So here we are back in lockdown for the second time this year. Who would have thought on New Years Eve, less than 6 months ago, that we were in for such a different year than we have ever known. Everyone is entitled to handle it differently, to some it’s a lot more stressful than it is to others but for all of us, it’s about sticking together and getting to the other side. With motivation dropping and people feeling like there is no end to this, I have decided to share a story about what happened to me and my wife Karen over 30 years ago. It’s a story we have told many times to family and friends but have never put down in writing. I have decided to share it with you at this time in the hope that it will encourage you to keep pushing forward and not lose faith that this will be over some day and our lives will be close to the normal we once had. This event, although traumatic and incredibly scary at the time, changed my life for the better and I still draw on it today when things get tough and I hope it can do the same for you. So grab a cup of tea and let me share a story of near tragedy, hope, owning your mistakes and never ever giving up.
We start this story in December of 1988 where a fairly new romance was happening with me and Karen. I had a great idea to take a road trip to Alice Springs in Central Australia. We decided to drive there, then hire a 4wd and explore a track from Wonangatta Valley to Palm Valley. A roughly 100 km track over sand dunes with both dry and running river beds. We got to Alice Springs and after a few days picked up the little soft top Suzuki Sierra for a 3 day camping and sand dune driving adventure. Off we went, this was going to be awesome. A hand drawn map of where to go that had been given to me earlier that year, some camping gear, a fun little 4wd with a fold down roof, what could possibly go wrong? Well being totally unprepared for the Australian outback in the middle of summer, not telling people where we were heading, limited 4wd experience and a sense of being afraid of nothing was about to bring me unstuck real quick.
We filled the car with fuel at the Wonangatta station, got the essentials like a few cans of coke and some snacks and headed off. Soon we found the track we were looking for. It was magic, rolling red sand dunes, wild birds flying overhead, not another person in sight, it seemed we had the Australian outback to ourselves. Zipping over sand dunes in this little red rocket, getting air born over the big dunes, crossing rivers, all the adrenalin a bloke could ask for. We then came to a large river crossing. The Finke river. The map had been spot on to date. I decided to test the depth of this one as it was quite wide and flowing in the middle. Walked across most of it, checked the depth, “yep no worries, ill drive straight through this one. Got back in the car and gave it a real charge. Crossing the first part of river was fine, getting through the water, no worries. About two thirds of the way through the water the car started to sink. Giving it everything the little 4 cylinder engine had and with the car screaming at max revs, it stopped, sank to the door sills and that was it. We were well and truly bogged in the Finke river. Engine off, get out and see how hard it will be to dig out. This thing is going nowhere. We are now stranded at least 50km from any possible help, late afternoon, over 40 degree sun overhead with a few cans of soft drink, a 5 litre water container, basic camping gear and no communication. Ok this is not good. We emptied most of our gear onto dry land, looking at the car we knew we now had to make a decision of wether we stay and wait for help or try to walk to safety. Waiting for help wasn’t really an option as no one knew we were out there so we decided that as the map had been so accurate so far, we would attempt to walk the 50km to Palm Valley following the river for most of the way, so that way we stay cool by dipping in the water and should get to Palm Valley the next day. So we headed off. Taking only what we could carry which included a camera, a water container, a blanket and some snacks and a few soft drink cans. Although this wasn’t ideal, other than feeling like a goose for getting the car bogged, this wasn’t too bad. A few hours walk, a night under the stars, then another few hours walk and we would be in Palm Valley and arrange to have the car retrieved. We walked till sunset and made camp beside the river. The outback sky at night is something special. Stars you feel you could reach out and touch, and although this wasn’t the ideal way to gaze at them, I felt confident that by same time tomorrow we would be in a comfortable resort. Oh how wrong I was.DAY 2
We set off walking at sunrise, still quite cool but that doesn’t last long. As the sun rises the temperature starts to climb. If the map is right, we just follow the river and we should be there by days end. We keep walking through the heat of the day constantly getting into the river to cool down, sipping water that we had boiled the night before and had put into the water container. Luckily Karen was a smoker back then and had a lighter to start a campfire. The day was getting long and hot. Surely we must be nearly there by now. Keep walking and the sun is starting to get low. We must be close surely. And then with an awkward silence from both of us and a few swear words we stopped and stared straight ahead. It couldn’t be. It was. We were looking at the camp site we stayed at the night before. We had just spent the day walking in a complete circle. Now this is getting really serious. We have spent an afternoon and a full day and a night using a lot of our energy and supplies and are now even further from our original location. We needed to stay positive. I tried to stress that we can get out of this if we don’t panic, stay calm and just keep pushing but knowing how far we had to walk now was a real worry. We set up camp in the same spot as the previous night. Lit a fire, boiled more water to fill the container and tried to remain optimistic. The nights in the desert are extremely cold but the fire was roaring and it also kept the wild animals away. The plan was to try to get some rest, walk back to the car tomorrow, sleep there tomorrow night and attempt to walk out the following day where there wasn’t any water supply back to the main road. Although that all seemed overwhelming, we knew that was the only way this could work out. We would stay together no matter what and step by step, we would get through this. There was no energy to be wasted on blame and there was no point. This was all my doing. I had the grand plan. I didn’t prepare properly. I made it sound totally safe and foolproof. It was 100% me and me alone that had caused us to be where we find ourselves, and it’s up to me to get us out of this.
