Tourist perished: Has Coroner’s recommendation been followed?

2602 Gisela and Wilfried ThorBy ERWIN CHLANDA

 

Five weeks before Monika Billen perished, possibly as early as January 2, in bushland not far east of Alice Springs, Coroner Greg Cavanagh made a recommendation intended to prevent a tragedy of this kind.

 

It is unclear whether the Department of Tourism, to whom his remarks were directed, and by extension, the tourism industry and its representative body Tourism Central Australia (TCA), have acted on his suggestion: They have not replied to questions the News put to them. We will report any answers we receive from them.

 

It had taken Judge Cavanagh nearly two years to report on the deaths of Wilfried Thor and Gisela Thor (pictured) in circumstances very similar to those of Ms Billen’s: Germans coming from the chill of European winter to the furnace of the Central Australian summer, striking off into the bush ill-prepared and with no backup in place in case they got lost.

 

Although there was much debate following the Thor tragedy, clearly little has been done in response.

 

This is what Judge Cavanagh said: “I recommend that the Department of Tourism and Culture do all such things as may be necessary to advise visitors who may visit its parks in areas without telecommunication reception of the existence of GPS applications and the use to which they might be put when visiting those areas.”

 

There is no indication that the department has done this – and another tourist is dead at a time when the industry is stagnant, quite apart from the pain it is causing to Ms Billen’s and the Thors’ families and friends.

 

That sole recommendation seems quite minimalist in the circumstances. But Judge Cavanagh said in his findings about the deaths of Mr and Mrs Thor: “This tragedy illustrates that systems such as signage and fencing can fail. The purpose of having backup systems is that failure of one does not necessarily result in tragedy.”

 

There would seem to be many other common sense measures authorities and operators could take to ensure we adequately look after our visitors.

 

We included some of them in questions put to the manager of Desert Palms, where Ms Billen had stayed, in an email at 11am on Friday last week. We included the department and TCA in the request for answers by emailing the questions to the media staff of Minister Lauren Moss and TCA chairperson Dale McIver.

 

• Do you have a protocol to inform your guests about the dangers of outdoor activities, especially in the hot part of the year? If so, please describe that protocol.

 

• Do you encourage your guests to inform you about any walks or treks they may be undertaking, including their destination and the time of their intended return, and is there a routine to alert police if guests are overdue?

 

• It is clear Ms Billen’s room was not used by her between 10.30am of January 1 and January 5 when she was due to check out. Some of her belongings were in the room. Did the cleaning staff or anyone else report this to you on any of these four days?

 

• Ms Billen’s absence came to your notice on January 5. Yet it took until about 11am on January 8 – three days – to make a report to the police. Why?

 

• Are you a member of Tourism Central Australia (TCA)?

 

• Have the department or TCA been in touch with you about implementing the Coroner’s recommendation?

 

• Have the department or TCA, following the death of Mr and Mrs Thor, or at any other time, provided information about how these tragedies could be made less likely?

 

Neither Tourism Minister Lauren Moss, nor Tourism Central Australia, nor Desert Palms have replied at the time of publication.

 

 

 

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8 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Chris
    Posted January 22, 2019 at 2:35 pm

    The reason I love the NT is because it is not yet a nanny state, full of rules stopping people from doing certain things.
    I am sure that all of these people if you asked them were quite aware of the risks, unfortunately there is no telling some people.
    I too have advised some people not to travel certain areas because of risks but was ignored because some people think they know best.
    Nowadays we just seem to always be looking to blame someone else when things go wrong.
    Most places that I am aware of do have warning signs about adequate water and extreme heat.
    If we look at when we had open speed limits and people were expected to think for themselves, I was told most people were actually travelling slower than 130kmh and no deaths.
    Maybe we just need more people to take responsibility for themselves and promote it that way.
    Not trying to be harsh and I do feel sorry for the people involved but by pushing responsibility back on to risk takers may have them thinking twice.

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  2. John Waterhouse
    Posted January 22, 2019 at 1:49 pm

    I remember two young Asian girls asking me directions to start a bush walk from Echo Point in Katoomba. It was late afternoon and I advised them not to go ahead with the walk at this time, it’s a rough track and was close to nightfall, people have got lost out there, and died. I think they listened.

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  3. Garth Drake
    Posted January 22, 2019 at 12:32 pm

    I agree with Cara. Ultimately, the woman chose to do this walk without consulting or advising others.

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  4. Mark Wilson
    Posted January 22, 2019 at 11:06 am

    It seems that Monika Billen was used to walking alone off track. Clearly she was not familiar with the conditions here in high summer.
    The bottom line is that people are in the first instance responsible for themselves.
    People are free to ignore recommendation if they choose.
    But, yes, some processes could be set in place to minimise the dangers both high summer and winter. Accommodation venues could ask guests if they plan to walk in the region. Backpacks are a sure telltale as guests leave their lodgings.
    Then they could be issued a leaflet in one of several languages outlining safety precautions and the dangers. Far better is a personal discussion of the dangers. An emergency beacon could be rented for a very modest cost and added to the accommodation charge.
    As a frequent trail walker overseas I appreciate how confusing navigating by the sun can be in the other hemisphere to the one you are familiar.
    Add to that that the sun is so high in the sky at this latitude that around midday navigating by sun becomes very difficult.

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  5. Cara
    Posted January 22, 2019 at 10:14 am

    I don’t care how experienced a bush walker you are, trekking at the hottest time of the year is just plain stupid. Literally anything can (and in this case, did) go wrong.
    There are so many ways around this that can easily be solved with the person doing the most basic of google search.
    I feel for the poor woman and her family, I genuinly do, but I also think she was [silly] to go hiking in severe heat with no sat phone and or GPS, or telling literally anyone when and where she was going and when to notify the police if she hadn’t returned.

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  6. Chris
    Posted January 22, 2019 at 9:32 am

    I would like to see hot weather closures of parks in extreme weather.
    When we have consitently hot weather here in summer the safest option is to close reserves when the temp hits 36 degrees.

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  7. Dr Who
    Posted January 21, 2019 at 10:00 pm

    No one should go hiking or trekking in this hot time of year without either a sat phone or emergency beacon, and ideally any time of year.
    I have both for travel. Perhaps the NT Government could provide a low cost rental program?

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  8. Evelyne Roullet
    Posted January 21, 2019 at 7:01 pm

    Any death by accident is tragic, however when it comes to hiking and trekking, there are guidelines which are to be followed in any country by any hiker pro or beginner and anyone with common sense.
    • Do not go solo unless your are 200% sure that you will come back.
    • Study the country, the terrain, the dangers and read travelers’ blogs.
    • Make certain you have everything necessary (water, food, first aid, alarm).
    • Tell someone what you intend to do and when you except to be back.
    The most important is this: Keep in mind that while you are free to explore, to be independent.
    To enjoy your holidays or free time your lack of planning could affect those who will have to come to your rescue if you fail to plan your trip carefully.

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