At the beginning of 1996, I decided to take time off from work as a senior manager in the Netherlands’ health system; a sort of sabbatical to reflect on my job and private life. I wanted to recover physically and emotionally from some stressful years that lay behind me.
My initial wish was to go to Ireland because I had always been interested in their culture and the rough landscape but the climate was too cool! Instead, I chose Australia, because the climate was better and it is an English speaking country. This would be my first holiday travelling on my own and I felt vulnerable, I would only feel safe if people were able to understand me if something unforseen happened! (Moreover, something did happen…).
On 13 September 1996 I arrived in Perth with only a backpack, a tent and camping gear. From the moment I touched Ozzie-soil I felt good. I encountered kind, helpful people and this would be the case during my whole trip.
I bought a 10000-kilometre pass to travel on the Greyhound bus and after a couple of days in Perth I took off to Kalbarri National Park with Greyhound. However, the first 3 months, after Kalbarri, I didn’t have to use any kilometres of my pass because there were people I met on the camping ground who offered a lift to travel with them up north. There was always an Ozzie who would ask “where are you going” and as I didn’t care where I was going, (everything was beautiful for me) I accepted their kind offers. From Kalbarri I travelled to Monkey Mia (Exmouth), Broome, Katherine, Kununurra, Uluru, The Olga’s, Flinders Ranges, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Longreach…….
However, the visit to the Flinders Ranges north of Adelaide would change my life forever. Finding my way down from Uluru I travelled with a Danish couple to Adelaide.
How stupid to end up on an edge of a vertical rock that dropped hundreds of feet into a creek…
In all the places I had visited in Australia my biggest passion was to go bushwalking in the national parks. Many travellers had told me that I should visit the Flinders, one of the most ancient parks in the world. Whilst I was based in Adelaide for a couple of weeks I decided to go to Wilpena Pound and arrived on 17 November 1996 where I pitched my tent on the camping ground and enquired at the rangers’ office about the walks. The camping ground was then an unspoilt area and the rangers’ office was just a shed. These days Wilpena Pound has turned into a touristy resort.
I decided to do the St Mary Peak walk the day after arrival and that night the weather turned; we had had days of 39C and that night there was an enormous thunder and lightening storm and heavy rainfall. The edges of my tent got wet and the box of matches was soaked. The morning after was glorious and a temperature of 39C was predicted but I enquired at the rangers’ office about the weather report for that day. I had a long talk to Florence, the rangers’ wife, and she advised that a hailstorm was predicted. She suggested I go to the saddle of the mountain and reassess the situation. If the weather was still clear, I could go on to St. St Mary Peak. Florence also assessed my outfit and gear and said I would be fine. I assured Florence that I would come back to her to check in (I had logged out in the walkers check in book) and share my adventure with her.
I had already noticed that the walks were not very well signposted in Wilpena Pound and I found this to be true of the St Mary Peak walk. There were faded blue triangles painted on rocks and the path was studded with small and big boulders all the way up. The entire walk was spectacular; I encountered kangaroos, emus, and hardly any people. The views were breathtaking and I felt very happy and ‘grounded’.
When I arrived at the saddle the weather was still gorgeous and after a lunch break I decided to go to the peak. This is only a walk of 80 metres but the climb is so steep that it takes time and concentration to reach the top.
As I reached the top all “hell broke loose” and hailstones as big as ping-pong balls were raining down. The sky turned grey, I became frightened and immediately started my descent. The markings were poor and soon I lost my way, even before I re-reached the saddle. For a short while I tried to find my way back to the ‘path’ but to no avail and still in panic mode I decided to descend on my compass. Soon the weather cleared and it was hot and sunny again; following my compass I was now descending on the east side of the mountain instead of the marked path on the west.
I became tired and careless and as I clambered over two big boulders I slid over the side of them, “heading east”. When I slid over the second (overhanging) boulder, I dropped onto a small ledge of 1 metre wide and 4 metres long staring into a ravine below (with a depth of approx 100 metres)! I realized that I was in deep trouble and that I had to get back over the boulders onto the mountain. How stupid to end up on an edge of a vertical rock that dropped hundreds of feet into a creek…
When I tried to climb back, I slipped because there were no hand grips on the big smooth boulder. I fell and hit my head on the edge of the ledge and for a short while I was unconscious. When I woke up I had a hole in my head and was bleeding. With toilet paper I staunched the blood and pulled the cap of my rain jacket tight over my head. After a while the bleeding stopped. I knew that I could not climb back, next time I would not be so lucky and could fall into the ravine. It was also growing dark and the best option was to wait for a search party to find me, I was counting on Florence (from the rangers’ office)!!
The night was freezing cold, it was pitch-black and I was scared that if I moved I would fall off the ledge so I talked aloud to myself to control the panic and to prevent myself making a wrong move.
I prepared a ‘bed’ of a few branches and leaves, put on my rain jacket and lay down on the small ledge; the blowflies annoyed me and were attracted to the blood and sweat. The night was freezing cold, it was pitch-black and I was scared that if I moved I would fall off the ledge so I talked aloud to myself to control the panic and to prevent myself making a wrong move. I didn’t have any water left, my teeth were chattering and I decided then and there that if I survived this ordeal that I would resign from my work in the Netherlands and come back to Australia to find work. I was angry with myself that I had made a number of mistakes which could have cost me my life.
