Bushwalker who survived kidney failure on NSW wilderness walk warns of tough conditions

30 Mar 2024

personal locator beacon (PLB)
Police rescue workers airlifted Mr Collins from the Coxs River.(Facebook: PolAir – NSW Police Force Aviation Command )

Andy Collins hesitated before taking a personal locator beacon (PLB) with him on a challenging walk in the Blue Mountains.

Making the effort almost certainly saved his life.

The 47-kilometre Kanangra to Katoomba wilderness walk he chose, known as K2K, is one of the “spectacular” longer walks in the southern Blue Mountains, with trails traversing two national parks.  

At 59, Mr Collins knew it was going to be tough, but he has been tackling tricky walks for 30 years and is skilled at reading maps and navigating with a compass. 

personal locator beacon (PLB)
Andy Collins on an overseas walk, one of many he’s undertaken in 30 years of hiking.(Supplied: Andy Collins)

“I had done some research and when I heard from National Parks that it was very overgrown — their instructions were just that you should be prepared,” he said.

“With my background in walking I thought it’s not going to be any conditions that I’m not prepared for.” 

But as it turned out, the water Mr Collins was carrying was not enough for the ordeal that played out on the third day.

“I pictured about a six kilometre downhill hike that, even if there was no water, normally would be a fairly brisk walk,” he said.

He only learnt later that other experienced hikers had abandoned the walk in recent months due to extreme conditions.

‘It could have been so much worse’

Late on the second day Mr Collins started to struggle through impenetrable bush with no visible trail, tripping over thick vines and drinking more water than he had estimated.

After sleeping on a slope when he could go no further, Mr Collins woke early and headed down to the Coxs River.

That final half a kilometre took him two hours.

Kanangra to Katoomba walk

personal locator beacon (PLB)

Once he got there, he did everything he could to rehydrate, using a pump to add electrolytes to river water and drinking a couple of litres, but soon realised he was in serious trouble.

“My body just completely rejected the water and I started getting painful cramps in my side,” he said.

“As I started preparing to walk my body completely seized up and I was in a lot of pain and then I had to make the decision to set off the PLB and call the helicopter.

“Had I not set off the beacon they [police rescue] were convinced it would have been a body recovery, because any water that I was taking was being rejected and I wasn’t in any condition to keep walking.”

personal locator beacon (PLB)
Mr Collins stayed in hospital for several days after suffering kidney failure.(Supplied: Andy Collins)

He ended up in Katoomba Hospital for five days with acute renal failure because his kidneys had stopped functioning.

Mr Collins had planned to go to his son’s graduation from Goulburn Police Academy, but by chance, one of his police rescue team was there instead.

personal locator beacon (PLB)
Mr Collins missed his son’s graduation.

When Mr Collins posted his story to social media as a warning, it struck a nerve, with hundreds of people telling similar stories and thanking him for his honesty.

Licensed wilderness guide and tour company owner, Stephanie Beehag, said even very experienced walkers needed to realise things had changed in wilderness areas across the state.

“A lot of tracks that used to take six hours can now take two days,” she said.

personal locator beacon (PLB)
Ms Beehag says bushwalkers across NSW need to over prepare for wilderness hikes under changed conditions.(Supplied: Paul Stephen)

The impact of the Black Summer bushfires in the Blue Mountains, followed by more recent heavy rain, has resulted in heavy regrowth. 

“There’s still a lot of huge fallen burnt trees — we’re talking 30-metre gumtrees — fallen across where tracks used to be,” Ms Beehag said.

“Which means you have to walk while bush bashing around them, then you lose your bearings, your route and a lot of things can go wrong in a really short period of time.”

She praised Mr Collins for speaking publicly about his experience.

“There’s a lot more rescues that happen that we don’t hear about,” she said.

“[Emergency services] don’t want to dissuade people from calling for help when they need it because they think they might be embarrassed in a news article,” she said.

personal locator beacon (PLB)
One emergency rescue officer shielded Mr Collins from the sun while he waited to be transferred to hospital.(Facebook: PolAir – NSW Police Force Aviation Command )

National Parks information upgraded

The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) said it was aware of some reports of walkers “taking longer than expected on the K2K walk due to the regrowth”.

In a statement, an NPWS spokesperson said it had upgraded its website warnings in light of recent incidents. 

“The K2K track is a wilderness track and regrowth following the 2019-2020 fires has been unusually thick given the intensity of the fires,” the statement said.

“The walking track is an unformed wilderness walking route in very remote rough terrain, which is typically only accessed by a small number of highly experienced walkers each year.”

Its focus for track maintenance was “on more accessible and highly used walking tracks in the busier parts of the Blue Mountains National Park”, the NPWS said.

‘It’s not there for our entertainment’

personal locator beacon (PLB)
One of Mr Collins’s photos of the vista along the walk.(Supplied: Andy Collins)

Ms Beehag said she understood why bushwalkers wanted to explore wilderness areas like K2K, but their heritage protection status restricted the ability to maintain walking tracks.

“A wilderness area is protected for the wilderness and it’s not there for our entertainment as a priority,” she said.

“So apart from erosion control and fire management, wilderness areas are designed to be wild, and so that means they don’t have handrails and stairs, and paths and signs.” 

This is something that saddens Mr Collins, who said historically much of the Sydney bushwalking scene was connected to these kinds of areas.

“Having gone all around the world walking, these areas are world class and it’s so sad that they’re just more and more being shut out for people’s use,” he said.

Looking back, he is horrified to think he almost headed off without the beacon because there wasn’t one available at his local police station.

“I’m so fortunate, it could have just been so much worse,” he said.

“I would recommend to people [to take a PLB]. They’re there, they’re free and for all the extra effort it takes to have one, if it’s needed you’ll be very glad you had one.”

Ms Beehag’s advice is to over-estimate the time a walk will take, carry a global positioning system (GPS) and extra water.

“There’s nothing heavier than an empty water bottle, I can tell you that.”

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