It is difficult for a single young man living and working in Sydney to save enough money to make a trip to Europe. There are too many temptations. Jack and Laurie and I decided to go to Verandah Camp and work on the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme. That was in 1965 and they hired anybody in those days, no questions asked. We were taken on as pick and shovel men out on the bench, a rough and rocky dirt road cut into the mountain, digging trenches to lay the huge concrete pipelines.
The camp was located two kilometers from the Bella Vista grocery store and consisted of two lines of wooden huts, a washroom, canteen, bar and a small office building. We were paid full board and wages. There was nowhere to go and nothing to spend our money on. There were, of course, no women in Verandah Camp. We were taken out onto the bench after breakfast every day by truck and brought back in the evening for dinner and bed.
Life was about as boring as it could be, especially on Sundays when there was absolutely nothing to do in the camp but drink beer and do our best to avoid being drawn into brawls with some of our workmate thugs whose metabolism inevitably reacted aggressively to alcohol, before they could ingurgitate enough beer to make them drunk. It was good to have Laurie around on those occasions. His destructive talents as second row forward in the Eastern suburbs rugby union team came in quite handy.
What a windfall it was the day the truck returned unexpectedly on the bench to take us to fight a bushfire that had flared up in the mountains. We all jumped on board enthusiastically and were taken a few kilometers further along the bench where we were discharged. Armed with our shovels we then had to walk several kilometers, cross a small creek, deployed a tree trunk as a makeshift bridge, and made our way through several more kilometers of rugged mountain bush land before finally reaching the bushfire.
It soon became obvious there was no way we were going to be able to extinguish the bushfire with our shovels. In fact the whole situation was quite ridiculous. The red-hot flames were soaring tens of meters above our heads as they engulfed the tall gum trees, jumping from one to another at alarming speed. The heat was so ferocious we could not even get anywhere near the fire let alone hit it with our shovels. It was quite pathetic. We felt completely helpless. The best we could do was make a few fire breaks but even that proved of little or no avail.
Without our knowing it, the bushfire had made headlines in the Sydney newspapers. There were no mobile telephones in those days. We had no means of communication. The next thing we knew, planes were flying over our heads dropping food and cigarettes by parachute. It was almost unreal seeing those unexpected packages floating down towards us from the sky. Apparently we were considered national heroes braving our lives to fight the ferocious bushfire and deserved the best logistical support the nation could provide.
We stayed out in the bush for almost a week surveying the bushfire as best we could from a safe distance, taking care to remain out of its path. The days were still quite warm at that time of the year and we slept out under the stars. It was barely worse than Verandah Camp. By the end of the week, the fire had more or less burned itself out and we were ready to head back. The problem was we had lost our bearings and had no idea where we were. The Snowy Mountains covers a vast area with numerous mountains and valleys that all look alike. We knew Verandah Camp was perched on the side of one of the mountains but we did not know which one.
After wandering around in circles for some time we finally realised we were completely lost. It was at this moment that somebody, whom most of us had never spoken to before - a migrant workerfrom Yugoslavia - suddenly rose up out of nowhere, and began to lead the way. There were about twenty of us in the group, including two foremen, but nobody said a word. Nobody questioned his authority. He seemed to know what he was doing and where he was going and we all followed him blindly.
Occasionally he would tell us to wait and he would then disappear for five or ten minutes before reappearing again to lead us on. Night began to fall and it was getting dark, but he did not stop. We walked at a good pace. It was difficult to keep up with him, scrambling over the rugged mountain bush land, not seeing where we were going. We sometimes stumbled in the dark but kept going. Happily we were young and fairly fit in those days. I am not sure if I ever knew his name. I probably knew his first name but can no longer remember it. We all knew each other by our first names. There were many migrants from many different countries and we never bothered with names. No names were offered and none were asked.
He was a migrant worker who spoke little and spoke softly, with broken English and, like the rest of us, had never seen that part of the country before. He somehow managed to find the trail we had taken several days previously almost as easily as an experienced aboriginal tracker could have done. On that warm summer night he led us all, migrants and true blue Australians alike, out of the ragged Snowy Mountain bush, safely back to Verandah Camp.
In that critical situation we all blindly and willingly followed somebody we hardly knew, who appeared out of nowhere and who disappeared back to nowhere as soon as he had accomplished his self-appointed mission. He was not in my group on the bench and I ignored who he was, but I do know that I shall never forget him and what he did that night.
This, I believe, is a perfect illustration of the distinctive characteristic of a leader, an individual whose exceptional qualities are revealed by an exceptional event or set of circumstances, in a particular place at a particular point of time - the right person in the right place at the right time. The world is perhaps full of potential leaders but their exceptional qualities are possibly never revealed, neither to themselves, nor to others.