Bushwalking in Australia - be Prepared
Ah, bushwalking, another seemingly benign but potentially life threatening activity to do in Australia. You may have heard of Jamie Neale – he’s the young British backpacker who went bushwalking in the Blue Mountains in July 2009 only to get lost and spend the next 12 days trying to find his way out of the bush and survive to tell (err, SELL) the tale. He was less than 100 km from the centre of Sydney, and about 2km from a 5-star hotel.
You see he broke pretty much every bushwalking safety rule there is, I’ll detail them below so you can see just how lucky he is to be alive today.
This is how he described himself on the Sixty Minutes story that aired soon after his rescue:
“ Yeah, it ah - I admit I've been a total idiot and, in the UK, you walk for a day, you'd end up in a pub. But, just out here, you can get lost so easily and that, I think you should respect the fact and be more prepared, and think about what you're doing a lot more.”
That’s got to be the understatement of the century!
First, tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return.
(Tell this guy. He's tough but sensitive - see the flower?)
Tell anyone you like – the manager of the youth hostel, the local police, people at the information centre and of course don’t forget to tell them when you return – how embarrassing for a search party to be sent out to find you when you’ve already returned safely and are enjoying a quiet beer at the pub.
Jamie didn’t tell anyone what his plans were, so it was four days before anyone even realized he was missing and a search party was sent out. By that time fears for his safety were grave to say the very least, this was because nobody knew where he was, where he had been heading to and exactly how long he had been missing. Police described the situation “like looking for a needle in a haystack”.
Jamie’s story highlights the necessity of bushwalkers using Personal Locator Beacons PLB or EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Response Beacon) which can be rented for nominal sums or borrowed free of charge from major bushwalking regions like the Blue Mountains or the Kosciuszko National Park.
But they are a last resort only, if you can get mobile phone service this is your first choice. The basic purpose of distress radiobeacons is to get people rescued within the so-called "golden day" (the first 24 hours following a traumatic event) during which the majority of survivors can usually be saved.
But, just because you’ve got a PLB or an Epirb doesn’t mean you can go wandering into the bush without proper gear and preparation!
Essentials for Bushwalking
- Waterproof overgear and warm, dry spare clothing
- A box of matches stored in a water tight container
- Enough food for your trip plus emergency rations
- A whistle
- A compass and a map, and be sure you know how to use them
- A first aid kit
- Water – at least a litre, more if you can carry it
- Food – enough for two days, just in case
With food and water – be safe rather than sorry, don’t hog it all down. Conserve and ration it in case things do go wrong. Try to only drink the water you carry, water is not always available and untreated creek, bore-water or rain water isn’t always safe – despite what Bear Gryf might suggest!
Jamie Neale had insufficient water and no food at all, somehow he survived on seeds and nuts that he found, subsequently he was dehydrated and showed signs of malnutrition when he was examined in hospital on his return.
Plan Your Bushwalk
Don’t take on Everest, pick walks that are within your fitness capacity and level of experience. Just because ‘walk’ is part of the title doesn’t mean anyone can do it.
Never walk alone, Jamie did and look what happened to him. Try to walk in groups of at least four, that way if you do get in trouble you can split into safe groups of two – one to get help (if you can’t call for it) and one to stay put.
Make sure your clothing and footwear are up to the task; thongs, sandals and wedge heels are not suitable footwear, think runners or proper walking boots.
Take extra clothing to be prepared for a sudden change in weather. Also, don’t be a hero – turn back if the weather starts closing in or if things are staring to feel out of control.
(Are we having fun yet?)
On Cold Mountain
Overnight camping and cold / snow walks require even more planning and gear, here’s a list of the absolute necessities, all to be carried on your back in a pack. Remember these are the bare essentials:
- Sleeping Bag
- Sleeping mat
- Tent or swag
- Rubbish bag
- Hat for sun protection and beanie or balaclava for protection from the cold
- Waterproof clothes
- Underwear and good walking socks
- Thermal clothing
- Polar fleece or jacket
- Matches / fire-starters (be mindful of fire safety ratings and signs on the day)
- Toilet paper, plastic bad and toilet trowel – I’ll let you do the math on this
- First Aid Kit – with plenty of blister packs and band-aids
- Sunscreen and lip-balm
This list is just the gear, you’ll also need enough food and water for at least two days.
Help! We're lost!
Now if the worst happens and you do get into trouble, here’s the drill:
- Stay where you are & stay together as a group
- Make your location as visible as possible (don’t light a fire though – think about it!)
- Relax and conserve your energy
- Don’t panic and don’t split up
The Australian bush is a harsh mistress and the risks of taking her on are high, respect her and follow the rules and you’ll be fine.
Before You Go
If you’re planning a walk in Blue Mountains National Park, free PLBs are available for loan when you register your walk with NSW Police or the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). You can pick one up from the NPWS Office in Blackheath between 9am - 4pm or after hours from the Police Stations at Katoomba (phone 02 4782 8199) and Springwood (phone 02 4751 0299).
You can also find more information about being safe in the bush at www.police.nsw.gov.au/community_issues/crime_prevention/trek.
Kosciuszko National Park also hires out PLBs to bushwalkers for a small fee - contact the Snowy Region Visitor Centre for more information.
Author: Phil Sylvester
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