Lost in the highlands
by Russ Grayson. First published 2001.
“TURN 180 degrees to your right now. We are on the other side of the button grass plain. Look for our orange marker”.
I release the transmit button and await the pilot’s acknowledgment. Two or three kilometres to our east, well over on the other side of a broad button grass plain, the Bell Jet Ranger tilts and makes a sweeping turn, coming towards where we stand at the edge of the treeline. The helicopter slows as it descends, hesitating as the pilot seeks solid ground on which to put down. Gently, the skids make contact with the earth, the engine and rotor wind down until there remains only the whine of the turbine.
A door opens and out climb two men. We lead them into the open forest of eucalyptus, over to where a log had fallen across a trail years ago. I point out fresh-looking scuff marks on the log and the older man bends down, his weatherbeaten face indicating a lifetime spent in the highlands. He places his hand next to the scuffmarks, wrinkles his face as if in deep thought and then announces: “Probably made a day or two ago”.
Tasmania’s Central Plateau is an easy place to get lost on.
The undulating, rocky terrain supports a sparse vegetation of tussocky button grass interspersed with belts of snow gum. Hundreds of lakes, known locally as ‘tarns’, dot this region which occupies an extensive uplifted area that forms the central land mass of the state. There is a sameness to the landscape and even rural people lose their way.
The callout comes late in the afternoon. “This is police search and rescue. We have an alert. Can you be at the police garage ready to leave for the Central Plateau at 7.30?”, asks the voice on the phone. I reply in the affirmative and go home to pack. Members of search and rescue keep a pack loaded with essentials more or less ready to go, so all I have to do is throw in some food, grab a bite to eat and walk down to the police garage. We are on the road by 9.30, driving through the darkness of the Derwent Valley, through the sleeping town of Ouse, climbing toward the Central plateau … on into the night.
The bus is old and slow and is the type designed for hauling passengers around cities rather than for long-distance travel. There are no headrests so the team members contort themselves into bizzarre shapes in an attempt to get some sleep. A few stretch out along the passageway.
At 4.30am we arrive at the start point to find a few police officers standing around, a couple police Range Rovers and a large tent. Into this we stumble for sleep. Briefing is at 5.30.
Cups of hot tea steam in the cold air as we stand around the map in the pre-dawn glow.
“There’s a hut in the trees on the western shore of this lake”, the officer tells the group, indicating a point three or so hours walk north of our location.
“Select two others”, he says to me, “take a radio and go check it out. Report your position hourly and call in with what you find when you get there and we’ll let you know what to do next”.
I look at the terrain on the map, planning our course. It is mainly undulating terrain interspersed with button grass and patches of forest.
There is still an early morning chill in the air as we move out in a northerly direction. Other parties are going off to other points. The helicopter will only be leaving Hobart at first light, so it will not be available for awhile.
We figure we are on the most likely route for walkers trekking out to the hut although we have no idea of the lost boy’s destination. A faint track comes and goes through the button grass and the bands of forest. Clearly, people pass this way from time to time, but not all that often and not that many people. In places it looks like the sort of track that wombats make; elsewhere the track appears a little too substantial for an animal trail, but only just.
The walking is easy and the day looks as though it will be fine. That’s good news not only because it increases the chance of finding someone but because searches are sometimes conducted in atrocious weather. The more atrocious the weather, the more critical the timeframe to find someone in, especially if they are poorly equipped for cold, wet conditions. Bad weather is tiring for the searchers too, especially if they don’t get adequate sleep before starting the search. Tiredness increases the chance of accidents and of missing clues, and searching is a tiring business even in the best of weather because searchers might be out for a long time in difficulty terrain.
We walk at a moderate pace so as not to miss any signs that we could use to track the missing boy, scanning the countryside as we go. An hour in, we find the scuff marks and radio search base, explaining our find and giving them our map coordinates. The helicopter has now arrived and they despatch it with two local trackers.
A reconnaissance is the first phase of a search operation. This involves walking, driving or flying the main tracks and visiting huts and campsites in the area. It is about checking out the most likely places people would go. Walkers who are ill or injured are likely to be found during this phase. It was on a reconnaissance search that we were now engaged.
