In a searcher's shoes and the value of bushwalking basics

Caro Ryan has taken part in some of the highest profile searches in the Blue Mountains – and experienced the highs and lows that follow.

The Katoomba search manager in the volunteer SES bush search and rescue unit was involved in the 2009 search for British backpacker Jamie Neale who went missing in the national park and was miraculously found 12 days later.

But it was a tragic outcome in the 2006 search for Sydney schoolboy David Iredale who became separated from his friends on a three-day hike to Mt Solitary. His body was found in rugged bushland in the Kedumba Valley.

“I was in the field, searching the steep sides around Mt Solitary on the eastern sides and that was really, really tough stuff,” Ms Ryan recalls.

“That search for everyone in the squad was such a tragedy. A number of us went to the funeral as well. By turning up in uniform [at the funeral] it was showing the family that we stood with you and we still stand with you.

“I don’t want to see any more David Iredales and Jamie Neales. If we can give people the knowledge. Quite often they don’t know what they don’t know.”

I don’t want to see any more David Iredales and Jamie Neales. If we can give people the knowledge. Quite often they don’t know what they don’t know.

Caro Ryan

Ms Ryan decided to do something about that lack of knowledge following the Iredale search, noting that online there was little on bushwalking basics in Australia, and that most information was American.

“There was that whole American, gun-toting survivalist kind of thing. And I thought if this is where people are getting their information from, there’s a gap there and that’s really sad,” the 46-year-old recalls.

She set about creating the LotsaFreshAir bushwalking website and Facebook page in 2012. Her first post was a YouTube video on packing for an overnight hike. It’s been viewed 387,000 times.

Now there’s everything from health in the bush, map reading, choosing footwear, treating blisters, dehydrated food, what to carry in a first aid kit, and reports from hiking adventures.

“I want to do whatever I can to help people connect into the bush in the ways that are meaningful for them. You don’t have to be super hardcore, you could just be wanting to take the kids on a one hour walk at the end of a Christmas lunch to walk off their lunch.”

Ms Ryan says bushwalking can be for everyone, so long as they are prepared. She only discovered a love for bushwalking in her 20s, during a team-building weekend for work. She would go on to run a production and communications consultancy company based in Sydney, which shoots in remote locations such as jungles, volcanoes and on the high seas, unafraid to “rough it” to complete the job.

Having grown up in Sydney in a family that wasn’t particularly outdoorsy and had never gone camping, Ms Ryan has learnt a lot and been keen to share this knowledge with others.

Too often people get into difficulty when they’re ill-prepared and over-ambitious, she says.

“Quite often it’s people overestimating their abilities. People think they’re gym fit can do the walk in half the time that the sign says. And it’s also not taking food and water, and not taking maps, and not having the right clothes,” Ms Ryan says.

“The underlying message is I want to keep you safe ’cause I don’t want to go searching for you and I don’t want you to put other people’s lives at risk in doing so. And I don’t want you to put your family through heartbreak, but I want you to connect with nature and have a great time and enjoy all that awesome stuff that bushwalking can give you.”

Ms Ryan says searching for a missing person in the Blue Mountains national park can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. But having a good understanding of the missing person can help greatly.

“You want to find out as much as you can about the person who’s missing because it will help inform you of where you first start looking,” she says.

“Different people will have different behaviours in the bush and will follow certain patterns. People have done research on identifying these patterns.”

People with dementia for example, will walk with tunnel vision for what’s in front of them, not taking into account their surroundings.

“Walking downhill is classic for people who are lost; it’s the point of least resistance. But there’s also patterns in terms of distance travelled and it also gets broken down into ages and all sorts of other stuff as well,” she says. 

“It’s one layer of how you can be informed when you are starting a search. Then you take into account all sorts of other things like weather conditions. It’s another tool in the tool chest to pull out and start planning where do we look first.”

Searchers applied this knowledge in 2016 when looking for 77-year-old Betty O’Pray from Medlow Bath.

More than 1500 people were involved in the search covering an area of about 25 square kilometres, with the aerial search double the size.

It was slow, hard-going work on hands and knees for days at a time, wearing thick workman’s gloves and safety goggles for protection.

“Wombatting was a term we coined during the Betty O’Pray search – when you’re on your hands and knees like a wombat pushing your body through hakea and banksia just to be able to move forward,” says Ms Ryan. “We are moving slowly and deliberately, looking for clues, looking for evidence.” 

The 100 members of Bush Search and Rescue NSW, the oldest volunteer land search unit in Australia, joined the SES in May. With expertise in bush navigation, canyon and vertical searching, and remote area searches conducted in challenging terrain, the unit is an integral part of the SES response to land search operations.