After 30 Years Mystery Still Surrounds the Wreck of . . .
On the checker-board of life every man and woman stands. They are but the pawns in a tragic game; waiting tor the invisible hand of Fate, which hovers above them, to
shift them another square .. . onwards to happiness and success; or off the board into the oblivion of death.
Sometimes the game is long , drawn out; sometimes Fate calls "checkmate," and the game ends with such dramatic suddenness that startled onlookers can scarce believe it's over.
So it was in the early months of 1912, when the steamship Koom-
bana left Fremantle for northern
ports. Aboard her well over a hun- dred passengers, all pawns in a
game that was to end tragically
and mysteriously when the Koom-
bana disappeared, taking them all to a watery grave.
In the history of W.A. there is nothing so tragic as the wreck of the Koombana . . a coffin ship in every sense of the words. For when she went down, the pass- engers, who had been battened below, were cheated of any chance they might have had of battling for their lives.
They were literally buried alive in the ocean; and not one body was ever recovered.
That was the tragic side of it.
The mysterious was this: Al- though the passengers must have been battened below deck, natur- ally the crew weren't. And yet, although it is estimated that the Koombana went down only 2 hours out of Port Hedland, none of the bodies of the crew was ever found.
In fact, the only remnant of the wreck ever seen was a state- room door which was found wash- ed up on the beach.
But if ever the hand of Fate showed plain, it showed in the last few hours that the Koombana rode the ocean. Fate dragged men aboard her who should never have been there; and she went out of her way to prevent others from sailing to certain death.
Büt let's start at the beginning.
* * *
KOOMBANA was the "food
and drink" ship of the
Nor'-West . . . much as the Koo- linda is today.
To those people who battled against the hardships of sub- tropical northern ports, she was a welcome sight as she arrived on her regular trips, bringing what few luxuries they had in life - luxuries such as fresh fruit or eggs, or a few vegetables, that you and I take so much for granted in our suburban homes.
For days before she arrived, men seldom nodded or met in a
. JOHN GARY
hotel bar without remarking: "Koombana's due on the 10th"; or, "I believe the Koombana left Onslow yesterday."
You'll hear the same thing to- day as they wait for the Koolinda, keeping tab on her progress up the coast, and hoping she may have some "extras" aboard her.
It was early in March that the Koombana steamed out of Fre- mantle. A dangerous month up north, at the best of times. For, from December to April is the "willy-willy" season when "cock- eyed bobs" send the pearling fleet scuttling for safety, and level whole towns until scarcely a house is left standing. Residential por- tion of Onslow, it is said, has been blown down and rebuilt 11 times.
Still, time, tide and ships wait for no man or no "willy-willies"; and the Koombana sailed in that fateful March according to sche- dule.
She reached Port Hedland be- fore the middle of the month, and there discharged cargo and took aboard more passengers. It was because Koombana had put down and picked up passengers at each port of call that it was impossible later to estimate, with any cer- tainty, the number of passengers who were drowned.
For years she had been in charge of Captain John Rees, a veteran of the sea who knew every inch of the nor'-west coast, and knew every mood of its
But when she set out on her
last voyage, Rees was no longer
at the helm. Koombana was in charge of Captain Allen.
It was while she was berthed at Port Hedland that one of the dreaded "willy-willies" started to blow up.
Brave men, remembering the death and destruction already caused by these "blows," would have hesitated to leave port that day. . . . But the Koombana left, as she was scheduled to.
Fast along the coast the news travelled: "The Koombana has left Hedland"; and so the people of Broome, expecting the arrival of relatives or stores, waited im- patiently. . . . Waited for a coffin ship that never came in.
into the teeth of the "willy- ' willy" the Koombana sailed; and, from that moment, the sea wrote its own story ... a story that was written in the tears and blood of hundreds of heartbroken people. A story that you and I can't read.
Whether her end came sud- denly; or whether she battled with the storm until every plate of her was twisted and warped,
nobody will ever know-no more than they will ever know exactly why such a ship should fail to ride even such a storm.
One theory is that, when she left Port Hedland, she was un- ballasted. Captain Allen, it is said, had found it necessary to pump the water from the ship's tanks so that she could cross the bar. Naturally, he would expect to re- plenish the tanks as soon as he hit the open sea.
But the Koombana (according
to those who knew her) was a top-heavy sort of a vessel; nar- row-bottomed and wide-topped: built for speed more than any- thing else. And it is questionable if, in the fury of the storm, Captain Allen had a chance to re- fill those tanks. If that be so, the ship was doomed from the mo- ment she drew anchor at Hedland,
* + *
AND here's how Fate show-
ed her hand. Over 100 passengers were drawn, like marionettes on strings, aboard the Koombana and to their death; yet there are scores of instances of men and women who desper- ately wanted to make the voyage, but whom Fate prevented.
For instance, meet Harry Swan, manager of the former de Vant sheep station at Port Hedland.
The station had recently been bought by Davis, one of the
State's biggest pearl buyers; and
he was aboard Koombana when she called at Hedland. He sent for his manager, Swan.
"You've been working hard. Swan," said Davis, when the men met on the wharf. "Go home, pack your port and come with me to Broome for a spell."
But Swan shook his head. "Can't be done, Mr. Davis. Thanks for the invitation, but we're busy on the station."
"What rot!" said Davis, "You've got an overseer. Come on and no excuses."
Still Swan was obdurate. "I've got to get those rams to work while the season's going, sir. I know it's your station, but it's my job to see that it's working smoothly. I appreciate the invita- tion, and I'll accept it later."
Davis gave it up, walked off muttering something about all work and no play . . . walked aboard ship and to his death, while Fate smiled as it thought of the lease of life it had given Harry Swan.
Davis and Swan-like you and me-just pawns in the great game. Let no man, be he prince or paw- per, think he is anything else.