Karijini National Park Accident – Cliff’s Story

Posted by on Jul 27, 2011 in Angels' Stories, Blog | Comments Off on Karijini National Park Accident – Cliff’s Story

What happened at Karijini that day….
The story from Cliff Winfield, former Regional Manager of Department of Environment and Conservation, Pilbara (managers of Karijini National Park)

Hi, This is Cliff,

People have asked me to pen my thoughts about what happened at the Karijini National Park accident nearly a year ago.

Although photography is not my profession, I consider myself to be adept at it. Over the years my work has been published by many high profile journals including Time-Life, Readers Digest, Australian Geographic and Landscope. In particular – over twenty or so years I’d had a number of articles published on the amazing “Ever-changing light” of the gorges of Karijini national park. After retiring from DEC, at the suggestion of a mutual friend, I partnered with Nick Melidonis, landscape photographer, to show him some of my favourite places in the park, and of course, add photos to our folios.

We flew into Paraburdoo late in the afternoon, took in the fantastic view of the ranges from Mt Nameless, overnighting in Tom Price. Next day we travelled to Karijini and checked into the Ecoretreat – a nature-based resort within the national park. We walked into what I call the beginners gorge – Circular Pool and along the gorge floor to Fortescue Falls and Fern Pool.

Spider Walking

The next morning, after photographing the full moon setting, we climbed down into Hancock Gorge and Nick was excited about what he was seeing. In Hancock Gorge, there comes a point where you

either have to swim, or, against advice of park managers, “spider walk” rock ledges to get to the next level of spectacular pools. Nick had stressed to me a number of times that he didn’t want to take risks as he had a tour to Greece to lead in few weeks time. In my days as a park manager I had seen so many injury reports of  Karijini National Park accident falls in  Hancock Gorge – so I was not going to condone “spider walking”. We didn’t have waterproof bags for our gear with us so we stopped there, meanwhile three tours climbed the rocks around the water, we prudently didn’t disobey the signs, and turned back there, planning to return the next day with waterproof bags. Point being – we were not prepared to take unnecessary risks.

Knox Gorge

I was aware that some areas of Knox Gorge were equally spectacular, and relatively more accessible, so after lunch – about 1pm, we were heading down the walk trail into Knox Gorge – about three hundred metres deep, steep, some scree slopes, but relatively easy. We got to the last five metres, where two hands are required to get down some large tricky rocks. I was leading, and had negotiated the tricky bit. Nick passed me his tripod and I turned to go on, and next I heard crashing of sticks to my side and saw him falling through a rock fig and land face down spreadeagled on the floor of the gorge – about seven metres from head height.

The Fall

In the seconds it took me to get to him he was surrounded in a half metre radius of his head with a pool of blood. My first reaction was that he was dead, but he then started groan. I had heard voices not far away and yelled for help, soon two young Germans ran to me, and yelled for some companions to come. I rolled Nick into the recovery position, he was having trouble breathing, and his nose was smashed. I cleaned the teeth and bone from his mouth. Nick was conscious, and I asked him if he could move his fingers, then arms, then legs, then head, which he did. He complained of a sore chest. He was in the sun, and the rocks were almost too hot to touch, so I chose to move him to the shade. This was all in a minute or so. I assessed the situation, and asked the fittest looking backpacker (Michael) to go to EcoRetreat for help, saying to report that Nick had fallen five metres onto his face, had at least severe facial injuries, possible rib injury, and that I thought he’d have to be lifted out. Mean time the three other backpackers had assumed first aid roles, cleaning him up and reassuring Nick.

Karijini Accident – Volunteer Tourists  Spring to Action

Michael didn’t know where EcoRetreat was, but knew where the Visitor Centre was (about 10km further) so I sent him there. At the Knox car park he met another couple, Aussies in their fifties (who I now know to be Yvonne and Allen Deans), Yvonne guided him to EcoRetreat, and Allen came down the gorge with ice, water and towels. After about ten minutes, I was confident Nick was in as good a situation as he could be, and I decided to go to the top of the gorge to meet the help, and provide an update on his condition. I then decided to head towards Ecoretreat myself, in case Michael had got lost. After a few hundred metres I met Fiona – who I knew to be manager of EcoRetreat and Michael – coming the other way. Yvonne’s story  Karijini Accident is on the blog section.

