Haege Hestnes, Margaret Smith, Rolf Hestnes and Peter Smith with their tour guide Carolyn Dellar at Jellinbah Mine.
Haege Hestnes, Margaret Smith, Rolf Hestnes and Peter Smith with their tour guide Carolyn Dellar at Jellinbah Mine.

Emerald woman shares a true fairytale of friendship

AN EMERALD woman has shared a “true fairy story” about how she made two great Norwegian friends and why they visited her hometown.

Margaret Smith welcomed Haege and Rolf Hestnes to Emerald in March where she took them on a tour of Jellinbah Mine and through an underground mine at the Gemfields before she said goodbye and they returned home.

Although it sounds like a normal tale of friends visiting friends, it’s the story of how they met that’s the most interesting.

In August, 2015, Mrs Smith journeyed to Norway in search of her late Uncle Tom’s grave.

Thomas John Higgins flew Beau fighters which attacked German ships in the Norwegian Fiords. In 1945 he attacked a 3000 tonne vessel and Mrs Smith said he was then seen crashing in flames into the ocean.

His body washed ashore, and he was buried in Norway with full military honours.

“It was a life long dream of mine to visit Uncle Tom’s grave,” Mrs Smith said.

“It was a very emotional two days when I stood at Tom’s grave (at Trondheim Stavne Cemetery) and offered a prayer for him.

“The war cemetery is maintained by the Norwegian Government and is very beautifully kept.”

Before she left the town, Mrs Smith attended Mass at St Olav Church and when talking to the priest she shared why she had ventured to their country.

She asked him to offer a mass for her uncle and left his particulars, but didn’t leave any of her own details, not even her surname.

The priest later told one of his parishioners Haege Hestnes, who regularly visits Australia, of Mrs Smith and her story and joked to “find out who she was” during the next visit.

“Quite a huge assignment you would agree, considering there are 25 million people in Australia, and Fr Egil didn’t even know my name,” Mrs Smith said.

“If Haege knew my surname was Smith, she may have given up before she started.

“But Haege was the perfect lady to send on that ‘needle in a haystack’ mission.”

Mrs Hestnes visited the war memorial in Canberra in 2018 and after searching through archives and she contacted the Historical Association of Warwick in Uncle Tom’s home town.

The team there knew the family and put her in touch with Mary Higgins.

Ms Higgins said it was probably her cousin, Margaret Smith, who she was trying to find and passed on her email.

“So, jubilations and celebrations, Haege touched base with me,” Mrs Smith said.

“So began lots of emails back and forth to Norway.

“Haege became our official protector and visitor of Tom’s grave.”

Mrs Smith first met Mrs and Mr Hestnes when they were in the country in 2019. They shared beer and seafood and spent hours looking at photos and memorabilia of Uncle Tom.

Continuing to strengthen their bond, the pair braved the journey to Emerald this year, despite recent bush fires across the country and an oncoming coronavirus.

“I believe that Haege and Rolf were so lucky to fit their holiday plans in prior to the coronavirus travel bans, especially when they almost didn’t travel at the beginning because of the bushfires,” Mrs Smith said.

“If they had delayed or postponed their plans, they certainly wouldn’t have had their holiday at all, and worst scenario too would have been scrambling to get back to Norway.”

Mrs Smith said it was a “true fairy story” and not something that would happen too often.

She said she was thankful for her new friends and that she was able to show off a part of Australia they had never seen before.