What happens when a walk in the wild goes wrong
It’s my first walk in the wilds for quite some time. Little annoyances are mounting up; where’s my pack liner? Where are my merino undies? The weather forecast is gloomy, but why wouldn’t it be? Finally I heave my pack into the car, and off I go for a late afternoon walk along the bush edge. At the road-end, it’s hosing down. Raincoat on and out into it. Maybe three hours of daylight left.
Two hours slipping and sliding through supplejack and I’m chilled, drenched, and ready for a hot shower, a whisky, and bed. The track back up to the road-end is 100 metres further up this stream. The boulders are slimy, the water is icy, I’m starting to tip over. I’m sitting in the stream and that felt very very bad. My right ankle is hanging at an unlikely angle. No pain, but a great deal of numbness. Bum-shuffling to the bank, and shouting a particular word, over and over – each time with new emphasis, as a new facet of my predicament presents itself. Cold, heavy rain. Time to take stock.
I could leave my pack, hippity-hobble up the stream to the track. Shuffle-crawl up the track to the car. Drive (left-footed?) to hospital, and self-rescue like a champion. More likely, I would injure myself further, and be stranded with no equipment. I’m squinting at my phone and realise my glasses are somewhere out there among the rocks. I could splash back into the water and search for them, but I would need my glasses in order to find them... Peering at my phone through a crack between my fingers, I read, “no service”. There’s no telling how far I would have to crawl to get a signal. I need to make a camp while I’m still somewhat warm, and there’s still daylight.
I get my bumbag out of my pack and put on my head torch. I bind my foam sleeping mat around my lower leg. As I’m congratulating myself for thinking so clearly and making sound decisions, I wriggle away to find a camp spot, leaving my bumbag behind on the stream edge. The bumbag contains my whistle, my first aid kit, most of my food. It’s gone, now. It’s down there still.
Seemingly a long while later, I find a likely camp spot. The tarp is up, the groundsheet is down. I’m in a dry jersey, in my sleeping bag, trying to arrange myself in a way that doesn’t feel too weird. The sky fades, the stream gets louder, the ruru begin to call, the moon rises, and it’s all rather beautiful, considering. My lack of text-message contact with home is unusual, but no one will be particularly worried about me until tomorrow. I’m close to the road end, my wife knows (more or less) where I am, and when I’m due out. I’ve felt out to the edges of my situation. I want to keep warm tonight, and be rescued tomorrow. I’m facing embarrassment and discomfort, but probably not death. There is, however, a horrible day ahead tomorrow for my wife, for whom my situation is not a known, finite thing. For her, its edges drop away.
I like to think I am experienced, aware of risks, and careful in my approach. It occurs to me that experience does not – in itself – mitigate any dangers at all. Knowing I would need my pack liner is not keeping my gear any drier. The cotton underwear I knew would be cold and wet, is cold, and wet. The forecast rain is still falling.
Hour by hour, the moon and the rain showers pass over. Some while later the sun rises. I yell for help, and shriek an ‘SOS’ through a whistle improvised from a scrap of paper, torn from my map. I doze off under strengthening rain.
I’m wide awake and the stream is brown, foaming, roaring in its banks. It’s a small catchment, but I would rather shift camp now with some degree of grace, than be scrambling about in a torrent. If a dam or slip gives way upstream, I will get no notice of a flash flood. My dry jersey goes into a dry bag, yesterday’s soaking wet fleece goes back on, and I start packing up. Some of yesterday’s tarp knots were less than ‘text-book’, but eventually I’m hopping and dragging up onto a higher terrace – hopefully safely above the swollen stream.
After a great deal of fumbling, the tarp is back up, my dry jersey is back on, and I’m back in my sleeping bag. Squinting at my phone; ‘no service’. I compose several text messages anyway – where I am, how I am – and lie back and wait, slowly refilling my drinking bottle from the rain pouring off my tarp.
My phone chirps. New messages! ‘How’s it going?’ ‘Please make contact as soon as you get this.’ ‘I’ve called the Police.’
The final message asks, ‘How are you feeling?’ and I reply with ‘Comfortable’, just as my phone charge gives out. I plug in my phone charger and scroll back through the messages, making sure my coordinate messages had sent successfully. The only message showing as ‘sent’ is ‘Comfortable’. This comedy of errors is not yet a laughing matter. I re-send my coordinates. A flurry of texts goes back and forth as my connection flickers. I hobble further along the ridge, holding up my phone in supplication. Later, I hear a rifle shot, and respond with a rifle shot.
'Boy am I glad to see you!' Four Search and Rescue volunteers arrive at my camp, rain gear swishing and radios crackling, striding about on their hale, capable ankles. It’s two hours before dusk. A helicopter might be able to winch me up from a nearby clearing. An alternative is their helping me along the river, then back up the steep, slippery track. A third option is to bash a track up a 60-metre ridge to nearby farmland. There are several contour lines along the way, but it’s tantalisingly close. The helicopter is at least an hour away, and the weather is closing back in. The regular track is vertical in places. I’m keen to try the bush bash. Where possible, I hop between two of my rescuers. Where the bush is too dense, my three-legged-dog hippity-hobble is making good progress. My years playing Capoeira are coming in handy, but I’m getting tired, heart hammering, breath ragged.
The fence! The searchers’ Hilux! The relief! The gratitude! The next phase of my situation begins.
My wings have been clipped. I broke both bones in my right ankle. It will take some while for them to knit, and for me to regain strength and confidence. Saving up for a Personal Locator Beacon will also take a while. Gear I damaged or lost will need to be repaired or replaced. My guilty pleasure of solo bushwalking has been put away for now.
Stubbornness and impatience are effective counters for experience. Bones can break absurdly easily. Hollywood exposes us to people struggling with life-and-death situations, with the fate of the world in the balance. My particular evening was more nuanced. It went from high hopes (might get a deer), to lower hopes (might see some sign), to no hopes (might head home). After the accident, my expectations scaled back from avoiding embarrassment (can I make it back to the car?) to accepting that I was in over my head, and the consequences of a failed self-rescue were much more dire than the consequences of waiting for help.
Huge thanks to the Police, who initiated the search immediately when my wife reported me overdue. Huge thanks to the searchers, who dropped everything that Saturday afternoon to come and look for me. I’ve received wonderful care from hospital staff, from friends, from family, from colleagues. A big ‘sorry’ to my beloved, for what I put her through that day. I am a private person who is very ‘bad at asking for help’, so it’s been a tender time. At least I didn’t need the helicopter!