When the Drakensberg clouds over

2013-08-14 00:00

ON Wednesday, January 2, 1963, a 19-year-old Witwatersrand University student, Kenneth Saffer, arrived at Drakensberg Gardens Hotel in the southern Drakensberg for a short holiday.

On the Thursday morning, Saffer and four others set out to climb the 3 051-metre Rhino Peak. Saffer was dressed in shorts, a shirt, a rugby jersey and sandshoes for footwear. On the way up, Saffer took a different route from the others, although they all met up at the summit. On the descent, Saffer again opted to take a different route. The rest of the party arrived back at the hotel late in the evening, but Saffer was not there. By then bad weather, mist and rain had set in. The alarm was raised and the search and rescue team of the Natal section of the Mountain Club of South Africa (MCSA) was alerted.

The team members called out were rescue team convenor Sherman Ripley, a physiologist at the University of Natal Medical School, Brian Hutchinson, a businessman, and Warwick Keating, a chemical engineer, all Durban residents — along with Malcolm Moor, who farmed just outside Estcourt.

There is some uncertainty about who exactly brought the South African Air Force (SAAF) into the picture.

“I think it was the father of the youngster who got hold of the air force and organised it from Pretoria or Johannesburg,” says Ripley, now 87 and living in Grahamstown.

However, the general consensus is that it was Ripley who made the arrangement.

Ripley recalls contacting the others in the team and driving up to the Drakensberg from Durban on the Friday. Hutchinson (75) remembers the drive to the Drakensberg Gardens Hotel “in terrible weather”.

Warwick Keating (77), now resident in Howick, was behind the wheel of his Singer Rapier.

“Hell, it was terrible, driving up from Durban. In those days, it was dirt from the top of Lundy’s Hill in Edendale. We were just slipping and sliding over the road. We got to Bulwer in the dark — and we were losing petrol from the car because there was a hole in the petrol tank. A stone had hit it.”

When the Bulwer garage was unable to sort out the problem, someone suggested using soap.

“ ‘No’, someone says, ‘Sharp’s Toffee is better than soap’. We fixed it with Sharp’s Toffee,” says Keating.

During Thursday night and over Friday, a search for Saffer by hotel residents led by a local farmer, Barry Tod, proved unsuccessful. The Lesotho police were also busy searching their side of the mountain in case Saffer had wandered across the border.

The party from Durban arrived at the Drakensberg Gardens Hotel late on Friday night, where they met Moor. “We couldn’t do anything that night,” says Moor (77). “It was very dark, full of rain and the weather had just clamped down.”

An Alouette helicopter from SAAF in Pretoria, flown by Major R.V. Lamb and accompanied by a flight engineer, had arrived on Friday morning, but had been unable to fly thereafter because of the weather.

Early on Saturday morning, there was a break in the cloud cover.

“We could see the top of the Rhino,” says Moor, “and Major Lamb shouted: ‘Let’s go chaps. I can do one trip and I can drop you’. He dropped us on the peak and flew off, and that’s the last we saw of him until we got down to the bottom again.”

Hutchinson also remembers the weather suddenly closing in and the helicopter having to make a quick exit. “We were given Very flares to fire if the weather cleared and we found Saffer. But we never used them because the weather didn’t clear.”

The four men on the Rhino were equipped with climbing ropes and a Neil Robertson stretcher. They began their search amid heavy rain and mist. According to Keating, it was guesswork as to where Saffer might be.

“Below the Rhino there is a long slab of rock — we anticipated he had fallen there. We looked around the first grassy platform and then went down the second slope,” says Keating. “There is a long vertical you can’t get down without ropes.”

The constant rain meant visibility was poor, says Hutchinson, while the wet and slippery conditions made abseiling dangerous. “I got the team a safety line on abseil and I went down last without a safety line.”

It was Moor who found Saffer. “I found him lying at the bottom — he was obviously dead.”

“When the weather closed in, he must have decided to come straight down. He must have thought that was the best option. But it involved a 300-foot abseil. He had no climbing experience, no equipment and he was just dressed for a stroll on a summer’s day. This must have all contributed to his demise, but he knew he had to get down with the weather closing in.

