll on as we hit the top ridge, so we decided to head back to the truck and leave the second plane for an adventure another day.

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