The next morning, we set off for the gorge as early as possible so I could hopefully retrieve our drone before the heat of the day. I estimated the return distance to be about 2km, plus time to scramble up and down – 45mins tops to get Bumble and get back to the car.
At 8am, we were back at the car park and I was ready to set off – equipped with my iPhone to navigate by, a penknife, roll of washing line (in case I needed to lasso the drone from the tree), satellite phone (to call for help I got into any difficulty) and a small flask of water, containing exactly 300ml of water, which wasn’t much, but seemed okay for a 45-minute walk in the cool of the early morning.
Things started well – I was right about being able to scramble into the gorge further up and it didn’t take long before I was at the bottom of the gorge. It was beautifully cool and shady, with pools of clear water, and ferns hanging off the sides of the gorge. The only tracks were from the rock wallabies who live in caves in the sides of the gorge, and I got the feeling that I was the only person who’d ever been in that part of the Hamersley wilderness.
But I knew I shouldn’t linger and so I walked down the gorge trying to spot a place where I could clamber up the other side. It was harder than I anticipated – but after a bit of searching I found a gully that looked like it would provide a way up and after navigating round a few large boulders and scrambling up a steep slope, I found myself on the south-western side of the gorge. It’d taken much longer than I expected (it was now nearly 9am), but things were going well so I texted Tanya to let her know I was over the gorge, took a photo of a distinctive tree as a landmark for my return, took a gulp of water, shouldered my pack and set off through the spinifex.
However, I hadn’t realised that Hamersley Gorge is fed by a series of gullies – which would be full of water during the wet season, but now were completely dry. Many of these gullies were almost mini gorges in themselves with steep sides where a stumble or a wrong step could send you over the edge of a hidden cliff to the bottom, 15 meters below. Each one of these proved much harder to cross than I’d expected and meant following the gully upstream a few hundred meters to where it became shallow enough to cross safely. And at the bottom of each gully, where the water would run, a thick hedge of prickly bushes blocked access – the only option was to push through them, while trying to ignore the pain and scratches.
Still, I was making progress and wasn’t too concerned although I knew was moving much slower than I’d anticipated and time was getting on. I sent another text to Tanya to let her know I was moving towards the drone, and ploughed on. As each of the gullies was barely visible in the Google Maps satellite view, it was hard to be sure where I was going to encounter an obstacle – the largest gully was almost as deep as Hamersley gorge itself, and the only way I could get through it was to slide down the side, doing my best to avoid the spinifex and the tumbling rocks that I was dislodging on my descent.
Eventually, at about 10am, 2 hours after I’d set off, I finally reached the point where the drone had last reported its position – and sure enough, there it was, hanging about 4 meters off the ground at the top of a tree. I paused to rest for a few minutes and then using the washing line, I managed to dislodge it from the tree, half caught it, dropped it, checked it over and called Tanya to let her know that I had the drone and was heading back. I took a small sip of water, knowing that I really needed to conserve what I had left (about 2 mouthfuls at this point), and set off in search of the car. The day was heating up, and I was starting the feel exhausted from the continual climbing, the heat and the lack of water, so I warned Tanya that I’d probably be slow coming back, and told her not to worry if I seemed to be taking too long.
Initially, I made good progress, using some of the places I’d forced my way through the bushes in each gully to speed my return. I reckoned that I should be back by about 11am, so while I was definitely starting to suffer a bit from dehydration and my water supply was very short, I didn’t feel too concerned. In fact, by 10:30, I’d spotted my distinctive looking tree at the top of the gorge and I was ready to descend. I knew once I went below the top, I would lose the phone signal, so sending another message to Tanya to let her know I was about to go into the gorge (‘about to cross gorge’), I descended down. Getting down was tiring but not too difficult. At the bottom, confident that I was on the home straight, I finished the last of my water and started the ascent. While the part of the gorge I was in didn’t look that familiar, I knew that the landscape at the top on the northern eastern side was fairly flat, so if I came out at a different point, it wouldn’t matter, I might just have a slightly longer walk back to the car.
