The following is essential information for hikers on how to report emergencies and request a rescue in the Drakensberg.
Medical and Rescue emergencies in the Drakensberg fall under the authority of the Provincial Emergency Medical Rescue Service (EMRS). However, due to the hazards and technical difficulties encountered in the Berg, rescues are usually carried out by the Kwa-Zulu Natal Section of the Mountain Club of South Africa. This highly efficient and well-equipped rescue team is supported by helicopters from the South African Air Force, 15 Squardron and the SAPS Airwing. SAPS K9 Rescue dogs are also used in search operations. The Mountain Club of SA has a proud tradition in mountain Search and Rescue, spanning some 80 years. Rescue team members are all volunteers and spend many hours annually practising rescue skills. The MCSA provides these services free of charge. More info on rescues undertaken by the KZN Section of the MCSA can be found here: http://kzn.mcsa.org.za/search-rescue.
Most of the Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal, which is the most popular section among hikers, falls under the management of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW). As such their officers are often the initiator of a call for assistance. Furthermore they mount numerous rescue operations under their direct control without calling for assistance. Always pay any relevant hiking fees before setting out.
Pre- trip preparation
- Before you go tell someone you trust where you are going, what you intend to do (incl. route), when to expect you back and how to raise the alarm if there is a concern.
- Create a list of the members of the group, Next Of Kin emergency contact info and their medical aid details and any notes on any significant medical conditions / allergies. Add the emergency contact information. Make sure that two or more members of the group carry this list with them.
- Always fill in the mountain rescue register at the relevant KZN Wildlife office. If you are doing the Grand Traverse, a copy of the register can be filled out before the time and sent to one of the KZN Wildlife Conservation Managers (see link further down). Do not be vague in the details you fill in and make sure you have completed everything.
- Pay any relevant hiking fees before departing.
Get situation under control before requesting rescue
In the event of an accident, injury, death or missing person firstly ensure that no further injury can occur and that the situation is not left to worsen. Get things under control as much as possible. Take care of your group and yourself as needed. This is an extensive topic beyond the scope of this article, but you should familiarize yourself with basic emergency procedures.
Who to call
In the event of serious injury, death, missing person, criminal threat or any other serious or threatening situation, firstly always try to contact the EKZNW Conservation Manager of the area you are in. A contact list is available at this link.
If the relevant Conservation Manager cannot be reached then the toll free number of the Provincial Health Operations Centre, which is the control room of the EMRS, is 0800 005133. Clearly state that it is for a Drakensberg mountain rescue emergency. They in turn will initiate contact with the MCSA.
Only if the above fails, contact the MCSA Rescue Organisers directly. The contact information may be obtained from the MCSA Regional Seach & Rescue Teams information page which can be downloaded here.
As a backup you can also dial 10177 (general emergencies) or 10111 (police). Again clearly state that it is for a Drakensberg mountain rescue emergency.
Information to gather before making the call
Before making the call, make sure you have noted the following details, preferably writing them on a piece of paper (especially if you have to walk some distance to make the call):
1. The names of all group members and numbers for all cell phones in the group, especially the one you are phoning from. Note the experience level of all group members, the leaders name, and also who has any medical qualifications.
2. Description of exactly what happened and when.
3. Exact location of the victim(s) and your group. If you have a GPS, take a reading, else note distance (in km or walking time) and bearing/direction from known peaks, passes, rivers or caves.
4. The name, age and gender of the victim(s), injuries, current condition, clothes and equipment they have on them, any first aid treatment given, and any known medical conditions.
5. Note if any technical gear and/or technical expertise would be needed to reach the victim(s).
6. Current weather conditions.
7. For a missing person(s), the route which they may be expected to follow, position when last seen and expected time of arrival, what they were wearing, and what equipment they have with them.
8. Resources available to safely stay where you are in terms of shelter, food and medical supplies.
Notes regarding cell phones
- A cell phone is an essential item to take into the mountains with you. Signal strength and network coverage is increasingly good in the Drakensberg. You may need to climb a nearby peak or high ridge to find reception though.
- Sometimes the signal strength seems only to allow for SMSing rather than voice calls.
- Ensure the batteries are fully charged before the trip and leave your phone off until you need it.
- Try taking along more than one phone in the group. Make sure that all group members know where the phones are and that they know what the PIN codes are to access them.
- Be very wary of cellphone based GPS coordinates (e.g. dropping a pin) as there are many reasons why a cellphone could give a seemingly accurate location which may be very far off. Whenever possible try and use a "proper", dedicated handheld GPS for coordinates and when being forced to use a phone check the coordinates (i.e. the actual coordinates) with another phone and re-check after 15 minutes.