Bert Snell Goes Missing

Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are advised that the following story contains names of deceased persons.

On Christmas Eve in 1933, Bert Snell, who was caretaker of the Yarraquin woolshed, over six kilometres east of Cue, left to visit his mate’s camp. He borrowed some tobacco, and they both walked back towards the shed. Bert’s mate eventually left him, and Bert continued on his own.

On Christmas Day, the manager of the station, Fred Boddington, phoned the shed. No one answered. He continued phoning, but Bert did not pick up. Puzzled as to why Bert wasn’t answering, he made his way to the shed to see what the matter was. When he got there, he found it deserted.

Knowing of Bert’s mate’s camp, he went to see if he had any more information. He told Fred that he walked with Bert a short way, and then Bert continued on his own. He had not seen him since. Fred immediately raised the alarm. Bert Snell was lost in the bush.

Map showing Yarraquin (green spot to the right) in the vicinity of Lake Austin. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (9022.M95H2).

Fred initially started searching with Walter Nickels, and a group of other people. They found Bert’s tracks, which indicated he had walked away from the shed and towards Lake Austin. All day, on Christmas Day, they looked for him, without success. On Boxing Day, they notified the police at Cue.

Cue Government buildings and police station circa 1960s.

Constable John Boyd left Cue accompanied by Aboriginal trackers, Jimmy Flannigan, Ned Martin and, Frank Merritt. They, too, searched for the entire day, but were unable to find Bert.

On 27 December, Constable William Fanning left Cue accompanied by additional Aboriginal trackers. From Yarraquin woolshed, they followed Bert’s tracks. Over the red earth, they walked towards Lake Austin. At the hard gypsum ridges that border the lake, they lost the tracks.

Abandoning the search in that area, Fred proceeded on his motorbike to the town known as The Island. While there, a person told him that they observed a man with two dogs walking along the railway line towards Cue. Knowing that Bert had two dogs with him, the search party was notified and made their way to Day Dawn. There they found Bert, relaxing at Jim Healy’s camp.

Both men were completely unaware that there were concerns and that a group of people, including the police, and trackers had been searching for days. Surprised at the fuss, Bert eventually told his story.

After he parted ways with his mate, Bert lost the track. He first walked in a westerly course, passing the edge of Lake Austin and then across it. He continued walking and came across a windmill and a black tank near the road. Written on the tank were the words ‘to Cue,’ so he turned back and followed the road to The Island and then the railway to Day Dawn. After walking in the outback for days, he arrived in the town on Tuesday morning.

Bert was lucky in that the Murchison had recently had significant rainfall. As he walked, he quenched his thirst from pools he found along the way. He also carried with him a bottle filled with water.

The relief was palpable that the search had not gone in a different direction. Bert’s route took him close to where two skeletons were found (thought to be Alfred Credgington and Ernest Bradbury) in 1930. Most people considered the area to be “the most uninviting portion of the Murchison” and it was dubbed “No Man’s Land.” The land consisted of mulga, low lying flats, and Bert may not have survived if not for the rain.

While the reporter described Bert as a “poor bushman,” Bert, however, begged to differ. He had trekked over 80 kilometres and insisted that he knew where he was going. At no time at all was he lost in the bush.

This story originally featured on ABC Mid West and Wheatbelt’s Saturday Breakfast with Nat on 19 December 2020. You can listen to that episode via the following link: https://ab.co/2C67gqO

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