What to do if faced with an emergency in the Drakensberg
So you are looking at going on an epic hike in the Drakensberg but you are worried about your safety? That is a fair enough point given the remoteness of the hiking trails. So let us put your mind at ease. In the following article we will take you through our safety protocol that we have implemented for all of our Drakensberg hikes. Hopefully this will give you a better understanding of potential dangers/scenarios on the hike and how we have a plan to overcome them.
We will also give you a few example of what we have encountered on our trips so you can get a better understanding of what could happen. We have been involved in guided hikes in the Drakensberg for over 10 years with over 300 combined hiking tours through our various guiding networks. So yes, we have been through all kinds of scenarios and conditions and are confident to say that our safety protocol on the mountain is above average. And if this makes you feel any better, we have not had any incidents on our tours besides minor setbacks. But we still recognize the need to prepare for worst case scenarios.
Hikers need to understand that there is limited helicopter rescue in the Drakensberg. In fact the helicopter will only be dispatched in severe life threatening cases. Other than that, we are left alone to survive. All of our guides however do have access to the Mountain Rescue Team who will render assistance on foot if the need arises. Every scenario is handled according to severity.
The face of uncertainty and how you handle it
Just like life, Mountains are all about uncertainty. They are also about how the individual hiker handles that uncertainty. And trust us. There is going to be a time when you are going to have to dig real deep to overcome a challenge you never expected. We can give an example of what happened just last week on our Mnweni hike. We had planned to sleep in Shepard’s cave which is about 12km from the starting point. So, as you can imagine most hikers are pretty exhausted by the time we get there. However, on this occasion, the cave was inhabited by local shepherds. ( in the Mnweni area you cannot book a cave as the area does not fall under the control of the Natal Parks Board). And the sun had just set. So it was dark. Our alternative campsite was about 1km away. It meant hiking in the dark with headlamps with a few minor river crossings. There was no other alternative. We just had to accept what is-shepherds in the cave- so another 15 minute slog to a clear camp site!! There is not much else you can do in that scenario when shelter from the elements is a key ingredient to surviving in the mountains. But that is what adventure and mountains are all about. If you cannot accept that uncertainty then you may need to consider an alternative form of vacation.
What are these unexpected scenarios? There are so many different scenarios that can play out on a hike. Weather conditions can change within minutes. Navigation may become difficult due to thick mist. Zips on jackets don’t work. Sleeping bags get wet. Ankles get twisted.
Although we cannot take you through every scenario, here is a list of our most popular concerns as raised by our clients:
What if we get lost?
All of our guides have an intimate knowledge of the routes they specialize in. They are trained in navigation and always carry maps, a GPS and compass. You will not get lost. That is why you chose to join an organized hike through a reputable trekking company. For those of you who have hiked in the Drakensberg before you will appreciate the complexities of some routes. The more remote routes have zero paths and navigation can become a challenge, especially in low visibility like thick mist. Let’s talk worst case scenario here. You are on top of the escarpment and the GPS is bust and the maps blew away. What do you do? Head to the escarpment and traverse the top until you find an escape Pass that will take you to down where hopefully you can follow an existing path or other hikers.
What we require from hikers?
Trust the guide. Do not second guess his decision. He knows the Drakensberg better than you. And cooperate with him. He is ultimately the person at the top of the food chain in the mountains. Time to let go of your ego and need for control and allow the guide to do what he does best-guide.
What if something happens to my guide?
Before each hike, your guide will have a pre-climb briefing. One of the topics will be exactly that. Although highly unlikely it may happen. He will give you access to the Mountain Rescue emergency numbers as well the GPS. The hike is also logged with the necessary authorities where he will give a detailed description and return date/estimated time. If the group is not back as stipulated a rescue team will be dispatched. If you are not an expert navigator, it is vital that the group sits tight and does not move until rescue comes. You will have tents, food, water and equipment to survive until help comes.
What if I get bitten by a snake?
Although the chances of getting bitten by a snake in the Drakensberg are pretty low, we still accept that there is that possibility. In fact, I cannot remember when last I saw a snake in the Drakensberg in the past 5 years. The three main species that live in the mountains are the Puff Adder, Berg Adder and Rinkals. They are more scared of us than we are of them. They can hear us coming from a mile away and will do their best to get away from us. And yes there may be certain factors like the cold where they are unable to move but they will always let us know they are there.
What is the protocol with snake bite?
They most important aspect is to keep the hiker still and flat. Movement will increase blood flow and hence the distribution of venom around the body. Do not apply a TOURNIQUET. Do not try and suck out the venom. Treatment is via the administration of Anti-venom that can only be found in certain hospitals. The possibility of the hiker going into shock is also a reality. The guide who is trained in First Aid will identify what has to be down and will need assistance. The first priority is to keep the hiker still and manage the shock. The next priority will be a helicopter. Not all of the Drakensberg has cell phone reception, but the guide will know where to get it. This may mean he needs to separate from the group to find reception to make the emergency phone call. Depending on the area this could take some time. The guide will give the exact coordinates and facilitate the rescue.
What happens if I twist an ankle?
TIA . This is Africa. And with it comes some complications with regard to when a helicopter will be dispatched for a rescue. And a twisted ankle is going to be one of those phone calls that will not bring forth the Bay Watch Rescue team. The helicopter would only be used in in severe life threatening cases. So hikers are just going to have to bite the bullet and hobble out. Yes it may take 2 days but with adequate food and shelter it can be done.
What if we get stuck in a snowstorm?
Yes it can happen. We have been in that scenario before. There is nothing we can do but sit tight and wait for the conditions to improve. As long as we have shelter, the correct cold weather clothing and food, we are just fine. We may however be a bit inconvenienced. But it is what it is. Nothing we can do about it. We just have to hunker down and wait.
They key to survival in the Drakensberg?
The most important thing to do when things go wrong is to just keep your head. Emotion is stronger than logic. Most scenarios are not life threatening even when it seems like it. And of course if you have shelter, a warm sleeping bag, food and water you can easily survive until conditions change or help arrives. And as mentioned before, if you are not willing to accept the potential hazards and uncertainty of a Drakensberg Hike then best you opt for that beach vacation with the pink drinks.