After we finished the conversation with the Apple SOS AI bot we packed up camp. The day has started out overcast but it clears to a blustery sort of day but there is no rain thankfully. Had there been any rain we would have left the tarp up. But the best pickup point is on the other side of the creek which we have to carefully negotiate to avoid wet feet. So we pack up and move across to the beach on the other side. The sun pops up and we sit on the sand dune and listened to all the helicopters in the surf – it’s uncanny how much the sound of helicopters comes out of the surf.
Hour slides into hour. The tide pushes up the beach and we retreat a little to a place the tide has clearly not reached in a while. We walk up and down the beach. A pair of Sooty Oystercatchers warily keep an eye on us as they forage and move along twenty metres ahead. They are never so perturbed as to fly off, consistent with many birds we have encountered. Watchful but not alarmed. Not tame but not quick to fly away either. We pace up and down until the breeze snaps up and chills us into moving into the lee of some grass. Tucked into a hollow scalloped by the wind we are out of the worst of it and any sun that appears actually warms us. Lunch is some shared scroggin.
At 1530 I decide that it is probably prudent of me to cross back over the creek and put the tarp back up. If no one has turned up by 1700 we can put the tent up and then properly re-establish camp once its dark. Tarp and tent up in the light is the plan. I stand up and pull up my pack which has been laid on its side to help keep the wind off me. The tarp is in the top of the pack and I remove it and turn to walk down to the creek when I hear the beat of chopper blades. Is that the surf. Kavitha calls out and I look back to her. She’s pointing back over my shoulder.
I turn and spot the the yellow and red of the helicopter. For the briefest moment I am thrown. For reasons I can’t explain I has envisioned white and blue despite knowing it would be yellow and red. I laugh, go back to my pack and give Kavitha a hug. There is a feeling of emotional relief. I was getting ready for a long camp here. There are far worse places to be stuck and a week here would be very survivable. The weather may have even settled enough for us to have a go at those crossings. These had been the fall back plans though the sensible one was to stay put. The camp site would have benefited from us working it over. Already all the deadfall and rotten standing trees had been cleared off and cleaned up. I had plans to build a stone wall as a wind break – a good long term project.
The helicopter came in over the tree line from the direction of Grotto Creek and swung around us as the pilot got a feel for the breeze then lowered in across the surf, crabbing up over the beach towards us. I was keen to get some images but it somehow didn’t feel quite right to be filming one’s own rescue and I kept the camera in the pocket. I lost sight of the machine as it thundered in on top us, sandblasting us and pushing sand into every pocket and receptacle, many unknown until we unpacked at the hotel and sand spilled everywhere. Adam the medic disembarked and the chopper departed to do another loop. The place fell silent again.
Adam checked that we had no injury. Perhaps, being the medic he was disappointed that was the case. I felt a bit awkward – an injury would somehow validate the pickup. He checked we had all our gear. We confirmed we were packed and ready to go. The chopper is radioed and it returns to the beach. On its way in Adam explains they have come to pick us up from Launceston so will need to pick us up and refuel. We discover later that the initial plan was for the chopper to drop Adam with us and he would help us pack up while the chopper went off and refuelled. He also explained the embarkation procedure. He was calm and measured and concise with his communications. Given the anxiety I felt about even asking for help his was the personality I needed right then and I thanked him for his response. He looked a bit puzzled.
The chopper put down a little further away this time, over wet sand so we were not quite so sandblasted. Packs in first then Kavitha then myself, crew in and off we went. We turned left and climbed out over the beach and instantly could see the crossing at Grotto Creek, down Prion Beach over the dinghy crossing and down to Cockle Creek. Nine minutes to cover off the four days of walking it would have taken us on the track. Nine minutes of mixed emotions but including relief that it had all worked out okay.
The refuelling point (this image refers) is well concealed and we put down in the bush. The pilot (Frazer) and the crewman (Caleb) busy themselves with retrieving a fuel drum and topping up the tanks while we get out and chat with Adam. He points out Cockle Creek. When the fuel drum is put back in store we chat for a few minutes with the crew about our circumstances. They are intrigued that the PLB did not work. And are possibly even more intrigued that this task had been initiated via Apple SOS. Frances noted that he was aware of two tasks in NSW which had been initiated by Apple SOS but that this is the first in Tasmania. They want to see the app so we crowd around the phone. Because it only works when there is no coverage there is only so much which can be shown. However I had been taking screen shots as I went so had that record to show. Suddenly Frazer prods us all along saying we need to get into the air. He had a deadline which I didn’t catch, but we are not about to argue.
It’s a twenty minute flight back to Hobart and we are greeted by crew who want to attend to the chopper, though only after the aircraft is given a wash down with fresh water – we have been over salt water after all. We thank the crew. While we were refuelling Adam had assured us there was nothing wrong with the call we had made. Back in Hobart Frazer took the time to assure us of the same. We thank them both and walk over to the hangar with Caleb who is keen to dissect the PLB and Apple SOS situation a bit more. We spent twenty minutes going though the minutiae of the alert sequence and I promise him a copy of all the screen shots together with a timeline. We later discover that the difference between our initiation of the Apple SOS and Tasmania Police receiving the alert was only seven minutes. Caleb was quick to assure of the reasonableness of our thinking as well. All three of the crew were generous in their assessment of our assessment. I did not want anyone to think this had been frivolous even though I was content in my heart of hearts that it was not. Standing in the water at midnight had convinced me of that, but in the clear light of day it was easy to double guess myself.
A key contribution to this episode was out of sight. In planning this trip we had kept Hamish informed of what we were doing and Rod also knew the plan though not the specific detail. These two characters were listed on my PLB registration. If the PLB fired they would be contacted. The PLB had not fired but when the Apple SOS arrived in Canberra someone checked the registration and TASPOL were able to talk to Hamish. (I had indicated in the Apple SOS that we had a PLB and had initiated it but that there had been no response). Hamish had a number of conversations with TASPOL (Bernard) and was able to assure him that we knew what we were doing, were experienced and that we were well equipped. We didn’t need it but got validation on the latter when one of the maintenance guys at the chopper base was complimentary about the Oneplanet pack and the Cactus overpants and jacket and quipped to Caleb “They are well equipped for the South Coast Track”. Thank you.
The conversation in the background between Hamish and Bernard was of course unknown to us at the time but we discovered through conversations with both of them that having someone in the background who knew our capabilities very well meant that the decision making by the rescuers was well informed and that they knew from the outset they were not being sent on a wild goose chase. For our part, as the diary records, it gave us confidence knowing that Hamish was across the brief in the background. The conversation with Bernard a week after all this helpfully reinforced the utility of having solid backup. He was kind enough to also validate the call. Better we pick you up in one piece than come looking for bodies.
Almost the end. We have yet to understand what happened to the PLB. The manufacturer is not responding to emails and nor are the people who service it and replace its batteries. However that pans out will be the final chapter of this adventure.