“The Messenger Effect” is a term thrown around often in our circles. Usually jokingly, sometimes not so much. It was coined by a friend in an attempt to label whatever phenomenon seems to cause so many of my adventures to end with lights, sirens, and the subsequent hospital visits thereafter.
The majority of injuries haven’t been me, but the people that are with me at the time. This was becoming a problem a few years back when I was running out of people whose wives were prepared to let their husbands come out to play. We’ve had concussions and bike helmets split in two upon impact, broken fingers, fractured shoulders, appendages pointing in directions that look far from natural, even a rupturing kidney. All people taken out by the so-called “Messenger Effect”.
Theories as to the cause range from being:
The science seems so solid. I am usually particle/person 1. Riaan Burger was, unfortunately, a particle/person 2. More on him later.
My love for Croajingolong National Park goes back to the 1980’s. Between the Thurra River, Mueller River, and Wingan Inlet, the area featured heavily in family camping trips growing up. It lies in the far east of Victoria and runs from Bemm River right up to the New South Wales border. Boasting some sensational coastline with endless hiking and kayaking opportunities, its the perfect place to get your kids into camping or head out solo.
Wingan was Dad’s idea of heaven and I’ve accompanied him on plenty of great fishing trips there in his collapsible “Portabote”. He loved the place and would have moved there if it were possible. When he died it felt right that that’s where his ashes should be scattered, making it a very special place for our family.
The drive up from Melbourne is always enjoyable. Roughly 6hrs through some beautiful landscape and a few nice small country towns. For the amount of times we drove this route as a kid, it really doesn’t seem like I’m on my way until you get through Sale at the 2.5hr mark. It annoys Dawnyele that, thanks to Dad always taking us so far up the coast to camp, it doesn’t seem like a camping trip if it takes less than 5hrs to get there. “Why stay overnight when you can turn around and be home again in 6hrs? It’s just down the road!”
This trip was meant to be a short, two night, coffee fueled hiking and fly fishing weekend with Kingy. When he had to bail last minute (literally last minute) Dawnyele was gracious enough to say “you’re packed anyway….just head off on your own.” God bless that woman!
I stuck mostly to the original plan, which was to spend a night at the Thurra campground and then do a 20km round trip overnight hike from Wingan to Red River and back along the coast. I had packed the Aeropress, Minipresso, and Jetboil to brew; all of which are perfectly pack-sized and super convenient. My last couple of outdoor brews have been made easier by pre-grinding my beans at home which means the Hario mini-mill doesn’t need to come. I still love the appeal of grinding on the trails. It makes the experience feel so much more complete or “natural” for want of a better word. Being one for tradition I find it hard to give in and pre-grind, but I’ve been loving Chris Baca’s Youtube channel for a while now and his thoughts on pre-grinding as a means of finding balance between effort vs experience caused me to rethink and give it a go. In this case, the sacrifice of one part of the whole experience was definitely outweighed by the benefit of packing lighter.
The Wingan portion on the trip involved leaving the car at the Wingan Inlet campground, crossing the Inlet, then following the coast for 10km over beach and rocks to Red River. This river is only accessible by foot and feels totally remote and untouched. This was the third time I have done this hike and each time I forget how taxing hiking in the sand is. It was disappointing to get to Red River and find the mouth of the river closed. This meant the river was so high that the banks were underwater. The water was all the way up to the dunes, so between this and the strong wind it made fly fishing difficult. Catching one nice sized Bream on a fly my dad had tied was reward enough for the effort. Being so remote, the system is very healthy and not fished often. There are plenty of good sized bream and estuary perch around.
The hike back the next day was in the non-stop rain. The tide was also high, making many of the rocks I’d walked on the way in inaccessible. It made for a slow and slippery walk back to Wingan with some semi-treacherous rock-hopping involved. I had timed the hike to reach the Inlet at the peak of high tide. This was critical as trying to cross the inlet mid-tide is quite an experience. Massive volumes of water rip through the mouth on incoming and outgoing tides, causing strong currents and whirlpools. Not having the kayak this time meant bagging up the backpack and swimming across the Inlet. The first time I attempted this I was stupid enough to hit it on the outgoing tide. I ended up about 200m down river, only reaching the bank just before the river meets the ocean.