If missing people are not found during this reconnaissance but promising signs of their whereabouts are, a more detailed search may be ordered. Minor tracks and camping areas and other places of shelter are checked. Anyone encountered is asked if they have seen the missing person. Clearly, having someone who is familiar with the area will speed things along and increase the chance of finding a lost hiker. Where they may be in a smaller, more defined area, a line search might find them. This involves setting up a line of searchers who move close together over an area looking for signs. I had only been on a line search in training and all I found was a large tiger snake.
Once, all seachers were carried out on the ground. Now helicopters are brought in. Quite a lot can be seen by flying low and slow over the terrain. But what you miss are the small clues of a person’s passing. If you want to find those then you have to be on the ground, on foot. Whatsmore, pilots will not take their machines up in fog or poor weather that foot searchers venture out in.
The boy we are searching for has been alone on the Plateau for two nights. The only sign of him was his yellow waterproof parka found by a tree a kilometre north of the search base. It has been left hanging there as a marker in case he somehow comes back that way. After that, there is no sign of the direction he took, no sign of his passage… nothing.
Why he left his parka puzzles us. It is not the sort of thing to be lightly abandoned in high country noted for rapid changes in weather and the onset of cold conditions. He was equipped for only a day out and having lost his parka, those who know this country are concerned for his wellbeing. Nights have been cold but not frigid. All the same, cold saps strength and without protective clothing or matches to light a fire a person expends a lot of energy trying to stay warm. Fortunately, there has been no rain while he has been missing.
The killer in these highlands is hypothermia, the progressive loss of body core temperature that ends with collapse and death. The possibility that we are looking for a body is not far from our minds.
The scuffing on the log—it looks like someone has dragged their boot as they stepped over—is inconclusive. Yes, it could have been the boy but it just as well could have been someone else, a trout fishermen, maybe a bushwalker, perhaps a shooter.
The crew returns to the helicopter, doors close, turbine whines, rotor picks up speed and the machine jerks upward and disappears to the south. Back at search base it will take on board a team and drop them to our north-west where they will conduct a more detailed search near another lake. Silence returns. We walk through the belt of trees and out onto a button grass plain.
Coming out of a belt of trees, we stop to scan the open grassland between us an the next tree belt but see nothing out of the ordinary. We take a few minutes to look so that we might notice anything out of place in the landscape. What we would see first is movement, then silhouette, then bright colour, for it is in this order that things are noticed. It is only in closer proximity that sound is of any value, however experienced mountain walkers carry a whistle, the sound of which can carry a fair distance depending on wind strength and direction. We do not know if the boy has one.
In searches like this you watch both the far and near distance. It is in the near distance, the space around you, that you find the small clues—a scuff mark on a log, the imprint of boots in wet soil, belongings, branches freshly snapped off, remains of a recent campfire, food wrappers, even a direction-of-travel arrow scratched into the soil or tree trunk if the missing person has their wits about them.
We take a compass bearing and check our direction of travel on the map. Still on course and more than half way to our objective, the lake. We cross the grassy opening, pass through another belt of trees, then out onto another grassy plain. Not far to go now. The gently undulating terrain has made our passage easy and fast but you can’t hep but notice how the sameness of the terrain and its vegetation pattern would be easy to get lost in.
Then, in the distance, a lake, though it’s not our destination lake. This is a smaller body of water, one of the nameless hundreds that dot the Central Plateau. All the same, it’s the sort of place where a lost person who seek shelter and firewood.
“Look!”, exclaims the man in the lead, pointing to two boot prints in the sand of the lakeshore. “They look fairly recent”. And they do. The lugs of the sole have incised deeply into the moist sand and have not eroded yet. But is the print too big for that of a teenage boy? It seems so. If that is the case, and if they belong to the person who scraped the fallen log we came across earlier, then that person is not the missing boy.