“The poor guy had obviously fallen somewhere else. He had damaged his knee and wrapped it with a rugger jersey. He must have been pretty desperate and tried the other cliff and fell.”

The rescue party, now a recovery party, tied Saffer’s body to the Robinson stretcher, which is specially designed to enclose a body.

“It was quite a slog to get the body down,” says Moor.

The continuing heavy rain ruled out flares to alert the helicopter and so the party carried the body down the steep southeast ridge of the Rhino Peak onto the south slope of Mashai Pass. The exhausted four men got Saffer’s body as far as Pillar Cave, where they were met by a group from the hotel who took over using a wheeled Thomas stretcher, which made it easier to carry the body. Saffer’s parents were waiting at the hotel. They had flown from Cape Town, where they had been on holiday.

* * *

Although this was the first time the SAAF was involved, it was not the first time a helicopter rescue was carried out in the Drakensberg. In April 1959, a private helicopter from Lesotho was used to ferry men and supplies to the summit of the Amphitheatre to assist in the search for Peter Christensen, one of a group of students caught in a blizzard. His body was only found in July.

After the Saffer recovery, the Mountain Club’s rescue team’s relationship with the SAAF continued on an ad hoc basis, until Ripley set about formalising matters: “The problem was that, although, the air force was prepared to use helicopters to help in rescues, it was not permitted to lift civilians and there was also a problem with communications,” he says.

“So, in 1973, I contacted General Bob Rogers, the head of the SAAF, and he sorted it out that rescue members could ride in the helicopters and also use two-way radios on the SAAF frequency, which enabled people on the ground to talk to those in the aircraft.”

Lieutenant Colonel Trevor Williamson, the officer commanding SAAF 15 Squadron based next to the old Durban International Airport, and which has the provincial responsibility for search and rescue missions, estimates that they are called out for such operations eight times a year.

“We get called out mostly during the festive season or when the weather in the Berg is at its most atrocious. It is on this sort of mission where we really value the professionalism and commitment of the MCSA team, who are all volunteers and give up many hours to train with us to maintain our overall competence as a mountain rescue unit.”

Improvements in communications and equipment, the advent of GPS and sophisticated helicopter systems, with crews trained to fly at night in the mountains, have all helped to advance rescue performance.

However, as Williamson points out, when hiking in the Drakensberg, communication via cellphone is not always possible, which is why it’s vital that climbers and walkers fill in the register supplied by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife as to where they are going and their expected time of return.

If they don’t return in time, or if they are otherwise alerted to a problem, Ezemvelo then contacts Gavin Raubenheimer, the current convenor of the MCSA KZN rescue team. He then contacts Joint Tactical Headquarters on the Bluff, which assesses the situation.

If it looks like a helicopter is called for, it contacts Pretoria headquarters, which, in turn, will issue an operations order to SAAF 15 Squadron.

“We always have crew on stand-by,” says Williamson. “They are on a one-hour stand-by during the day and two hours at night. Then we have to prepare the aircraft, depending on the situation. This is in terms of landing, hoisting and the presence of doctors or paramedics.”

The medical expertise comes via members of the Emergency Medical Rescue Service (EMRS), or doctors who are MCSA members.

“Depending on the situation, I will select someone with the right medical qualifications,” says Caleb Wang, acting principal at the EMRS College of Emergency Care.

“Then they are picked up by the SAAF and flown up. We get called out for falls or for snake bites,” he says.

The 50th anniversary of the first MCSA operation with the SAAF highlights a great national partnership, says Raubenheimer.

“It’s such a good relationship and one that has lasted 50 years. It’s one that is probably unique, in that civilians are allowed to fly in military planes.

“The Royal Air Force in the United Kingdom might have a similar relationship, but it’s nowhere near as close as ours with the SAAF.”

• Acknowledgement: This article draws on information contained in Dragon’s Wrath – Drakensberg Climbs, Accidents, and Rescues by R.O. Pearse and James Byrom, published by MacMillan.

• feature1@witness.co.za

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