Surviving a flash flood in the Drakensberg

Trail runners tagging a peak on a beautiful summer's day... Sounds idyllic, right? But on Saturday 10 February 2018, Durbanites Bryan Antolik and Michelle Gordon discovered how perilous 21km in the mountains can be.

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trailtalk rhino peak survival Michelle Gordon Bryan Antolik featured image t27

“Come hell or high water!”

Those were my words that Saturday morning once we had set off, and had noticed a few clouds gathering. We had been rained on briefly and gently at about 11am, an hour after setting off.

flash flood trailtalk rhino peak survival flood Michelle Gordon Bryan Antolik TRAIL 27In the interest of transparency and openness, I should disclose that we knew that rain was forecast at some point, but had decided to proceed regardless, as the weather report had been changeable.

Rain was only forecast for late afternoon into the evening. But the fact that the forecast had changed as much and as quickly from early rain, to no rain, to late rain? Well, I suppose that should have given some pause for thought. In a perfect world.

But runners, trailies, and mountain types don’t inhabit a perfect world, and Michelle Gordon and I had botched even arriving in the vicinity of Rhino Peak twice before, so today was the day. Also, as the joint winners of the ignominious Compass Prize at last year’s Mutter, we had to prove to ourselves that getting lost on a ridge for two hours was single swallow and therefore did not a summer make!

flash flood trailtalk rhino peak survival Michelle Gordon Bryan Antolik ascent TRAIL 27We stopped and chatted to two groups descending Rhino to check in on the weather at the top, and had a chat with a herdsman. All jolly and jovial and so I guess we took what would amount to a calculated risk. If a decision is measured by the facts available when made, this was not a foolhardy decision.

We had planned to depart at 8am, but took some time to get going, and stopped to buy snacks and sunblock en route, so ended up heading off on the trail at 10am. And I left behind all except the snacks I would need for a six or seven hour stint, and had a waterproof(ish) fleece, but not a proper waterproof, and did not take those annoying trail race required items such as a space blanket, small first aid kit, proper waterproof jacket or shell, gloves(!), and waterproof pouch for phone and other items. Because… well, who would, right? 

flash flood trailtalk rhino peak survival Michelle Gordon Bryan Antolik summit smile TRAIL 27

For a little day run? In the Southern Berg? Only a lame-ass amateur poser decked in excessive amounts of kit, surely? And so bare essentials it was. Hell, I considered running with no pack, just a running belt. Flash floods, and my partner getting near-drowned, my shoulder dislocating, and a full bicep tear just wasn’t on the roster, if memory serves. And therein lies the point. Those annoying items that race organisers insist we carry? I’ll be keeping those in my pack from now on.

A jolly little summit, and within minutes, gusts of white completely enveloped us on Rhino. So off we went, having a fat old chuckle about the challenge of getting down. So where did all the water come from? It rained, then hailed, and then hailed large stones, then blizzarded small stones.

flash flood trailtalk rhino peak survival Michelle Gordon Bryan Antolik hailstones t27

After hiding under a rock for half an hour, we carried on diligently following the very well placed and visible cairns. I slipped backwards on the little ice marbles and because we were numb already, didn’t notice that the crack I heard in my shoulder may have been a little more than just a clicking of the joint. Then a river. Despite white river water, we crossed, getting pulled onto knees and slipping and sliding. The first of five.

The second was worse, as the hail melted into the catchment, waterfalls multiplied down each side of the valley, and the third crossing was a scare. Michelle slipped from my grip briefly, I managed to extend and grab her hand and pull her with me to the bank. Success. Rain stopped, sun came out, and we thought we were a hop-skip-and-a-jump from base camp.

flash flood trailtalk rhino peak survival Michelle Gordon Bryan Antolik ear t27
Michelle’s bashed ear resulted in a perforated eardrum.

Except there was number four. I could tell that my arm wasn’t right, we’d had the scare at number three, and so I stood and cursed as loud as I could for, oh, about five minutes. Michelle started crossing, so off I went ahead, managed to grab a branch, and extend my hand – this was no joke. The water was a deep as I was tall, so I perched on a rock. Michelle grabbed my hand, slipped, and as she was being prised from my grip, my right shoulder and arm extended well beyond where it should.

Off she went. Under the water for a good minute. Smashed her head twice on rocks – that I saw. Popped up. Grabbed onto a rock about fifty metres away. And she couldn’t hold on. And disappeared over a ledge.

flash flood trailtalk rhino peak survival flood Michelle Gordon Bryan Antolik t27I stood contemplating three things: Have I just watched Michelle drown? How do I find her and what if I cant and how long do I look for her? And how do I explain this to her brother?

I stood shouting, and started traversing down to the rock where I saw her disappear. I saw her bright yellow gloves waving from down below. Michelle, bloodied and battered, crawled up onto a rock and I managed to get there after about five minutes. I can’t actually recall how we finally got across that part of the river. Memory from there until Pillar Cave is non-existent, except I know she wanted to stop at Pillar Cave and I thought we should try get back. She made the right call. We never could have – the water only subsided the next day when we crossed at lunch time, and there was no way out.

flash flood Bryan Antolik torn bicep dislocated shoulder TRAIL 27
Bryan’s arm after surgery to repair his torn bicep.

Another two groups of hikers in the cave fed us, provided warm clothing and even their tent for Michelle and I to sleep in. We were both completely numb as the water we’d been immersed in for three hours was melted hail.

Later that day in the cave when I went to fill a bottle with water, my entire body started shaking – legs, hands, everything. And not from the cold alone. I climb mountains abroad whenever time and resources allow, and have done some proper ones. And this was the closest I’ve yet (touch wood) come to tragic calamity. There was no way of getting out that night, and we were just lucky that there were other people staying in Pillar Cave (one group were also there only because they were stuck like us).

flash flood Bryan Antolik Michelle Gordon Rhino Peak flood survival injuries TRAIL 27It is trite to say that the Berg is dangerous and can turn on a tickie. Blah blah blah. Heard and said it a hundred times. But the reality is a different animal altogether. All told our inventory of injuries and lost apparel and gadgets was cheap at the price. A chap from a party we stopped to chat with earlier that Saturday quipped: Watch out for that black rhino – she’s got a sharp horn. True story.

Read Michelle Gordon‘s account of the same ordeal in TRAIL 27, along with tips from Gavin Raubenheimer of the MCSA on how to survive a flash flood.

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