South Africa’s big dams have long been home to water-sport activities – everything from power-boating, sailing, fishing, canoeing, water-skiing, kite- and wind-surfing, and triathlons. This means droves of visitors, especially over weekends and holidays. And where there are people and water, there is always an accompanying risk.
Aside from its presence along South Africa’s coastline, the NSRI has established bases at five inland dams: Vaal Dam (Deneysville, Free State), Hartbeespoort Dam (North West), Gauteng (at CR Swart Dam in Benoni), Witbank Dam (Mpumalanga) and Theewaterskloof Dam (Western Cape). This number is set to increase to six, as plans are being made to open an NSRI base at Gariep Dam, situated on the border of Free State and the Eastern Cape, due to an increased need for a rescue service in the area. We found out more about the nature of inland rescues.
The most obvious challenges for rescuers operating from inland dams are the sheer size of the water bodies they have to oversee, rapidly changing weather conditions, and the fact that there are numerous people using those waters at any given time.
According to Station 22’s (Vaal Dam) station commander, Jake Manten, the Vaal Dam has a circumference estimated at 1 200km and a surface area of 320km2. “There are also numerous entry points to the dam, many of which are not formally monitored,” he explains. The dam gets its name from the ‘vaal’ or muddy silt borne in the water, which means the water is dark and very little can be seen below its surface. “This makes recovery difficult, unless you have an exact location,” he adds.
The Vaal Dam is situated on the Vaal River, one of the strongest flowing rivers in the country. “Many people come to the Vaal Dam from the Free State and Gauteng for fishing, sailing, jet-skiing, skiing, sailing or just to enjoy a bit of nature and the outdoors. Station 22 is the only rescue service on this entire body of water, and we also assist on the Vaal River and nearby areas affected by floods or when accidents occur on the water.”
In some ways rescues on inland waters can be less challenging than those out at sea, Jake says. “Our launches are generally easier, so we have a quick response time. The shoreline is usually always visible from most parts of the dam so navigation is a lot easier unless we need to navigate higher up into the river’s little islets trying to find casualties. And there’s less corrosion to equipment as we do not have to deal with salt water,” Jakes explains.
On the downside, the dam doesn’t have a harbour or port control and, therefore, no permanent monitoring of the waterways and the people using them. “VHF radios are not compulsory and, in fact, there is no legal marine frequency on inland waters. Cellphones can be a great help, but there is often no signal in outlying areas, and trying to get assistance can be difficult. Storms and squalls can appear almost out of nowhere and people are often caught off-guard and land up in difficulty. At sea, the wave heights get much larger than on the dam although we can experience waves of over 2m. The problem is that the frequency is much greater with a very short distance between waves causing a lot of chop. Many areas around the dam are hard to access via land and, so, often the rescue boats are the only means of getting to a casualty,” Jake says.
Two recent rescues on the Vaal Dam illustrate quite well the unique challenges faced by rescuers. The first one involved a conservation worker who set out to rescue birds and their eggs from trees on the flooded Vaal River. He had reportedly gone missing while on his kayak. The search began on Monday 3 January, and resumed at first light the following day. “During the search, the missing kayak was located against a tree and while an NSRI rescue craft searched that area along the river, the man was found huddled in a tree that he had climbed to escape the rapids,” Jake explains.
The second involved a boat caught precariously between two open sluice gates at the dam wall. Jake and his crew had their work cut out for them. In order not to put themselves in danger, a tow rope was thrown to the casualty vessel that was then pulled from the danger zone.
Jake and his crew have also assisted a number of animals including a donkey that became stranded on a landbank after rising dam levels. The stricken animal, which had been missing for four weeks, was collected in the station’s rescue craft, inspected by a vet and returned to his relieved family.
It’s also not uncommon for the crew to be called to assist with veld fires and sometimes the removal of dangerous snakes from people’s homes. “Occasionally we’re also called out to assist in flash floods in areas that are remote from the dam, or near rivers, where people have been cut off from other assistance and are in danger of being lost to raging flood waters,” Jake adds.
Arthur Crewe, station commander of Station 25 at Hartbeespoort Dam is also no stranger to helping animals in distress. Harties, as it’s affectionately known, is also a popular water-sports destination that attracts myriad visitors. During the course of last year, a dog was rescued, after it was suspected that the owner might have purposefully dropped her in the water. Concerned onlookers sounded the alarm and Station 25 crew went to assist. In another incident, a juvenile vulture was entangled in the hyacinth that covers a large percentage of the dam. This outcome was also a good one, as the bird was rescued and placed in the care of a bird conservation group.
It’s not only birds that get stuck in the invasive hyacinth, which together with salvinia plants, closes up around 50 to 75% of the dam surface. “It makes rescue operations very slow because the boats’ propellers and gearboxes take strain and can get damaged. It’s also dangerous for our crew to get into the water. Between the plants, there is also a lot of debris (like fishing nets, tree stumps and sometimes loose jetties that come adrift during bad storms) and sewerage.” The foliage presents a problem for water users too, as boats often get stuck.
Like Station 22 (Vaal Dam), Station 25 is the only emergency service of its kind on the dam. Most often the station is called out to attend to medical situations such as childbirths, and evacuating people off barges when they either get stuck or the weather turns and the people onboard start to panic.
“Inland dams have a higher concentration of people in a smaller space which can be dangerous,” Arthur says. “With inland dams, specifically Hartbeespoort, you can have between 2 500 and 5 000 people on the water at any given time, whether for sporting or other leisure activities. Often people can’t swim or are using alcohol, which inevitably requires an emergency response.”
Station 25’s responses aren’t always confined to situations on the dam. “We are supposed to cover Hartbeespoort, but because of the lack of emergency services with regards to water rescue, we have had to expand our rescue callouts to assist the police too. We can never refuse when they ask for assistance, especially with the flooding in the last three years. We have been assisting in Gauteng as well as North West with river-related rescues and body recoveries. We have become a search and rescue station and, with that being said, we have to assist outside of our borders,” Arthur explains.
This means that, sadly, around 90% of the station’s callouts do not have good outcomes. “It’s heartbreaking,” Arthur says. “But there are memorable ones too. We saved a woman and her dog that got swept down the Hennops River. She’s still telling the story of how the NSRI saved their lives.”
While the work they do is often unique to inland areas, Arthur says he and the crew still feel very much a part of the NSRI. “Each one of us has an important role in rescue. Sea rescues are different to dam rescues but we are all specialised. It is very difficult to put one over the other. We have a lot of respect for the other stations and the rescues that they do. At the dam, we have a diverse range of callouts. We deal with a lot of suicides, vehicles going into the dam and extrications. But each base has its own challenges, specific to their region,” he concludes.
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