Emergency on the Bibbulmun Track

Bunbury Bushwalking Club was one of seven bushwalking groups who received grants announced in June 2023 totalling ~$14,000 under HikeWest’s Club Support Program. The program supports a range of member group initiatives and promotes safe hiking participation in WA. (Read more about the program and grants here.)

The Bunbury group’s grant will cover the cost of first aid courses and a large, shared first aid kit. When applying for their grant the club included the following article from their May 2023 newsletter. The article highlights the importance of risk management and ‘being prepared’. As a result of the club’s successful grant application, more activity leaders and other members will be trained in First Aid relevant in remote or isolated sites.

An Emergency Rescue on the Bibbulmun Track

Walking the ‘top’ section of the track from Mundaring last August, club members Jos, Sarah, Lorraine, Hester and Anton met a lone walker. Neville Bruce, although not a backpacker, was marking his 80th birthday by doing the whole track from north to south. Being inexperienced and walking alone he enjoyed our company for three nights and appreciated our advice on various issues. We decided to link with him again when he was closer to Bunbury, so Anton kept contact with him over the following weeks. The result was that Jos, Lorraine, Hester and Anton met Neville at Glen Mervyn Dam in late September, aiming to accompany him for three days. The first day was walked in beautiful warm weather, orchids were out in profusion and it was a happy bunch that got to the Noggerup campsite mid-afternoon. Tents were pitched and we all settled in. Then everything changed!

Hester’s account of the accident: At about 4:30 pm I walked up a gentle incline covered in loose gravel next to the service road and typical of the terrain. I slipped awkwardly on the gravel, my right ankle twisted badly under me and my whole body weight landed on the ankle, snapping the bones of the lower leg. Anton heard the crack from 5m away and thought I had snapped a branch! I could not have imagined that such an insignificant step on a slight incline could bring on so much pain! Having a large group at the campsite was a blessing and the support of Jos, Anton and others ensured I was comfortable and covered in sleeping bags as the shock caused uncontrollable shaking and shivers.

After an experience high on a mountain some years back – where an elderly friend had a bad fall and having a comprehensive medical kit on hand was critical to treating him on the spot – we now always carry a decent first aid kit, including strong anti-inflammatories. After taking one, the pain subsided and by placing the injured leg on the good leg and lying on my side, I was more comfortable. Jos had a space blanket and cold pack, which was placed on the ankle and eased the swelling. Getting me out was a challenge and took some time as we waited for emergency services. Jos’s account sheds light on this:

Jos’s perspective on getting emergency help: Location is the most important aspect of any rescue. Without an accurate location nothing happens. Last year, while hiking, I experienced two missions by the rescue helicopter and each time learnt something new. The first took place on top of Mt Wells, near Boddington, and the second at Noggerup Campsite, near Mumballup.

In both cases there was phone reception. In the first case 000 was contacted via the Emergency Plus App, we explained the situation and via the app established our location (Emergency Plus App has two location identifiers, either by GPS coordinates or What3words which is much easier to use). The rescue helicopter duly arrived and winched out the person who had become unwell.

They refused to take her pack so we had to make other arrangements for that. We also had to write down the patient’s name, address and emergency contact details and Medicare number, even though she was conscious, they still wanted it all written down. I now carry a laminated card with this information just in case. You could also include allergies etc.

In the second case, we had set up camp when Hester had her fall. There were over 10 people at the campsite, most of whom did not know each other. The first person to phone for assistance turned out not to have established the location, so when we phoned for an update, we had to start at the beginning. This lost us an hour of daylight. The second caller used GPS coordinates and very quickly the helicopter was once again on its way. We could hear it coming when we received a phone call asking us to set off a personal locator beacon (PLB) so they could pinpoint us in the trees.

Shortly after setting off my PLB – a couple of minutes at most – my phone rang. I was addressed formally by name by someone identifying themselves as being from the Canberra Monitoring Centre. He wanted to know why my PLB was going off? His tone of voice made it very clear that I had better have a good reason. I explained the circumstances. He was immediately very friendly and said yes, he could see the helicopter was overhead on his screen. He then asked when finished that I turn the PLB off once more. The bit that embarrassed me was that, despite my usual practice of registering my hikes, on this occasion I had chosen not to. All that is required to register a trip are accurate details of where, when and who is involved.

Hester again: The chopper arrived around dark and circled for some time. It would have been tricky to hoist me up to the helicopter due to the height of the trees and the valley we were in; however, the chopper dropped a paramedic a little distance away. He checked me and advised against a helicopter lift, which would have been about 60m vertically through a narrow gap in the trees.

So, a ranger was asked to get to me on the service track in a 4×4. The SES vehicle reached us about 8:30pm and I was then transported about 2km to a waiting ambulance, where a large group of local volunteers had also gathered. I got to Bunbury Hospital at about 11pm. X-rays were taken and showed a spiral fracture of the tibia and a straight fracture of the fibula. Fortunately, surgery and pins were not needed and a full leg plaster was put on. I was allowed to go home the next morning. After that it was a wheelchair for 6 weeks, followed by a moonboot, crutches and physiotherapy, all of which helped to get me back to walking with a slight limp 3 months later. The bones have knitted well but it will take about a year for the soft tissue to heal.

I am very grateful for the help of the walkers and the wonderful and expert help of all the emergency services – the helicopter crew, the SES, St John Ambulance and Bunbury hospital staff and, of course, my ‘Bibbulmun Angel’, Jos.

Outcomes and conclusions:  Fortunately, all ended well. Now nearly 8 months after the accident, Hester is backpacking again. And Neville finished the Bibbulmun Track at Albany in November. Looking back, we can see that this incident, while serious, was safely resolved and Hester was in hospital within 7 hours of breaking her leg, whereas it could have ended much less happily.

It just goes to confirm that there is good reason always to apply the usual safety measures and principles for outdoor activities, which are soundly based on experience and wisdom:

  • Carry a first-aid kit, especially those of us who are not spring chickens anymore!
  • Carry a PLB and notify folks of intended route, as outlined by Jos above.
  • Minimum group size of 3 but preferably more – many hands make light work.
  • Accidents don’t only happen in dangerous situations; a simple slip on a gravel road can be serious, so follow the Scout’s motto and always be prepared.
  • Be sure to have an up-to-date, completed copy of the emergency contact form with you on all bushwalks.

Story courtesy Bunbury Bushwalking Club, May 2023.

(Posted 17 June 2023.)

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