The inquest into the death of 19-year old Louis Vanderstappen at Hanging Rock Falls waterhole, Wadeville on December 30 is expected to resolve liability issues that have dogged the popular tourist attraction for decades.
Police said Mr Vanderstappen, a filmmaker from the Illawarra region, was using a rope to swing out over the waterhole at about 12.30pm when he hit a rock face and fell into the water.
He did not resurface, and despite efforts from friends and bystanders, police, NSW Ambulance paramedics and the Westpac Rescue Helicopter, his body was not found until the next day by police divers.
Hanging Rock Falls, an ancient volcanic blowhole, which rates a glowing mention in the Lonely Planet tourist guides, has been the site of multiple injuries and tragedies.
Long-time local resident, Neil Lord said it had been a popular spot for tourists since the 1940s, when busloads of visitors regularly travelled from Evans Head and Ballina.
‘The rope has been there for about 40 years and has been removed and replaced several times,’ he said.
In recent times, a Canadian tourist drowned in 2003 when he became trapped under a submerged ledge and was extracted by rescuers using poles.
On October 30, 2010, 14-year-old footballer Mackenzie Chase Mello from Bardon, Queensland, slipped off the sheer cliff face into the water while trying to access the rope swing at the waterhole.
His body was found in seven metres of water by police divers.
At the time, the chief pilot of the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter Lynton Beggs told The Northern Star at least five people had been winched from Hanging Rock Falls for neck and spinal injuries over the past nine years, and said the service had conducted more rescue operations at the falls than at any other swimming hole in the region.
While trails leading to the popular swimming hole are on Crown Land, it remains unclear just who is responsible for the site.
The land to the north of the swimming hole is a crown reserve and managed by the Wadeville Reserve Trust, but the land to the south is private property, and access to the swimming hole, and the rope swing, is from the southern bank.
Lands department maps show the private property boundary to run along the side of Leycester Creek, but not include the falls.
According to Kevin Cameron, Crown Lands Far North Coast manager, ‘The tree with rope swing attached above the waterhole is on freehold land adjacent to the reserve, and is not under the management responsibility of Crown Lands or the Wadeville Reserve Trust.’
However, he would not be drawn on where the legal boundary of the crown land was.
In 2010, Wadeville Reserve Trust treasurer Michael Lambrechtsen said the swimming hole itself remained in a legal ‘no-mans land’.
The Trust recently has completed an improved walking trail from Williams Road to the creek, including the creation of wide concrete paths and a wooden boardwalk, with support from volunteers from the Hanging Rock Landcare Group and through provision of state funds.
Mr Cameron wrote in an email to a concerned resident last month, ‘An immediate priority will be to install additional signage to provide further warnings of the risks associated with use of the reserve.
‘Crown Lands is working with the Wadeville Reserve Trust to ensure that the natural values at Hanging Rock Falls can continue to be enjoyed by visitors and local residents alike, while also ensuring that visitors are made fully aware of the hazards on the reserve.’
Whether this will be enough to satisfy the coroner that there are no on-going liability issues remains to be seen.
This article was first published in Nimbin Good Times.