The helicopter flew overhead, high and fast. It was from search and rescue. I wondered who it may be looking for. I hoped that there hasn’t been a tragedy.
The hills in this section of the Australian Alps were remote; it’s been four days since I’ve seen another person. My phone has been out of range for three days and I was relying on my satellite messenger to check in daily with my emergency contacts. My device allowed me to send an OK message out, but not to receive any messages in. I could only hope that my messages were getting through. As far as the outside world was concerned, I was completely in the dark.
I was 6 days into my 74 day solo trip across the Australian Alps and was traversing the catchment area of the Thompson River in the Victorian Alps. This section of the Australian Alps Walking Track (AAWT) was characterised by monotonous forestry roads, 4WD tracks and plenty of elevation change.
It didn’t take me long to realise that I underestimated the difficulty that the hills would present me due to the bulk of my pack. The climbs were proving grueling and I was covering less ground than I anticipated. I knew that the walking would eventually get easier as my body adapted to the weight of my pack, but I wondered how long exactly this process might take. After six days on the track, I was only getting wearier, not stronger. I was looking forward to my first rest day.
While putting one foot in front of the other during the endless climb up to Mt Victor, I was day dreaming about reaching my first food drop; 4 days of walking away. Hidden in the scrub near Rumpff Saddle, in tightly sealed containers were the provisions required for the next leg of my journey. Reaching this location would represent hitting the first real checkpoint of my walk. I was looking forward to celebrating this occasion with a couple of beers, which were treats I placed alongside my food and fuel in the tubs four months previously.
I was brought out of my reverie by the appearance of the first person I’ve seen in four days. He was an older man, rolling down the hill towards me on his motorbike. Rifle slung across his shoulder, the old hunter was riding an old Honda with a well worn sheepskin draped over the seat. As he came to a halt next to me I wondered which one was older, the man or the motorbike. He squinted at me through his glasses and said:
‘You’re not the fellow they’re looking for, are ya?’
Suddenly, there was a cold pit where my stomach was only a moment before.
‘Who are they looking for?’ I asked intently. My words felt unnatural. I haven’t spoken in four days.
‘Young fella, walking the alpine trail. They haven’t heard from him in two days.’
I knew it had to be me. I haven’t seen any other hikers in days.
I said goodbye to the old hunter and wished him luck with the deer. As I continued to trudge up the hill, the pieces of the puzzle slowly began to fit together in my head. The helicopter I saw the previous day started making sense.
My satellite messages must not have been getting through to my designated contacts, triggering the alarm. It was our arranged plan after all. Should they have no contact from me for 48 hours, their job was to alert search and rescue. This would account for a scenario where I was unconscious and unable to set off the SOS message on my satellite messenger. My contacts could not have possibly known that I have been sending the OK messages and they simply weren’t getting through. To them, my life could have been in grave danger.
My suspicions were confirmed three hours later, when I gained the peak of Mt Victor. Up there on the summit, I received phone service for the first time in days. My phone began buzzing furiously as the influx of messages came through. I had over 20 missed calls and a number of text messages saying that search and rescue has been initiated. I was horrified at the extent of the effort that was taken to locate me, while I was blissfully enjoying my walk through the hills.
After a number of lengthy phone calls, the situation was cleared up. I spoke to the coordinator of the search effort, who orchestrated the police and volunteers. He was understanding and said he wasn’t particularly concerned for me, upon seeing my background and preparation for the trip. The police at the time however, saw it differently. And so the search was initiated. It was called off the next day, when one of my check in messages eventually went through. To prevent another false alarm, we agreed that the period of no-contact should be longer than 48 hours before emergency services are alerted. This would allow for the failure of technology, as any emergency plan should.
I spoke to my friends and my family and assured them I was well and intent on continuing with my walk as planned. We changed the time of no contact from 48 to 168 hours. While this minimised the likelihood of triggering another false alarm, it also meant that if anything did happen to me and I was unable to use my satellite messenger, it would be a full week before a rescue effort was initiated. No solution is ever perfect.
It was three days later, when the emergency scare was already turning to a memory, that I reached the location of my first food drop. I had walked a long way that day and the light had long since faded into night. I began looking with a single minded determination, despite the lack of visibility. At first, I couldn’t find my plastic tub and for the better part of half an hour I believed my supplies have disappeared; that someone had found it and knocked it off. Then, to my elation, I spotted it amongst the scrub and patches of snow; intact and undisturbed. The stress of the last week escaped me with a single exhalation. With fresh supplies, I could continue my journey as planned.
I cracked the cold beer open and sipped with satisfaction. I had walked for 10 days and had 64 to go. The world was literally at my feet. For a brief moment, anything seemed possible.