Death at MacKenzie Falls, Grampians

by Stephen Lake

On 20 January 2017 a tourist drowned at MacKenzie Falls, Grampians, Victoria. There was widespread media coverage because another tourist swimming in the falls filmed this.

The deceased seems to have slipped into the water and was unable to swim out. A life saver attempted a rescue and is reported to have said “it’s so deep and the pressure was intense.” Depth should not be an issue for a life saver. However, there’s a lot of turbidity, and if there’s too much air in the water it’s simply impossible to float. The volume of water coming down the falls means that there are strong currents, which even the strongest swimmer would struggle to resist.

On 25 December 2004 at MacKenzie Falls, four people from Melbourne drowned. Other people were swimming and it was reported that the deceased and their party thought that it was safe. One person who drowned was rescuing his daughter, who also drowned. There were signs warning against swimming. None of the deceased could swim.

Parks Victoria erected new signs prohibiting swimming. It seems that very few people take any notice of the signs, which is compounded by websites that do not mention the swimming prohibition, like Visit Grampians, Visit Victoria and Trip Advisor. One website says that this is “the best swimming hole in the Grampians”.

“Parks Victoria have taken a heavy handed risk management approach and actively discourage swimming here. The glorious natural pool beneath these towering falls is still a favourite swimming hole for me, but make your own risk assessment and if you’re not an experienced swimmer, stay out of the water and just admire it for the scenery.”

This risk assessment has lead to five deaths.

There have been calls for mobile phone reception to be available at the base of the falls. It’s hard to see how this would assist when a life saver could not rescue the victim. In any case this is a bush setting, not the nearby town of Halls Gap. Visitors need to understand that in remote regions some of the things that are available in towns and cities are simply unavailable. Bushwalkers eschew houses, Wi-Fi, mains power, and except for PLB-like devices, instant communications.

Land management authorities like Parks Victoria know the risks, and signs are erected to minimise these risks. Parks Victoria could do a bit more. One easy step is to contact all the websites that promote the falls and strongly request that there be advice about swimming being proscribed. This would remove some of the expectation that swimming was allowed. The mindset of some people is that they have seen wonderful pictures of the waterfalls, the pool looks inviting, and having come this far with this expectation, it’s a big mental jump to not swim. There’s also the crowd effect. If others are swimming then it’s probably safe; this is what happened in 2004. A big sign at the top about swimming may also assist.

Parks Victoria Chief Operating Officer Simon Talbot said that it’s “important for visitors to observe warning signs and the advice of park rangers. This location receives around half-a-million visits each year, and although there are few incidents, as when at any remote natural location, visitors should plan ahead, take care, and observe signage. We’ll be considering additional signage with universal warning symbols so visitors are informed irrespective of language.”