Friday, June 21, 2024

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HomeIssue 1Did Wilfred and Gisela Thor have to die?

Did Wilfred and Gisela Thor have to die?

p2410 Bertha TrephinaBy ERWIN CHLANDA
German tourists Wilfred and Gisela Thor perished in Central Australia, not somewhere in the remote Simpson Desert, but in one of our highly promoted national parks, Trephina Gorge, a mere hour’s drive from Alice Springs.
The couple, both in their seventies, drove themselves to the park in a small hire car on Friday, February 14. The maximum temperature at the Alice Springs airport on that day was 36.3 degrees. On the next two days it rose to 37.7 and 39.1 degrees, respectively.
Late on February 15 a park ranger noticed the car. A full search was not started until the morning after, Sunday, two days after the Germans had started their fatal walk, some of it off marked tracks.
They were clearly in extreme danger. Says Senior Sergeant Michael Potts, the Search and Rescue Mission Controller at Trephina Gorge: “As a rough guide we often refer to the ‘rule of threes’.
“You will put yourself at high risk of death if you are without air for three minutes, if you are in extreme temperatures (hot or cold) for three hours, without water for three days or without food for three weeks.
“This is only a rough guide and there are a number of issues that may decrease or increase these times.
“It is the lack of water and exposure to the elements which will often dictate your ability to survive.
p2410 German tourists“It is extremely important that if you are lost or stranded in a remote environment, to limit your physical activity, particularly when it is hot, and remain in a shaded and cool environment as much as possible,” says Sen Sgt Potts.
In other words, time is of the essence.
Mr Thor’s body was found on Monday and his wife’s on Tuesday, in a different location, just half an hour’s walk from their car and from perfectly functioning water taps.
At least at one point they were near a water puddle but apparently did not drink from it, possibly because it didn’t look clean. Germans aren’t accustomed to drinking from a creek or a stagnant pond.
The two visitors died a gruelling and tragic death. Their families are surely heartbroken. Locals, especially those involved in the search, are distressed about the death of guests in our community. Some were traumatised.
Did the world-wide news coverage damage our tourism industry, especially the efforts to have it operating year-round?
Lots more can be done to prevent this tragedy like this.
There is no shortage of advice – letting people know where you are going, taking plenty of water, if the car breaks down stay with it, and so on. You can google it.
The problem is the connect: Are people getting that advice when they need it?
This is where the tourism industry comes in – airlines, hotels, car hire firms, travel agents, the people who are aware of what their customers are about to do.
Trephina Gorge is a magnificent place with its sheer red rock walls, and majestic gums along the wide, usually dry Trephina River.
The two main tourist walks are the rim walk on the river’s western side and a longer walk, up and around a hill, from the eastern bank. Both are pretty well marked.
The Trephina River is the most prominent feature of the landscape. It can be seen from all hills in the area.
The river bends and twists a lot but generally it runs north-south. The car park, some shelters and the water taps are on the western bank.
If you follow the river generally northwards from the carpark, turning ‘round and going back along the Trephina generally southwards will return you to your car.
A simple map and a $5 compass would make this even clearer, and make getting lost even less likely.
p2410 TrephinaA careful briefing before heading off would not only diminish the risks, it would make the trip more of an adventure.
There are some significant things Trephina does not have: Mobile phone service and WiFi are two of them. This may come as a surprise for overseas visitors going to a well promoted tourist attraction.
The Ross River homestead, 17 kms to the south-east, has both.
The first thing most people reach for when they are in trouble is their mobile phone.
With lots of elevated positions for antennas, plenty of sunshine for solar power and the NBN Skymuster satellite now in orbit, a phone and data service would be easy to instal in all the East and West MacDonnells tourism gems which are currently blind spots.
An EPIRB or personal locator beacon is hardly something people would be bothered organising for themselves when all they are doing is a day trip to a well-frequented place.
EPIRB signals are monitored by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) via high flying jets and satellites.
“Tell someone where you go” is a nice idea but difficult when you don’t know anyone around here. Yet it is clearly something that should be facilitated.
Most light aircraft pilots going cross-country choose to have a search and rescue watch, SAR time in the jargon: They tell Airservices Australia before departure were they are, where they are going, and at what time they expect to arrive at their destination.
When they arrive they contact Airservices again. If there is no contact a search is started, usually by calling the pilot by radio or phone, and escalating – if required – to a full-blown operation. Not surprisingly, forgetting to “cancel your SAR” is a big no-no for pilots.
On the ground in The Centre such a system, which could be optional but be highly recommended, would clearly be a police function.
Logically, a SAR watch timeline in the Thor tragedy would look something like this:-
06:00 Wilfred and Gisela Thor raise SAR time of 19:00. Name of their hotel in Alice Springs, details of the hire car, mobile phone numbers and destination would be recorded.
19:00 SAR time expires.
19:10 Still no call to cancel received. Police call the couple’s mobile numbers – no answer.
19:15 Police call their hotel, hotel staff call the room – no sign of the couple.
19:17 Police call the ranger at Trephina Gorge. He checks the carpark and finds the car.
19:25 The search and rescue operation gets underway.
This would have been some 36 hours before it did in reality. When the search finally got under way the Germans were likely to have been already dead.
p2226-Trephina-7In our SAR scenario, mindful of the emphatic instruction they had received at their briefing to stay put in case of getting lost, and not to waste their water and energy by frantically walking around, the Germans would have settled down for a warm night under the stars, confident they would be found the next morning.
In reality they clearly compounded their error by walking considerable distances, ultimately into different directions. They died alone.
A SAR system would be a win-win situation: It would unquestionably save lives, take a minimum of effort, and in an emergency the response time would be much faster.
This would make the survival chances of lost persons immeasurably greater, and search efforts much less complex.
The alternative, clearly, would be a forest of signs across our magnificent landscape, saying “Stop, go back, danger!” or similar.
At 12:40pm yesterday we invited comment from Tourism Central Australia as well as Lauren Moss, Minister for Parks and Tourism. We will publish any replies from them.
PHOTOS (from top): View from the top of the hill the couple is believed to have climbed. In the foreground is the camping and picnic area where they had parked their hire car – note the water tank. The Trephina River is in the middle of the photo • A report in the Berliner Kurier newspaper: “Death in the Outback: Berliner seniors disappear in nature park.” • A tourist on the fairly well marked ridge walk (note the red arrow) • The Trephina where it enters the gorge.


