1950s view of the Harwood ferry landing. Note barge carrying sugar cane to the mill. (DMR).The hero of punt number eight – Harwood

Reader Noel Parkinson recalls an act of bravery in the face of danger on the Clarence River crossing at Harwood.

As a kid I lived at Iluka, my secondary education being completed at Maclean Intermediate High School, necessitating a daily routine of crossing three vehicular ferries, namely Iluka, Goodwood Island and Harwood. Iluka had a weekday bus service to Grafton via Maclean, mainly catering for school children, although some parents utilised it as well.

To me then, school days appeared to have some form of adventure about them, mostly created by ourselves. Harwood ferry for some reason generated an extra attraction, morning or afternoon trips without exception. Rarely were we the first vehicle to be ushered onto the ferry, buses did not have any priority, generally we would be somewhere in the waiting queue, which could be quite long, particularly at designated holiday periods.

These delays in our forward journey presented an opportunity for us to get off the bus and more or less do our own thing, within reason that is, as our driver Ivan Boyle knew each of our parents, and as we all knew too well ‘bad news’ tended to travel quite rapidly. A fun thing to do when delays were obviously going to be longer; enjoy a trip across on the ferry as a foot passenger, then back again to board the bus and continue our journey to school or home.

We knew all the ferrymen, the friendly ones would allow us to wander about the ferry whilst underway, I always enjoyed standing at the doorway watching the steam engine do its thing, slow and methodical, with all the brass work highly polished.

We frequently hear the phrase “He’s a hero” generally referring to a brave or selfless act carried out by a normal everyday person.

Ivan Boyle our bus driver became a real life hero, and for him a totally appropriate title, even though he was never suitably rewarded by presentation of any medals or commendations. Only a suitably engraved wooden mantle clock.

It would have been in 1954, I think. I was around the thirteen mark at the time, when this act of shear bravery took place on punt number eight at Harwood.

The Iluka bus was an old White, poorly maintained and a victim of numerous breakdowns, this particular day we had struck the jackpot, first vehicle on the ferry deck, directed towards the front port side.

Access to the ferry was at a mandatory slow speed, upon our bus reaching the centre of the deck the engine stalled, knocking out the engine assistance to the mechanical brakes, thus the bus continued on its merry way heading for the steel gates, the braking system completely inoperative.

Aerial view of the newly-opened bridge and Maclean Bypass in 1966. (DMR). / View of the Harwood Bridge over the Clarence River South Arm from the old ferry landing at Harwood. Nov 2005. 

Naturally without brakes the bus gained speed and came in contact with the safety gates, unfortunately they could not sustain the impact and sprung open giving our bus a clear run across the landing flaps to the water. Miraculously Ivan was somehow able to engage reverse gear whilst still moving forward, thus bringing that frightening forward propulsion to a standstill.

Luckily for all of us onboard, as the front wheels of the bus had reached the edge of the flap ready to career into extremely deep water, with the potential loss of all lives. I exited courtesy of a nearby window as did most of the kids, but adults had to use the conventional means of the manually operated door. Incidentally the rear safety exit window could not be opened, the mechanism had completely seized.

Ivan did not abandon the driver’s seat, had he panicked and done so there would have been no survivors to tell the story. Without doubt Ivan saved the lives of every person on that bus and rightly deserves to be known by all as a hero … he is certainly my hero. I will never forget the incident which is firmly implanted in my memory bank.

Ivan was a humble man, like most real heroes, never considering himself to be one, just accepting he did what he had to do when confronted by a particular set of circumstances. No doubt we would have suffered post traumatic stress at the time, as for many weeks after the event we walked onto the ferry and were quite nervous on accessing and exiting the Goodwood Island and Iluka ferries as we had to remain in the bus at all times, window seats were in high demand!

As with surviving near tragedies, the mere fact you are around to tell the story is a natural talking point for a time, but eventually it becomes an adventure, however, never failing to realise how lucky you were on that particular day, and how different the result could have been.

Graeme Andrews’s article The long story of the old Wisemans Ferry punt (Afloat Feb’11) has made me ponder the question: is there is any official record of this particular incident?

From my memory the crossing was classified as part of the Pacific Highway, thus controlled by the Department of Main Roads and not Maclean Shire Council as would be the norm with most ferry crossings. It would be interesting to know if there is any historical record available.