Like most lakes out here, this one is surrounded by a narrow band of trees and among them we search for more signs, but the prints are the only indication that someone has passed this way. Whoever made the footprints was moving north, in the same direction we are going.
I click the transmit button: “Search base this is team 1”.
The reply is immediate: “Team one this is search base”.
I tell them news of the boot print and our grid reference.
“OK. Copy that, team one, look around the lake then proceed on to your search destination and radio in when you get there”.
The work of grinding ice
Tasmania’s Central Plateau was scoured into its flattish, undulating shape under the weight of an ancient ice cap. The tremendous pressure of the ice on the dolerite rock scoured hundreds of scrapes and pits which, when the ice age ended between 12,000 and 15,000 years ago, filled with water to become the lakes we see today. Over time, a vegetation of mosses and lichens, button grass, snow gum and other species adapted to the cycle of summer heat and winter cold colonised the bare rock. Forested patches, usually in areas slightly higher than that occupied by the button grass, spread in clumps and drifts between the areas of tussock to create a vegetation that alternates haphazardly between forest and grassland.
Periodically, bushfires sweep this region. They burn rapidly across the tussock grass and, when hot enough, kill the snow gums to leave the stark, grey skeletons we see in the copses around us. In winter the plateau is often under snow and the winds howl in from the west. Few venture out then.
This can be visually confusing terrain for those lacking a sense of direction or a compass. It is easy to head in one direction and be turned from that course to follow an easier route. That is why the search is covering such a broad area.
“The hut is in the trees a few metres from the shore”, I tell the team. “If we walk along the edge of the treeline we should find it.”
The first lake, the one with the boot prints, was a waypoint on our search. No further sign of the person who left those bootprints in the sand has been seen. Some time recently he had walked this way, going in the same direction as we are, and had stepped out onto the sandy shore of the lake… and then left no further trace of his passage. The lake was a place that deserved searching and it provided confirmation that we were on course. This larger lake with its more substantial stand of fringing forest is our destination. We move along the western edge of the trees where they give way to the button grass.
“Here’s a bit of a track”, called one of the team. Sure enough, a faint path has been worn through the vegetation. We follow it. “There it is”, he says, pointing to the yellowing timbers of a hut now visible through the trees.
The hut is of medium-size, as the scale of mountain huts go, not all that old and in good condition, a sign that it is used regularly. But by whom? Fishermen, probably, less likely by bushwalkers who would prefer to travel on to the Lake St Clair region further west. What motivated someone to build here, I wonder? And why this lake? What is it that they do out here? Questions come and go in search of an explanation of why someone, perhaps a group of friends, would go to the trouble to build a hut on the shore of a nameless lake a few hours walk out onto Tasmania’s Central Plateau.
The door is pushed open to reveal… an empty hut. No warm ash in the fireplace, no sign of recent use. So, the boy did not make for the hut after all.
We inform search base and are instructed to return. Even though we walk faster on our way back we remain alert for any sign of the boy. We don’t talk much on the return for we are still alert for signs of the missing boy’s passage, and we are staring to feel tired after a largely sleepless night and early start.
My companions, like me, are used to long days on the trail in mountain country. They know how rapidly mountain weather can change from sunny to snowy, from fine to cold rain. It’s usually only people with experience who volunteer for search and rescue because it can be quite difficult—today was more a pleasant walk compared to what some callouts can be.
The police provide training and the wherewithal of searches and there might be a couple training weekends a year. This is necessary so that they can have confidence of the search and rescue teams and vice versa. Fortunately, callouts are rare.
The radio crackles
We walked on more of less the same way we had come out and had been on the track perhaps an hour when the radio crackled: “All units, all units. The boy has been found. Return to search base immediately”. We make good time.
The boy was well but he was not found by any search team. That afternoon, he wandered into a town on the edge of the Plateau and sought out the local police.
Debrief over, vehicles packed, we board the rickety, uncomfortable bus and start the journey home. Most are too tired to talk and sit immersed in their own worlds. Some doze. Others murmur quiet conversations.
One point made during the debrief, and a valid one it is, was that we should never assume that we are searching for a body.