Backup Plan

06 Nov 2006

Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands

Over breakfast, I overheard a young backpacker explaining to a couple of girls how he'd been lost in the jungle for most of the previous afternoon.

Her first question was "did you have your phone on you?"

Our clean-cut young hero explained that yes, he did, so he "had a backup plan".

This made me angry until I remembered that my strategy is essentially the same.

On Friday's jungle hike, I carried a phone and a GPS. In case of serious trauma, the plan was:

  1. Call in my coordinates
  2. Wait for the helicopters

In my beautiful, rose-coloured world, a legion of paramedics would immediately rappel down, administer morphine and antivenom, and convey me to a luxurious recovery villa. Everything would be paid for by my insurance.

This plan has one serious flaw: the helicopters aren't coming.

Moving from a developed to a developing country, you give up some visible conveniences. Clean streets. Hot water. ATMs that work.

But you also give up a lot of invisible infrastructure. When a hiker got lost on Mt Bartle Frere in Cairns and the local police couldn't find him, the Special Tasks And Rescue force flew 800km from Brisbane to join the search.

They knew he had a phone on him, but it was out of range, so they loaded a GSM transmitter on to a helicopter and flew it over the mountain in the hope of picking up his signal.

Through mass application of manpower, organisation, and expensive equipment, they found him.

The last people who got lost in the jungle here in the Cameron Highlands weren't found for days.

At Tekek, rescue for an unconscious near-drowning victim eventually came in the form of a local resident, a small motorcycle, and an improvised sidecar.

Bangkok doesn't have any public ambulances at all.

That's not to say that the safety net doesn't exist. The jury-rigged rescue vehicle proved sufficient to save the unfortuate non-swimmer's life. Some of Bangkok's hospitals are so good that tourists have elective surgery there.

But if you go jungle hiking out here, don't just pack a phone. Pack a map.