DEEP WEST: Houdini defies gravity in Diggers Rest


    By Christina Browning

    In the unassuming town of Diggers Rest, an intriguing piece of history is etched into the landscape. It was here, over a century ago on March 18, 1910, that the legendary Harry Houdini made aviation history. The world-renowned escapologist and magician achieved the first controlled, powered aircraft flight in Australia, soaring briefly but momentously over the fields. 

    Houdini, born Erik Weiss in Hungary, had emigrated to the United States and risen to global fame through his death-defying stunts and illusions. Federation University historian, Dr David Waldron explains “his daring spirit and determination brought him to Australia in 1910, where he performed harrowing escapes like leaping from Melbourne’s Queen’s Bridge into the Yarra with hands cuffed. But it was in Diggers Rest that Houdini truly defied gravity.”

    According to news reports at the time Houdini made three successful flights that day, reaching altitudes up to 30 metres and remaining aloft for up to 3.5 awe-inspiring minutes. A crowd of one hundred was there to watch. 

    Newspapers reported: ‘In his first attempt, Houdini sent his machine tearing across the paddock at a tremendous speed, the biplane rising in less than a hundred yards. Just as it rose the machine swerved straight for a solid gum tree, and the hearts of the onlookers beat fast as they saw disaster – perhaps death – right in the track. Mechanically the aviator moved the elevating lever, and the biplane skimmed over the tree just like a bird.’ (The Argus, 19 March 1910, p.13) 

    ‘After a short preliminary flight, lasting 28 seconds, Houdini took flight again, and amid loud applause from the hundred or more spectators, who were on the ground, described three circles at altitudes varying from 20 ft (6 metres) to over 100 ft (30 metres), covering a distance of between three and four miles in 3 mins 45 seconds.’ (The Argus, 21 March 1910) 

    Met with cheers from the excited crowd of spectators, Houdini was reported to have remarked afterwards: “I have fulfilled my greatest ambitions. I shall never forget my sublime and enthralling sensations, and I only hope that my success will encourage other aviators to persevere and conquer the air.” (Weekly Times, 19 March 1910, p.36) 

    In March 2010, a monument was erected in Diggers Rest to commemorate the centenary of Houdini’s pioneering flight. At the unveiling, Melton resident Ian Satur displayed a painstakingly crafted one-third scale replica of Houdini’s 1910 biplane that he built over 700 hours.

    In further efforts to share this captivating history, historian Dr. David Waldron recently presented a magic show titled ‘Nine and a Half Things You Didn’t Know About Harry Houdini’ as part of the Australian Heritage Festival at Melton City Libraries, performing in a duo with his frequent collaborator, magician and historian, Dr Jo Clyne. 

    Today, the family-run Russo Estate sits on the site where Houdini originally flew. The winery proudly pays homage to this captivating lineage, with award-winning ‘Houdini’ wines. As owner Kurt Russo says, “Our heritage is such an integral part of what makes this place so unique and special. To be able to continue that legacy through our wines is an unexpected privilege. We had no idea of the history when we purchased the land!”. Visitors can sip history at the Russo Estate cellar door or enjoy a wine at the Italian restaurant, celebrating the daring spirit of the legendary Harry Houdini. 

    So take a trip to Diggers Rest and raise a glass to the amazing feat that once graced its skies! 

    Christina Browning
    Western Melbourne Tourism

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