14 hikers assisted to safety from the Tsitsikamma hiking trail, Garden Route
NSRI Knysna were alerted by a parent of a hiker, at around 15h27, Friday, 12 May2023, reporting 14 hikers cut off by the rain affected heavy flowing Lottering River, on the Tsitsikamma hiking trail on the North Eastern side of the Bloukrans River. NSRI Oyster Bay and NSRI Storms River duty crews were alerted by NSRI Knysna of the situation. The 14 hikers, nine females and five males, 12 of them University students, reported to be cut off by swollen, flooded rivers and unable to continue on their hike to reach safety. It appears they had crossed the Lottering River in the morning. Then on reaching the Elandsbos River they had found that river to be swiftly flowing and they were unable to cross the river. They had then backtracked to the Lottering River, which was by that stage also swollen and they were unable to cross the river finding themselves trapped in between the two rivers in the Rushes Pass Valley.
MTO (Mountain to Ocean) Forestry had also received information of the hiking party trapped between the two rivers on Friday afternoon. Plettenberg Bay First Responders and NSRI Plettenberg Bay had been alerted.
NSRI Plettenberg Bay joined Plettenberg Bay First Responders and MTO rangers, using an MTO fire truck, to attempt to reach the hikers on Friday late afternoon but by that stage the Lottering River was well flooded, it was already dark and the efforts were suspended for safety.
In the interim Lodewyk van Rensburg, NSRI Oyster Bay and NSRI Storms River station commander, assisted by Ian Gray, NSRI Eastern Cape regional director, had initiated a joint operation to assist in the rescue of the hikers on Saturday morning in cooperation with Storms River Police Station, the Police Dive Unit, MTO Forestry commanders and Eastern Cape Government Health EMS, who together prepared a rescue operation that was to begin at first light on Saturday morning.
During the night NSRI Plettenberg Bay duty controller Laurent Eray remained in contact with the casualty hiking party advising them of the rescue operation in the planning stages.
The hikers, who were well equipped, were informed to remain where they were, between the Lottering and Elandsbos Rivers 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.
Communications were achieved via Whatsapp from the hikers at an elevated post nearby that had a cell signal above their make shift campsite.
They had arranged to keep feeding a fire for warmth. This was achieved despite wet firewood that they had collected during the night. They are commended for their sterling efforts under these unexpected and trying circumstances.
A Joint Operations Command Centre (JOCC) was set up at the MTO Lottering Forestry Station on Saturday morning headed by Eastern Cape Government Health EMS and by the South African Police Services in cooperation with NSRI Oyster Bay.
NSRI Oyster Bay, NSRI Storms River, NSRI Jeffreys Bay, MTO (Mountain to Ocean) rangers, South African National Parks Tsitsikamma rangers, Eastern Cape Government Health EMS, the South African Police Services (SAPS) 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 JOCC at Tsitsikamma Lottering Forestry Station during the early hours of Saturday morning.
The hikers had been forewarned to prepare for their pending evacuation.
An NSRI Plettenberg Bay rescue vehicle and a private 4x4 vehicle were dispatched by road to the nearest dirt track that lies nearest to the Keurbos Hut. That rescue party hiked to the Keurbos hut carrying additional gear.
The Savannah helicopter, piloted by Greg Johnson and accompanied by NSRI Plettenberg Bay rescue swimmer Nathan Hart, EMS rescue paramedic, Jaco Kotze and by Plettenberg Bay First responders medic, James Stewart, reached the hikers.
Locating a landing zone amongst Fynbos about 800 metres from the hikers they landed and hiked to reach the casualties.
The EMS rescue paramedic and the NSRI rescue swimmer medically assessed the hikers; three were treated for mild smoke inhalation that they had suffered from smoke from the fire that they had huddled near to during the night but all were in good spirits.
An existing rope, that lies across the Lottering River, was tightened, inspected for safety, and the NSRI rescue swimmer, Nathan Hart and the EMS rescue 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.
They were brought to the Keurbos Hut where they were met by the land party (from the 4x4 vehicles) and they were further warmed up at the hut before hiking about another 800 metres 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 JOCC.
Some of the hikers’ parents were at the Lottering Forestry Station to meet up with the hikers as they were airlifted to the JOCC.
An EMS ambulance had been dispatched and was stationed at the JOCC where EMS paramedics further medically assessed the hikers, as they were landed by the helicopter, finding them all to be in good spirits and in good health.
They were then driven by private vehicles to Natures Valley, which was where they had started their hike and once there, with all being safe and not injured, no further assistance was required.
All services involved are commended for their close cooperation and team work during the rescue evacuation operation.
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