With memories of my childhood and close friends, the night passed and the most spectacular sunrise I have ever seen started the day with hope that a search would begin and find me.
In the meantime I had prepared myself and streamers of white toilet paper were blowing in the wind and wrapped around my head. I waved the bright blue jacket in the air and the ‘choppers’ were so close that I was convinced that somebody would spot me.
I was not disappointed because at the first break of light I heard the sound of helicopters and small planes and a bit later I saw them: 2 helicopters and 2 small planes! In the meantime I had prepared myself and streamers of white toilet paper were blowing in the wind and wrapped around my head. I waved the bright blue jacket in the air and the ‘choppers’ were so close that I was convinced that somebody would spot me. But, hours later I realized that they didn’t see me. I was hidden under the overhanging rock and was devastated. I had tried with a magnifying glass to give a light signal and to start a smoky fire but to no avail. I had left the matches in the tent because they got wet during the rainfall.
The dehydration made me weak and hopeless and I realized that I would die on this ledge because they would never find me. I had to get back on the mountain and at around 4 pm I decided to try to climb back. If I slipped again I decided to let myself drop into the ravine. I felt too weak and hopeless and could not control the panic any longer; I didn’t know if I could survive another night. The dehydration would have made me too weak to be able to climb the mountain; I knew this was my one and only chance!
I said a little prayer and asked to be protected from a horrible death. I clung to the first boulder and then something extraordinary happened: somebody or something was pushing my butt up and before I knew it I was standing on top of the 2nd boulder, on the mountain! I called this experience my “Aboriginal spirit” who guided me through this ordeal and who made the impossible possible. My bra and T-shirt were torn but I screamed with joy knowing I could walk and would be alright.
With my binoculars I saw that there was a creek in the valley and my first priority was to get water.
The descent was the most beautiful experience of my life because I saw wonderful images (in retrospect I know that I was hallucinating, due to the dehydration).
The descent was the most beautiful experience of my life because I saw wonderful images (in retrospect I know that I was hallucinating, due to the dehydration). First I saw a red kangaroo sleeping and whilst I was talking to the animal and getting closer I realized it was a rock. Then I saw a man, a shepherd, tending his sheep and I talked to him about my joy of survival, but when I touched the image I realize it was a rock. And so it went on until I reached the creek where the real kangaroos and wild goats were drinking. I let myself fall into the creek and drink the most delicious water feeling that I had entered paradise.
Under a gum tree I made a bed of grass and branches, preparing myself for the night while it was still dusk. I heard the engines of a helicopter but I decided to let it go, the place where I was too beautiful to leave. Soon after I heard a second helicopter and this time my mind reasoned and won: I walked to an open spot in the thicket and waved with my blue jacket to draw attention. I knew this helicopter spotted me because it circled low above me and I realized the helicopter was not able to land. They lowered a windlass and somebody was tied to it. There was such a strong wind that it took a long time before the person (Steve) was lowered. When Steve (a doctor at the Royal Adelaide Hospital) hung in front of me he asked “are you Stella” and I said yes (afterwards this question seemed hysterical and friends and I had lots of laughs about it; suppose I would have said no, I am Sally…) and Steve put his arms around me and asked me to put my arms and legs around him so we could both be winched up into the helicopter. We swayed in the strong wind and it was a dangerous manoeuvre to get us in but after a few attempts the pilot had us both in the helicopter. After 52 hours I was on my way to safety.
When Steve hung in front of me he asked “are you Stella?” and I said yes. Afterwards this question seemed hysterical; suppose I would have said “no, I am Sally?”
Steve took me in his arms and the other three men said how happy they were that I had been found, they had almost given up hope of finding me. That was the moment when I released all my emotions and sobbed in Steve’s arms. We flew to Wilpena Pound that had become an emergency centre and I was welcomed by a crying Florence (who became my Florence Nightingale). On a bed in the motel I was examined by Steve and he put a brace around my neck and had me transported by ambulance to Port Augusta. This transport and my 3-day stay in Port Augusta hospital is a story on its own……When I arrived Paul Makin from Chanel 10 was there and I was interviewed. He told me that my next of kin had been notified of my ‘missing person’ status and that the outcome had looked serious. I learned that the helicopters and planes were making their last search as they had given up hope of finding me alive.
When I was released from hospital I went back to Wilpena Pound to thank everybody for their help. My travel insurance was happy to pay the $30,000 search costs but searches in Australia are paid by the government and there were no costs charged to me!
In Wilpena I was welcomed by Florence and Dean and I stayed a week with them. I thanked the rangers by working hard with a volunteer group clearing paths and making the tracks better. The rangers offered me a flight over the pound to show me that without smoke signals it is impossible to find somebody. We tried to find the spot where I was stuck on the ledge but it was never sighted.
When I did go back to the Netherlands in February 1997 I resigned from my job to take effect in December 1997 and prepared myself to come back to Australia. I submitted CV’s and was confident that I would find a job and on 28 December 1997 I was back in Australia and started work for the Dutch government on 1 June 1998.
Until this day I am still friends with Florence and Dean and the other rangers.
Since 18 November 1996 my soul and part of me will always be in the Flinders Ranges. For the past 11 years I have lived, worked and enjoyed this beautiful country becoming a proud Australian citizen in 2007!
Editor’s note: the trail is now well marked with signs on steel posts every 200 metres.