DESTINATIONS - OUTDOORS HEALTH & SAFETY
You never know when things can go horribly wrong in the Outback. Here’s an account of a six-day stranding in the remote Northern Simpson Desert.
This trip had been well-planned
by an experienced couple in a well-maintained 4WD.
The vehicle was a 2012 Toyota Prado with 150,000km on the clock and had been serviced every 10,000km, with all filters being replaced. It also had an extra Diesel Care filter. The owners were fastidious about the Prado and did not compromise on parts or servicing.
Instead of a routine remote-area drive down the Hay River Track in the NT, this trip turned into a survival exercise. Rather than a complete guide of what to take or do, it’s an account of what this couple did did when stranded for six days with a broken down vehicle:
It was a very, very wet Saturday morning when we left Jervois Station after spending the night camped in the camping area. We awoke to extremely muddy and wet conditions and made a hurried departure onto the Plenty Highway, as far as the Batton Hill turn-off.
The 80-kilometre drive to Batton Hill was, for the most part, on a wet and muddy track. The car was going well and although it was wet we saw no problems in continuing.
There was no-one at the Batton Hill campground, so we decided to start our trek down the Hay River Track and camp at the Tropic of Capricorn sign.
The track to our overnight camp was not too bad, because the muddy clay surface had given way to sandier conditions and the going was easier.
We reached the sign about four in the afternoon and made camp. It was a beautiful night and we were enjoying the peace and serenity. The mozzies were very friendly, but we had the tent, so after dinner we retired to the luxury of our sleeping bags and air beds.
The morning was a clear and crisp one and we packed up and headed for our intended next camp at Lake Caroline. About 40km along the track south we encountered the first problem with the car. Suddenly it lost all power; all the warning lights came on and we went a little bit bush.
After the shock of this we attempted to restart the car but it would not start, sounding as though the battery was flat. Thankfully, we have a dual battery system and after doing a jump start from our second battery the car fired up.
We managed to complete another couple of kilometres before the low-oil light came on. Now we were worried.
We switched off the car and sat for 20 minutes to allow the oil to drain into the sump, so as to gain a proper oil level reading. The oil level was absolutely normal and we could see no leaks or any indication of why the engine kept stopping.
We started the car again and all looked OK, but as we drove off the low-oil light came on under 1000rpm, but above that it went out. Two more kilometres and not only was the low-oil light on but also the high-oil temp light. The computer then shut off the engine and it was 10 minutes or so before it would restart.
We decided to make camp and put a call in for help the next day. This was the beginning of our stranding in the Northern Simpson Desert for six days.
Our supplies consisted of 80 litres of water, many cans of food, including baked beans and packaged food that had a long shelf life. We also had a freezer full of meat and bread and a fridge full of fresh food.
We also had a satellite phone, solar panel, first aid kit, good shelter and everything we needed to last at least two weeks out here – not that we would need to… surely.
Our first call was to Peter Barnes at Birdsville, but he suggested that we’d be much better off trying for help from Alice Springs. He suggested Jol Fleming, with whom we made contact, after several satphone drop-outs.
Jol offered to help, but because of the rain around The Alice he said he wouldn’t be able to get to us before Wednesday at the earliest.
We checked back with Jol on the Monday morning, when he told us to get to higher ground, as we would more than likely get 50mm or more of rain that day. We could see storm clouds gathering in the distance, so we hurriedly broke camp and gingerly started the car.
We headed slowly north towards Batton Hill and saw a small rise of about two meters height just ahead, but the car decided to stop and not go any further. While we waited 20 minutes for a hoped restart we spoke to Alice Springs police, for a weather update. The car did start again and we gained the high ground, in the lee of – but not under – a sheltering tree and set up the tent, and dug a drainage moat around it
We discovered that the freezer was drawing too much power and not allowing the fridge to stay on, so we decided to bury most of the meat, in order to conserve power for the fridge. Although we have a 120-watt solar panel, the overcast conditions were not condusive to getting full charge. Our main priorities were to keep the fridge on 24/7, keep the sat phone fully charged, stay dry and stay safe.
At this stage any sickness or accident would have been disastrous.
The following days were taken up with checking with Jol and The Alice police, and making sure that our kids back in Melbourne, knew we were eating well and, most importantly, conserving water.
We used little water for cooking and a timy amount for washing, but drank enough water to stay hydrated, even though it wasn’t warm.
One thing that saved our sanity was reading: the days went quicker while reading and napping. The highlight of each day was to walk down the track and check the water levels on it .
On Tuesday afternoon we could see a massive storm brewing, so we had an early dinner of cold pasta and climbed into the tent at five o’clock. Then down it came: wind, extremely heavy rain, thunder and lightning.
The tent started to leak just a little, but given the rain intensity it was pretty good. It rained all night and until early afternoon on Wednesday. Just what we didn’t need. When we finally got out of the tent the sun was shining and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.
We checked the battery amp levels constantly and they were charging well.
Although our situation was far from ideal, we were safe and enjoying a very peaceful environment, with awesome sunrises and sunsets, between rain storms – not that the weather was in any way responsible for the breakdown. All our preparations beforehand meant we could easily last another week.
On Thursday morning we still had no idea when and, more importantly, how we would get out of here, until, at about 11.30, while lying in our tent we heard the roar of a 4WD. Out of it jumped Jol’s staff and the traditional owner of Batton Hill.
We won’t go into the details of the next two days, but suffice to say we did make it back to Alice Springs, after being towed nearly 500km, with no power steering, brake booster or air conditioning.
The lesson from our experience is the utmost importance of being prepared for unforeseen incidents. While keeping a vehicle as light as possible, it is imperative that you are able to survive at least a week, maybe more, if anything does go wrong. You need food, water, communications, shelter and patience.
As silly as it sounds we’re sure some people would have thought about walking out, but even in this cool, wet weather that should never be attempted.
Our advice is to keep calm and ascertain vehicle problems . If you can’t rectify them, you need to set up camp and wait. Communicate with authorities. Stay hydrated . Eat regular but small meals. Conserve water. Be patient .
(Think about recovery insurance as well. Outback Travel Australia’s bush vehicle is insured with Club4x4 Insurance and our policy includes bush recovery.)