Senior Constable Neale McShane has made about 20 mercy dashes across the unforgiving Simpson Desert in his time at Birdsville station.
He rescues holidaymakers and travellers who have been caught in searing heat without food and water and nothing but sand dunes in sight.
One word comes to mind when Constable McShane talks about many of those needing rescue: “Dumb”.
He said on Thursday he was fed up with rescuing travellers who venture into the Simpson Desert ill-prepared and ignorant.
Last Sunday, Constable McShane, a nurse and an ambulance officer drove for nine hours through the night to reach three motorbike riders stranded with just two litres of water each.
The Victorian men, aged 42, 49 and 54, had set out from Mildura on a biking trip to Queensland, but one rider crashed and injured his back outside Birdsville. The group then activated an Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon.
“These guys were very poorly prepared, they had very little water with them - less than two litres each - they had no satellite phone [and] they had no UHF radios,” Constable McShane, the officer-in-charge of Birdsville police station, he said.
“They had all their gear on the bikes – fuel, water, food, camping equipment, tools, spares – so the bikes were too laden.”
A Dornier aircraft, which costs taxpayers $50,000 with each deployment, was dispatched from Melbourne to locate the trio.
The plane dropped survival kits containing water, food, a satellite phone and radio to the bikers.
“These containers have got smoke coming out of them to attract attention, they’ve got flashing lights and they also make a siren-type noise,” Constable McShane said.
“So they dropped one container and two of the men walked over looked at it and then went back to camp. So the plane went back again and dropped another container, but the same thing happened.”
After dropping a third container, the plane crew gave up.
“The men didn’t even look inside the containers, which would have been handy for them, because it would have opened up lines of communication with Search and Rescue,” Constable McShane said.
“They thought it was the rescuers dropping things so they would know that help was coming.”
Constable McShane reached the riders at daybreak on Monday. The injured rider was flown to Birdsville by helicopter and then transferred to hospital by the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
“The two who weren’t injured said they were going to keep going, but I said, ‘nup, the ride’s cancelled, you’re coming back to Birdsville with us’,” he said.
“You’re not properly prepared, you’ve got no radio, no SAT phone, the EPIRB was out of batteries, or close to it.”
Constable McShane said he kindly advised the riders to hone their preparation skills.
“I think they thought it was a nice pleasant little drive across the desert,” he said.
Constable McShane said between six and eight travelling parties are stranded in the desert each year.
He estimated he had personally carried out more than 20 rescue operations in his eight years at Birdsville station.
Some travellers are well-prepared, but unlucky.
The majority, however, fail to take the proper precautions, putting themselves in danger.
The human body can succumb to the elements of the harsh Australian outback in just three hours, according to survival instructor Nick Vroomans.
Once core body temperature exceeds 40 degrees the blood thickens, stressing vital organs. Heat stroke follows and soon death.
“It’s dangerous for us too, because you’re going over sandhill after sandhill and you’re travelling through the night. The nurse has to come out and there’s only one nurse in Birdsville,” Constable McShane said.
“That takes the ambulance and the nurse out of Birdsville, plus the police officer.”
Last year, Mauritz 'Mo' Pieterse, 25, perished less than 12 hours after becoming stranded in the desert, on Ethabuka Station.
The South-African born passionate conservationist was experienced in the bush, according to his employer and his family, but a routine morning check of a bore site proved fatal for the 25-year-old station worker.
He died after deciding to leave his vehicle and walk back to the station. He perished less than seven kilometres into his journey.
Constable McShane has heard many an extraordinary survival story.
One family was bogged for three days in the desert before activating their EPIRB.
Another father and his two young teenage children ran out of fuel about 60 kilometres outside Birsdville. The trio was rescued by a passing vehicle, but not before they tried to walk five kilometres in 47 degree heat with only 600 millimetre water bottles.
Others who have become bogged have been spotted by passing motorists by chance and rescued.
“Those stories could have ended very differently,” he said.
Mount Isa District Officer Inspector Trevor Kidd said driving in the outback came with a high risk.
“Breaking down or having even a minor traffic crash can have very serious consequences when they occur hundreds of kilometres from the nearest help,” he said.
“Drivers need to be as self sufficient as possible and ensure they carry the correct equipment to communicate with emergency service providers.”
He said a satellite telephone and personal locator beacon were essential travel companions.
“Don’t rely on mobile phones in the outback,” Inspector Kidd said.
“You are likely to be out of range for some or most of your trip, depending on where you are going. A satellite phone is a real lifeline. If something goes wrong knowing what the situation is before we head out will enable us to better assist you.”
Inspector Kidd said travellers also needed to give consideration to their type of vehicle.
“If you are riding a motorbike it would be wise to consider having a support vehicle travelling with you,” he said.
“Don’t underestimate the tyranny of distance. If something goes wrong help is literally hours and hours away.”