German tourists may have been dead at Trephina Gorge before alarm was raised, inquest told
An inquest into the deaths of two German tourists who perished while hiking in Central Australia has heard a search was not launched until more than 24 hours after their disappearance, because they were mistakenly believed to be camping overnight.
- Wilfred and Gisela Thor missed arrows and wandered off their path only a few hundred metres into their journey
- Pathology results suggest the pair may have already been dead by the time the alarm was raised
- Couple’s children praise improved signage, but believe more can be done
Wilfred Thor, 76, and Gisela Thor, 73, left their accommodation in Alice Springs at 6am on February 10 last year to travel to the East MacDonnell Ranges.
A detailed itinerary made by the couple described plans to visit Emily Gap and Jessie Gap, before travelling 100 kilometres east of Alice Springs to Trephina Gorge, where they had intended to complete a one-hour hike.
Only a few hundred metres into the journey they missed arrows that would signify the track, and wandered off the path and out of the national park.
During the inquest, park ranger David Wilkinson said the fence was due to be repaired on February 13 — only three days after the couple set off on their ill-fated hike.
Mr Wilkinson said he saw the couple’s car arrive while he was spraying for weeds on the morning of February 10.
Couple may have been dead by the time alarm was raised
The following day, as he was about to drive into Alice Springs with his family just before midday, he was approached by two tourists who told him they had noticed the same car had been parked there since the previous day.
The inquest heard Mr Wilkinson had assumed the people in the car had decided to complete a longer hike to another campground and stay overnight, but told the tourists he would check on the car when he returned that evening.
Upon finding the car still parked there at 5pm, he attempted to contact his supervisors and took to the track on a quad bike.
The fence was due to be repaired only three days after the couple set off on their hike (ABC News: Nick Hose)
Mr Wilkinson told the inquest he found their footprints leading out beyond the boundary fence, but decided to turn back after travelling 3 kilometres down the riverbed as it was becoming dark.
Upon returning to the ranger station he phoned the police, but pathology results suggest by the time the alarm was raised, the couple may have already been dead.
“I did not know the couple, I did not know their relationship,” said Sergeant Emmett, who coordinated the search and rescue effort for the couple.
“I did not know if she was a woman who would stand up to her husband, or one who would stay by his side.”
Mr Thor was found about 10 kilometres away from the car park where the couple first set off, while Mrs Thor was found only 2.5 kilometres from their starting point.
Footprints found by investigators suggest the couple were travelling along a riverbank when they became separated.
Mr Thor is believed to have turned around to look for his wife, who headed up the bank and was found on higher ground.
‘It was like she had fallen asleep’
For the couple’s children, Michaela and Matthias, how and why their parents became separated may remains unsolved.
“That is one of the questions we have no answer [for],” Michaela Thor said.
“For me, the best explanation for it is that my mum may have become disorientated to leave the river.
“She must have been very dehydrated. I don’t know if she was able to think clearly when she left the river.”
The inquest heard Mrs Thor usually relied on her husband to navigate, and their children did not believe their decision to split up was intentional.
“You see in the footprints that they spent most of the time together,” Michaela Thor said.
“What I can imagine is my mother was nearly collapsing or something, and my dad said ‘sit down and I will walk alone’.
“That I can imagine.”
Both bodies were eventually spotted by helicopter searches of the area.
Constable Emily Reynolds was the first to attend to Mrs Thor’s body on February 14 — four days after they embarked on their journey — in thick grass near a fire break.
She told the inquest Mrs Thor was underneath a bush and had her 600ml water bottle beside her.
“It appeared as though she had been sitting on the ground and had toppled over,” Constable Reynolds said.
“[It was] like she had fallen asleep.”
Constable Reynolds told the court she attempted to take photographs of the scene where Mrs Thor was found, but her phone shut down due to the extreme heat during the middle of the day.
Police believe the couple had already been dead for several days by the time their bodies were found.
GPS applications should be promoted to tourists, son says
The couple’s children travelled with the coronial inquest to Trephina Gorge on Wednesday morning to see where investigators believe Mr and Mrs Thor first wandered off the track and out of the national park.
Michaela Thor said it was a “tough experience” being back in the Gorge, but it was important to her that the inquest visited.
“To have a feeling of what they might have felt and see the ways they walked,” she said.
“And [to] try to understand what they might have done, might have thought.”
Signs marking the beginning of walking trails for Trephina Gorge in the NT. (ABC News: Nick Hose)
Matthias Thor told the inquest that while he hoped subsequent improvements to signage throughout the park would prevent a similar tragedy from occurring, he would also like to see mobile GPS applications promoted to hikers visiting the region.
“Everything is now clearly marked and it’s much better than it was, so it’s really improved,” he said.
“The apps are easy to use, free of charge, available, [and] in the unlikely event you may get lost, just switch it on and follow the arrow back to the car park or the road.”
He thanked the central Australian community for their support in the aftermath of his parent’s deaths, which he said proved “people were really caring about this”.
The inquest concludes today, with the coroner expected to report his findings in due course.