We have a surfeit of foreign visitors to our institution at present, many of whom were keen to come along for a daywalk to Bonnum Pic in the Southern Highlands. In the end we had a party of eight - the original Sons and five fellow travellers - two Italian, one French and two Brits. Three cars met on a grey morning in Mittagong, and after the inevitable faffing about with such a large group we arrived at the locked gate on Wangaderry Road at 10.00. By 11.30 we had reached the cliff line for a morning tea break, the drizzle having stopped and the cloud lifted enough to enjoy the magnificent views over the Wollondilly Valley.
The Brits decided that they would prefer a leisurely couple of hours enjoying the novel flora and fauna to the walk all the way to the Pic, but fearing further rain we decided to carry on to where they could hang out in a camping cave we had read about. We found this easily enough, located at Hilltop 474042. It's a very small overhang, but plenty to make a comfortable day shelter, and we set up the stove for tea and soup.
After lunch the remaining six set off at a brisk pace for the Pic. Thanks to our tardy start it was now 13.00 and with sunset at 17.30 we had a stiff walk in front of us. The whole walk is 16km return and we had about a third of this left to do in two hours to keep to schedule. The track to the cliff line had been fast - a heavily-signposted National Park trail, followed by a section of old fire trail - but from there on it is an increasingly indistinct footpad hopping over rock outcrops and up and down a deep gully before the final, thin rocky ridge out to the Pic. Navigation is fairly straightforward, as the sections where it is important to take the right route up or down the rocks are marked with cairns. There is one decent scramble, where we used a hand-line for safety on the way back.
The views become increasingly fine as the ridge narrows, with the cliffs of Wangaderry Walls to the east added to the views over the Wollondilly to the west.
The only image of the actual Pic in this post will be this borrowed one from the web, since on our return we discovered that our photographer had forgotten to insert an SD card! But this was not the most unfortunate event on this eventful day...
We reached the Pic at 14.05, and after a few photos we started back at 14.15, a negligible few minutes behind schedule. An hour later, however, disaster struck... One of the party lost her balance stepping up onto a rock, and sensibly saved herself by jumping back, only to find one leg collapse under her. There was no obvious break, but after some rest and a few trials it was clear she wasn't going any further that day. We found out later that she had ruptured an anterior cruciate ligament, and at the time the level of pain made it quite possible that there was a hairline fracture in one of the lower leg bones. Certainly, in the opinion of our two remote area first-aiders, it was time to call the cavalry and we activated our Personal Locator Beacon.
We also had to consider the two Brits waiting at the camping cave. Fortunately we had two or more of everything - map, compass, GPS, etc. So we left one first-aider and a French volunteer with the casualty while the other three headed back to the cave. By the time this party set off it was 16.00, just time to get back to the cars before it got fully dark. We only had four headlights with us, so walking in the dark would have been a pain. Reaching the cave they discovered that the two Brits, experienced outdoors people, had responded to our failure to arrive at the expected time in the right way - light a fire, brew more tea and await developments.
Meanwhile, back at the scene of the accident we had found just enough intermittent cellphone reception on the cliff edge to call 000 and report our location and the state of the casualty to supplement the PLB signal. The casualty was wrapped up warm under another small rock overhang in case of rain, with a fire just getting going. We were about to start purifying additional water from rock pools for the night when we heard the helicopter. With the PLB, smoke from the fire and an enthusiastic frenchwoman waving a blaze-orange pack cover from the top of a large rock we may have been one of the easier bushwalking parties to find!
The NSW Air Ambulance Service winched down a paramedic to a nearby rock platform, who assessed the casualty and got her ready to leave while we extinguished the fire. These blokes are consummate professionals - calm, cheerful, and exuding an air of competence. We were and remain amazingly grateful for the work they do, often in much more difficult and urgent circumstances than these. We sheltered in the rock overhang when the helicopter came down to winch them out. The downdraft (and the noise) is amazing - the wood pile we had assembled for the night blew away like dry grass, and my beanie blew off and away never to be seen again.
After three trips up and down on the winch we were all on board the helicopter - barely an hour after activating the PLB. About 20m later we were on the helipad on the roof of Wollongong Hospital. This, of course, is not what you should expect when you activate a PLB in the bush! We were very close, as the crow flies, to the air ambulance base, there was a good amount of daylight left, and we had been able to establish cellphone contact to supplement the beacon, so there was no need for them to conduct an assessment before deciding what resources to send. Before we heard the chopper we were busy preparing to make ourselves as comfortable as possible for the night. We had warm clothes, thermal blankets, a reasonable amount of food, water, and a fire.
The rest of the party reached the cars shortly after we reached Wollongong, and then took on the heroic task of driving down to the 'gong and back to fetch us. Many thanks to all involved. The joke of the day involved people being awarded the Order of Lenin for heroic services to the state, and here are our three European visitors wearing theirs with pride in the pub the next day.
Obviously, this wasn't the walk that was planned, and someone will be on crutches for a good while, but it all ended as well as possible in the circumstances, with some credit going to suitable training and equipment, some to everyone being level-headed and getting on with what needed to be done, but mostly due to the great guys at NSW Air Ambulance Service - thanks again!