Again we set off at sunrise making our way back to where the car is bogged. A long hot day of walking but by days end we make it back to the car, set up camp under the stars and make the game plan for the next day. Ok we need to walk roughly 50 km over multiple sand dunes with no running river to walk alongside. Only a couple of small streams along this stretch so this would be the toughest day of all. On top of that, we had already been walking for 2 days, sunburnt, hungry and fatigued. But we had no choice, no one was going to come looking for us. It was up to us to walk out of this and we knew that the next day was going to be the hardest. Again we tried to get some rest but a sense of fear had well and truly crept in. Although we were both reasonably fit and healthy, this was a big ask with little hydration and virtually no food.
Sunrise. Like one you never see in the city. Absolutely beautiful. Maybe this was an omen for a successful day. We started walking. This morning was quite cool, another plus so things were on track. As the day went on, it turned very quickly. Stinking hot by the middle of the day, sun beaming and no shade to shelter under, no river to cool down in and in front of us was rows of red sand dunes. Walk over one, then the next one, then a bit of flat walking and then more sand dunes as far as the eye could see. By mid afternoon we were exhausted. The pace had dropped right off, the conversation had all but stopped, I could only get out a few distracting jokes every now and again but we needed to keep pushing. Stopping for more than a couple of minutes was no good as you were soon covered in ants so we kept going. Late afternoon and we were almost at breaking point. I tried to keep up the positivity but that wasn’t working. We discussed me going ahead to try to get help but agreed it was better to stay together. Late afternoon and we are out of water, food, we had disgarded our warm clothing. We had little left mentally or physically. Karen urged me to go ahead on my own. No, we stay together, “ then we both die” was her answer. Knowing that was now a real possibility I tried to make the case why that won’t happen but knew that it was starting to look that way. “ just go, I can’t go any further “was her next comment. The sun was now going down and we were facing another night out here but with no supplies, no fire, no water, no warm clothes and very little energy. We pushed on a bit more, surely we must be close but in the fading light all we could see were more sand dunes ahead of us. Before long we dropped with exhaustion. The night had set in and it was getting cold. We lay on the sand and huddled together surrounded by howling wild dogs and other wild creatures, we clung together for warmth. Karen had stopped speaking and wasn’t answering my conversation. I put my finger on her pulse where I felt a very slow faint beat. For the first time in my life I remember thinking, this is it. This is where our lives end. I wasn’t sure she would make it through the cold night and I am the one that caused this. I held her tight and kept my finger on her pulse through the night. She was barely responding. How did such an innocent adventure end up like this? I thought to myself, if I no longer feel a pulse, I will not move from here and at least that way we will be found together and I won’t have to live with the fact that I had caused a young lady to lose her life because of my negligence. So we lay on the desert sand together.
Sun is starting to rise. I feel for a pulse and yes, she made it through the night thank God. I manage to wake her and convince her to keep going. The road out must be so close, surely we have a bit more to keep going. To my surprise she agrees, and we are off walking again. Slowly but surely and with a new sense of optimism that we must be so close. At this stage I give her one last bit of motivation. “if we get out of this I will marry you”. Now that could have also been motivation for her to stop right there but she kept going so I assumed that was a yes. We walked another few minutes, over a sand dune and there it was in front of us. The road to Wallara Ranch. We had made it out. A sudden surge of energy came over us, we hugged , laughed and stood staring at the road. All we had to do now was wait for a passing car and we were safe. Before too long a car appeared coming towards us in the distance. I stood in the middle of road waving him down. He would have to run over me if he wasn’t going to stop. An elderly gentleman pulled up and took us to Wallara Ranch, the place we originally set out from. We had walked over 100km in the harshest conditions with little supplies but were now safe. We stayed at the ranch a couple of nights before we went and retrieved the car.
True to my word we got married a couple of years later and have 3 beautiful adult kids and celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary this year. So what did I learn from this. Firstly, own your mistakes. The quicker you can own up to making a mistake, the quicker you can move to repair it. Energy put into denial makes the original mistake much worse. Secondly, never ever give up. When all the odds are against you, when you feel that you can’t go on, when all seems lost, stop. The human spirit is way stronger than you can ever imagine. The will to survive, to get to the other side, to get over all those sand dunes in front of you is largely up to you. I understand that we are all different and all have strenghs and weaknesses but if you never give up, you will get to the other side. What we are all experiencing at the moment is unprecedented but just like the situation when we were in the desert, there are lots of sand dunes in front of us right now but at the end of it there is a road out, we just need to push on to find it. I hope you have enjoyed this story and hope you can draw some strength and comfort from it. I still draw on the experience to this day wether it’s at the hurt point of a marathon or anything else life throws up. Never ever give up.