Thursday, 16 September 2010

Heysen Trail: The fall

September 14th was another rainy gray day for me on the Heysen Trail. I had hiked the day before in drenching rain and was throuroghly fed up with it already. I expected a lot of things that day, but not in the least that I was going to have the most dangerous and unpredictable hiking accident of my entire hiking career.

To understand what had happened and why, let me start with the circumstances. And unfortunately, all goes back to the rain. It had been raining almost every day on the Heysen Trail. This has been a record rain September for Southern Australia. So the ground was totally saturated leading to erosion.

Still happy before the fall
On that specific day at 5 pm I was walking along one of the Bundaleer canals, an irrigation system that was built at the last turn of the century. Although mostly disused now, most of the canals were full of water now due to excessive rain. The canal bed is made of concrete, but around it is a wall of rocks and soil with a narrow track on it, which now has become the Heysen Trail I was walking on.

The canals used to take water out of natural creeks and at that specific place I was approaching the concrete canal connects with a creek. In order to cross the creek you leave the one meter wide walkway paralleling the canal and step onto a wooden bridge.

Everthing looked perfectly normal. There was no way to foresee what would happen now. Because I did not know that the canal was leaking and the water streaming out of the canal had been eroding the wall next to it underground. I could just see a nice walking trail with undisturbed surface leading up to bridge.

What happened next is something you would only expect in a horror movie. Only that it happened to me - in real life: I took just another step on the walkway and was just about to enter the bridge when the ground underneath my feet crumbled and gave way. The best way to describe it is to say: The earth just swallowed me. The ground collapsed and I fell through a hole in the ground into the eroded cave underneath that collapsed as well. I fell all the way to the bottom of the creek with the soil and rocks following me and burying me. I fell 5 meters straight down.

The hole I fell through
Everything happened in seconds, but I still remember every milisecond. When I felt the ground giving way, I first thought that I would just sink in knee deep and that would be it. In the next split second I realised in growing horror that I was going in the whole way. Everything went dark around me and rocks were falling on top of me - but at least I was still upright. The next split second was the very worst: I realised I was doing a sommersault in all this rockslide and hitting my head. And to make things worse: I was in a narrow gully and all the soil and rocks were coming after me and burying me alive.
The gully I ended up in
In all the panic I still had two flashes: First: Protect my glasses. Second: Keep moving so I stay on top of the rock slide. I remembered reading about snow avalanches where you have to keep moving to create a cave inside the snow. And luckily I did both things very successfully.

After what seemed like an eternity the whole commotion stopped. My head was not buried. I could still breathe. I could still see. My glasses were on. I tried to move. I could still move every limb. I successfully buried myself out of the soil and rocks and assessed the damage. My clothes were more or less completely torn. I had lost one trekking pole, a water bottle and my cap. I was hurting all over and worst of all I had a very deep cut on my wrist that was bleeding profusely. I could recover the trekking pole and the water bottle, but the cap was lost under the rock slide.

The hole again
I was shaking and totally confused, but I had to do something. I had to get out of this creek bed somehow. And I thought how lucky I had been to survive all this with only minor damages. I basically thought that this is the end of the horror movie. But unfortunately, I was wrong.

The muddy creek
The creek was only about 10 meters wide and had very little water in it. As I could not climb up the steep gully and the cave I had fallen through to cross the creek on the bridge, I had to cross the creek down in the creek bed. And that looked easy enough. Piece of cake, I thought. Just cross the little muddy bit, jump over the little water flow and climb up the cliff on the other side. But what looked like muddy ground was in fact deep liquid muck. I took one step and was in it thigh deep. Still being confused from the fall I took another step in and suddenly I was in horror movie part two. I was in waist deep liquid mud and sinking in further and further by the minute. I could not feel any firm ground underneath my feet - I was just sinking in more and more. I had flashes of people dying in a moor. I started thrashing around to find firm ground but the only thing I achieved was to sink in even further. First I still tried to protect my bleeding hand, but after two minutes panic set in and I frantically tried to grab something firm with my hands and pull me out of the muck. Carrying a heavy backpack did not really help. After what seemed like an eternity I had pulled myself out of the muck crawling and clinging to firmer ground with my hands. My bleeding hand was totally dirty now. But at least I was still alive.

