A while back, I talked about the weather and how it was a good way of pushing kids outside of their comfort zones when it was raining and a little bit tough. I also mentioned at the time, there was one experience in which I was sent out in conditions that weren’t safe, nor character building. Balancing this risk versus benefit is the ongoing challenge for the outdoor educator. However, even when you plan and prepare for everything, sometimes you find yourself caught by a weather front that's far more intense than anyone predicted and this was one of those times.
The morning started as most days towards the end of summer. Clear blue skies, hot, humid and not a hint of breeze. After a delicious cooked breakfast of bacon and eggs, we finished packing the trailers and I checked the weather. Despite this perfect morning, when I saw the forecast, I immediately raised my concerns. The weather was set to change early to mid afternoon and a severe weather warning had been issued. With severe thunderstorms and damaging winds forecast, it wasn't something I wanted to be taking the kids into.
Clear Blue Skies
I argued the point with the director, expressing my concerns that it wasn't a great idea to head out with that warning in place, especially when we were supposed to be camping near a river, which floods quite quickly. Despite all these concerns, I was told, “Don't worry about it. It will be fine.” Unconvinced, I left, having been told we were still going out on the hike.
It was about a 50 min drive from base camp to get to the trail head where we left the bus and our ute. By the time we'd done all our briefings and had lunch, it was around 1pm. It was hot and extremely muggy. The sky above was clear, but to the southwest an angry bank of clouds was building and I could hear the distant rumble of thunder. Setting out, I had a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach. The hike followed a winding track along a rugged ridge line. I'd hiked it many times before, but this time felt so different.
About an hour passed and, several kilometres in, the humidity shifted, the temperature suddenly dropped and that's when the storm hit. We were engulfed. The wind ripped through, mercilessly bending the trees above us. Suddenly came a flash. It felt as if the air had been sucked out of my lungs. The deafening boom rippled through the group. There'd been no time to count the seconds between the two.
I yelled out for the group to stop. “Everyone on their packs!” I instructed to try and insulate them in some way from what was about to hit. Moments later, another blinding flash, was followed immediately by the concussive boom. I could feel the ground shake. Quickly checking I had everyone and they were all in their rain jackets and sitting on their packs, there was nothing else I could do, as we were hit by wave after wave of lightning strikes.
My heart raced and I felt helpless as each strike hit, some of them only metres away and rain sheeted down. There was nothing we could do. There was no shelter and no lower ground to which we could safely get. We had to hold our position or increase the risk of getting hit.
Branches whipped and creaked ominously, several cracking loudly and crashing down below us. It felt as if it’d never end. The rain cascaded over us, soaking every inch of our Gortex jackets until they reached saturation point and no longer held the moisture at bay.
The storm crashed around us for what felt like an eternity, yet in reality, it had only been two hours. The rain began to ease, and the deafening booms of the thunder become increasingly distant.
I felt a sense of relief as I did a quick assessment of the group, but this was short-lived. I realised quickly that three students had all the signs of hypothermia and another storm front was rapidly approaching. With no time to lose, I left the other two instructors with the group and taking one instructor with me, we raced back for the vehicle. I'd had a lot of time to think of a plan whilst perched on top of my pack trying to avoid a subterranean strike through the tree roots and pool of water in which I was sitting. The plan was simple. Get the 4WD and find a safe alternate campsite. This was easier said than done, as we had to race the coming storm and run about 3km back to where we started. Through muddy puddles we dashed, slipping and sliding on the sodden surface.
Massive droplets crashed down on our back. The storm was here! Without our packs and with less than a kilometre to go, we sprinted for the vehicles. Lightning flashed around us as the thunderous boom smashed us again and again. I felt as if any moment we were going to get nailed by a strike. Gasping for air, I could feel my heart pounding through my chest. Turning a corner and charging down the hill, I could see the vehicles. Suddenly there was a blinding flash and a deafening explosion. I saw sparks fly from the roof of the nearby building, as I felt the air get sucked out of me as the concussion of the blast rippled through my skin.
With keys in hand I grabbed the door handle and jabbed the key into the lock. It clicked open and I leapt into the driver’s seat, safely out of the storm. Taking a few moments to catch my breath, there was no time to lose. Off we went to shuttle the group back to safety.
It was a slippery and treacherous drive in and out from where we'd left them. It took another hour and a half to complete the evacuation. We soon had a fire going, some water on the boil and our hypothermic campers in some warm dry clothes.
That evening, camp food had never tasted better and I was more thankful than ever before of my cosy sleeping bag. The evening air was filled with the sound of joyous frogs and cicadas. There was not even a hint of the storm that had torn through us that day.