SMOKE: Dead In The Desert

Originally published: 14 April 2005

I've been fascinated with the desert for a very long time now. As a kid I loved stories of desert adventures and there was one book in particular - The Road To Samarkand - which I read over and over again.

It was an epic tale of a boy travelling through China in the 1300s or something, and the extraordinary adventures he had along the Old Silk Road and through the Gobi desert.

The deserts he traversed were filled with mystery and intrigue and fierce horsemen and bandits, and it engraved a highly romanticised - if slightly dangerous - impression of deserts for me in my mind.

But there are a few practical things I learned about deserts as well, one of those being to always know where your waterholes or oases are.

It's quite one thing packing what you believe will be enough water but you have to plan for unforseen incidents and the only way to do that is to ensure that you know where water is at all times.

Someone should have given that advice to Bradley John Richards and his nephew Mac Bevan Cody before they set out on a 2000km drive through the Gibson Desert in Western Australia, en route to go fruit picking on the other side of the desert a week or two ago.

They told nobody where they were going, and packing only 15 litres of water they fired up their ageing '74 Land Rover and took to a notoriously unforgiving road - the Canning Stock Route - without a map, a two-way radio or enough petrol. In 40C conditions.

Last Friday their bodies were found decomposing next to their Landy, with their dead dog by their side - all three having died within days from dehydration.

The story the investigators read was clear: the pair were last seen refuelling their car on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert, before disappearing into the Gibson desert on their planned route. Almost nobody travels that route at this time of year as it is one of the harshest, most unforgiving places in the Outback.

Along the way the Landy broke down, leaving them stranded (investigators said that even had it not broken down it still wouldn't have made it out of the desert as there wasn't enough fuel).

The evidence showed that they trekked west for seven kilometres before giving up and turning back, and from then they sat next to their car in the hope that help would come. Which it didn't, since almost nobody travels that route.

If they'd had a map they would have seen that they walked in the opposite direction to a water hole that was nine kilometres away. In fact - maps of the area show 50 boreholes along the way. Had they taken a map they would not have died.

They only had a cellphone with them, which meant they were screwed - there's no reception out in the desert. They should have had a standard piece of desert equipment - a two-way radio - which could also have saved their lives.

And most importantly they should have told somebody where they were going, as nobody knew they were missing and thus nobody looked for them.

They broke just about every single rule for the desert there is to break, and if they don't make it into the esteemed portals of the Darwin Awards it will be a travesty.

What killed me about the story is not their stupidity though - it's the sheer savagery of nature. The worst was that they walked away from a hole in the ground that would have saved their lives, and they died only nine kilometres away from redemption.

I've often wondered how many people have died at the hands of nature when they could have been saved by her instead.

My favourite author - Louis L'Amour - wrote many times of the harshness of the unexplored West, and how many a husband would set off on some task leaving his wife and kids at home, never to return.

The wife would never know what happened to him and more often than not his death was the result of something far less thrilling than being roasted over an anthill by Apaches while they carefully cut his scalp off - his horse would stumble in a ravine and fall, crushing his ribs so that he would be unable to move, or he would run out of water and die, sometimes mere metres away from a hidden water hole, or would be overcome by smoke from his fire while sleeping and be set alight by blown embers.

Nature can take ya, no two ways around that.

I wonder how many people have died in lonely places with nobody to hear their cries and how many of them were never found. So, so many.

Yet I understand why people feel the need to go out into wild, inhospitable places around the world. Sometimes death at the hands of a savage sun can - in a spiritual way - be better than getting knocked over by a Golden Arrow bus somewhere in Epping Industria. There's something noble about fighting nature and losing the battle.

So be very sure that if you're going to tackle the beast you do it with the necessary equipment, or die - like a dog - in the dirt.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
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Copyright © Luke Tagg. All rights reserved. A few lefts as well.

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