Tom Price Emergency Services

We talked and confirmed the situation, she had called Park Ranger Lenny who was nearby and on his way. The nearest outside help was Tom Price, some 100 km away (Tom Price Police, St John’s and SES rescue volunteers). We went back to the car park; Fiona, who now has done this many times, assumed a role of Coordinator/operation radio base at the car park, while I went back down the gorge. Nick’s condition had deteriorated somewhat, his face was very swollen, he had trouble breathing and not taking water easily, and was still losing blood from his mouth. But on the other hand, the helpers were keeping him conscious and reassuring him. Lenny arrived soon afterwards, with a radio – communications remain a problem in gorges. Mobile phones, sat phones and most two-way radio doesn’t work in the gorges.

By now I was anxious that the ambulance seemed to be taking a long time, so I went back up to the car park. Fiona was turning away tourists entering the gorge, but one identified herself as a nurse – Simone.

A Saline Drip in the Backpack

Simone came to Nick complete with amazing reassuring emergency bedside manner, and proper first aid kit including saline drip to replace the blood he’d lost. Sometime later, the ambulance officers arrived, and assumed control of the situation. They told me I was required to give a statement to their officer in the car park, by now I was a bit ragged, and Yvonne accompanied me back up out of the gorge. On the way up we met another person on the way down – a young back-packer doctor. It turns out that the Ambulance people had assessed me as being stressed and shocked, and that they were actually sending me up for a rest and oxygen in the ambulance which I did for about half an hour. We found Nick’s partner’s phone number on his phone, and called on the St John’s sat phone, got an answering machine and left a message. By now I was out of the direct communication links, but the St John’s driver Tiny, was in contact with the people in the gorge and told me they were calling for Nick to be winched out (which I knew all along, but given the number of false emergencies I can understand that pushing the SES rescue button is only done after Ambo confirmation). Tiny also said what I already knew, that this would go on for hours, and suggested I should go and get cleaned up, and try ringing Nick’s partner again. Which I did. I also overheard that they feared he might have more severe injuries.

A Human Bridge – Hand over Hand

Concerned that he might have spinal or head injuries, Nick was moved, strapped in a frame on a human bridge – hand over hand for several hundred metres along the gorge floor to apoint where he could be winched up the side of the gorge – a sheer face of 100 or so metres. At about 8pm after an amazing amalgam of SES and St John’s expertise and dedication and pulling muscle from youthful and committed park users, Nick was gently eased up the face of the gorge. St Johns’ Ambulance took him to Tom Price, then after examination Flying Doctor to Perth.

Fiona put on meal and drinks for the volunteers at Ecoretreat.

St. John of God Hospital

Nick went into intensive care unit of St. John of God Hospital, Murdoch, where they found only facial injuries. He has since had seven plates put in his face. Consensus is, if he’d had his head turned a centimetre either way, he would have hit his temple and probably not survived, his face took all the impact. When I spoke to him recently, firstly he has deep gratitude to all involved, and he’s very positive about life from here on in – his number wasn’t up. He has no clear recollection of what happened, he thinks he may have over reacted when a rock moved under his feet.

The Camera Survived the Fall

Next day, with Nick gone out on the plane, there wasn’t much I could do, and I still had all his gear with me. Remarkably, his Canon 5D had also survived this particular Karijini National Park accident.   I was shaky, but decided that I had to “get back on the horse that bucked me” so I stuck to our planned itinerary, and went into Hamersley Gorge with both of our cameras and spent the day photographing.

On what could be done differently……

I don’t think we did anything wrong, or would have done anything differently, s… still happens in Karijini. I think the track classification system is appropriate, Nick and I were in reasonable shape, I’m not an advocate of signs and structures to protect people from themselves. But on some of these rocky platforms with potential 5+ metre falls, if you have a youthful inattentive moment, or a senior moment, or you’re just plain unlucky, the consequences are dire.

Life Can Change in a Split Second

I had a number of texts and e-mails from the people who stayed with Nick in the first hours. Three have said they still spend a lot of time thinking about the events of that day

As do I


Please click the link to  book your tickets for the CHORDS FOR ANGELS concert Sunday 14th August 2011 and acknowledge the terrific work of the emergency crews and volunteers who stepped in to save Nick at the site of his Karijini National park accident.

Comments are closed.