Our Deadly Deserts

Ron and Viv Moon — 16 April 2019
Our bone-dry deserts can be brutal, indifferent deathtraps. Travellers need to take them very, very seriously.

I’ve just returned from a desert trip, which I’ll admit was a bit early in the season and something I don’t normally do when it’s so hot. Every day, while passing through the Great Victoria Desert, it was in the high 30s and for three days it was in the mid 40s, which is bloody warm, you gotta say. 

Our water consumption went through the roof. This time around, the vehicles pretty much behaved themselves and we encountered few problems, but if something had gone really wrong, we would have been ready. We had three other vehicles in our convoy of travellers, a heap of water, a couple of sat phones between us, a SPOT messenger/GPS locator and a good back-up plan.

But a lot of people seemingly travel our outback and remote tracks with little thought, poor planning, and a lack of equipment and water. The results can be fatal.


In a short period starting in October last year, at least eight people died in our remoter desert country from heat stroke and dehydration. 

Firstly, a 27 year old man died of dehydration while walking to the popular destination of Nature’s Window in Kalbarri NP. Surprisingly, he was with a group of walkers, each of whom was carrying just a couple of small bottles of water. The 8km walk proved too much in the heat – just a reported 31°C in the town of Kalbarri, but possibly 10°C hotter out in the rocky park.  

Then a few days later a motorcyclist died while traversing the famous Gibb River Road in the Kimberley. He was an experienced motorcyclist, but after becoming bogged, and despite seemingly being well prepared, the mid 40°C temperatures claimed his life.

A family of three and a friend then became the next to lose their lives, when their car broke down. The group was travelling from the Aboriginal community of Willowra to Jarra Jarra, 300km or so north-west of Alice Springs. Even more tragic was the fact that one of the victims was just three years old and another 12, while the older couple were just 19.

An elderly prospector was the next to succumb. His body was found near his bogged vehicle in the WA Goldfields not far from Coolgardie. Again, he was an experienced prospector and local who had spent years in and around Coolgardie.

Lastly, a German tourist, hiking a section of the popular Larapinta Trail east of Alice Springs, near Emily Gap, died when she became dehydrated and left the normal route, her body being found some days later.  


From reports in the newspapers, in WA alone, police respond to about 100 calls for people missing in the bush each and every year. That figure seems incredible. I wonder what the figure is for the whole of Australia?

More recently some experts have warned that the dangers of outback travel could increase in the future as temperatures rise and our climate changes. Certainly temperatures in the low 40s are not uncommon, even in the ‘cooler’ months, when travellers are often taking on the Simpson Desert, the Canning Stock Route and other red dirt highways in between. 

While many of these more famous desert routes are heavily populated with adventurers in the cooler months, it doesn’t take much to get off the beaten track and onto lesser-used routes, where days may go by – even in the tourist season – when no other vehicle or traveller comes by.

And at an ambient temperature of 40°C with no water, it takes a surprising short amount of time before dehydration and heat stroke set in, especially if you are trying to extricate a bogged vehicle or similar under a hot desiccating sun.  


Each year the same warnings are given, seemingly without any bloody notice being taken. That has to reflect the human condition – some stubborn part of us that insists  “that won’t happen to me”, I guess!

Still, we’ll reiterate the warnings once more.

Before you go make sure your vehicle is in good condition. Carry some basic spares and a tool kit. 

As getting bogged is a common theme in many of these aforementioned tragedies, carry some Maxtrax or similar, and know how to use them.

Let somebody know your travel plans and keep them posted on your whereabouts and any changes to your itinerary.

Carry some form of emergency communication device – a mobile phone is NOT good enough! A sat phone is great, as is a HF Radio, but at the very least carry a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) or a ‘SPOT’. Of course, only activate them if it is a real emergency.

Carry 20 litres of water or more. As we have found on more than one occasion, one bottle for a family is not good enough!

And if you break down, stay with your vehicle. It’s no guarantee you’ll be found... but it’s a darn sight better than walking away from a big shiny object that offers protection from the elements and is much easier to see than a lone person wandering through the scrub. 


desert deserts opinion editorial