Exploring the vast Australian outback is a memorable experience and the huge variety of attractions on offer have never been easier to access, with better vehicles, more self-sufficient offroad caravans and campers, better maps and navigational aids, and more services and facilities available throughout the country.
But there are still dangers lurking out there which can not only spoil your long-planned holiday or retirement travels, but could lead to real disaster and, at worst, even death. This can usually be avoided with good preparation and forward planning.
In most parts of the country, getting lost, breaking down or even being stopped by natural barriers (flood, fire, etc.) is usually no more than a temporary nuisance, as help is generally not far away. But in the more remote parts of Australia, things can be quite different and the conditions can lead to serious situations.
Before leaving home on any trip to remote parts, which are usually hot, dry, inhospitable and largely uninhabited, there are a few basics that should always be followed to reduce the likelihood of anything too dramatic developing. Although not intended to be conclusive, here are a few helpful hints that will have you better prepared for safe outback adventures.
Obtain the best and most up-to-date paper maps available for the areas in which you will be travelling (Hema has a good range of both state and area maps throughout Australia) and, if you are quite remote, a topographical map with large scale mapping perhaps down to 1:25,000 could be handy. In-car sat/nav systems (and even smartphones) are also extremely good these days, but always carry paper maps in support.
Where possible, it is best to travel with another vehicle as one can help out the other in case of a breakdown or other emergency. Also check with local authorities before you head off for information on road conditions and closures, particularly after rain.
Taking a basic vehicle recovery kit with you is essential. It should include a reliable jack or two, snatch strap, tow rope, shovel, a set of Maxtrax, a compressor to reinflate your tyres, and a winch (either hand or fixed). It’s also important to know how to use all of your gear, so talk to those in the know such as equipment suppliers and fellow travellers. There are courses available and tag-along trips are another good way to learn the ropes.
In remote regions, mobile phones or CB radios probably won’t be of any use. As an alternative, consider hiring or buying an HF radio which can put you in touch with other users, HF radio bases (such as the 737 network) or RFDS bases around the country.
A satellite telephone (which can be hired) is another good option to help you keep in touch with friends, family or emergency services. These are much cheaper than they used to be.
Travellers should also carry emergency supplies and equipment, including a first aid kit, compass, plenty of water, spare fuel, signalling mirror, torch, waterproof matches, water sterilisation, plus a knife and whistle.
Ensure your vehicle is in first class mechanical condition with an adequate supply of spares, including fan belt, engine hoses, two spare tyres, tow ball, extra fuel and water.
Carry your water (at least 5-6L per person, per day, plus a margin for your vehicle and emergencies) in several different containers, so that if one container is punctured or splits, you haven’t lost your entire supply.
When heading into really remote country, always leave details of your trip, including your estimated time of return or arrival at a particular place, with a responsible friend, relative and/or local police or rangers. And be sure to have an agreed action plan on what to do if you don’t get there or back by a particular time. Remember, no one will come looking for you if no one knows you are lost. But make sure you contact the same people after you have safely arrived to prevent any unnecessary worry or searches.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU GET LOST
If, at any time, you do become lost or break down, first and foremost – don’t panic! Sit down in a comfortable, shady spot, have a drink, make a cuppa and try to work out, using a map and compass, your best route to safety. If you’re broken down, it is worthwhile to work out the problem and determine whether, with the help of your vehicle handbook, you are able to get yourself mobile again.
If it comes to the stage that you are totally lost, or your vehicle is completely immobilised, then it’s time for you to work out how you’re going to get out safely and alive. Whether or not you get out of your predicament easily, or whether you survive the experience, will largely depend on your attitude and the decisions you make in the first few hours. You need to think things through and don’t rush into an action as that may make things even worse.
Firstly, remember your best chance of survival is to remain with your vehicle and spend the hot hours of the day in the shade, using as little energy as possible. A vehicle is much easier to find than a lone person and all vehicles have a reasonable amount of survival gear as part of their normal equipment.
A vehicle is a form of shelter and protection from the elements, it has a cigarette lighter for lighting a signal fire, and mirrors and headlights for signalling. Hang hub caps, chrome strips, mirrors and other shiny items high in a tree or lay them on the ground where they can act as reflectors which can be seen from the air.
