Headline-makers making headlines

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Reporters wrote the news but sometimes they also became the news. The following was one example from The Star of The South.

Making the news while covering it was infrequent, but spectacular when it happened.

In 1959, a reporter and photographer covering an air crash in a snow-covered remote area of Central Otago themselves became air crash victims.

A Southland Aero Club Auster with three men on board was on a flight from Ranfurly to Invercargill in July 1959 when it crashed near Lake Onslow, 700m above sea level in the Lammerlaw Range.

Air searchers found the downed aircraft and photographer Des Woods, then 26, and 19-year-old reporter Neal Travis went out to Taieri aerodrome and clambered into an Otago Aero Club Piper at lunchtime on the Saturday for what was intended to be a routine, if just a little exciting, trip for some photos from Woods and some descriptive “colour” from the tyro Travis.

They were led into the crash scene by an Air Force Devon and asked to stick around as a guide for a supply drop to the three Southlanders.

Stick around they did, but not in the manner intended.

One minute, Travis was scribbling in his notebook a few hundred feet up in the air; the next, he and the others were dangling upside down in their aircraft, crashed in the snow like the other.

The three Southlanders raced over to their newly arrived companions: “Nice of you to drop in,” one of them said.

No-one was hurt and the six yarned and joked until three musterers arrived on horseback from Beaumont Station, several hours later.

It took the six men and their three rescuers four hours to get from the crash site to Beaumont Station; the three Southlanders who had had the worst of it were lashed on to the horses; Woods, Travis and their pilot, Bruce Crosbie, trudged along in the snow, Travis sometimes hanging on to a horse’s tail.

Travis cashed in on his escapade.

Soon afterwards, he was lured away to Sydney and there met Rupert Murdoch, who was just starting out on his empire building.

Travis became part of a movable feast of journalists who went from paper to paper and became known as “Rupert’s raiders.”

He became the New York correspondent for the Sydney Daily Mirror in 1966 and went on to be a novelist, a chat show host on television, a gossip columnist and as much a celebrity as those he wrote about.

He died of cancer in 2002, at the age of 62, and among his last visitors in hospital was friend and singer Lesley Gore, who sang for him her best-known hit, It’s My Party (and I’ll Cry If I Want To).

Woods, too, had job offers as a result of the crash but was content at The Star.

He moved to the The Star in Christchurch several years later and then in the mid-1970s helped set up the first photographic department at The Press.

The air crash survivors had a 50-year reunion in 2009 and the Dunedin pilot, Bruce Crosbie, by then living in Auckland, learned of it through another old Dunedin hand, Peter Devlin, who had retired after being sports editor of the Auckland Star.

Woods, incidentally, was the centrepiece of one of the great rugby photography stories: the story went that after Ron Jarden had scored an intercept try in the tumultuous first test at Carisbrook against South Africa in 1956, to put the All Blacks in the lead, he turned to Woods and asked: “Did you get that, Des?” Woods replied he did.

The Star Sports on that Saturday night ran a spectacular full-page photo of Jarden in full flight on the way to scoring.

(This was a well known story among journalists and photographers of a certain age but had something of a mythic quality about it. The author asked Woods in 2014 if it were true and he replied, “every word.”)