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As a high-stakes mountain rescue unfolded at sunset on Saturday 2 December, Station 8 (Hout Bay) were also called on to respond to a separate medical emergency, putting their capacity to the test.

What started out as a leisurely Saturday day hike at 7:30 in the morning for three friends and a dog along the Hangberg trail between Hout Bay and Sandy Bay, ended with a dramatic air and sea rescue operation in fading light just before nightfall.

West of Seal Island, just past Brako Rock, Jenny, Warrick and Robyn* – as well as Robyn’s dog, Lucy – ran into difficulty: they had lost their way, and all four were exhausted and dehydrated.

“We’d hiked in the area before with no problem,” says Jenny, “and we had the AllTrails app, which told us virtually the entire time that we were on the right track, so we didn’t realise we were lost until about 4:30.”

Feeling they were near the end of their hike and close to completion, the three friends and their dog continued along a path that became increasingly precarious.

Then Warrick’s phone, which was being used for navigation, ran out of battery, while Jenny’s was about to run out. Thankfully, she was able to contact the Community Crime Prevention (CCP) control room in Hout Bay at around 5:35pm, and initiate a live position track on a WhatsApp, before her phone, too, ran out of battery.

By this stage, they had also run out of water.

“The hikers were about 30 metres above the water line just passed Brako, a notoriously dangerous part of the coastline where the hiking trail from Sandy Bay to Hout Bay tends to get very disjointed, and if you take the wrong path, you end up on a cliff face with nowhere to go but up an almost vertical cliff face,” says Station 8 Commander Spencer Oldham. “The path is overgrown with fynbos and there are regular crime-related incidents.”

The CCP control room contacted Spencer, and together they decided to launch Station 8’s rescue craft “Albie Matthews” and JetRIB “Spirit of Gabi”, and initiate a search. The NSRI’s Emergency Operation Centre (EOC) was also notified, as was the METRO control room requesting helicopter backup.

By this stage, daylight was fading fast, and what’s more, the hikers were not in the expected location when the NSRI vessels arrived on scene at 6:30pm.

“We weren’t even sure if help was coming, so we decided to start backtracking,” says Jenny. “They were nowhere to be seen,” says Spencer. “The area in question is a very steep coastline with thick bush, which is difficult to walk through if there is no path. The NSRI vessels split up and conducted an in-depth two-boat search pattern along the shoreline in high surge conditions, before tracking back to the original area.”

At 7:24pm, just 20 minutes before nightfall, the hikers were located.

Sea conditions were too rough to extricate them off the shoreline onto rescue craft, and so the Skymed rescue helicopter, which had been deployed earlier, manoeuvred to rescue the hikers in an urgent race against the fading light.

First, Robyn and Jenny were secured to harnesses and airlifted to a landing zone prepared at NSRI Hout Bay. Then, Skymed went back for Warrick, who was airlifted with Lucy secured to his back.

All hikers had been successfully rescued by nightfall and required no further assistance.

As all of this was unfolding, however, the already-stretched crew received another call for help at 6:24pm: this time concerning a woman who had apparently suffered a heart attack.

“Alpha crew commander Franco Viotti and I were busy launching the JetRIB by hand when the call came in,” says Spencer. “Other rescue services were en route, and METRO and CCP paramedics were on scene conducting CPR. One of our station’s medics was also on scene at this time. I dispatch our station’s 4x4 Rescue Vehicle to assist where needed. Thankfully, the casualty was successfully resuscitated and stabilised before being transferred to one of the local hospitals over the mountain.”

It's times like these that the ability to perform under pressure showcases the true measure of emergency responders.

Tips for hikers

Spencer has a few words of advice for would-be hikers this summer:

“The hiking trail from Sandy Bay to Hout Bay is a notorious route and should only be undertaken with an experienced local guide from the area. Let your friends and family know where you are heading, and what time you should be expected back. Put together an action plan of who to call in case of an emergency before you leave for your hike. Ensure your cell phones are charged (and take a spare charging unit with you), bearing in mind that cell reception is not always there during load shedding or on the sea side of Karbonkelberg. Take lots of water with you, as well as a torch, warm clothing and a space blanket.”

He also recommends registering with Safety Mountain Tracking and making use of their hiker tracking service.

*Names have been changed at the request of the survivors.

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