The last thing Megan Brouwer expected when she went hiking in Karijini National Park over the Anzac Day long weekend was to be bitten by one of Australia’s most venomous snakes.
It’s equally true to say that the last thing she might have expected when entering picturesque Knox Gorge was that she’d be carried out by a team that included four people from a major mining company she advocates for on a daily basis.
But such can be the vagaries of Pilbara life!
The drama started when Brouwer, the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of WA’s Regional Officer for the North West region, was hiking with her husband Mike and five-year-old son Abel in Karijini on the afternoon of Sunday April 24.
The trio had just started their hike out of the gorge when Brouwer’s husband suddenly yelled ‘snake’ and she was bitten on the leg by a gwardar (or western brown snake) – a highly venomous snake, the bite of which can be deadly to humans if not treated correctly.
Fortunately, Brouwer’s luck started to change for the better after that.
An off-duty doctor happened to be hiking nearby and was able to treat the puncture wound with a pressure bandage. While the doctor’s satellite phone wasn’t able to make a connection, she was able to run to the top of the gorge where she was made contact with emergency responders.
Ultimately it would take the best part of seven hours for a combination of Karijini rangers, State Emergency Service and St John Ambulance volunteers, and passers-by to get Brouwer out of the gorge and into medical care some 70km away at Tom Price District Hospital.
The challenging terrain of Knox Gorge meant she initially had to be lifted up using a climbing rope, carried along steep, narrow and sometimes loose rocky paths and, in some parts, floated across water pools.
And in a quirky twist of fact, four of her SES volunteer rescuers were workers for one of CME’s member companies, Rio Tinto: Simon Davidson, Christina Hu, Cameron Hunt and Paul Hatfield.
Hatfield, an electrical engineer based in Tom Price who has been volunteering with the SES for six years, said it was a “tricky” extraction.
“There’s really no quick way out of there – we could have gone vertical but we would have set up a vertical rescue system, and that probably takes an hour,” Hatfield explained.
“As far as carry-outs go, that’s one of the hardest I’ve done so far in terms of getting up the access way. It’s super steep, there’s heaps of scree [broken] rock and the path is only wide enough in places for a single person so it makes carrying the stretcher difficult.
“There’s also spots on the way out where you’re exposed to an open edge, so you’ve got to be really careful with the people on that open-edge side.
“But it actually went pretty smoothly, I was quite impressed.
“We had a new stretcher raft we were trying that’s sort of like an inflatable boat and Megan was the first proper patient we’ve used that with, which was awesome.”
Tom Price SES manager Sue Davies said snake bites were one of the most common emergencies her team was called out to.
She confirmed that Knox Gorge was also far from an ideal rescue location.
“It’s actually the hardest that we have,” Davies said.
“I don’t think you can describe any rescue as easy but they are definitely easier than Knox Gorge.”
Brouwer was subsequently flown by the Royal Flying Doctor Service from Tom Price to Port Hedland, where her good fortune continued: it turned out the gwardar had delivered a “dry bite”, without venom.
She said her experiences had only heightened her appreciation of the thousands of people around WA who volunteer to help others in need.
“It was a very bizarre experience – a little bit overwhelming and exhausting but also a great eye-opener into what our emergency services and volunteers do as part of these rescues,” Brouwer said.
“It was obviously very scary to be bitten by a snake but I guess the added layer of fear was due to the fact that I was in the deepest part of a quite challenging class-five gorge and far from a hospital.
“I just want to give a huge thank you to the people who rescued me. I’m eternally grateful as is my husband and my five-year-old son. I’m so appreciative of the lengths they go to in getting people to safety when it calls for it.
“And there were so many people – a team of 15 or more people were involved in the rescue. There was St John, SES, DFES, WA Police, Karaiini Rangers and also some amazing community members, an off-duty doctor, an off-duty lifeguard and her family, and a couple that stayed with us the whole rescue.
“The man [from the couple] actually helped with the rescue and was welcomed with open arms.
“I’m just so immensely grateful to everyone and also the various people in the gorge who offered more bandaging or advice or just kept us company while we were feeling a bit anxious.”
Hatfield said Brouwer was an ideal patient and remained stoic even through the most testing parts of the ascent.
He also revealed the rescuers “gained” a team member on the way up, one who had a vital role to play.
“Megan’s son Abel was hilarious and really kept us going,” he said.
“He was chatting away and making jokes, so that was pretty fun.”
St John also sells outdoor and snake bite first aid kits.