By now fatigue and dehydration was really taking its toll, and climbing up the gorge proved much harder than I thought it would be. Some 30 minutes later, I finally reached the top, breathed a sigh of relief at having made it, and checked my position on the phone to see where I was. Oddly, the phone seemed to show that I was still on the southern western side of the gorge, a long way from where I should be. Assuming that the GPS was just not strong enough to pick up my location, I kept walking – only to see that the blue dot on the map (which represented my position) was moving too and was very clearly still on the wrong side of the gorge much further south than I should be. My heart sank. It dawned on me that when I thought I was climbing through the gorge, I was merely climbing in and out of a particularly deep side gully, and I had wasted a lot of energy and the last of my water going in completely the wrong direction. My ‘distinctive tree’ that I’d photographed when I crossed the gorge earlier, proved to be less distinctive than I thought, and I realised that the point where each of the side gullies entered the gorge had at least one, if not a small forest of similar looking ‘distinctive’ trees.
By now the temperature was climbing above 30C, and I knew I was becoming seriously dehydrated and fatigued. Most of the way along the gorge, the rock drops away in a sheer precipice, and trying to clamber down anywhere except the point where I’d come up the southern side was impossible. I knew I needed to locate the precise gully where I’d come up – it was the only spot I could get back down again. I also knew that if I could get to the bottom of the main gorge safely, there was plenty of water down there, and I’d be okay. But at that moment, I was confused about how I could’ve gone so wrong, dizzy, disorientated, and very confused which way I should go to try to find my way back. A wrong move at this point would put me in even greater danger and could even prove lethal.
My mouth was completely dry from lack of saliva caused by dehydration, and my shirt was stained white from salt from my sweat. I couldn’t afford to make another mistake. There was no phone signal and I really needed to speak to Tanya to discuss my predicament and discuss what to do. So, digging the satellite phone out of my bag, I called to explain that I was in trouble. But the call went to voicemail, so I left a message asking her to call me back on the satellite phone, and sat under the shade of a rock and thought about my next move.
Then I had an idea. Remembering that the iPhone records the GPS coordinates of every photo it takes, I pulled my iPhone out and looked again at the photo of my ‘distinctive tree’ – and sure enough the phone was able to show me on a map where I’d taken the photo. Without any cellphone signal to download any map or satellite imagery, all it could indicate was that it was approximately at the bend of the river in the gorge below, but by matching it against my position, I could see I’d gone way beyond where I should’ve crossed the gorge. I knew I’d have to scramble in and out of two more deep gullies, but at least I knew where I was going. As soon as I got back up to the high ground and had a single bar of phone signal, I sent a text message to Tanya to reassure her (‘Took a wrong turn – back on track now’). It wasn’t completely honest but I didn’t want her to panic about my long radio silence or about the cryptic voicemail I had left from the satellite phone.
Progress back was painfully slow – what would’ve taken me 10 minutes earlier in the day, took nearly 30 as I needed to stop every few minutes to rest (and fantasize about water). Scrambling out of the gullies proved to take every part of my physical and mental strength, but eventually I was back more or less at the point where I had come out of the gorge earlier that morning. However, I knew I was in real trouble. I was feeling desperately tired and dizzy from dehydration. My mouth was completely dry and I knew I had a narrowing window to be able to escape being a statistic in the bush. I also knew I should try to get my blood sugar up, but there was just no way I could eat one of the biscuits from my pack – with no saliva I couldn’t swallow it and I knew it would just exacerbate my sense of thirst.
Where I remembered scrambling up earlier, I now seemed to be faced with a rock shelf with a 6m drop below. It was far too high to drop down – it would lead to a broken ankle, or worse. Then, remembering the nylon washing line in my backpack, I wondered if I could create a rope to abseil down. So, sitting in the shade of a rock, I set to doubling it up and tying a series of knots along the length to help me grip it during my climb down. This done, I looked for a suitable tree or anchor point to tie it to. By now, I had cooled down and my heart had stopped racing and I suddenly asked myself “what am I doing?” I realised that in my exhausted state, I couldn’t hold the line, and I had no idea if it could even bear my weight. I’d been able to clamber all the way to the top without any ropes or assistance, so what on earth was I doing trying to descend with one? I stuffed my makeshift rope back into my backpack, and gathering all my remaining strength, I struggled back up the top of the gorge to try to find my correct path back down.
