Remote Australia deaths prompts warning outback travel dangers could rise
The tragic deaths of six travellers in remote parts of the country this fortnight has an expert warning the dangers of outback travel could rise in coming years.
- Four people were found dead in Central Australia this week near their broken car
- An expert said people need to modify their behaviour in the outback, as temperatures rise
- Calls have been made for better mobile coverage in remote areas
Thermal physiologist Matt Brearley said as average temperatures crept upwards over time, the behaviour of outback travellers would have to change.
“If people don’t change their activities based upon the climate, yes it will become more dangerous,” Mr Brearley said.
“But it doesn’t have to.
“I think these tragedies should prompt us to consider whether we are doing things appropriately.”
Member for Stuart Scott McConnell also called for better mobile coverage in remote communities in the wake of the deaths, four of which occurred near Willowra, where he grew up.
Temperatures had reached 40 degrees in the days beforehand.
The deaths came less than a fortnight after two people died in remote Western Australia from suspected heat exposure and dehydration.
He had been on a solo motorbike ride from Darwin to Karratha.
Higher temperatures will make outback travel more dangerous if precautions are not taken, an expert warns. (Bridget Brennan)
Heat exhaustion, dehydration biggest risk
Mr Brearley said although it was getting hotter in the outback, it was only happening gradually, which could have people underestimating the need to change their plans.
“So families may have done an annual camping trip into the outback at a certain time of year, and it may have been done for the last 20 or 30 years,” he said.
“It could be a family tradition.
“That might not be as possible now and into the future.”
He said those that still chose to go needed to plan for it differently, by bringing more ice and water and ensuring they could access more supplies during their trip, for example.
Mr Brearley also said there should be more targeted campaigns warning people, especially tourists, about the dangers of heat exhaustion and dehydration in the outback.
“People perish either because their body ran out of fluid, so dehydration, or their body was too hot for too long, causing multi-organ failure and ultimately death,” he said.
He said once the body reached 40 degrees, it only had about a 30 minutes to cool down, or else there would be a high risk of permanent consequences, such as impaired kidney function, brain function, liver function or death.
But cooling down could be difficult if it was so hot and humid sweat could not evaporate, he said.
He said resting could be critical to avoiding heat exposure.
“If someone is sitting next to their bogged vehicle in Australia for days and days, you tend to not get super hot,” he said.
“If you are trying to dig that vehicle out, that might be where heat stroke might get you.
“Not moving around — reducing how much activity you do in extremely hot conditions — is critical.”
Gordon Dedman, who runs Bushcraft Survival Australia courses, suggested if people did find themselves lost or stranded, they should signal using contrast and movement.
He referenced a man who was lost in North Queensland, saying he was found after “hanging his orange boxer shorts in a tree” which were spotted by a helicopter.
Asked if people should carry an EPIRB when travelling in the outback he said “100 per cent”.
He also advised people stay with a broken down car, as it was more visible from the air.
Better mobile coverage needed
Mr McConnell called for improved mobile networks in remote areas.
He described the Willowra deaths as an “absolute tragedy”, and said the incident would affect the surrounding communities.
He said the country was in the Tanami desert, was covered in spinifex and had scrub no higher than shoulder height.
“No hills, not very many substantial trees, mainly spinifex, and very red soil that’s very reflective of heat,” he said.
“It was a very hot day where this incident started and it would have been very difficult to survive.”
He said all remote communities in Australia should have mobile coverage.
“That won’t always save people. But it’s a really important tool that we should prioritise the rollout of,” he said.
Asked if there was any way people in a remote community could have accessed or borrowed an emergency beacon, he said in most cases it would be viewed as unnecessary.
“I would say most Aboriginal people that I know and I travel with would say that’s not required,” he said.
“Because most Aboriginal people really communicate about where they are going, who they are going with, and when they’re expected to be somewhere else.
“The bush telegraph within Aboriginal communities is absolutely amazing.”