TODAY IN BUSHRANGING: June 18, 1862. Camped atop Mount Wheogo in the wild west of New South Wales, Frank Gardiner’s gang of bushrangers hide out after ambushing the gold escort coach at Eugowra Rocks three days before.

The gold and cash stolen added up to about $5 million in today’s money – to this day, the largest haul of any armed holdup in Australia. Alongside Gardiner, the eight-man gang included some of bushranging’s biggest names such as Ben Hall, John Gilbert and John O’Meally.

Eugowra Rocks, NSW, where bushrangers ambushed the Forbes Gold Escort in June 1862.

As they shared out the takings and relaxed on Mount Wheogo, sitting out some heavy rain, they had no idea Sergeant Sanderson of the Forbes police, guided by tracker Charley Hastings, was closing in fast.

The holdup went well enough for them but the getaway would soon prove problematic…

Today in bushranging (May 5, 1865): Ben Hall, surprised at first light by police in his bush camp 12 miles from Forbes, is shot dead while evading arrest. His death ended a three-year criminal career described in its day as a ‘reign of terror’.

So bad were his depredations, and so unstoppable did he seem, that the government eventually fixed on outlawing him so he could be shot on sight. However, he was killed just a few days before this could take effect.

The shooting – he was riddled by many bullets – is controversial to this day, with the police party’s actions still coming under scrutiny. There were conspiracy theories, even in the 1860s. Did they act illegally, as if he was already an outlaw? Was he given a chance to surrender? Why did they fire so many times? More on this soon (in book form, I intend).

Death Of Ben Hall (1894) by Patrick Maroney is a fairly accurate depiction, although the police were not in uniform (standard practice for bush patrol work back then).

A million years of homo sapiens and only 24 of us have left low Earth orbit and gone to another world.

Michael Collins, who died on April 28, was one of that elite two dozen, all of them Apollo astronauts who flew nine Moon missions between 1968 and 1972.

As Apollo 11 command module pilot, Collins orbited the Moon thirty times while his crewmates Armstrong and Aldrin made the famous ‘giant leap for mankind’, taking our first steps on the lunar surface. Meanwhile Collins travelled further from our planet than anyone had gone before. And he was alone; no one had ever been so apart from the rest of the human race. He enjoyed the experience and reflected on it deeply.

Five years later, Collins followed his stellar NASA career with the surprise revelation that he was also an excellent writer. His memoir Carrying The Fire (1974) is by far the best firsthand account of what it was like to be ‘out there’ on an Apollo mission. You’d expect an astronaut autobiography to be ghost-written or ‘as told to’, but this one isn’t, and is much better for it.

If Shakespeare was the bard of Avon, Collins was the bard of Apollo!

How lucky for posterity that a USAF test pilot should uncover a latent gift for conveying so many aspects of his remarkable journey in such a thoughtful and lyrical manner. And he achieves this without ever losing the down-to-earthiness that necessarily dominated the most ambitious, complex and risky technical endeavour of all time.

And how fitting for the Moon to light his way out of this world with a magnificent ‘pink supermoon’.

Here are some random quotes from Carrying The Fire.

Back on Earth:
I can now lift my mind out into space and look back at a midget Earth. I can see it hanging there, surrounded by blackness, turning slowly in the relentless sunlight.

On writing the book:
[I tried] to convey in words the magic of carrying the fire, just as the god Apollo carried the sun across the sky in his chariot. For magic is assuredly there: changing urine particles into angels is magic; tumbling end over end with velvet smoothness is magic.

…how would you carry fire? Carefully, that’s how, with lots of planning and at considerable risk. It is a delicate cargo, as valuable as moon rocks, and the carrier must always be on his toes lest it spill. I carried the fire for six years, and now I would like to tell you about it, simply and directly as a test pilot must, for the trip deserves the telling.

It is perhaps a pity that my eyes have seen more than my brain has been able to assimilate or evaluate, but like the Druids of Stonehenge, I have attempted to bring order out of what I have observed, even if I have not understood it fully.

On his future plans:
I am also planning to leave a lot of things undone. Part of life’s mystery depends on future possibilities, and mystery is an elusive quality which evaporates when sampled frequently.

On our world’s future:
The Earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied.

Today in bushranging: on April 23, 1862, colourful colonial police chief Frederick Pottinger (below) astonished the western NSW goldfields town of Forbes with the very public arrest of Ben Hall at the local races. It was Hall’s first – but far from last – brush with the law.

Although popular and well-known locally as a grazier, Hall had a secret sideline in armed robbery, which now lay exposed. Nine days before, he was recognised while sticking up road travellers with Frank Gardiner, who was then Australia’s most notorious bushranger.

Hall (above) was refused bail and committed to trial. The case against him seemed watertight and it looked as if a bushranging career had been nipped in the bud. But this was the beginning of a life of crime, not the end – the beginning, in fact, of the most extensive outbreak of armed holdup in Australian history.

Today in 1865: Ben Hall’s last bushranging raid (horse-thefts excluded) – the home invasion of Charles Cropper’s Yamma station, eight miles outside the goldfields town of Forbes in western New South Wales.

Ben Hall (above) and his partners-in-crime John Gilbert and John Dunn had just been named in a controversial ‘Summons To Surrender’. They had until April 29 to turn themselves in or be declared outlaws, which meant they could be shot on sight. Their response? Business as usual, as you’d expect. But Yamma had little for them to steal. Charles Cropper wasn’t home, and they left early so heavily pregnant Mrs Cropper could send a maid for medical help. Before riding away, Gilbert carved their names on a stool, which now has pride of place in Forbes Historical Museum (below).

Three weeks later two of them were dead and Australia’s biggest-ever bushranging outbreak was over. Hopefully my book telling this epic and wild tale will soon be arresting readers’ attentions from Bunbury to Byron Bay some time soon!  

Just out, the April Reader’s Digest with my feature Dragon On The Farm about the amazing discovery of Australia’s best ever pterosaur on a remote Queensland sheep station.

Australian Geographic has just published my short piece on pink flannel flowers, a rarely seen Oz wildflower that only blooms a year after bushfire followed by rain. They’re painting the Blue Mountains pink right now!

October’s Reader’s Digest has Gordon Ramsay on the cover, but I’m talking about other devils in its detail – my story about Tasmanian devils thriving in an innovative wild sanctuary high in the hills of Barrington Tops, New South Wales.

It’s a great scheme to help save this deeply endangered Aussie species, and in the article Tim Faulkner – TV wildlife show guy and president of the devil-saving Aussie Ark – reveals how it all works.

William Was A Werewolf – some full-moonlighting doggerel of mine – just published in Touchdown (Sept 2020 issue) – and they’ve done this marvellous two-minute Youtube clip for it, very well read and illustrated!

Pluggedy plug: two features I’ve got coming up in Reader’s Digest in the next few issues:

Tasmanian-devil-1TASMANIAN DEVILS: New South Wales’ Barrington Tops hosts the mainland’s biggest Tasmanian devil breeding program, mainly by letting them run wild in Aussie Ark, a massive feral-free bush sanctuary. Aussie Ark president and TV wildlife personality Tim Faulkner tells me all about it.

ANTI-POACHING DOGS: Soldiers For Wildlife recruits dogs to help protect endangered African animals in Zambia’s most-poached region. Soldiers For Wildlife founder John Garcia discusses the special value of trained dogs in the ongoing desperate struggle to save Africa’s rapidly dwindling wildlife.