Josh and Kate were heli-evacuated from the Jagungal Wilderness after a bushfire covered 50km in a day, but only because emergency services knew they were there.
The eucalyptus-scented smoke from the bushfires was thick around them as Josh and Kate warmed a backcountry meal, fuelling up to keep on biking as they searched for a safe way out of the increasingly terrifying situation in Kosciuszko National Park. Suddenly they heard the thud of a helicopter above them. As it landed, a navy officer strode towards them, ‘There fire’s heading straight for you. You’re being evacuated, now!’
Experienced hikers, climbers, and general outdoor frothers, Josh and Kate started their year in the path of a huge fire that is still ripping through the Jagungal Wilderness area. When they set out on December 29th from Geehi Reservoir, the area was free of fires and a pleasant escape from their bushfire ravaged home in the Blue Mountains. Planning a leisurely 160km over five days, they hoped to begin the year immersed in the wild.
They’d done some ski-touring through the backcountry before, and it seemed like the perfect place for their first big bike-packing trip. Mountain biking was their latest hobby on a long list of outdoor adventuring – keen climbers and canyoners with over 10 years experience, they met while studying outdoor recreation at Blue Mountains TAFE.
Josh has since worked as a canyon guide and now teaches outdoor rec, while Kate is a youth development facilitator who specialises in bush adventure and wilderness therapy. Suffice to say, they are more than capable of taking care of themselves and safely exploring wild places, and had been religiously monitoring fire conditions throughout the state.
When a Fire Starts to Burn
Unbeknownst to them, a lightning strike started a blaze on December 30th. It covered 50km in a day and headed straight for them. By the 31st, an ominous orange glow had descended as thick smoke began to fill the sky. They could see distant fires in the north west and blackened leaves rained down.
With no phone signal, they assessed whether to continue west, taking them vaguely towards the fire but also towards a well-maintained road and potentially busy car park or to backtrack south. They decided to press on and hope to find reception, workers or emergency teams. They set off on the longest continuous ascent of the trip.
‘When I saw my shadow way out in front of me I thought for sure I was in the headlights of a Landcruiser. It was only the light from the world beyond barely managing to creep in under the smoky blanket and laterally light our landscape. I felt we may be riding to face Armageddon, I wondered if I would die.’ – Josh.
The car park was deserted, with no people or phone signal. Survival mode kicked in as they prepared some food to recharge for the next 40km of pedalling.
Get to the Choppa!
‘That’s when we heard the chopper…it began to circle around us, I immediately felt relieved, they had spotted us easily. Kate, however had just finished boiling water and filling our backcountry meal, her initial thought was that she was getting busted for using the Jetboil, like there was some mi goreng strike team out there watching. If only it were that easy to summon help, I would have insisted we ate earlier.’
The rescue team took their details, kitted them up with helmets, goggles, and earmuffs and put the bikes on board the helicopter (complete with their warm lunch strapped under a bungee cord). When the helicopter took off, the fire was around 20km away and has since burnt through the area. The adrenalin of the moment for Josh was enhanced by the fear of their backcountry meal spilling through the military chopper. The pair were then dropped safely in Cooma.
‘We paid our gratitude to the servicemen who had saved us and were left with our bikes and the local police Sergeant who took our details and asked our plan. The PUB! I exclaimed.’
Their meal was still warm, so Josh and Kate sat down to eat, then headed in for a beer and to emotionally process what just happened.
The Moral of the Story
On multiple-day trips into remote or wilderness areas, Josh usually uses a trip intention form from National Parks, and in this case that’s exactly how the rescue team knew where to look.
The moral of the story? Register your hike! For any hikes in NSW you can register online or at any police station, all you need is your plan and a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon). You can hire or buy PLBs, or borrow them for free in Blue Mountains and Kosciuszko National Parks.
Josh has a PLB, but didn’t feel that he was at the life-threatening point needed to set it off, and isn’t sure what point that would be. He’s now planning to get a two-way satellite communicator. From the hindsight that comes with an experience like this, here’s what Josh has to share:
Be cautious this season and in the future
‘These fires have proved how suddenly they can appear and how rapidly they can spread.’
Consider Postponing Wilderness Adventures
‘Even though there wasn’t any immediate threat when we set off, we were at the height of the worst bushfire season Australia has ever seen. It makes me sad to think the summer adventures might become off limits as our climate continues to become hotter and drier, and bushfire risk becomes more frequent and severe.’
Don’t Rush Back Out There
‘At the moment it’s dangerous with trees falling and dropping limbs. The land will now be much more susceptible to erosion and collapse, and rivers and creeks more susceptible to flash flooding. Stay up to date with park closures and advice with Fires Near Me app and the national parks webpage.
This Won’t Be a Fast Recovery
‘Half a billion wildlife already perished…a significant loss of biodiversity, many species being pushed to the brink of extinction by habitat loss and climate change. We need to give the bush some time to recover, without our clumsy disturbance. Some areas will need many years, others may not recover at all.’
We’re lucky to live in a country with such an incredible capacity to respond to emergencies, with the resources, personnel and volunteers to keep so many people safe. We all play a role in this by keeping ourselves safe, and there’s no doubt the trip intention form is a vital part of that.
Josh and Kate are now safely home in the Blue Mountains, where they are keeping an eye on the fires but can’t help thinking of their next adventure.
All photos by Josh and Kate