  1. Whatever happened to personal responsibility?
    Before I go anywhere I educate myself about the facilities and possible dangers, I don’t just assume something.
    If I’m about to spend many thousands of dollars on a holiday into a remote part of a foreign country you can be sure every little thing will be researched and planned.
    It’s a tragedy that these people passed away, certainly, but the most tragic thing is, it was completely preventable and entirely their own fault.
    Now their friends, family and the volunteers and professionals who are left behind have to carry the burden of the decision made by these two people.
    I know I sound cruel and heartless, but I’m sick of seeing people put themselves and others in harms way because they don’t think.
    It’s exactly the same when people who can’t swim decide to go to the beach / river / lake and cool off. They don’t consider their own limitations and lives are often lost because of it.

  2. When you walk the Cradle Mount – Lake St Clair track (six days) in Tasmania there is a book you fill out at the start and you log off when you finish after six days or when return from a day walk.
    Is there such a system active on the Larapinta Trail or on day walks anywhere here? A mandatory log in and log out book is needed.

  3. I’ve always had reservations about bringing tourists into Central Australia at the height of summer given that conditions over the summer months can be extreme and quite deadly even for locals if the right preparations such as carrying sufficient water aren’t undertaken.
    I’m not at all sure we are doing the reputation of our tourism product any favours by bringing visitors into such harsh often downright dangerous conditions.
    I constantly warn those travelling bush roads in the summer to take plenty of water and if having problems not to leave the vehicle, so many have perished over the years from doing so.
    I was really concerned, well bloody angry actually, a couple of years back when an 18-year-old son travelling in the north was hired a canoe on a crocodile infested river.
    He presumed that because they were available for hire that it must be a safe place to use them.
    Even though I think my son should have had more sense, and there is always an obligation upon the traveller to inform themselves, I also believe that there is an obligation on the part of those hiring the equipment to point out the hazards to the uninitiated.
    I believe that same obligation lies with those hiring motor vehicles, particularly in the middle of summer, having I believe a duty of care to point out the hazards and perhaps to supply vehicles heading out of town with portable EPIRBs.
    The tragic loss of life also highlights the urgent need for a fully staffed visitor centre at the airport situated in the middle of the hire car desks where appropriate local advice and warnings can be passed to travellers, it’s way passed time we had it, and in light of this tragedy it’s the least we can do.