Crossing this time on the way to Red River, I’d stripped off, swam, and dried off on the other side before continuing. On the return I was well and truly over hiking in wet sand and slippery rocks, and being already soaked from the rain I just bagged up the backpack and swam over boots and all. The water at high tide is crystal clear and was surprisingly warm compared to the ambient air temp. In the still of the tide change it was a pleasant swim back that I took my time and enjoyed. I brewed a well earned Aeropress in the rain afterwards and spent some time flicking a fly around the mouth hoping for a salmon or flathead before heading back to the car.
The Thurra River has a network of sand dunes about 2km upstream from the campground. Unless you’ve been there and seen it for yourself, it is very hard to comprehend the size and expanse of the area these dunes cover. It’s truly breath-taking to come up over the first crest and see it all laid out before you. The dunes start near the coast and run about 2.5km inland before a massive dune drops down to the Thurra River 130m below. Approaching the edge of this tallest dune and looking down on the forest below feels very intimidating. I have heard that these are some of the tallest dunes in the southern hemisphere but cannot substantiate that claim. It wouldn’t surprise me though, as they are insanely high.
I have a real love for this river and dune system. I have been coming here since the late 1980’s and it’s been incredible to watch the landscape change over time. The dunes are constantly marching inland, consuming the forest and rerouting the river in the process. When we started going there, the major dune stopped at the river and there was about 40ft of river before the forest. A dead tree stood in the middle of the river. In the early 90’s, the dune was up to the base of the dead tree and the river was narrow. By the early 2000’s all you could see of the tree was the tip sticking out of the face of the dune, and now the dune has cut the river off totally and ends well into the forest. The river has carved a new path about 50m into the forest. Millions upon millions of tonnes of sand must shift every year, yet the dunes never get any smaller.
My plan was to brew at the peak of the dunes at sunset. If you take the walking track from the Thurra campground it’s about 4km to the top. Getting there late in the day meant if that I set up camp first I’d miss the golden hour to brew by. I decided to pack my gear and sleep up on the dunes to save time and also avoid having to walk back in the dark. It ended up being the absolute ultimate brewing / camping experience. I have never in my life camped or brewed in a more beautiful place. The sun was just off the horizon and was bathing the whole landscape in gold. The whole setting was totally surreal and silent. I fired up the Jetboil and just sat in awe of the view while brewing.
I had brought the last of a washed Kenyan SL34; Kainamui from Code Black Coffee Roasters. It had come in the last Three Thousand Thieves subscription mail out and had taken a while for me to dial in and hit the sweet spot with it. I think part of this was due to it being the first pour over coffee I’d ground on the new Baratza Sette grinder. The consistency of the grind on the Sette made the coffee taste so different to all previous brews. So much sharper and less muted flavours. It took me some time to work out a good window for the settings, but in the end this coffee came into it’s own. On the dunes it was bright and acidic with a sugary-honey aftertaste.
After dark on the dunes was phenomenal. It was a full moon and the whole area was lit up bright. Sitting on the edge of one dune, about half a dozen bats were zipping around me snatching insects out of the air. They would pass so close you could feel them zipping past. Light clouds were blowing through and drenching everything, so it was a mistake leaving the fly off the tent despite the warmth. Everything got soaked through from the moisture in the air. A small price to pay for the experience.
