Bert Hinkler. (Photo: State Library of Queensland)
Chapter 5. Bert Hinkler, Bundaberg and the Missing Gold Watch.
Sometimes luck can be in your favour. And other times not.
On this occasion my big slice of luck stemmed from where Jabiru had chosen to establish their business many years before. It was the Queensland township of Bundaberg, but more than that, it was the birthplace of Australian pioneer solo aviator Bert Hinkler. Their local hero was not only revered, he was commemorated in the newly-built, “Hinkler Hall of Aviation”. Furthermore, alongside this modern facility stood Bert Hinkler’s English home, ‘Mon Repos’. In 1983, it had been lovingly brought to Australia and re-assembled brick by brick and nail by nail.
Hinkler’s ‘Mon Repos’
Lieutenant Hinkler had served with the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) during World War One and also been decorated. However, his fascination with flight pre-dated the conflict and as a boy he had studied the birds closely and made successful glider flights on the dunes near his home. After serving post-war as a test pilot with Avro, Hinkler finally made his flight to Australia in 1928, alone in a tiny Avro Avian in only 15 days. He went onto achieve a number of feats, but none more significant and more overlooked than his 1931 flight from Canada to South America, across the South Atlantic to Africa and onto London in a DH Puss Moth. Always tending to avoid the spotlight, Hinkler tragically died in 1933 on a hillside in the Tuscan Mountains of Italy while undertaking yet another brave solo attempt.
To me, he was a boyhood hero. An early knight of the skies who had crossed the globe solo in his frail machines with a ‘Times Atlas’ on his lap to guide his way. Goggles fixed to his leather helmet with the cold slipstream sliding past his face. Mile after mile, border after border, continents came and went. In his time there was no certainty of what lay ahead, no comforts and certainly no GPS or Spidertracks; purely a compass and courage.
Between Bundaberg being Bert’s home where he first soared over the sand dunes and the place where Jabiru aircraft were now built, there was no other logical place to begin and complete my solo flight. The history blended with the practicality to offer a synergy that I never could have organised. It was a good omen, if one believes in fate’s hand.
The ‘Hinkler Hall of Aviation’ in Bundaberg.
Over the months I was to build a special bond with Bundaberg. I would make the journey north to see the progress of the Jabiru’s construction, meet with local dignitaries to discuss the flight and, of course, I would fly a Jabiru at every opportunity. Each time I would wander past the exhibits in Hinkler’s Hall of Aviation and each time I would sit on the banks of the Burnett River, looking back at the rail bridge he supposedly flew beneath. Away from the rigorous planning, the significance of my flight began to grow on so many levels.
My familiarisation flying was planned with Peter McNamara at ASK Flying School at Bundaberg. Consisting of some upper airwork and circuit training, the Bundaberg weather proved fickle with low cloud and showers a constant source of interruption. During the rare breaks in the weather I managed to string together enough sessions under Peter’s tutelage to feel comfortable in the J230D. Then I flew a series of solo ‘touch and go’ landings to consolidate my feel for the aeroplane.
Here comes the weather again. Let’s head for home.
As I sat on the river bank one afternoon after a session of take-offs and landings, I pondered how far aviation had come since Bert Hinkler crossed the globe. Part of me wished that he could step through time and climb on board with me to witness how much of his aviation vision had become reality. To hand him control of a composite-built aeroplane with an enclosed cockpit, heater and coloured ‘TV screens’ for instruments where he had only known rudimentary dials.
Unfortunately I did not have a means of tearing the fabric of time and transporting Bert into this day and age. However, I thought he may well be able to make the journey with me in a slightly less physical form. To this end, I set about scanning the internet and auctions for a possession of Bert’s that could circumnavigate Australia with me. At the end of the flight, this item would find a new home at the ‘Hinkler Hall of Aviation’. The concept seemed sound, now I just needed the memento.
I wasn’t sure what that item would be as I scrolled through the online auction catalogues and then something hit me out of the blue. An auction in England appeared online for a gold watch presented to Bert Hinkler in 1928 following his solo flight from England to Australia. This was perfect!
I knew that the watch wouldn’t come cheaply, but it seemed the perfect piece for my journey and ultimately to call Bundaberg home. I researched the engraving on the casing and found an old newspaper reference to Bert speaking with the group that presented him with this pocket watch. Through every resource that I could muster, this watch seemed like the real-deal, so I scraped together my pennies and waited to bid.
The night of the auction I paced the floor beside my computer as the minutes counted down. As the second hand zeroed in, my finger hovered over the mouse; it was all or nothing. And then click...it was done. Within seconds the colour of the font on the screen in front of me confirmed that I had won the auction. I now owned Bert Hinkler’s pocket watch and it was coming home to Bundaberg! I was over the moon...for about eight hours.
Bert Hinkler’s Pocket Watch.
When I awoke the next morning my inbox was full of emails relating to my newly acquired memorabilia. However, far from congratulatory emails, they contained disturbing content from an under-bidder and the vendor. I had inadvertently walked into a situation that involved everyone from Interpol to the South African police. Astounded, and a little panicked, I began to try and decipher the conversations for the real story. I had already transferred the significant funds and was now wondering what drama I had become entwined in.
Slowly an unfortunate story emerged. The under-bidder was a knowledgeable individual who had traced the origins of the watch previously and also sought to give the watch a proper home. His search had revealed that the watch had been stolen from the home of Bert Hinkler’s stepdaughter in South Africa years before. He was now seeking to return it to its rightful owner and he had been in contact with Interpol about the stolen watch.
I sided with the under-bidder that we should recover the watch one way or the other. Emails and phone calls began to fly between the vendor, myself and the under-bidder as well as the Hinkler Hall of Aviation. Then, without warning, the auction was retracted, my monies refunded and the watch disappeared from the face of the earth. The vendor no longer replied to any of my emails and the path went very cold, very quickly. Bert Hinkler’s wonderful gold watch had gone underground.
My disappointment was obvious as I thought there had been a real opportunity to preserve a slice of history. On a more positive note, the under-bidder and I continued to correspond after the event as he was also a long term admirer of Bert Hinkler. So much so that one day a letter arrived from his address in Victoria. Inside, carefully packaged, was Bert Hinkler’s autograph on an old piece of paper. I may not have a gold watch to carry with me, but I now had a tangible link to Bert. It was time to re-focus on the flight as the weeks continued to tick down towards departure.