On the evening of 19 May 2011 a Spanish tourist hiking in the Northern Drakensberg was rescued at night after sustaining a fracture to his lower leg.
The man lost the trail on his way back from a hike to the top of the Tugela Falls. In a show of fine airmanship a South African Air Force (SAAF) 17 Squadron crew hovered an Oryx helicopter some 150 meters below the Drakensberg Escarpment in a steep sided valley surrounded on three sides by cliff faces. This allowed a Mountain Club of South Africa Search and Rescue team to rescue the man.
The rescue was only made possible due to the three helicopter crew members (Pilot, Co-pilot and Flight Engineer) using Night Vision Goggles without which the rescue team would have taken many more hours to effect. Other hikers in the area were not able to reach the man and to provide assistance as he was located lower down below some cliff bands.
Rescue Organiser Rob Thomas’ primary concern was the onset of severe hypothermia in the already sub-zero temperatures which can quickly turn lethal at this altitude (almost 3 000m above sea level) as the hiker was only dressed for a day hike with light rain gear to protect himself from the elements.
The man, a 52 year old Spanish citizen who asked not to be named, was returning from a popular hike near Phuthaditjhaba (formerly Witsieshoek) to the top of the Drakensberg Escarpment where the Tugela Falls cascades some 800 meters down the Drakensberg Amphitheatre towards the Royal Natal National Park in Kwazulu-Natal.
He tried to jump across a gap and fell fracturing his lower leg at approximately 14:30 on Thursday 19 May. According to the man it took more than an hour for other hikers occasionally looking over the edge near the chain ladders to realise that the man was in trouble and in desperate need of help and that his waving gestures was more than a just friendly.
The alarm was raised by a mountain guide and his clients who were returning to the car park. According to the Spanish man, he lost the trail that led back to the series of chain ladders that offers one of the few ways down – avoiding the near vertical cliff bands, which descends to a bridle path back to the parking area.
An Oryx helicopter which took off from the SAAF Swartkop Air Force base picked up a Mountain Club of South Africa Search and Rescue team and an extensive amount of mountain rescue equipment (including almost a half a kilometre of rope) in Johannesburg and arrived on scene at approximately 20:00.
In order to increase the safety margin of what was going to be a challenging task, most of the rescue team and weight of the additional technical equipment (catering for various scenarios which was fortunately not needed) was off-loaded on the escarpment and a two-man team comprising of a senior paramedic and a senior mountain rescue technician hoisted onto the steep slopes of the gulley in which the man fell.
Using Night Vision Goggles the crew of the Oryx had to position the helicopter as close as possible to the fallen man whilst maintaining sufficient distance from the dark cliff faces. The man who was already showing signs of hypothermia in addition to a fracture to his lower leg was stabilised and warmed up before being lowered some 60m on the back of a rescuer, attached to a rope to where he and the rescuers could be hoisted into the aircraft.
The hiker was given warm drinks, before the helicopter refuelled at midnight at an unmanned SAAF air field / fuel depot before flying him to the care of the Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg some 12 hours after his ordeal started.
The man, who was hiking solo, described himself as an experienced hiker who has hiked on five continents in all manner of conditions.
Up until now, he had not experienced any serious accident. Commenting after his ordeal: the man explained that when he lost his way, he made the mistake of continuing down a gulley instead of turning back and up the slope again to find the correct way down.
The path leading to the top of the Tugela Falls is not marked and it is not uncommon for hikers to loose their way although they usually regain the path.
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