Ok! I’m going to preface this by saying that there’s been way more than just one weird encounter when I’ve had kids out with me on an excursion. I’d love to hear other people’s experiences too, so feel free to get in touch and share some weird moments, I can’t be the only one having fun out there on excursions. I won’t say 'wilderness,' because some of my strange encounters have been in the city. Having said that, this week, I will actually be talking about an encounter in the Australian bush!
A few weeks back I talked about running into random people who weren't quite prepared for their hike, this week is another one of those. This happened mid-October and I was leading what was called a parent hike. This was part of a year 9 program, in which the boys spent six months with us and faced a range of different challenges. I’ll talk more about that program another time, but back to the hike! The parent hike was an overnight trip where one of the boys’ parents came down and we took both parent and son away, the idea being a complete role reversal where the kids were looking after the parents! We’d been hiking in the hot spring afternoon. Having stopped for lunch at the top of a spur, we’d then descended the steep 300 odd metres down to the river flats. It’s quite a spectacular area and once on the water, it’s this amazing funnel of cliffs and narrow banks.
A View Towards The River Valley
Coming into camp, the parents were quite weary, most of them not used to the heat and exertion of the hike. I was at the front of the group with one of the boys, whose dad couldn’t make it, so I was fulfilling the role and had happily chatted away all afternoon. I was suddenly stopped in my tracks however, by a lady standing over a Trangia (camping stove) boiling water. It was more of the surprise of coming across someone in our camp ground more than anything else. It was rather remote and in the years of coming here, had never encountered anyone before. I politely said hello (thinking oh dear, we’ve just wrecked her night out with the forty people I had with me). She asked me where I was from and almost immediately following that asked me “What do you know about snakes?”
“I know a reasonable amount,” I replied. “What would you like to know?”
The lady look slightly relieved and proceeded to describe to me the colour, tones and features of a snake.
“Hmmm, that sounds like a baby brown snake!” I said.
“No it wasn’t a brown snake!” She curtly replied.
I did go on to explain that brown snakes do vary in colour quite a bit and given the area (which is known for its brown snakes), there was every chance that it was one.
“No definitely not a brown snake!” The lady reiterated.
“Ok, so have you seen one here at the camp site?” I asked.
“Well, it’s just that a friend of mine has been bitten by it.”
I looked around…
“She’s down along the river a bit, I’m just making her a cup of tea.”
“Oooh, that’s no good! Have you sent for help?” I enquired.
“Yeah, some of our friends are walking back out and we’ve wrapped up a t-shirt around her leg.”
I immediately replied with, “We’re first aid trained, we’ve got first aid kits with us and we’ve got a doctor with us.”
“No, it’s ok, she’ll be fine with a cup of tea!”
Inland Taipan - Deadliest Snake In The World! (Not The Snake In Question, But Looks Cool)
This is the first sign of weirdness. I can understand if they had first aid training, if they had communications, if they had a decent first aid kid, they’d be ok… But I wasn’t expecting that reaction. My concern was immediately the fact that if it were a brown snake, then the person who’s been bitten had about an hour untreated to get to a hospital! Not something I’d be comfortable with knowing the area, knowing the fact that it’s a two hour walk out and that once at the car park, it was a fifteen minute drive to get mobile reception! This picture was looking ugly, even though the tea was smelling rather nice.
I walked over to my group of parents and to the one who was a doctor for some advice. He was equally concerned and said to call the poisons unit at the Westmead Children’s Hospital in Sydney, get an ID on the snake and present this information to the lady. At the same time, we also offered compression bandages out of our first aid kids and literally forced them into the tea lady’s hand!
Reluctantly she took them. I know at this point many people would say, it’s not your problem as they’ve declined our help. However, with puzzled looks between myself and the doctor, we still had the feeling we should explore every possible avenue before leaving them to their own devices. Evening was fast approaching and the last thing we wanted to have to deal with was a body 200 metres from a camp full of kids and parents. At least we had someone who could call it… But we didn’t want that.
I made the call back to base on my radio, which had massive coverage throughout the area. I asked for an ID on the snake and gave full details of our location. Meanwhile, our doctor parent walked down, spoke with the lady who had been bitten and provided the offer of assistance to her directly. She thanked him and declined, saying that her foot was sore, but her friends had gone for help. Again 2hour walk! 15mins drive to get Comms. Meanwhile I was talking with base, who were on the phone to the poisons unit! I’m not seeing the logic in this, and even less when the poisons unit replied saying they think it was most likely a brown snake and you need to get the lady out of there as fast as possible!
Ok then… Now how do we approach this one? I thought about it as I walked down towards the lady who’d been bitten. I may as well just go with the honest blunt approach, that may upset her cup of tea, but I guess we could always make her another one. I did break the news in the most gentle way and said, "We’ve been talking with the poisons unit at the Westmead Children's Hospital and they’ve identified the snake as a brown snake. Because of that we believe it’s in your best interest for us to call emergency services for you."
She thought on this…
The seconds felt like hours as I kept glancing at my watch, calculating the time that had already elapsed. We’d burnt a lot of time. The one saving grace was the fact that she was at least somewhat relaxed (perhaps too relaxed about this).
Finally she spoke!
“Oh ok I suppose so!”
Bam! We had consent!
I felt a rush of adrenaline shoot through me, because we were now responsible for making sure this lady didn’t die.
My manner changed from negotiator to dictator. Back on the radio to base.
“I urgently need emergency services to figures grid 659483!” (not the real location) At this point I started recording everything I did in more detail. Glancing at my watch, I tagged the time of the call and started the timer.
Back to the lady, I clearly outlined the details of my call and their response. She then gave us consent to rewrap the shoddy bandage on her leg and we applied a proper compression bandage. We started to monitor her heart rate, which was elevated, but her being relaxed, was keeping this in check (lucky she had a cup of tea!)
Another glance at the watch to record my observations, a couple of minutes had passed. Continuing to reassure her, I could see some redness emerging and signs of envenomation. Now my heart rate was shooting through the roof.
In the distance I heard a mechanical hum. It was getting closer! The purr grew louder and louder. Suddenly, the Westpac Rescue Helicopter roared over our heads. You never realise how amazing and powerful these helicopters are until they fly over you just above the tree line! Checking my watch it had been 12 mins from when I gave the grid reference to when they flew over us!!!
About 2km Down River From Where This Happened
I’d organised my gappies (our young staff from overseas) minutes earlier to setup a ground signal for the chopper, given that there was nowhere to land in the valley. To give you an idea of the lay of the land, it was essentially a river, flanked by stunning sheer cliffs. I could see the pilot wave as he descended, hovered over the water with one of the skids just touching the land. A medic jumped out from the back and walked over to where we were. The helicopter roared back up into the air and flew with its nose down along the river a few hundred metres before it lifted up spun 180 degrees, back toward us, skid down on the river bank, collected the lady and the medic and they were gone!!! If you had blinked you would have missed this extraction. It was amazing in its speed and co-ordination.
The doctor and I stood looking at each other with relief!
“Well that escalated quickly!” I laughed to him.
We wandered back down to the camp site where the rest of the group were setting up tents. Back to camp leader mode, I checked on how everyone else was going and got started on setting up my tent.
That evening we chatted around the fire, a quiet and relaxing change from the excitement of the afternoon.
A few days later we received a call back at school from the lady thanking us for our help. It turned out it was a brown snake and she had been poisoned! All I could think was thank goodness we persisted and had good communications back to base.