REUNITED IN BALLINA: Three of the raftsmen who sailed the Las Balsas rafts from Ecuador to Ballina in 1973 at last Friday night’s 40th anniversary celebrations, (from left) Hugo Becerra, Fernand Robichaud and Gabriel Salas.
REUNITED IN BALLINA: Three of the raftsmen who sailed the Las Balsas rafts from Ecuador to Ballina in 1973 at last Friday night’s 40th anniversary celebrations, (from left) Hugo Becerra, Fernand Robichaud and Gabriel Salas. Graham Broadhead

Las Balsas voyage changed their lives

HUGO Becerra was a happy man last weekend.

The 69-year-old from Sydney was one of three of the original 12 Las Balsas raft expedition crewmen who returned to Ballina for the inaugural Ballina Prawn Festival, which celebrated the 40th anniversary of the voyage from Ecuador.

The rafts arrived in Ballina in November 1973 after 178 days at sea.

He was pleased to see Ballina celebrate its part in a voyage that had international significance.

Hugo and fellow Chilean Gabriel Salas remained in Australia after the voyage, obtaining political asylum from Prime Minister of the time Gough Whitlam.

"This is nice," Hugo said as he wandered around the Prawn Festival site, which followed a Las Balsas anniversary dinner the night before.

"It's wonderful to see."

He said he had fond memories of the voyage, saying he "found himself" during the watches in the middle of the night.

"It was just myself and the universe," he said.

"When I landed here (in Ballina), I was a completely different person."

He has been back to Ballina several times to visit the raft in the Ballina Naval and Maritime Museum, and has great memories of arriving here in 1973.

"The people were very friendly. The whole town had a good time," he said.

Dignitary pays visit to region

The ambassador handed over an Ecuadorian flag to Ron Creber, the curator of the Ballina Naval and Maritime Museum, where a composite of the surviving two balsa log rafts is on display.

And he joined the three raftsmen in officially opening the Las Balsas raft display at Ballina airport.

The display was co-ordinated and funded by the Rotary Club of Ballina-on-Richmond.

Club member Trevor Emery is a friend of the ambassador, having met him on a flight, and arranged the visit.

The ambassador was interested to learn that Julian Assange had a local connection, once living at Goomangar.

Mr Assange currently is holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.