LEAVE A TRACE
If you’re alone, and after much cautious thinking you do decide to leave your vehicle for a short distance walk to safety or water, always leave a message of your planned walk and directions on your vehicle. Make sure you mark your trail if you are not walking on a defined track so you can find your way back. Only leave your vehicle, however, if you are certain you can reach safety or help by nightfall.
If it is necessary to walk to water, go back to known nearby sources and not forward to where you hope there are supplies. Avoid walking in the hottest part of the day.
Assuming you decide to remain with your vehicle and you have concluded that your best chance of survival is to rely on someone finding you (whether or not anyone knows you are lost), there are a few other things you can do to improve your chances.
Make a fire, particularly a smoky one, which can often be seen for many miles. Three fires in a triangle about 30m apart is an even better signal to attract attention from the air. Use can use oil from your car engine as well as your spare tyre and tube on your fire (progress to your other tyres and tubes as the days go on). You can also use green shrubs for plenty of smoke. Property owners, if there are any within sight of your fire, will always come and investigate a fire on their property. Be careful to clear the area around your fire/s so that you don’t accidentally start a bushfire which could make things even worse.
One of the safety precautions often taken by regular outback travellers who have a boat at home is to take some of their boat safety gear with them including the flares and V-sheet (an orange plastic sheet with a large black ‘V’ which can be spread on the ground or on top of your vehicle and can be readily seen from the air). The letter ‘V’ means you require assistance. These will take up little space in your vehicle, but could be a valuable survival tool in the bush. These items can be used to attract attention and will help you to be found or seen by aircraft.
You could also build a large ‘SOS’ in a cleared area near your vehicle with sticks, rocks or other sizeable objects – just make sure it is big enough to be seen from the air. All of these (in conjunction with a fire) will help your chances of getting your emergency message out to anyone who can see you.
Another handy device to take with you from your boat, is its EPIRB (portable emergency radio beacon) or a smaller hand-held/pocket-size personal locator beacon (PLB), either of which could be activated as a last resort – a life or death situation. These internationally-recognised distress signals (406 MHz) are picked up by satellites and relayed to emergency authorities in Canberra. Keep in a secure place (in your vehicle) as there are heavy fines for activation without a good reason.
Also available these days are small hand-held ‘Spot’ devices with built-in GPS which provide location-based messaging and emergency notification technology (even an ‘ok’ button) that allows you to communicate with family, friends or emergency services (with your GPS coordinates) from remote locations and also has tracking options available using Google maps.
However, keep in mind that all these beacons will work best with a clear view of the sky. Try to get to higher ground if you are in a deep valley or ravine. Your distress beacon (EPIRB or PLB) should also be registered (free) with the Australian Marine Safety Authority (AMSA) who will record who you are, your boat and/or vehicle details and your emergency contacts.
In a survival situation, you must remember, above all else, to look after your body. The four most important ingredients for remaining alive are water, warmth, shelter and food. In different situations, the relative importance of warmth and shelter may change but in outback Australia, dehydration and exposure are the prime killers.
If your water supplies are low, it is better to avoid eating as it takes precious body fluids to digest food and you can live a lot longer without food than water. In fact, the average person can last for several weeks or more without food but, especially in hot conditions, people can perish in just a few days without water.
If you have water, never just sip it. Always have a good drink – a cupful at least. Sipping does not prevent dehydration and can severely reduce your chances of remaining lucid. There have been numerous recorded cases where people have been found with sufficient water with them, but they have still died from dehydration. Don’t drink alcohol as it also causes dehydration and do not drink water from your vehicle radiator or windscreen washes as most will have poisonous additives.
Rest in the shade during the heat of the day and keep your activity for the cooler hours. Wear loose clothes to protect yourself from the sun and wind, both of which cause water to evaporate through the skin, which in turn speeds the dehydration process. The old adage from the bush that says ‘ration your sweat, not your water’, should be remembered.
All this preparation and advice might sound like a lot to remember, but most of it is just common sense which allows you to hit the road with confidence and keep your cool in an emergency situation. Don’t panic and the chances of coming back alive and well are greatly improved.