  4. Only the week before the tragedy that befell Wilfred and Gisela Thor an injured German woman in her 50s (who had slipped and broken her leg) was found in the Valley of the Winds walk at Katatjuta and was physically carried out by local tour guide David Sargaent during a scorching hot day.
    She was lucky, other tourists have perished there before.
    Over the years German visitors seem slightly more prone to this kind of misfortune than other nationalities.
    The first to suffer this fate (that I’m aware of) was Ms Iris Kadau, who disappeared soon after her arrival in Alice Springs in early November 1983. She was last seen cycling to Simpsons Gap and there was an extensive search for her as far afield as Glen Helen without success.
    A witness reported having seen Ms Kadau riding back to Alice Springs which led to the search being suspended and fears that she may have met with foul play. However, in early February 1984 a helicopter pilot flying over Bond Springs Station sighted a bicycle close to the Stuart Highway about 25km north of town, and upon closer inspection found Ms Kadau’s body attached to it.
    Whether she had taken a wrong turn or not is conjecture but the subsequent coronial inquiry found she had perished from exposure and heat exhaustion.
    Another example, this time a 60 year old British woman perished from heat exhaustion on a 40C day on the rim walk at Kings Canyon in late January 2003.
    Having written all this, it’s important to stress these kinds of events are very rare.
    In addition to the obvious risks taken when venturing outdoors in extremely hot conditions, it’s probably also the case that newly arrived visitors (especially from overseas) are likely to be disoriented when they arrive.
    I know from my experience what this is like – as a lifetime resident in Central Australia I don’t have any difficulty finding my way with a clear sense of direction but when I travelled to Europe in 2008 I found myself completely disoriented for the first week. That was no problem to cope with over there but here in the bush only a short distance from town this could quickly prove lethal.

  5. “The tragic loss of life also highlights the urgent need for a fully staffed visitor centre at the airport situated in the middle of the hire car desks where appropriate local advice and warnings can be passed to travelers, it’s way passed time we had it, and in light of this tragedy it’s the least we can do”.
    You can take a horse to the water, but you cannot make it drink.
    Yes lost of life is very sad, but we do not know if the couple were given safety directives. As a tour guide, I know too well how some tourists react when you give them advises especially the elders: I never wear a hat, I never drink so much water, I am old enough to know what I need.
    The tourism bureau give all advice necessary. The map of Central Australia give warning to travelers, as well as the booklet produce by the bureau: “Always carry and consume water to avoid dehydration. Allow 20l per person for two days traveling and the expectation of breakdowns.”
    People have to take responsibility, like this young lady who fell from the Canyon: there are signs everywhere telling to stay a minimum of two meters from the edge. Maybe a tour guide said to do it, but she did speak and read English, so she should have obeyed the rules of the park and not an idiot.

  6. A simple saying that there is no WiFi or mobile cover erected at the entry to and at the car park of any tourist facility where none is available might do wonders as a cautionary warning to tourists coming from parts of the world where universal cover is assumed.

  7. I lived in The Alice from the early 1970s to the early 1980s. I had a young family, between two and twelve years old.
    My wife and I spent a lot of time in the outback in a four wheel drive Nissan, and we always prepared for things to go wrong before leaving town. We never had a problem, but if we had, we had it covered.
    Alice cannot do more that warn people of the dangers of the outback, and ask them to be prepared if trouble comes along.
    There is only so much that the town can do, and it sounds to me that they are already doing it.