Down in the back of my mind two things dawned on me now. This is a situation were I cannot cope alone any more. I needed help. And second I realised that I was probably in shock. Not in the colloquial sense, but that I really was in the state of a medical shock. I remembered seeing a farm close by on the map. I staggered out of the creek bed with a lot of pain and problems and saw farm sheds and a gate. I opened the gate and found a farm house. I could not see a car, but the place looked inhabited. I was praying for someone to be at home, but I could only see dogs. Oh god, please don't let this be horror movie part three - being bitten by a dog. But the dogs were friendly and I just stood there in front of the house shouting "Hello!" and praying for someone to be at home. After a couple of minutes I heard steps and Heather came out of the house.

Me still in shock and mud
Heather later told me her side of the story. She can't hear very well and never heard me shouting. But she said she felt that something is totally wrong and got up to look out of the window. She saw a tall mud covered person (she could not tell whether male or female) with a completely white face. She said I looked like a living dead. But having lived on a farm she luckily knew exactly what to do and she even figured out what had happened before I tried to explain. She made me sit down. She realised immediately that I was in shock whereas I was just worried about my bleeding hand. Step by step she took care of me. I got rid of my backpack. She washed my hand with salt water and desinfectant. She inspected the bumps on my head that were not bleeding. She let me take a shower - luckily they had an outside shower on the farm. She brought me clean and dry clothes from her partner. And contrary to me she realised that the biggest problem was not my bleeding hand but the shock. And that hit me when I had finished showering. My blood pressure plummeted and I nearly collapsed in the bathroom. I sat on the toilet to recover and somehow managed to get into the dry clothes. She made me lie down on her sofa next to the fire and gave me hot sweet tea. I was shaking badly then and my face was white.
My pack used to be black
But from then on everything got better by the minute. Her partner showed up who is a First Aid helper. They inspected the wound that had stopped bleeding and dressed it up. And he prescribed me a drink... After all, this is Australia! So when their friends showed up an hours later for dinner, I was in a presentable and coherent state again. I even joined them for dinner and after hearing all sorts of stories about farm accidents I felt that things were not so bad after all. Heather and her partner John invited me to stay over night. When I was lying in bed that night and reflected over what had happened I realised how incredibly lucky I had been. I could have easily been killed falling through that hole.

Next morning we all inspected the scene. It looked even worse than I remembered. There was a nice little hole in the walkway - just big enough for me with a backpack. And down the hole we could see the cave and the gully I had slid now. John informed the Heysen Trail people and WaterSA who are responsible for the maintenance of the canals. They came in the afternoon and sealed off the area. Nobody could believe that I had survived that fall with only a minor wound.

The scene fenced off 
Heather drove me to the next medical centre 40 km away. I was still worried about the cut on my wrist. The wound was still full of mud and it was so deep that I thought I might need stitches. When I had woken up that morning I felt like I had been put through a mincer. I had bruises all over my body, everything was sore and I could hardly move my head. I had several bumps on my head and my temple was hurting when I tried to open my mouth.

At the medical centre I felt like a wuss. Because this is a rural area the doctors and nurses there are used to all sorts of gruesome farm accidents. Cut off fingers, chainsaw wound and broken limbs. My little cut was nothing compared to that.... Still, they took an X-ray to make sure nothing was broken in my hand. Then the wound was thoroughly cleaned and nicely dressed. No stitches necessary.

My saviours
In hindsight I must say that I have been incredibly lucky. I don't know how I survived the fall so relatively unharmed. Probably my backpack saved me from back and head injury. Also I was so lucky that all this happened so close to a farm where I could get help. But the best of all is that I met Heather and John - I can't think of any better people to take care of me after that accident.

Heather and John invited me to stay another day and therefore I am now having a rest day at their farm. This is day two after the accident and I already feel like back to normal again. My bruises are already turning into purple, I can turn my head again and the wound only hurts occasionally. Tomorrow I will start hiking again. And no matter what - I will finish the bloody Heysen Trail.


John Harwood said...


John Harwood said...


Herman Pachulke said...

Pass bloss auf Dich auf!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Gute Heilung! (und mach mal ein Photo, wir wollen Deine Blessuren sehen)

Anonymous said...

Now I'm positive I never want to walk with you again!! You are having some seriously bad luck. Very happy to hear you are ok. - Buck-30

Anonymous said...

Hi Christine,
I was shocked to hear about your fall.You were very lucky to be so close to help. We followed you down the trail later on 14/9 and saw your foot prints in the mud.The rain came down steadily and our boots were filled with water at the numerous creek crossings. We discussed your light weight shoes and liked them more and more. It is good to hear that you are back on the trail and headed for Burra.We hope the "driest state in the driest continent" treats you better from now on. Kind regards, David from Curnows Hut

Anonymous said...

It is good to see some photos of the fall. The hole is certainly a neat entry point!
David,Curnows Hut