The West

Kimberley racers return to red dust

Kate Sanderson is sitting on a rocky ledge, peering down at the tiny crevice where 2½ years earlier she crouched down and waited to die.

Looking out over the vast, remote Kimberley landscape Ms Sanderson is reminded just how isolated she was when bushfire tore through the course of the ultramarathon she was competing in, trapping her and five others in the Tier Gorge, 40km south-west of Kununurra.

It was this immense, breathtaking landscape, the red dirt and dust and an insatiable thirst for adventure that first drew the 38-year-old to the Kimberley in 2011.

For those reasons she is back here again, joined by those who were by her side when fire swept over the gorge during the 100km Racing the Planet ultramarathon on September 2, 2011.

As the huge wall of flames approached, the group ran over rocky ground, through metre-high cane grass and up the steep ridge of the gorge, on a desperate but fruitless search for shelter.

"I didn't know how it was going to end. I thought I was dead," Ms Sanderson said yesterday.

"The heat got me before the fire, I thought I was going to be able to sit there and it would pass but I jumped up because I was hot and my shoulder caught alight."

Ms Sanderson and fellow runner Turia Pitt had life-threatening injuries and 60 per cent burns to their bodies. For four hours they waited in the searing heat, with only Panadol to take for their indescribable pain and no idea when help would come.

"At one point we did feel like we were in the middle of Australia and no one knew we were here," Ms Sanderson said.

Both women, who have since become close friends, returned to the Kimberley for the first time at the weekend, joined by fellow competitors Michael Hull, who had 20 per cent burns, and Hal Benson.

Ms Sanderson, Mr Hull and Mr Benson were yesterday flown to the remote gorge by the helicopter pilot who rescued them, Paul Cripps.

The large crevice Ms Sanderson had remembered was in fact a tiny rocky outcrop, revealing just how exposed she was when the fire came through.

"You're incapacitated, there are no roads, we had no radio or phone reception so we were relying on someone to come and help us," Ms Sanderson said.

"I'm still amazed it came together how it did."

Mr Benson recalled running up the gorge to find "carnage".

"I said to Kate, 'are you burnt?' She said 'yep.' I got a few metres away and saw what I thought were bike pants peeling away from her legs and got a bit closer and saw it was her skin peeling away," he said.

Mr Hull described the fire as a freight train. "Time stood still. I had my head down trying not to get lost and I heard a roar like a train but it was fire," he said.

As well as life-threatening burns across her body, half of Ms Sanderson's left foot was amputated and she has since had countless operations.

But the mental and physical toughness that drove her to compete in the gruelling endurance race remains, and she continues to chase new challenges.

So on Saturday, under a blazing Kimberley sun, Ms Sanderson paddled 20km across Lake Argyle as Ms Pitt, Mr Benson, Mr Hull and his wife Bronwyn swam.

As they crossed the finish line, after six hours, 59 minutes and six seconds, Ms Sanderson threw herself off the kayak and into the water and the group embraced.

Despite their ordeal, the friends harbour a deep affection for the Kimberley, and their return journey was also to thank the paramedics, pilots and health workers who helped them that day.

The tight-knit group sat through the subsequent inquiry into the blaze, which highlighted serious failings by the Hong Kong-based Racing the Planet and singled out event sponsor Tourism WA, and wanted to return together.

"I think I would've been more emotional on my own, it's good to be back here with these guys and have their support," Ms Sanderson said. "We're all pretty stoic. This was never going to stop us and hinder us in any way.

"We just want to go back to our normal lives and enjoying the outdoors and the Kimberley."

Mr Cripps, who landed the helicopter on a treacherous ledge to get to the victims, was reunited with the pair on Friday and said it was an emotional experience.

"They're incredibly inspirational, it's just amazing how far they have come," he said. "We're very proud we were able to get them to hospital and seeing them come back and compete in the Lake Argyle swim is incredible."

While Ms Sanderson requires several more operations on her fingers, her next aim is to start running again with the help of a new prosthetic.

But unfinished business remains, namely the 700km mountain bike event the Gibb River Challenge. In less than two weeks Ms Sanderson, Mr Benson and two friends will return to the Kimberley for the10-day event to raise money for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

"Six months before my accident I found out about the Gibb River Challenge and I thought, 'Oh, I've got to come back and do that'. And despite everything, I still wanted to come back and do it," she said.

"I just love the outback, the dirt, the dust, the scenery, it's just amazing.

"What happened doesn't detract from the beauty of the place. I would come back again and again."

The West Australian

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