Retracing Bertram and Klausmann Epic Survival Story

Retracing Bertram and Klausmann Epic Survival Story

This is part of the Around the Kimberley Expedition 5

We retraced much of the route that the aviators took and found the cave they took refuge in and part of the float from their plane.

On the 29th February 1932 Bertram and his mechanic Klausmann left Germany in a Junkers D 2151 seaplane heading for China. But on the leg from Kupang in Timor to Australia things went very wrong!!!!

At midnight on 14th May 1932 Bertram and Klausmann took off across the Timor Sea from Kupang, lured by the romance of night flying in the tropics. Their intentions were to arrive with the dawn in Port Darwin. Instead, after a storm-tossed night, Bertram and Klausmann were forced to land their small seaplane in the first sheltered bay that they came across. Unbeknown to them, they had come down on the Kimberley coast. To the south of them lay nothing but harsh bush, and beyond that empty desert. The two men were at the beginning of what was to become a remarkable fifty-three-day struggle to survive in a hostile environment.


The men force landed in a small bay south of Cape Whisky. That first night stranded in a hostile environment they hung their hammocks to sleep and the following day they were visited by an Aboriginal. Unable to communicate and the fact the Aborigine brought with him swarms of flies, the two aviators with only 15 litres of fuel left in their tank decided to get away from there and head west towards, what they thought was the direction of Darwin. With little fuel left in their tank they were forced to land again in another bay. Their engines suddenly cut as the plane ran out of fuel and rolled up a small beach.


Being unable to find water at the place they landed they could only think that the Aboriginal they saw in the other bay must have water so they secured the plane and set out to walk back to the other bay where the Aboriginal was. Plagued by the heat, thirst, hunger their walk was a nightmare. To make things worst, after attempting to swim across an inlet they were chased by a crocodile and lost their clothes. Barefoot and naked they lay beneath a burning sun. They decided to give up their search to find the Aborigine and returned to the plane with no clothes and footwear. After 7 days of walking without water, ravished by mosquitoes and completely exhausted they arrive back at the seaplane.

Convinced they were on Melville Island they decided to take one of the seaplanes floats off and use it as a kayak. Now thirteen days into their ordeal they drain the radiator of water, climb into the float and start paddling. The ship Koolinda pass them by only 500 metres away but don’t see them. Their morale dives. For four days and four nights they paddle but eventually they paddle ashore north of Cape Bernier.

StrandedThey take a float off the plane to use as a canoe

Still thinking that they were on Melville Island they decided to walk overland to find civilisation, but they soon found out that they weren’t on an island so they returned back to the float. After arriving back, the float had been damaged so to be able to paddle it again they had to cut a section off.

image031A sail was made to help them along

Float3An re-enactment photo

image033The float after the damage

A bulkhead from the damaged float

With the float being shorter it wasn’t as seaworthy as before so they only got a few kilometres before they decided it was too dangerous to try paddling back to the seaplane, so they found shelter under an overhang at Cape Bernier and just stayed there until they were finally rescued.

Search parties were looking for the men to no avail, but a cigarette case with Hans Bertram’s initials on it was found by an Aboriginal. A search spreading out from this area found the missing plane, but it was of course empty. Now an even bigger search was put in progress using Aboriginal trackers from missions in the area, and one of these trackers found the men holed up in their cave waiting to die. This Aboriginal is thought to have been Minnijinnimurrie from the Drysdale Mission. He and other Aboriginals with him from the mission looked after the two aviators for a week before the first group of police rescuers arrived. The condition of the two men was very poor and two runners were sent to Forrest Mission with messages to arrange a boat to be sent to pick them up.

By the time the men were rescued they had been lost for 40 days.

The rescuers and Bertram and Klausmann

Overnight Klausmann’s condition had deteriorated and it was decided to send more runners to the police in Wyndham via Forrest Mission requesting a strait jacket also be sent. The second pair of Aboriginal runners then performed what was to become a marathon feat. They were told that if they managed to overtake the first runners they would get a new pair of shorts and a shirt. The pair made it to Forrest Mission in two days. It had taken six days for the rescue party to travel that distance. Although the role that Aboriginals played in finding the aviators and keeping them alive until the rescue party reached the cave is well known, the story of Andumeri and Jalnga’s marathon run is not often mentioned.