The next mornings brew wasn’t too successful. I had been enjoying an espresso at home from Small Batch Roasters; their Golden Ticket X blend. This coffee is great; I got dark cherry flavours and some well balanced sour aromatics out of it. My espresso game had been pretty lame up to this point. Until I got the Sette, I didn’t realise just how much of an impact the grinder had on quality shots. My old grinder couldn’t grind fine enough so all my shots were pulling in 20 seconds or less. The best I could get was a flavourful but really sour cup. The Sette changed all of this and I had been soaking up any info I could on improving my shots. Everything from particle distribution, to extraction theory, and tamping techniques. (Chris Baca again….he’s like the Richard Feynman of espresso! His videos makes it all so easy to grasp)
I had pre-ground some of Small Batch’s coffee and brought it to try in the Minipresso. This little device has been great. Comparing it side-by-side to a proper espresso, there’s definitely a difference, but when you’re out on the trails its a killer tool to have with you. Problem this time was that the grind was obviously too tight for it and the pressure I needed to apply to get any water through was putting the thing at risk of breaking. Mental note for next time to grind coarser than I would for home espresso.
I went without a coffee and packed up for the hike back. We normally walk back down the river on the way back, but being that the mouth was closed, it was too deep to wade. So I resisted the urge to run down the face of the big dune to the river and took the walking track back to the car.
This big dune holds the record for by far the worst of “The Messenger Effect”. Enter Riaan Burger……
I met Riaan in early 2013. He had just relocated from Johannesburg to Melbourne for work and we met through a course I was facilitating at the time. I gave him a lift to the train station on the day we met and he asked what we got up to for fun around here. I told him about our hiking, camping, kayaking adventures in East Gippsland and he was sold. I mentioned the Thurra dunes I grew up camping near and that we’d just been to with my son and father-in-law. He said he’d love to get out on an adventure like that and asked if I’d take him one day? Done.
Over the next few months he became a solid family friend and even lived with us for a while. A man of great faith and a fantastic relationship with God, he was inspiring and a pleasure to spend time with. He was due to move back to South Africa at the end of the year so we locked in a date in October to head up to East Gippsland. The plan was to spend the first night at the Thurra River and walk the dunes, then spend the next couple of days at Wingan Inlet kayaking and hiking up the coast.
Kayaks loaded, we left home at 5am for the 6hr+ drive (7hrs including a stop where he was introduced to the evils of the Vanilla Slice at a Cann River bakery). We set up camp early afternoon and headed off on the 6km round-trip dunes walk, taking my old body board that is always fun to ride down the dunes on.
Riaan was blown away by the dunes, even as a well-seasoned traveler. He said it’s the first time he’s ever been in a place where he could see desert, ocean, and “jungle” all in the same view. We explored the southern section towards the coast briefly before he tried the body board out, taking it down some of the smaller, 20m – 30m dunes to get a feel for it. I told him to keep his hands dragging in the sand behind him both to steer and use as brakes. He got the hang of it pretty quick so we headed over to the top of the big dune to ride down and walk the 2km back to camp via the river.
Staring down the face of the behemoth he must have forgot the bit about using your hands as brakes. He started off and just latched onto the board for dear life. He picked up some incredible speed very quickly, and spinning out of control ended up flipping backward and cartwheeling down the dune, disappearing from my view behind some bushes.
I’ll be honest and say I laughed most of the way walking down the dune to find him. For all the times I’ve done it myself, we’ve had some massive spills; lost some skin, pulled some muscles, but that’s about the worst of it.
When I got down to him he was flat on his back holding his arm and his teeth were grinding so hard I could hear it from some ways off. It wiped the smile off my face pretty quick. He said he couldn’t move his head and asked me to check his arm as it felt like a bone had punched through his skin. I checked, there was nothing visible. I asked him if he could move his feet to which he tried but not very successfully. In the first minute I was with him his feet had gone from looking normal to dark purple.
He lay still for a long time while we tried to determine the best course of action for me to get help. No mobile reception, 40km from the nearest town. We were at least 2km from anyone, and even then it was a slow, hard walk back wading the river. Going back up the dune and following the track wasn’t a viable option as it would have taken too long. The only real option was me running down the river and either dragging a kayak back up and trying to float him down to the car, or leaving him there and driving back into Cann River to mobile reception and calling in the Air Ambulance. In classic male thinking, he told me NOT to call in a helicopter as he wasn’t sure his insurance would cover it.
