In conversation

Rob and Robin Smith shake hands at their 40 year reunion – “Thanks mate! You saved us. We are all forever thankful." (Photo supplied)

Elissa Friday

Rob Hunter believes lived experiences become a part of who you are. The long-time teacher has drawn on a traumatic kidnapping nine days into his career to help others heal. He speaks with Elissa Friday.

Where did you grow up?
I’m from Kyabram in Northern Victoria, up near to Shepparton Echuca. I lived nearly all of my childhood there and spent many of my teaching years in that area.

As of the middle of last year, we’re now based in Ocean Grove. It’s a beautiful area, that’s why we decided to move here.

Tell us about your family?
My wife’s name is Judi (Judith), and we have four adult sons who have all left home, grown up. We also have three grandchildren.

Do you mind if I ask your age, and for how long have you been a teacher?
I’m 63, and I have been teaching since 1977. I really finished my teaching career in February 2018, so it’s been 41 years. I love children and enjoyed most seeing them learn and grow.

Now I’m working as a chaplain at Leopold Primary School. I actually left teaching to go into chaplaincy.

Where were you teaching when yourself and nine of your students were kidnapped?
I was teaching at Wooreen State School in South Gippsland, near Leongatha. It’s a rural school, so there was one teacher and one classroom at the school. That teacher was me.

The kidnapping happened on my ninth day teaching ever. I was 20 years of age and also headmaster of the school at the time.

What were your first thoughts when you saw, through the doorway, a man holding a gun?
One of my friends had been held up at a wedding by a gunman on the previous weekend, and they had told me about the experience. People had to hand over their cash and jewellery at this wedding reception, so that was my first thought when I saw the gunman.He was scary-looking, he was shaking and perspiring, and he wore a balaclava over his head.

I just did exactly what I was told. The first thing that I did was offer to write out a cheque, I assumed he wanted money. He said to me: ‘that’s not the sort of money I want mate’.

Later I found out that one of the ransoms demanded by him was seven million dollars of used, US currency.

Had you ever felt fear like that in your life before?
I don’t think I have ever felt like that before. I had palpitations, adrenalin rushes, desire to go to the toilet, and had a sense of alarm.

I didn’t know immediately that we were in trouble, because I thought I could talk my way out of it. But I knew the kidnapper wasn’t stupid because he had planned it all reasonably well.

Initially we were all chained up together. Both of my hands were chained and padlocked. He left us momentarily in the school room. The story unfolded that he had actually been on the run for two months at the time, after escaping from Geelong Jail. He had also committed a crime virtually similar to this one at Faraday.

Five of the nine kids were grade 5 and 6, and they had been at that school for five or six years. They were very aware of community. They had that look in their eyes of ‘you can’t let him do this to us’. The gunman said to them, ‘if you don’t do what I say I’ll hurt the teacher’. I made sure I didn’t do anything to alarm the kids, I played along with it to pacify them and keep them calm.

You were all “crammed” into a truck?
We were all crammed in there for about two hours. It was a long time to be blindfolded and tied up. The drive followed the Grand Ridge Road in South Gippsland. The road follows the peaks, so it was very up and down and around on the road. Lots of us were vomiting from travel sickness. The children were crying in the back … calling out to the kidnapper to please stop the vehicle.

To where were you driven?
Everything was on his terms. He was driving at a tremendous rate. [But] … there was soon to be a divine intervention (as described by the truck driver that we ran into).

I’m looking down the barrel of death, this was the height of the trauma, the kids are crying, I’m vomiting whilst unable to see anything.Then we had an accident, which became the game changer. We should have all been badly wounded from having been pushed off the road after hitting a logging truck. Our back left wheel was hanging over the precipice. We were being braced by a 4 inch wooden post well embedded in the ground, which I read about in two different independent police reports.

The logging truck was blocking the entire road, our vehicle was a right-off. The log truck driver, Robin Smith, and his 17-year old brother were then kidnapped with us. The chains were taken off the kids, and put onto us blokes.

Half an hour later another logging truck and a hitchhiker came along and they were kidnapped too. So now, there were five of us men on the ground and chained up in the middle of the road. The end of the chain was padlocked to the logging truck, so we couldn’t go anywhere. At this point there were 14 of us kidnapped.

Another “divine intervention” took place?
We waited for another hour for another vehicle to come. The children were left free to sit out on the road by the gutter. We were thinking what the heck will unfold? Devine intervention happened again, when two women came along in a combi VW camper van. He [the kidnapper] allowed the women to interact with the children … The kidnapper bundled us all in the large camper van. He then drove us recklessly around for another 2.5 hours until he found his camping spot that he had pre-prepared in Mullungdung State Forest.

One person escaped?
It was on the 14th February that Robin Smith outsmarted the kidnapper by being able to loosen the chain around his wrist, during a visit to the toilet. He deliberately twisted the links, so he was able to loosen it later during the night and get his hand out. He waited for hours hoping the kidnapper had gone to sleep.

He risked his life making an escape.

Robin ran 10 kilometres to a farmhouse where he made a phone call. When the kidnapper woke up, all hell broke loose … We were bundled into the vehicle again and became part of a high speed chase. A lot of gunshots were exchanged before police shot the tyres of the camper.

For how long did you endure all of this?
All together it lasted for 21 hours … it became national news.

Tell us about why you feel a bit like a ‘wounded healer’?
Through this experience, I have become much more sensitive to peoples’ trauma, hurt and pain. If you get over trauma like that well, you can be what I call a wounded healer, but if you don’t get over the trauma you can be a hurt person who hurts people.

Tell us about your book Rob?
Experiences like this become a part of who you are, and that’s why now I’m very happy to have written the book Day 9 at Wooreen. The book was published by Wilkinson. People can buy it online, in book stores and find it in the library.

My business, Kidnapped Teacher Talks, includes presenting my Health after Hurt seminars, which celebrate my health and how I got over that trauma.