  8. I was once disoriented in thick mulga. I called out to my wife and told her I was lost. She called back: “Look at the ground and tell me what you see.”
    “I see tracks” I answered.
    “Whose are they?” came back to me.
    “Mine of course.”
    “Then follow them back to the car!”
    And blow me down it worked. I learnt a lot that day. What was obvious common sense to a Warlpiri woman didn’t come naturally to a naive whitefella. I felt pretty stupid but I’ve never been lost since.
    I once followed my nephew’s car into Ruby Gap reserve in winter.
    He stopped to talk to the driver of an interstate vehicle. I kept going.
    When we reached the end of the track he told me that they had a young boy in the car. They were taking him to the ranger station at Arltunga. They’d picked him up on the way in.
    He told them he was lost and didn’t know the direction he’d come from or where his parents were.
    There was one track along a gorge and one set of foot prints in the soft sand. It was very obvious where he’d come from to anybody who knows to look at the ground.
    At the camping area we came across some kids and a very distraught grandmother.
    It was around 4pm and the boy had been missing since just before lunch.
    I asked the obvious question: “Where are the boy’s parents?”
    She told us that they’d gone off to look for him in different directions. We followed one set of, once again, very obvious, tracks in the soft sand.
    This brought us to his father coming back to the camp. He was extremely relieved to know that his son was safe and immediately started to head for his car.
    Another obvious question: “Where is your wife?”
    He roughly indicated the direction and kept going. We came across her very red faced, exhausted and close to hysterical, hoarsely shouting out her son’s name.
    When I gave her the good news she hugged me, almost did a double back flip when she realised what she was doing and also headed for the car park.
    We heard the vehicle leaving. Then the sky filled with aircraft. Dad had set off his EPIRB.
    A helicopter landed about a kilometre from us but took off again before we could get to it.
    We kept walking and enjoyed the rest of our visit. This family was from Sydney, not Europe.
    They did all of the wrong things. Nobody thought to look at the very obvious tracks.
    I’m no tracker but I have been taught to look at the ground for the information I need if I’m disoriented.
    The next edition of the Advocate mentioned the episode and told us that everybody had acted in an exemplary fashion and no one was hurt.
    They should have told the truth and given some basic advice to Australian, let alone international, visitors.
    This country can be dangerous but the most basic of common sense can save your life.
    But as my old Mum used to say: “The trouble with common sense is that it ain’t all that common.”
    And what is common sense to a long term desert dweller isn’t going to be to a city dweller. Even when that common sense advice is given, or an EPIRB is carried, you can still get it wrong if you are not prepared to act on the advice given to you because you can’t see the sense in it.
    Checking soft sand for tracks can help you find those lost, or find your own way back to camp, water and the vehicle.
    I had to be explicitly taught that common sense by a patient wife. And that nonsense about men being better navigators than women is definitely culturally specific not biologically determined.

  9. We need to see this incident in perspective. It’s worth noting that over the years the demographic that has suffered by far the worst casualties in Central Australia from dehydration and heat exposure are Aboriginal people, even entire families have perished.
    These incidents invariably occurred in conditions of extreme heat and arose from the bogging or breakdown of poorly maintained vehicles while travelling in remote areas, with insufficient or no provision of food and water for their journeys, however they were never lost in the sense of not knowing where they were located.
    By comparison there are very few visitors to this region that have died in such conditions. By far the greater risk that tourists face are traffic accidents, they suffer far more often from road fatalities in the outback than from dying of thirst and heat. This has never dissuaded tourists from travelling here.

  10. I agree with Baffel. Tourists should be more responsible, however, we need to take more precautions as well.
    Having emergency packs in hire vehicles (like a knapsack with water, tourch, flares, space blanket, hydralite tablets etc).
    Also on hot days, the rangers should be checking the car parks every afternoon at 4.00pm. If cars are still there he should then go and look along the track.
    There needs to be more signage. Like all the parks around Alice Springs, the facilities and the signage are very poor.

  11. It really wouldn’t have mattered how well stocked this couple’s hire vehicle was, the issue was that they were separated from it and incapable, for whatever reason, of returning to any life saving resources that may have been contained within it.


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