Klausmann never recovered his sanity and was sent home to Germany. Bertram recovered, reclaimed the plane and carried out a festive tour of Australia. His main aim was to raise funds for the two Aboriginal Missions in gratitude for their help.
When he left Australia in 1933 he said “I hope after I get back to Germany, to returned here as Ambassador to Australia.” He did return to Australia, in 1941, as a prisoner of war. He’d joined the Luftwaffe and been shot down and captured in the Libyan desert. He died in Germany in 1993.

We had come to the Kimberley to retrace Bertrand and Klausmann epic journey but before getting to this point we had ran 220kms, paddled along the Kimberley coast for 700kms, backpacked 240kms, mountain biked 450kms and now we were heading for King George Falls, an isolated spot in the north of the rugged Kimberley.

K5DonkinsgroupThe team. On this section of our trip Duncan drove the vehicle, left and Dennis, Ewen and I walked overland for 240kms 

With our arduous run and paddle and a strenuous thirteen day walk we continued biking 450 kilometres over deteriorated tracks towards King George Falls with a detour of 50 kms to Kalumburu Mission to buy an ice cream.

K5KulumburuOn the way to King George Falls we detoured to the Kalumburu Mission

The track leading into King George Falls was rarely used so for 200kms we bounced over boulders, dodged rocks and sank pedal deep in soft sand. Small trees that were growing in the middle of the track were fortresses for green ants. To disturb them was fatal, their nippers sank deep into our flesh. Sweet revenge was to brush them off further along the track – and give them a long walk home.

With Ewen nursing a buckled wheel we eventually arrived at King George Falls where we would start our overland walk retracing Bertram and Klausmann. At the falls the dry season denied us the beauty of the water tumbling majestically into the glistening saltwater estuary below but it was still such a spectacle. The massive 80 metre vertical sandstone cliffs extended 12 kilometres to the Timor Sea. In the distance there were a few wisps of smoke from a recent bushfire that hovered in the cloudless sky. To be high on the lip of the falls looking out was a stunning scene.

King George Falls

Our objective from the falls was to retrace the steps of one of the great survival epics of Australian history. Armed with a copy of Bertrams book, Flight Into Hell, we walked overland from King George Falls and found the cave at Cape Bernier where the aviators spent their final days before being rescued by an Aboriginal search party.

The overhang cave that Bertram and Klausmann took shelter

It was July 19th, 1988 and only a handful of people had been there before us. We continued our exploration along the coast trying to find their first float landing by reading the extracts from the book. About 2 ½ kilometres west of the cave our perseverance paid off when Ewen noticed a tint of aluminium smothered by sand under a bush. Incredibly it turned out to be part of the bulkhead from the damaged float, that Bertram and Klausmann used as a canoe in one of their attempts to paddle to civilization. We were ecstatic. The chances of finding something after 56 years seemed impossible. We found it in a place that matched the description in Bertram’s book. We also found a waterhole over the adjacent ridge that saved them from dying of thirst.

K5BulkheadEwen spotted the bulkhead from the plane’s float lying under the sand

After retracing our footsteps back to King George Falls carrying the bulkhead to leave at the support vehicle, Ewen, Dennis and I took off heading 240kms across the vast Kimberley wilderness towards Forest River. But on the way we were going to retrace Bertram and Klausmann’s walk along the coast to Emergency Bay.

When we got going, our own walk to find their landing spot in Emergency Bay soon turned into a nightmare. We were tormented by the heat, our heavy packs and the meagre freshwater supply along our route had been fouled by cattle dung and urine. We camped next to a polluted waterhole and filtered the urine tasting water through Dennis’s hat and then boiled it. Despite boiling the water it still tasted like urine which Ewen wouldn’t drink! We were hoping the water along our route would get better or we would be in real trouble. Our trip through the tick infested scrub and dry creek beds was turning into a hellish trip.

