Garmin’s new InReach only went on sale in April and already it’s been used in its first rescue – facilitating the evacuation of a hiker suffering from severe dehydration and heat exhaustion from the inaccessible Fish River Canyon. Read on to find out how this game-changing device that combines accurate GPS functionality with affordable, satellite-based two-way SMS communications helped make it happen.

When veteran mountain leadership trainer Nic Shaw and his team of expedition leaders decided to scout out the Fish River Canyon for an upcoming project and test out their two new Garmin InReach units, the last thing on their minds was that they’d end up using them in earnest. However, now that they have, the team’s full of confidence going forward – knowing that they’ve finally cracked the communications dilemma often experienced when exploring remote, off-the-grid locations.

Shaw, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and director of the KZN-based Entabeni Expeditions and Outdoor Centre, explains what he and his team were doing there: “Next year the Royal Air Force Air Cadet Organisation is turning a hundred years old. To celebrate, the organisation’s sending 100 Air Cadets to hike the Fish River Canyon as part of its adventurous training and youth leadership development program – and we’re hosting it all. In preparation, we went up to the canyon last week to familiarise ourselves with the route, carry out risk assessments, plan emergency procedures and to test equipment. And one of the main pieces of equipment on test was the new Garmin InReach Explorer+.”

The harsh Fish River Canyon in southern Namibia is completely isolated from the outside world.

No comms on the trail
The Fish River Canyon in southern Namibia is one of the most remote and inaccessible landscapes in Southern Africa. It’s also one of Africa’s iconic hiking destinations – attracting adventure enthusiasts from around the world. The trail starts in the desert campsite of Hobas and winds for 90km along the canyon floor, following the serpentine Fish River. Only 30 entry permits are issued each day, and hikers wanting to attempt the canyon must present a medical certificate of fitness. The steep and, in places, vertical walls of the canyon make access and egress a serious challenge. So much so that, apart from the trail head and its end, there are only 2 emergency exits available; one at 17km and the other at the 70km mark. There’s also no cell phone signal at any point. For all intent and purposes, unless you have an expensive satellite phone or the InReach, you may as well be on the moon.

Normal folk take between 5 and 6 days to hike the Fish River Canyon. However, the Entabeni team, “being fond of hardship and able to absorb a little suffering”, decided to complete the trip in just three. Shaw elaborates: “After sending a pre-set “all is well” SMS from the InReach to our base in the Drakensberg, we descended the 500m drop into the canyon. The path down to the canyon floor is steep and footing is uncertain, at times with chains as hand rails. At the bottom, the going is tough for the first 20km, characterised by having to clamber and leap over boulders, interspersed by long sections of thick sand. Nevertheless, we progressed well, sending the occasional situation report to base via the InReach.”

Help, when it mattered most
By the second day at 60km the canyon had opened somewhat; the heat and terrain reminding them all that they were in a desert. At about mid-day, the team came across another group who were into the third day of their hike. One of their members was in a bad way, suffering from dehydration and accompanying heat exhaustion. When Shaw and his team arrived, they found the concerned group busy discussing their options – which were staggeringly limited, considering they had no means of communication.

Says Shaw: “Us rocking up when we did with our InReach Explorer+ definitely saved the day. After a quick discussion, it was decided. The casualty’s group would do whatever necessary to get the poor man to safety and we would use our InReach to contact our base, make them aware of the situation and direct a rescue mission to the second emergency exit. Our base then got back to us, confirming that the Park’s staff would be waiting at the exit with a 4×4. Facilitating the evacuation was as simple as that. What could have so easily have become a critical situation became a manageable problem that was easy to solve. Everyone involved was impressed with how well the situation turned out.”

Feeling rather pleased with themselves, not to mention their now-proven InReach devices, Shaw and his team finished the 90km fast-pack in just 2 and a half days. Says Shaw: “The fact that one can pair the InReach with a smartphone and read the maps off the bigger screen makes navigating a lot easier; and pacing with a Fenix 3 kept everyone on target. The ice cold beer we all savoured at the end of the trail was our exclamation mark to a job well done!” – (c) 2017 NavWorld

Product and data plan details
The Entabeni Expeditions and Outdoor Centre chose the InReach Explore+ over the InReach SE+ because of its enhanced navigation features. The logic being: why carry two GPS devices when you can carry one? The team also found the user interface to be really intuitive. So much so, that “even their 48-year-old boss could figure out how to use it without a manual”. After checking out all the available satellite subscription options, Entabeni eventually settled on the Freedom Safety Plan as they consider it cost effective while providing the kind of flexibility they require.

About The Author

Sean Woods

Originally a photographer for the Star newspaper in the bad old days, Sean Woods turned to writing after the first democratic elections in '94. The career shift paid serious dividends, culminating in him becoming associate editor for Popular Mechanics magazine with a number of technology writing awards under his belt. His interests include anything to do with boats, motorcycles and all those fancy tech gadgets that help the modern world go around.

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