Sure enough, 10 minutes later, I found the way down and I was at the bottom of my rock shelf, exhausted but thankful that I hadn’t done anything as stupid as try to lower myself down. However, I still had 20 meters to descend down a steep scramble. A missed footing or a sudden slip was a very real danger in my current state and while water was tantalizingly close at the bottom of the gorge, a wrong move now could send me down to the bottom a lot faster than I planned. Just as I was thinking what to do and trying to pluck up the strength and courage to make the descent, I heard the magical sound of dripping water behind me.
Under the overhang of the rock shelf I’d nearly been stupid enough to descend with my washing line rope, I could see a film of wetness. A small fern leaf, which was clinging to the rock wall, was dripping drops of moisture. Never had any sight proved more welcome to me than that dripping fern, and at that moment, I knew I was going to be okay. I pulled the empty water flask from my pack and held it under the dripping fern, waiting for what seemed like an eternity for each drop to fall into the flask. After 20 drips, I held the flask up to my mouth – it was barely enough to wet my tongue, but it still tasted like the most delicious thing I’d ever drunk. Then I waited for 50 drops – which was just enough to swallow, then another 50 drops, and another 50 and so on. After about 20 minutes, while it was a long way from being enough to replace the water I’d lost, I felt I had the strength to make the descent to the bottom, and I was able to eat one of the biscuits in my pack, using the collected drops of water to wash it down.
Getting down was hard work but by going slowly and surely, I was finally able to make my way safely to the bottom of the gorge and I was able to refill my flask from a running stream and drink – like I had never drunk before. When you are badly dehydrated, you should always sip slowly to start with – and fortunately the water I had consumed from the dripping fern had stopped me from guzzling it down. I knew that it was well beyond the time that Tanya was expecting me back and that she would be getting extremely worried – so using the satellite phone, I called her again to let her know I was okay, and on my way out. Unfortunately it again went to voicemail, but I hoped she was able to retrieve messages and that she knew not to worry.
Getting back out of the gorge proved tough – nothing looked like it had that morning and I struggled to spot my path back up. I had to be sure that I didn’t repeat the mistake from earlier and head the wrong way out of the gorge. Eventually though, I managed to find my route and after another 20 minutes or so, I was back at the top – only this time I really was now on the northern western side of the gorge and walking distance to where I set off from that morning. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, and as soon as I got a signal on my phone, I immediately called Tanya to let her know I was nearly back.
Having not received any of my messages from the satellite phone, she was, not surprisingly, desperately worried and convinced I’d fallen into a hole and needed rescuing. In fact, as she’d not heard from me for so long (having received none of the satellite phone messages), she’d already alerted the park rangers that I was missing and they were planning to put a helicopter up to search for me. It took another 15 minutes for me to walk back to the car, and never have I experienced such a huge sense of relief as I felt when the car came into sight.
Instead of only needing walk 2km and be back in under an hour as I had estimated that morning, it had taken me over 5 hours and I’d probably walked 6 or 7km, plus spent a huge amount of time scrambling up and down steep rocky slopes in 30C heat with virtually no water. I’d come dangerously close to collapsing from dehydration and exhaustion, not to mention nearly needing a rescue service to try to find me. Clearly, I’d made a stupid decision not to carry much more water with me – and had I not found that dripping fern, I’m still not sure if I would’ve made it back.
My legs were full of spinifex spines and it took all evening to try to get them out. Even now, a month later, my ankles are still covered in itchy red spots and the clothes I wore that day are wrecked from the spinifex and scrambling and sliding up and down the rocky slopes.
Perhaps the hardest lesson was how easy it is to get into trouble in such a hard, unforgiving landscape and, when things go wrong, how easy it is to make poor decisions, such as when I thought it would be sensible to use a washing line to abseil down a rock face. Often, in a crisis, it’s not your legs or muscles or heart that lets you down – it’s your head. While I didn’t panic, in hindsight, much of what I did (especially on the way back, when I knew I was getting into trouble) was foolish and reckless. When I was looking for my route down, I don’t know how many times I peered over the edge of the gorge wondering if I could somehow climb down what was clearly a sheer cliff face. A trip or stumble would have put me in a place where no rescue service could have helped.
Still, Bumble lived to fly another day!