Living on half rations and little water we were getting quite desperate when the semi-arid area suddenly turned into a lush valley with bandannas palms, creepers and tall grasses bordering a sweet running stream. We had entered paradise. Now we could throw out our polluted water. We had entered a paradise where birds probed the flowers of the silky grevilleas, where everything was lush and rugged cliffs grew higher as we approached the coast.

K5MeCliffbayIn the distance Emergency Bay

In higher spirits we followed the tops of the cliffs to Emergency Bay. We descended the slippery shaley cliff face to thick impenetrable mangroves that barred our access to the salt water stream. As we stalked through the mangroves we were wary of crocodiles. Like suction pads our boots grew heavy crossing the repulsive mud that supported popping crustaceans and fleeing mud skippers. With packs catching branches and feet like lead, our chances of outrunning a croc, if one should come, were slim.

K5MeplanecoveEmergency Bay their second and final landing spot

Whilst searching among the mangroves and rocky water course we tried to find the sweet running stream that we had crossed earlier but it had soaked underground and now there was no water to be seen. In the need of water we followed the watercourse upstream and after about 500 metres of dry rock we found a fairly large rock pool of water and rejoiced. If Bertram and Klausmann had followed this same dry stream bed they would have found water. Being from Europe they would have expected the water in the stream to drain into the ocean and never checked upstream.

We backtracked to find the small beach where the seaplane had been anchored. Here we found fragments of decaying metal and a landscape that duplicated the photograph in the book, Flight into Hell. It was just a fantastic feeling being in such a historic place that probably only a handful of people would have ever been.

From Emergency Bay we headed east and retraced the aviators first inland walk along the coast to Crocodile Creek 16 kms away. It was here that Bertram wrote in his book…. Crocodile! Two-three, swimming towards us. For a second I am paralyzed. Then… I shout to Klausmann. Our clothes and shoes sink out of sight. Immortal terror we begin to swim as fast as we can….

It was very interesting trying to piece together Bertram and Klausmanns footsteps. We’d found the cave, the life-saving waterhole and the bulkhead from the damaged float. We’d retraced their inland walk towards King George River, found Emergency Bay, their second landing spot and where they started their first walk and sea going journey in the seaplane’s float.

Now we had followed their walk to Crocodile Creek. We ponder, we check the area and try to establish exactly the place where they would have swam the creek. Reading Bertram’s book over and over again fascinated me. I could imagine them swimming and then panic as the croc gave chase.

Crocodile Creek

In their book though they didn’t mention the fresh water that flowed from the lush creek, one kilometre upstream of the ocean. Their quick and rash decisions had hurried them along and some how they failed to find the four water spots that we had found just in from the coast along their 16 kilometre trek.

Our last objective was to walk 6 kilometres further south of Cape Whisky and view their original landing spot. Before doing that we got our own surprise as we crossed a small creek and a croc leaped into the water giving us one hell of a fright.

After seeing the area around the original landing site and the beautiful gorge nearby, I could understand why the Aboriginals lived here. Perfect fishing, plenty of freshwater, numerous ledges, overhangs and rock platforms. It was very like paradise.

Taking into account that I had paddled along this coast in 1983, I had come close to having seen every bit of country that they had seen.

Having retraced Bertram and Klausmanns entire route it was extremely rewarding but we still had to walk 180kms overland on half rations to Forest River, then cycle 210 kilometres to Wyndam, run 103 kilometres to Kununurra, cycle 1200kms to Derby and then run 222 kilometres to Broome so we were far from finished.

Our walk then skirted us around Mount Casuarina and along the Berkley River, across to the Forrest River, destination Oombulgurri. For a continuation of this story read the story ‘Around the Kimberley Expedition’.

Berkley River

It turned out to be an amazing expedition and when I ran into Broome, after running, kayaking, backpacking and cycling for 3500kms, I decided that the following year I would paddle, cycle, run and walk 24,000kms around Australia and I did.

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