Thursday, December 16, 1993

A long walk out

We woke up, packed up and got going as soon as possible, the general feeling being that we had outstayed our welcome on the mountain and the sooner we departed the better. The rescue team descended to where Rob had spent the night and spent the next 6 hours manhandling him down the gully until it was wide enough for the helicopter to hoist him up using a cable.

The helicopter landed about 1km away on a spur and transferred him from the skids into the cargo area.

For us there was no excitement or easy way out, we had to hike the 23 long km's back to the Isandlwana Police Station. We had just finished the descent of the Rockeries pass and were getting going on the long grind along the valley when we saw a helicopter coming up the valley, I couldn't but get my hopes up that they were actually coming for us but that really would be too good to be true. As the helicopter flew past waving at us I knew that it really was too good to be true and resigned myself to the long walk. I really desperately wanted the helicopter to pick us up because I was now seriously running out of steam, my legs were feeling a bit like jelly and wouldn't stop shaking. I really needed food and lots of it.

Just as I resigned myself to the slog, the helicopter made a sweeping turn and dropped to pick us up. The skill of the pilot was truly remarkable, the hillside we were on was too steep to land so he kept one wheel on the path, the rotors missing a nearby tree by a couple of feet and as each of us boarded would adjust the helicopter to take account of the new weight distribution. Within a short space of time we had all boarded and were off to Isandlwana the easy way. We landed shortly before the helicopter carrying Rob landed, took Vivette on board and flew off to hospital.

Reunited with Tim and Anne we had a lot of catching up to do during the 3 1/2 hour drive back to Johannesburg. Arriving back at Johannesburg my parents had been following the story on TV and in the papers and were relieved to have me back and we had a great supper while I told them all about the rescue. A story I was to repeat many times in the subsequent weeks.

When I finally got to bed, exhausted, I was really expecting the emotions of the preceding days to come out. When you are up there on the mountain you can't afford emotions, you have to know what you must do and you must just do it so I was expecting whatever emotions that I had been suppressing to come bubbling out but there just wasn't anything. I did however have to work very hard not to play the “what if”game which can drive one truly insane since there were so many “what if this or that” had or hadn't happened the outcome would have been vastly different. One just has to accept that this is how it played out and accept it.

Rob, in the meantime, had managed to survive until he was admitted into Durban hospital but he was still seriously in danger and spent some time in ICU before being moved to a general ward and then finally to a hospital in Johannesburg. In all he spent about 3 months in hospital and I remember visiting him once when he was out of danger, I happened to be there at the same time as a mutual blonde acquaintance who was inordinately interested in all the levers around Robs bed and pushed one as she asked “What does this do?” Well, that particular one collapsed the bed and I just saw Rob go pale white with pain as she registered what she had just done.

Sunrise from Mponjwane cave

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