I will never forget this day for as long as I may live, the memory of that weekend is ingrained in my mind!
The day was Sunday, February 13, 2011… I particularly warm Sunday in KZN, also the same day that the JHB U2 360 tour concert was to take place.
Monday being February 14, Valentines day… A day that I had planned to make memorable in every way, with my cute girlfriend in JHB for the U2 concert and myself still in Durban, I decided that the plan was to break into her flat and decorate it so that when she arrived back on Monday it would be this magical surprise… Well that was the theory!
I spent most of Saturday after I dropped her off at the Airport organising things and planning stuff. Sunday morning I decided to shoot up to PMB to my folks for the day and grab a few more of the items I needed for Monday…
Anyway, as it turned out, that Sunday afternoon while packing my car, my phone goes with a message asking who is available for a possible rescue in Hammarsdale, to look for a missing off road biker. So I respond that I’m probably the closest by a long shot as I’m in PMB, so will respond from there.
A few moments later an update comes through with GPS co-ordinates of the location and I quickly plot them on my GPS and have a look at the area. Its HILLS!!
A minute later my goes again, saying please all meet at Hillcrest shell, we will dispatch from there. I reply saying I will meet at the JOC in Hammarsdale and grab all my gear and head off.
Arriving at the JOC, which was chosen to be the local meeting point for riders at the bottom of Key Ridge, I am met by a whole lot of distressed looking off road motocyclists, as well as the medical director or VEMA, the organisation that we were a subsidiary of at that particular time.
I then come across some disturbing information, while collecting bits and pieces from the riders and others… The time now is 15:30, the call for assistance went out at 14:10… The rider went missing from his group of bikes at…. 10:30 approximately… Its been 4 hours and 10 minutes before the alarm was raised and a further hour before we were assembled…
The other information that has come through is this. The bike has been found lying against an ant hill, but the rider is no where to be found, they assume he is concust from the fall and wondering around dazed in this approximate area.
The rest of the team assemble at the JOC and instinctively grab gear and personal equipment and start to get ready. We then all jump into vehicles again and head out to the GPS co-ordinates given.
We arrive at the point to find a Robinnson R44 helicopter in the road and ambulances and a few people milling about. The pilot of the R44 has come out to offer his assistance to the search, however the downside to this that the rider that is missing’s good friend will not get out of the helicopter, so it severely restrict the use of the machine having someone with absolutely no search and rescue expertise in the front seat scanning the terrain. The pilot informs us of the area we need to search in and explains to us how to get there, and once again we all climb in vehicles and move to another location. By now people are getting irritable and edgy, and when we try set up a command post to co-ordinate the scene from we get shouted at and told to hurry up and get out there and stop wasting time.
Yes we are running out of Daylight hours… and yes we have taken almost an hour more to get to the location… But a good co-ordination post is vital to a successful rescue!
Arriving at the correct point we try to set up a command post
Shortly there after I climb aboard the helicopter while the other guys work out what equipment is needed and where to begin the operation. I take a short flight around the area to gather further GPS co-ordinates and hopefully triangulate a search area, as well as maybe pick up some vital information from the air… And that I did… Not even 3 minutes into the flight I notice something white on the side of a slope that didn’t quite fit the surroundings, and there it was, a helmet! Instantly narrow down the search area, i had a GPS point for the helmet, one for where the bike was found, and I took a third point at random to develop a triangle to load a search area on the map.
Arriving back at the guys I give them the news about what has been found.
Me explaining what I have found in the air to the people in command
We put Mark into the helicopter with a rope bag and some gear to be inserted into the position I have worked out as the most logical to begin from.
Guys getting their gear together
We then work out an order. Myself, Piet and Tasha will walk in with gear. Muff and Nic G will fly in, Muff is to be dropped at the top of the cliff and Nic G in the river below to climb up from the bottom. Damian will come in last to the top with the SKED and some more equipment.
Discussing the order of events
Once the order is arranged, everyone is told to get their gear together and group for the insertion plan.
Grouped for insertion, everyone with the gear assigned to them ready to go!
Myself and Piet load all of our gear in the ER24 rescue vehicle and jump on the bumper.
