German tourists Wilfred and Gisela Thor perished in Central Australia, not somewhere in the remote Simpson Desert, but in one of our highly promoted national parks, Trephina Gorge, a mere hour’s drive from Alice Springs.
The couple, both in their seventies, drove themselves to the park in a small hire car on Friday, February 14. The maximum temperature at the Alice Springs airport on that day was 36.3 degrees. On the next two days it rose to 37.7 and 39.1 degrees, respectively.
Late on February 15 a park ranger noticed the car. A full search was not started until the morning after, Sunday, two days after the Germans had started their fatal walk, some of it off marked tracks.
They were clearly in extreme danger. Says Senior Sergeant Michael Potts, the Search and Rescue Mission Controller at Trephina Gorge: “As a rough guide we often refer to the ‘rule of threes’.
“You will put yourself at high risk of death if you are without air for three minutes, if you are in extreme temperatures (hot or cold) for three hours, without water for three days or without food for three weeks.
“This is only a rough guide and there are a number of issues that may decrease or increase these times.
“It is the lack of water and exposure to the elements which will often dictate your ability to survive.
“It is extremely important that if you are lost or stranded in a remote environment, to limit your physical activity, particularly when it is hot, and remain in a shaded and cool environment as much as possible,” says Sen Sgt Potts.
In other words, time is of the essence.
Mr Thor’s body was found on Monday and his wife’s on Tuesday, in a different location, just half an hour’s walk from their car and from perfectly functioning water taps.
At least at one point they were near a water puddle but apparently did not drink from it, possibly because it didn’t look clean. Germans aren’t accustomed to drinking from a creek or a stagnant pond.
The two visitors died a gruelling and tragic death. Their families are surely heartbroken. Locals, especially those involved in the search, are distressed about the death of guests in our community. Some were traumatised.
Did the world-wide news coverage damage our tourism industry, especially the efforts to have it operating year-round?
Lots more can be done to prevent this tragedy like this.
There is no shortage of advice – letting people know where you are going, taking plenty of water, if the car breaks down stay with it, and so on. You can google it.
The problem is the connect: Are people getting that advice when they need it?
This is where the tourism industry comes in – airlines, hotels, car hire firms, travel agents, the people who are aware of what their customers are about to do.
Trephina Gorge is a magnificent place with its sheer red rock walls, and majestic gums along the wide, usually dry Trephina River.
The two main tourist walks are the rim walk on the river’s western side and a longer walk, up and around a hill, from the eastern bank. Both are pretty well marked.
The Trephina River is the most prominent feature of the landscape. It can be seen from all hills in the area.
The river bends and twists a lot but generally it runs north-south. The car park, some shelters and the water taps are on the western bank.
If you follow the river generally northwards from the carpark, turning ‘round and going back along the Trephina generally southwards will return you to your car.
A simple map and a $5 compass would make this even clearer, and make getting lost even less likely.
There are some significant things Trephina does not have: Mobile phone service and WiFi are two of them. This may come as a surprise for overseas visitors going to a well promoted tourist attraction.
The Ross River homestead, 17 kms to the south-east, has both.
The first thing most people reach for when they are in trouble is their mobile phone.
With lots of elevated positions for antennas, plenty of sunshine for solar power and the NBN Skymuster satellite now in orbit, a phone and data service would be easy to instal in all the East and West MacDonnells tourism gems which are currently blind spots.
An EPIRB or personal locator beacon is hardly something people would be bothered organising for themselves when all they are doing is a day trip to a well-frequented place.
EPIRB signals are monitored by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) via high flying jets and satellites.
“Tell someone where you go” is a nice idea but difficult when you don’t know anyone around here. Yet it is clearly something that should be facilitated.
Most light aircraft pilots going cross-country choose to have a search and rescue watch, SAR time in the jargon: They tell Airservices Australia before departure were they are, where they are going, and at what time they expect to arrive at their destination.
When they arrive they contact Airservices again. If there is no contact a search is started, usually by calling the pilot by radio or phone, and escalating – if required – to a full-blown operation. Not surprisingly, forgetting to “cancel your SAR” is a big no-no for pilots.
On the ground in The Centre such a system, which could be optional but be highly recommended, would clearly be a police function.
Logically, a SAR watch timeline in the Thor tragedy would look something like this:-
06:00 Wilfred and Gisela Thor raise SAR time of 19:00. Name of their hotel in Alice Springs, details of the hire car, mobile phone numbers and destination would be recorded.
19:00 SAR time expires.
19:10 Still no call to cancel received. Police call the couple’s mobile numbers – no answer.
19:15 Police call their hotel, hotel staff call the room – no sign of the couple.
19:17 Police call the ranger at Trephina Gorge. He checks the carpark and finds the car.
19:25 The search and rescue operation gets underway.
This would have been some 36 hours before it did in reality. When the search finally got under way the Germans were likely to have been already dead.
In our SAR scenario, mindful of the emphatic instruction they had received at their briefing to stay put in case of getting lost, and not to waste their water and energy by frantically walking around, the Germans would have settled down for a warm night under the stars, confident they would be found the next morning.
In reality they clearly compounded their error by walking considerable distances, ultimately into different directions. They died alone.
A SAR system would be a win-win situation: It would unquestionably save lives, take a minimum of effort, and in an emergency the response time would be much faster.
This would make the survival chances of lost persons immeasurably greater, and search efforts much less complex.
The alternative, clearly, would be a forest of signs across our magnificent landscape, saying “Stop, go back, danger!” or similar.
At 12:40pm yesterday we invited comment from Tourism Central Australia as well as Lauren Moss, Minister for Parks and Tourism. We will publish any replies from them.
PHOTOS (from top): View from the top of the hill the couple is believed to have climbed. In the foreground is the camping and picnic area where they had parked their hire car – note the water tank. The Trephina River is in the middle of the photo • A report in the Berliner Kurier newspaper: “Death in the Outback: Berliner seniors disappear in nature park.” • A tourist on the fairly well marked ridge walk (note the red arrow) • The Trephina where it enters the gorge.