Hiking students plucked to safety after being trapped between swollen rivers
Heavy weekend rain left 14 hikers trapped between swollen rivers on the Tsitsikamma hiking trail, forcing them to huddle around a makeshift fire overnight until it was safe to make a chest-deep river crossing with rescuers and be plucked to safety by helicopter.
One of the hikers’ parents alerted the National Sea Rescue Institute of SA (NSRI) on Friday afternoon that the party was cut off by the heavy-flowing Lottering River on the trail, on the northeastern side of the Bloukrans River.
The hikers, a dozen of them university students, had crossed the river earlier but upon reaching the Elandsbos River discovered it could not be crossed. With no way back across the fast-flowing Lottering River, they were stranded in the Rushes Pass Valley.
Rescue efforts were suspended due to safety concerns overnight. NSRI Plettenberg Bay duty controller Laurent Eray stayed in contact with the hikers, advising that while a rescue was being planned they should stay put and stay warm.
“They are commended for organising themselves to keep in contact with Laurent Eray. During the night, on the hour, every hour, they took turns to stand watch, and to gather firewood,” said NSRI spokesperson Craig Lambinon.
“Communications were achieved by WhatsApp from the hikers at an elevated post nearby that had a cell signal above their makeshift campsite. They had arranged to keep feeding a fire for warmth. This was achieved despite wet firewood they had collected during the night.”
A joint operations command centre was set up, headed by Eastern Cape government health EMS and SAPS in co-operation with NSRI Oyster Bay.
NSRI Oyster Bay, NSRI Storms River, NSRI Jeffreys Bay, MTO (Mountain to Sea) rangers, SA National Parks Tsitsikamma rangers, Eastern Cape government health EMS, the SA Police Service's Storms River police station and SAPS dive unit, Plettenberg Bay First Responders, NSRI Plettenberg Bay and a Savannah Helicopters Squirrel helicopter (an MTO resource from George) reached the operations centre at Tsitsikamma Lottering forestry station during the early hours of Saturday.
The hikers were warned to prepare for evacuation. “The Savannah helicopter took off, piloted by Greg Johnson and accompanied by NSRI Plettenberg Bay rescue swimmer Nathan Hart, EMS rescue paramedic Jaco Kotze and by Plettenberg Bay First Responder medic James Stewart,” said Lambinon.
The helicopter touched down on a landing zone among fynbos and the crew treated three of the hikers for mild smoke inhalation.
“An existing rope that lies across the Lottering River was tightened, inspected for safety, and the NSRI rescue swimmer Nathan Hart and paramedic Jaco Kotze used that rope in aiding the hikers across the river in relays of one at a time through chest-deep, swift-flowing water,” said Lambinon.
“They were brought to the Keurbos Hut, where they were met by the land party (from the 4x4 vehicles) and were further warmed up at the hut before hiking about another 800m to the helicopter landing zone that had been established on the dirt track.
“In three relays they were airlifted aboard the helicopter to the Lottering forestry station’s [joint operations command centre].”
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