Grabbing a ride on the ER24 MR vehicle as far as we can down the hillside
Once we got as far as we could go, we walked the remainder of the way on foot. About another 3km to the top of the cliff where I had mapped the location to start the search. On the way down the hillside we were met by the young riders father, who wished to accompany us to the search area. Its not something that we generally allow, but since we had been pushed and rushed we weren’t about to argue.
We got to the site and set up a rope abseil so that Mark and the Mannie from SAPS search and rescue could abseil down and look along the ledges on the way down. Its now almost 17:30 by the time the abseil has been put in place and daylight hours are diminishing rapidly!
Damian manning the top of the abseil. Already passed 17:30 with tensions rising as daylight vanished.
The next thing that happened is the part that will stick in my mind forever… Myself and Piet, sitting at the top not doing all that much decided to take a walk along the path that we could see and have a look from another direction. With us is a local youngster who is walking along as well. This chap climbs down a ledge of about 2 metres and then looks up and says, I think I see him.
My heart Jumps! I yell back to Damian to get me a rope, Im going to assess what I can find.
Climbing down the rocks to the level below, turn and give Piet a hand, faintly through the bushes on the ledge we can see what looks like a white boot! We start the mad dash through the bushes climbing over trees and through torn shrubs for what seemed like hours to travel the 15 metres along the ledge… And yes… There he was! Lying under a sheltered lip on the ledge, with one leg bent at the knee and his arms folded across his chest. I rush over to him, having found our missing biker…
He is looking rather pale, so i yell up to Damian that I have found him, I need assistance! He must get the guys from the bottom up, so that we can start with the rest of the rescue.
Damian yells back to me, “whats his status?!”
I had just assessed his condition…
I yell back, “P4!”
Unfortunately… The worst part of finding our missing rider was the part of finding him already deceased!
Second to that, was climbing back up to the top to gather the right equipment to start with a recovery, and ascending the top and meeting his father face to face, and him staring at me and asking, “Whats P4? What does that mean?”
And I looked at him softly and said, “Unfortunately it means that he wont be coming home tonight, and I’m really sorry about that…”
The rest of what happened that night was the toughest extrication and recovery I have ever dealt with… Not only because there was a 21 year old youngster who’s father was waiting for him at the time we found him, but also because over and above the emotional impact that had, we had no other assistance other than the 6 of us to haul this guy out!
Myself and Piet resigned ourselves to setting up the hauling system to lift the body up and over the first ledge and through the thick bushes to the path where we could then carry him out. The rest of the guys were down belong packaging into the SKED.
It was now already dark and all of us working under headlight in a terrain that was really unstable! Rocks were being dislodged by the ropes as the tension changed and rolling down the scree face at the guys below. Every few minutes one of us would yell, “BELOW!!” indicating that a rock was on its way…
Before we start with the haul, Muff climbs back up to the top to give us a hand, on the way up he comes eye to eye level with a green snake chilling on a branch of a tree… He says to us, “Fuck! Guys! there is a snake here!!”
We pack up laughing and Piet replies to him, “Stare it down Muff! Stare it down!” to which we get, “Fuck off! I’m out of here! and he somehow rockets past the tree and land right next to me!
The little bit of comic relief puts a renewed spirit into everyone and we continue with the task.
19:20, and we have hauled the body to the path and are organising a plan to carry the remaining 4.2km to the where the vehicles are…
Those 4.2 kilometers took us three and half hours to complete… We had to swap out carrying every couple hundred metres, and rotate positions on the SKED. Climb over rocks and up these ledges.
It was the longest most arduous walk ever!
Finally at around 22:45 we see headlights and people!! We have gotten to the top!!
We hand over the deceased the SAPS members and the detectives that have now arrived, and leave them to sort out the rest…
A short debriefing was held, with a formal debrief to be arranged at a later stage, and we were all given the all clear to leave the scene…
I finally arrived home at 23:35, and then had to put my plan into action or the following day!
I got into bed at about 2 am the following morning!
For weeks after the incident both myself and Piet battled to come to terms with our finding that day… We just couldn’t get that image out of our heads… It compelled us to attend the victims’ memorial service for that final bit of closure, and for us to realise that it was really beyond our control what happened that day…
The part that touched us, was the absolute random people that came up to us after the service and thanked us for going out there and putting time into finding him and bringing him back… People who didn’t know us, who we didn’t know… but who were thankful for the service we gave that day… Was a touching moment!
R.I.P Paul Hunt… The day I met you will never be forgotten!