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Johannesburg - For a group of Grade 8 pupils, it began as a hike down a steep ravine in the Magaliesberg. But a fall quickly turned their trip into a dramatic rescue operation.
A South African Air Force helicopter had to be scrambled on Wednesday evening to assist members of the Mountain Club of South Africa (MCSA) Search and Rescue Team.
Pilots using night-vision goggles had to negotiate inclement weather and use their flying skills to get the team to the 13-year-old girl.
The incident happened just before 4pm as a group of eighth graders from Cornwall Hill College in Centurion headed down Boulder Kloof in the Magaliesberg. They were taking part in a school camping excursion.
According to the principal of Cornwall Hill College, Dennis Maritz, the group were just about to exit the gorge when the 13-year-old girl slipped. She apparently fell backwards and struck the back of her head.
Staff and guides who had accompanied the children were worried that the girl had sustained a potentially serious head injury.
The MCSA was alerted and a rescue mission initiated.
“There was concern for her condition and we needed to get her to a hospital as soon as possible. A vehicle would take too long to get there, so it was justified to use a helicopter,” said MCSA spokesman Dean van der Merwe.
The decision was made to use an air force helicopter, as their pilots have the skills and night-vision technology to fly in the dark and under difficult conditions.
A team of 12 MCSA volunteers and members of the Off-Road Rescue Unit lifted off in an SAAF Oryx helicopter from 17 Squadron at Swartkop air force base for the Magaliesberg.
“A high level of skill is needed to fly with night-vision goggles. It is like looking through two toilet rolls and there is no depth perception,” Van der Merwe explained.
Flying conditions were hampered by thunderstorms that the helicopter had to skirt.
When the Oryx got to the scene of the accident, the crew members realised they would not be able to hoist the injured girl into the hovering chopper because the ravine was too narrow.
The rescuers then decided they would land the helicopter nearby and walk into the ravine with a stretcher.
By the time the team got to the girl, they found her in a confused state, but in no immediate danger. The guides who accompanied the pupils into the ravine had provided first aid to her as they waited for her to be rescued.
Several of the girl’s friends had stayed behind to comfort her.
The rest of the pupils were led back to the camp at Kloofwater.
After strapping the injured pupil onto the stretcher and using ropes to assist the rescuers over the rough terrain, they got her to the helicopter. The Oryx then took off and flew to Netcare Unitas Hospital.
The rescue operation took seven hours.
Maritz said on Thursday the girl was examined by a neurosurgeon, and tests were performed.
“They decided to keep her overnight for observation,” he added.
The pupil is being treated in a general ward.
While the rescue operation may have sounded dramatic, Van der Merwe said: “In terms of difficulty, I would give this rescue operation five out of 10.
“But it was a good school night out,” he said.