Remote control

If broken down in the Outback we recommend staying with your vehicle at all times.

Peter Bindon explores how to arrive, revive and survive in the harsh Australian Outback

In the late 1970s I found myself in the Great Sandy Desert on one of a series of gridlines bulldozed through the scrub to aid the seismic search for underground oil and gas reserves. It was a sad moment, because on the same track a few months earlier were found the bodies of two young men whose four-wheel drive ute had become bogged.

My job there was for a completely unassociated reason, but I could not help thinking what the pair stranded in this location could possibly have done that would have saved their lives.

There were inquiries into their passing and the coroner visited the area and no doubt conclusions were reached and recommendations made. But these didn’t make a great deal of difference to people keen for a wilderness experience, because since that time several more individuals, couples and groups have come to grief in Australian deserts. Sadly, most of these deaths could have been prevented.

It seems to be human nature to believe that we are invincible and that disasters only happen to other people. The sad truth is that they can strike anyone and at any time, so it is probably worth some mental and physical preparation in order to combat them if they involve us. And it may be that your preparations will allow you to help a fellow traveller who has been affected, rather than yourself, and safely bail them out of their difficulties.

There is no question that technological aids for travellers in remote locations have gone ahead at a gallop since that time – and we should avail ourselves of what can be used to the extent that our budgets will allow. However, there are some timeless rules that need to be observed and they don’t rely on gadgets.

There are both techniques and actions that should be addressed by the Outback traveller, and I would recommend that some of the procedures can and should be practised at home before you leave on your journey. Simple things, like erecting your new tent in the safety and convenience of your backyard before you take it camping. I am sure many readers discovered this basic rule like I did when at about Boy Scout level and I have always adhered to the principle.

In many parts of the Outback, the State Police insist that travellers lodge a travel plan with one station before they leave the town and head off to another. I have found that the police often enjoy a chat with you about the route that you want to take and anyway, the prudent traveller usually gains useful information about the state of the road, current known hazards and most importantly (but less so in our drought-ridden times) whether the road is flooded, or open and passable.

Experienced police and safety and bushcraft experts have provided some analysis of the minimum that travellers planning an Outback adventure should do before they go in order to return safely. There are actions to take if the worst happens.

Almost half of the vehicles that go into remote Australia are not fit for the task according to drivers of recovery motors. Clearly it pays to have your vehicle properly serviced before you go, and preferably by someone familiar with the weak points that need to be checked for wear or unsuitability, and not just whether the oil has been changed.

GPS receivers, a sighting compass and square protractor aid preparation and survival.

Police who were called to remote emergencies reported that most groups did not have sufficient fuel or water for the journey they had planned. I have been stopped more than once by travellers that needed one or the other of these absolutely critical supplies.

On one occasion, emerging from a disabled station wagon, a husband and wife with three small children waved me down and asked for water. The man told me that they had bought a can of drink all round at the last service centre – which was 200 kilometres back. No wonder the children were thirsty and distressed. It was 45C in the shade. Luckily for him, I had a spare 20-litre container of fresh water that I could leave and I promised to send the tow-truck back for him from the next roadhouse. I was not going to ask him about how much fuel that he had – I didn’t want to embarrass him any further. I like to think that I made their wait a little safer and more comfortable.

So how much water do you need to carry? Most tests made to decide this have been on military personnel. A person walking steadily in hot dry weather needs a whopping 10 litres per day to keep their metabolism healthy. Travelling quietly in an air-conditioned vehicle cuts this to about three litres per day. But when you multiply the requirement per person by the number of days you will be out, it comes to quite a bit. I don’t want to belabour this point, but don’t skimp on the water.

It is worth pointing out, that in daytime temperatures of 45C, you can’t carry enough water to walk far – better to stay put and hope that your back-stop makes contact with the authorities when you don’t check in on schedule.

While today there are good electronic maps available for travellers, I never take a trip into unknown territory without a paper one as well. Some folk like to laminate their maps to help preserve them. I discovered that our local picture framer could laminate the whole width of the maps that I like to use which makes them very durable. When you buy your map, try to find one with plenty of details, like the location of windmills and bores that can supply water which might save your life. If you have access to a computer, there are sites from which you can download aerial photographs of your planned route and these make useful additions to your map collection.

Police and rescue crews are always astonished that people have not planned their trip (that is also what the map is for), made a careful note of the route, and have not bothered to give a copy of their plans to someone who will be responsible for alerting authorities if deadlines are not kept.

