For most locals and visitors to South Africa, there is a perception that natural dangers posing injury or lethal consequences stem from the ‘Big Five’ or Great White sharks.
Sadly, to the misfortune of many, families are more often left coping with injury or grieving as a result of seemingly mundane weather and gravitational forces.
Dehydration and heat stroke: When a hot summers day is sufficient to entice many nature lovers out for a walk, being unprepared has very real life threatening consequences.
Too often a short popular walk requires emergency extraction for someone intent on getting that ‘wow’ selfie when they miscalculate the time that they would be in the sun and the amount of water they require walking to their point of interest.
Recently on a hike in the Garden Route around Robberg Peninsula our group passed a family of six. They asked advice on walking to the point, a popular 9.2km loop with spectacular views and some medium to hard rocky sections . A quick glance at the family indicated incorrect footwear for the long route.
Secondly, for a day walk that had no surface or palatable water, they were only carrying 2 litres for the family. Starting at 11am in temperatures close to 38°C, I suggested that they rather do the more attainable short option. Reluctantly they agreed.
Our group continued, but when we reached the point, our water supplies were low (we had set out with 2 litres each) and listening to lots of other hikers, it seemed to be a common issue. In the heat too many had miscalculated their water needs.
Problems set in for us after leaving the point as one of the ladies in our group started feeling nauseous and extremely hot, sure signs of heat stroke. The next 2km were staggeringly slow with regular rest breaks and sips of water. Twice she was ill and we were evaluating possible emergency extraction.
We eventually reached the parking lot safely, but the outing could easily have ended requiring a medievac at the least and hospitalization at the worst.
Full moon, gravity and spring tides: Sadly, at every full moon during the year, NSRI reports on rescue missions and drownings along the the South African coastline. These incidents occur despite warnings of strong rip tides and the freak waves during the period. The gravitational force of the moon and sun is what drives the tidal fluctuations of the earth’s oceans. During full moon, and to a lesser extent new moon, the tidal range between low and full tide increases dramatically. In South Africa the tidal range is approximately 1.8m, small compared to higher latitudes, but sufficient to catch out any unwary beach walkers.
Getting washed off the rocks, even at low tide is not uncommon and to say it happens unexpectedly is an understatement.
While snorkeling in rock pools at low tide during the Christmas full moon, I was washed out over mussel clad rocks when an unexpected freak wave hit the pool I was in. Initially I was approximately 1.2m underwater when the first wave hit.
Unfazed I remained underwater waiting for the wave to pass over. Instead, a second wave came in and lifted me out of the pool and deposited me on the adjacent mussel bed, perfectly lined up for the third wave to wash me into a series of two more pools before receding to absolute calm.
Severely lacerated we decided it was necessary to return home to dress the wounds. It was while packing up ten minutes later that a second set of large waves blasted through and washed 20 people off their feet and across the tidal shelf.
90 seconds later the ocean returned to calm tranquility and everyone assessed their lacerations and tried to recover their processions. That was when a mother realised that her daughter was no where to be seen.
Everybody forgot their wounds and missing beach gear as we scanned the pools, channel and ocean.
Then out of nowhere, she appeared, unscathed, slightly panicked, but thankfully safe. Yet, it could have ended up very differently.
Sadly, over the same period, the news carried many stories of others and the tragic consequences of freak waves in the Garden Route.
Even if you are familiar with the ocean, always consult the tides tables so that you are aware of incoming and outgoing tides (www.satides.co.za). Secondly, frequently scan the swells so that you aren’t caught unawares.
Ripping it up in the surf: Without a doubt, the most dangerous coastal threat to beach goers are rip tides. Every beach forms currents which flow strongly from the beach to behind the back line of waves. These currents, referred to as ‘Rip Tides’ alternate with zones of counter currents which flow towards the beach.
Viewed from above the rip current and adjacent zone forms cells of water that circulate in a horizontal plane.
Never underestimate the rip currents – too many people have been washed out to sea in water as shallow as thigh deep.
In the event that you are caught in a rip current there are three things to remember and be prepared for :
1) NEVER try to swim against the current! It is natural to want to swim back towards the shore. Unfortunately the current is too fast and strong for even the strongest swimmers to swim against.
2) When in a rip current, swim parallel to the beach. The current will still carry out to sea, but you will swim out of the rip current and into the counter current which will return you to the beach.
3) If you are not a confident swimmer, focus only on remaining buoyant and keeping your head above water. You will be carried beyond the waves, then naturally enter the longshore current and eventually returned to the beach via the incoming current. Just as long as you have air in your lungs and keep buoyant.
On a new beach it is best to swim in designated swim zones with life guards on duty. If however you choose not to, sit on the beach for about 5 minutes watching the surf and observe the current conditions around you, select the best area to swim and plan your exit strategy for an emergency before entering the surf.
Most beaches have the local NSRI emergency number visible and it is worthwhile recording it and other emergency numbers on your mobile phone.
Above all, enjoy your exploits into nature and most importantly, plan to return safely.