The King’s Birthday Weekend

by James Tedder

The year was possibly ’48 or ’49 but the month was definitely June – King’s (yes King’s) Birthday weekend. I still have nightmares of that trip – wake up gasping for air and flinging off hundreds of sleeping bushwalkers. It was decided to have a weekend in the snow. A truck was hired_and ten or twenty or forty Sydney University bushwalkers piled into the back of this covered wagon, complete with large quantities of straw.

The straw was not there to feed the horses which actually ran on petrol but provide warmth and a certain cushioning effect for the “walkers”. We left, of course, in high spirits. Canditions were but cozy and the night was anly just beginning. There were a few stops along the way but these comfort stops were in the bush as the day of the fast food outlet hadn’t arrived. After Goulburn, people began nodding off only to be awakened by cramp, cold or violent movements of the truck. Possibly between Canberra and Cooma was the worst stretch – it was cold, the bodies in the truck seemed to have doubled in number or increased in size, the floor boards of the truck made their presence felt through the straw and exhaustion was leading to people falling to sleep without concern for their neighbours. So began my nightmares, I’d wake gasping for air to find six or so large bushwalkers – rarely any of them female – lying across my supine body and slowly suffocating me, It seemed impossible to wake them all quickly enough and to get them off me before I’d died of suffocation. A couple even went back to sleep before the others had woken. Then we’d all start again, sleeping, sitting up. But it wasn’t long before the heap had collapsed and others were underneath and it was someone else’s turn to have nightmares of being slowly flattened under road rollers.

We were to stay in the old cattleman’s hut at Smiggins Holes but on our arrival late Saturday morning found it full of earlier arrivals. No room standing or lying was available. At least we had our tents or at least some of us had. There was a great deal of sorting out who would sleep in whose tent. My allocation was one large man and a bottle of OP rum. Most tents ended up with three persons and, although in old “A” frames that meant all turning together, it also meant warmth.

Our sleeping equipment was basic – groundsheet and an old Paddy Pallin’s down bag which still exist on top of the cupboard. Being of scout training, I prepared my bed, sweeping out the snow, tried digging a hip hollow without success and stretched my length to test it. I shot up as though stung – the cold had come up through the sleeping bag like a needle. There had to be a solution if survival, let alone sleep, was to be anything more than a wish. An Army greatcoat provided the answer at least to that of survival.

Though the snow wasn’t heavy the weather was fine so all made good use of the equipment we hired from the Hotel Kosciusko. All of us were, I recall, learners but we practised hard all the lessons we had read in the Public Library between J.S. Mills and Stigler on Price.

The two nights were passed without anyone succumbing to hypothermia but my companion and I put it down to the bottle of rum which slept between us. We frequently woke shivering and sought comfort from that bottle.