Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Should people be free to bushwalk unprepared?

A Victorian bushwalker in NSW has been fined on charges of “lack of planning or preparation”. The 29-year-old man, name unknown, went off on a long walk last Saturday  in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. He was leaving from Newnes and heading east across the rugged Wollemi National Park to Colo Heights. He carried a kilo of potatoes and an unknown quantity of naan bread which he estimated would last him three days.

He told friends who dropped him off he would meet them at the other end on Wednesday at 3pm. When he didn’t rendezvous at the appointed time, his friends alerted authorities who mounted a search and rescue operation. With the help of two helicopters, they found him just four hours later on the track. The first helicopter spotted him and the second winched him out of the Wolgan Valley. According to Police, the man had suffered a minor ankle injury and declined treatment. Police took him to Katoomba station for questioning before giving him a $500 infringement notice.

None of the media covering the story stated why this was an offence (they were all too obsessed with the spuds and naan) but they did quote NSW Police Force Rescue commander Brenton Charlton who said the route through remote terrain was extremely difficult to complete safely and had taken much longer than estimated. "Getting the basics right with trekking is so easy - all people have to do is notify the police or other responsible person of their trip intention and carry a personal locator beacon," Charlton said. "Making use of available technology, together with some commonsense trip preparation, could mean the difference between life or death."

Whatever about that quantity of food being sufficient for three days,  it is clear the man was underprepared. Though some people on that bushwalk forum said the walk was possible in three days, even a modicum of research would have uncovered it was likely to take much longer. According to this site devoted to walks at Newnes, the track to Upper Colo is listed as a very hard grade walk that takes seven days. The walk “ is for experienced and well prepared walkers only! Country traversed is rugged and there are no tracks beyond Annie Rowan Creek.” Its advice is “Check with your local bushwalking club before attempting this one.”

Clearly the Victorian did not take this into account. But should that be an offence? And should all bushwalkers be forced to take a “personal locator beam”?  PLBs are distress radio beacons which transmit location information about individuals directly to Search and Rescue forces letting them know that the owner is in grave and imminent danger. They retail on Gumtree for around $225 second hand though Blue Mountains police apparently do give them out for free. When Briton Jamie Neale was found alive after being missing in 2009 for 12 nights, Blue Mountains police superintendent Tony McWhirter told media they have free PLB for bushwalkers so they can locate them. However since then, the law has changed.

The NSW police media release (which was the basis for all media stories - no journalist did original research) did state why the fine was activated. It was issued under the National Parks and Wildlife Regulations of 2009 for engaging "in activity that risks the safety of self/others". The relevant clause is 22(1)(d) which reads “Sporting, recreational and other activities
(1) A person must not in a park:
(d) engage in any activity or recreational pursuit that involves risking the safety of the person or the safety of other persons or damaging the environment.
Maximum penalty: 30 penalty units.”

As a contributor to a NSW buskwalk forum said, the fine was troubling. “Guy sounds like an idiot", said colinm, “but I don't see that it necessarily warrants a fine. Since he's a Victorian, I bet he doesn't contest the charge, so is a bit of a soft target.” So should bushwalkers be forced to be prepared or should anyone have the right to go out and do what they want? Was it necessary for an expensive search and rescue operation to be mounted when the man was just four hours late? And what equipment should be compulsory on any trip? These angles were not covered by media. In their efforts to make the trekker look like a fool, the naan bread proved more alluring than the nanny state.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bit of a Catch 22 (same number as the NSW Parks Regulation...). How do you get experience without getting experience? The poor bugger should have got a fatherly bollocking and pointed to the nearest Bushwalking Club. The media coverage was pathetically shallow. Only Bevan Shields pointed out "in 2012 1700 beacons triggered..270 costly searches [resulted]...109 genuine" So don't bleat to me about 1 guy's recovery three hours into a search that he didn't request.

SES vols $ Bushwalking SAR vols donate millions of bucks' worth of free labour annually into assisting their communities. If they don't get "real" callouts then they need even more detailed & realistic training exercises. Ditto Police & Parks staff.

Having said that... I buy ambulance insurance ($200/5years in Vic.) or else cough $800 for a ride down the road or $50k for a trans-continental medivac plane trip. Make the same deal available bushwalkers.

Nigel Holmes