This might mean that you have to make a phone call every few days to let someone know that all is going well. In many National Parks, filling out a travel plan and leaving it in a designated place is now mandatory if you want to use the park. If you are discovered wandering around in the park by a Ranger who does not know that you are there, things can become difficult and expensive for you.

It seems to have been common during the last few years that travellers stranded in the deserts try to walk to safety. When they don’t locate help within a reasonable distance, they walk back to their vehicle. By doing this, they have just used up an enormous amount of energy. Investigators have often pondered this activity. While it is true that if you walk for long enough in a straight line in Australia, you will eventually strike the coast – it can be a pretty long walk!

Far better to have a definite target to locate if you do decide to walk (remember the map?). But I would only do this at night and in dire circumstances. Some of the lost travellers in the last few years abandoned a bogged vehicle that had plenty of fuel and air-conditioned comfort to walk several kilometres along an unknown track in search of help. Sadly, they never made it back to their vehicle and searchers then had the unpleasant task of locating their corpses by following their footprints.

Another worthwhile piece of equipment is a two-way radio. While you may be well out of surface radio contact when you become sand-bogged, searching planes and helicopters are generally able to monitor the usual radio frequencies used by motoring travellers.

This brings us to another reason to stay with your vehicle when in distress. A vehicle is much easier to spot from the air than a walker or even a couple of walkers. Not only that, the vehicle has mirrors that you can remove for signalling and in the worst case, a spare tyre that will produce a black smoke signal if you burn it. Think about the safety aspects of this last act before committing yourself, but it was something that Aboriginal people mentioned to me in the case of the two lost persons at the beginning of this story who perished just 30km from an established community. “If only they had lit a fire, we would have known there were people there,” was the message.

Before deciding to abandon their vehicle, the two youths had formed the word ‘help’ on the roof of their vehicle using spanners from the toolbox. Although the spanners would not be immediately obvious if the vehicle was spotted from the air, the call for assistance would probably have been seen.

In Queensland’s Channel Country, one of the two occupants of a bogged vehicle was wearing only a singlet, shorts, no hat and thongs when he decided to accompany the other person on an early morning 16km walk back to the station from where they had started about 8.30am. Ironically, he was the one found alive. Becoming affected by the heat and lack of water, he left the track on which the pair was walking and collapsed in the shade of a tree – he was found in the late evening dehydrated and suffering from heat exhaustion.

His partner, more suitably dressed, had carried on walking but died a few kilometres further on.

A search for the men only began when they didn’t return to the station for their evening meal. They were not found until well after nightfall. It was the opinion of experts that had they conserved their energy by staying with their air-conditioned vehicle which they could start, and used the air-conditioning periodically until they cooled down and remained in the shade of the vehicle or close by, they both would have survived.

Their vehicle was equipped with a working radio, but did they have a report schedule organised? We don’t know, but even so, although it is a useful tool, it is not a guaranteed lifeline. Perhaps a satellite telephone would have been the answer, but these too are subject to atmospheric and other technical limitations.

A satellite phone may well be a comfort to have along despite its drawbacks, because there is nothing more reassuring than the human voice when you are in difficulties. Voice transmission holds a lot more power than an SMS message, but this should not be a deterrent to carrying a sat-phone because in most cases, travellers will have access to a solar charging unit or charge their phone directly from their vehicle.

A less expensive alternative is a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) that uses a few lithium batteries as a power source. Some of these units can send a text message or email to a selected address as well as a signal that gives your location. Don’t be tempted to buy one of these from an overseas supplier because the specifications for foreign models may not reach the necessary Australian Standards (AS/NZS 4280.1 and AS/NZS 4280.2).

A subscription to the manufacturer’s messaging service is usually necessary for these beacons, but it won’t break the bank. It is remarkable that with all the recent advances in technology which can contribute to safety and survival, adventurers still fail to plan for emergencies. “She’ll be right, mate,” is really not good enough. After all, most Outback travellers spend heaps fitting out a vehicle to go out there – why not add a few dollars to make sure you come back?

Put in another context, the four necessities for human survival are water, warmth, shelter and food. But we can add that preparation and communication should also be near the top of your list. “Let someone know where you are going, plan your route and stick to it and make sure you have got the right equipment and the resources to do the job,” is the advice of an Outback policeman who has seen several tragedies and would prefer that you arrived back home in one piece.

Summing up: plan and prepare well, arrange communications, pack food, water, shelter (including clothing) and remember temperature constraints, then you will have a good time and return safely.

Without sufficient fuel and water your situation in the hot Outback can deteriorate quickly.


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