Everything from this point on goes against all first aid training I’ve ever had on managing a spinal injury. He had started trying to turn his head from side to side and was getting a little bit of movement back. He wanted to try sitting up, which I discouraged, but he was adamant. With a lot of sweating and pain he managed to sit up and I sat in the sand next to him, relieved at least that he could move enough to do that. He wasn’t keen on being left there alone so we discussed further options. We knew we had to make up our mind quick as the sun was getting lower. The pain in his arm and neck was excruciating and he just wanted to sit and quiet himself for a while.
After a period of peaceful silence he said he just wanted to pray quickly for wisdom on how to proceed. The man of God that he is floored me as he starting by thanking God for his time in this beautiful area. It certainly wouldn’t have been my opening statement if I had potentially broken my neck but it was a true testament that Riaan’s focus wasn’t solely on himself.
He felt that he wanted to try and stand up, feeling like the only real option was for him to be able to walk out of there. I helped him to his feet and almost immediately the colour flooded back to his feet and feeling returned. We were still about 30m from the bottom of the dune so very gingerly we took one step at a time and worked our way down. The problem with walking back down via the river is that there is very little of the journey that you can get out of the water due to the reeds and banks. The water flows through the sandy river bed and as you step you find pockets where the sand disappears beneath your feet and you drop 6 inches or so. Not at all easy when every movement of your spine is giving you grief.
I don’t remember how long it took to get back to camp, but by the time we were there the sun was definitely behind the hills and it was cooling down quick. We walked through the camp ground and found the park manager putting a notice on our tent reminding us to pay for the site. We told him we wouldn’t be staying and what had happened and he went straight into emergency management mode which was good to see, but Riaan would have none of it and just asked if I’d make him a coffee. Lucky I wasn’t into specialty coffee back then or it would have taken forever to set the Hario Syphon up and weigh out all the beans (God forbid he should ask for a cold brew…..we would have been there all night!).
Instant coffee it was, and while he drank it we spoke with the park manager about options. He was hell bent on calling in a helicopter to which Riaan kept persisting “NO, I just walked 2km; I’ll be fine”. Finally the guy gave up and wrote down the passcode for the gate to the lighthouse should we change our mind and want to call them in. He said the nearest help would be the bush nurse at Cann River. She closed about an hour before we got into town.
Riaan was worried about getting stuck in a rural hospital so far from home so we wanted me to drive as far as he could manage the pain before pulling into Emergency. We drove out and got mobile reception a few km out of Cann River. I called my wife and Riaan’s first question was if she could call his insurance company and see if he was covered. Turns out they would have paid for the helicopter…..
After 6hrs driving and ever-increasing pain, we made it all the way back to the Angliss Hospital in the eastern suburbs around 2am, funnily enough, passing the Upper Gully train station where 8 months prior we had discussed this very trip. I joked that if this was a Simpsons episode it would have shown us driving and him saying “I want you to take me on an adventure like that!” then cut to an ambulance speeding past the same location on route to hospital. The humour was lost in the moment.
Turns out he had broken 2 vertebrae in his neck, only millimetres away from doing permanent spinal damage. The pain in his arm was from tearing the ligaments attached to these vertebrae. The stupid thing was that as we walked into Emergency, the triage nurse asked how long ago it happened. When he told her “about 8hrs ago, including 6hrs driving”, she scoffed and told him to take a seat before being seen to hours later! The doctor was less than impressed with that nurses handling of a suspected spinal injury.
16 weeks in a neck brace and a slow recovery, sadly Riaan isn’t keen to come back and try sandboarding again. But he still tries to tell my kids that their dad is a hero and if it wasn’t for me he probably would have died up there. I’m pretty quick to remind him that to the contrary….if it wasn’t for me, he wouldn’t have been up there in the first place so that compliment is null and void.