Gathering emergency shows access flaws

Nelson Mail Editorial

Nelson Mail - 4 January 2000

The emergency evacuation of several hundred revellers from The Gathering, some of them suffering from hypothermia [see note 1 and note 2 at end of article] should serve as a timely warning to the organisers and authorities that much better road access is needed if the dance party is to remain at the same Canaan venue. Of course, it was unfortunate that the event suffered a sustained, unseasonable rainstorm. However, heavy rain, combined with cold, can occur in Nelson in high summer, and at such an altitude temperatures can plummet. Planning for the future needs to take account of the likelihood of a recurrence of the conditions. In that case, good access to the site is needed to get people out in a hurry.

On Sunday, some of the young revellers were so tired from night-and-day dancing that they were highly vulnerable to hypothermia, a condition which can be difficult to detect and which very quickly can become a silent killer. Fortunately, experienced ambulance and medical staff realised the danger. They sounded the alarm and took a series of measures which effectively dealt with the threat. [see note 3]

Praise has to go to the ambulance staff, Gathering crew members, police, the Salvation Army and others involved in the evacuation. Particular praise also has to go to Nelson College headmaster Salvi Gargiulo and his wife Trish for the way they worked through the night to provide hostel accommodation and food for some of those evacuated.

Despite those laudable efforts, however, the situation at The Gathering was potentially hazardous. Some people with suspected hypothermia had to wait a long time before they were evacuated by bus. [see note 2]. Others, who were not in any danger, but simply trying to leave, had to wait up to nine hours to travel from Canaan to the Takaka Hill road. Earlier, traffic going onto the site also suffered long delays, as did many motorists who were not going to The Gathering at all, but simply travelling to or from Golden Bay. Such unreasonable delays are totally unacceptable. [see note 4]

It is not as if the access problems are new. Eighteen months ago Senior Sergeant Jim Burrows of the Motueka police said the narrow gravel road to The Gathering site at Canaan was a "major problem" and at an earlier event, traffic flow was a "shambles". At that stage, the organisers expressed the hope that additional passing bays might solve the problem. Plainly, they have not, and the poor, congested road access is a potentially fatal flaw. [see note 5]

One of the deterrents to any road improvements is uncertainty about the future of The Gathering. This year, there were suggestions the fourth annual Gathering might not eventuate, or that it might move to another site. There has also been uncertainty about the long-term future of the event. [see note 6]. The organisers have been remarkably successful in creating something which attracts fans from many parts of New Zealand and Nelson doesn't want to lose it.

Much of The Gathering's character comes from its beautiful, natural setting and its relative isolation. It is colourful, creative, fun and so far, relatively trouble-free. Two years ago The Gathering won an award for New Zealand's best dance party and this year it was identified by a popular British lifestyle magazine as one of the 100 best dance parties for the year 2000. However, the organisers now need to face the fact that much better access is needed. There would be no excuse if there was a second emergency where the safety of some young people might be threatened and poor and substandard access hindered the necessary assistance.

Nelson Mail Editorial, 4 January 2000

WebEd's comments

note 1

This is inaccurate reporting. 300 people left The Gathering site on January 2 on buses, as they had always planned to do. We provide a bus service between both Nelson & Motueka and The Gathering site for people who do not have their own vehicles. This year, 300 people chose to use that service. They were not evacuated and the situation was never an emergency, they were simply leaving.

note 2

We took 40 Gatherers suffering from mild hypothermia to Motueka Salvation Army hall where they were checked out by St John Ambulance staff, and given food and warm clothes before being taken to Nelson College for the night. We took these Gatherers off the hill BEFORE their situation became serious. While they were waiting for their special bus to arrive (which took priority over all other traffic in or out) we kept them warm, safe and under constant medical supervision. They did not have to wait "a long time" as was indicated in the article.

note 3

That's why we have 2 ambulance crews, a Red Cross team, 2 doctors and a mental health & welfare team onsite at all times. In addition, The Gathering crew and our security teams carried out constant "sweeps" of the site. The sweeps included checking that there were no Gatherers left in the wooded areas whom we did not know about; bringing cold wet Gatherers into the heated marquees and giving them food, warm clothes and hot drinks; and checking every tent to ensure that those inside were warm and dry and did not need our help.

note 4

We agree. However, we'd like to ask the Nelson Mail just how they would improve the traffic flow. Priority on January 2 was given to buses coming in and out ferrying Gatherers offite. As these people did not have nice warm cars to shelter in, they were our priority. We would also like to remind the Nelson Mail that last year there were NO traffic problems at all at The Gathering. We solved the problem last year by opening the gates a day early. The difference between this year and last is that last year 4,000 people arrived on the 30th, and 4,000 on the 31st. This year, 9,000 Gatherers chose to arrive on the 30th, something over which we had no control. We are investigating the possibility of a two-tier entry system next year, with the date of entry being determined by the type of ticket purchased.

note 5

We'd like to point out that The Gathering has in fact been asking the Tasman District to help us with improvements to the Canaan Downs road for the past four years. Up until now, the district has been either unwilling or unable to help us with this. The passing bays mentioned were the only solution that the district could come up with, and we said at the time that we did not think these would be sufficient. See also note 4.

note 6

Very early last year, partly due to the fact that we lost a substantial amount of money on The Gathering 1998/99, we were unsure whether we would do another one. But from February onwards, The Gathering 2000 was all systems go, and has remained so. However, we do The Gathering because we want to, not because we have to, and each year we assess where we are, and how we want the party to progress. Our annual debrief process includes an assement of how the crew feel about the party, and whether we as a team wish to continue. So far we have always chosen to continue with The Gathering, and indeed, have been working towards The Gathering 2000 for the past 4 years.

Our debrief of G2000 will take place in the near future, and at that point we will decide two things (amongst many others):

  • whether we want to continue with The Gathering
  • whether or not we wish to remain at Canaan Downs.

Watch this space.

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