Safety In The Outback

Bush camped - Garry junction Road

Personal:  We are often asked “Don’t you worry about camping by yourself in the bush”. Our response is that we have never once felt threatened or worried and we have never known of anyone who has. If using the camping spots that are in such publications as Camps6 you will almost certainly not be alone. In fact sometimes it will be hard to get a spot to camp if you arrive later in the day.

If camping by yourself in the bush don’t camp within 40 or 50 kilometres of a town, especially on a weekend as there is the slight possibility you may get awakened by local revellers.  If you are nervous make sure that you have camped so that you can quickly get into the vehicle and drive away easily, without any backing or turning.

When camping near remote aboriginal communities do not drive up unmarked tracks looking for a camp site. You may be unwittingly breaking tribal law by going into taboo areas. Microwave repeater towers have a cleared area around them and they usually offer safe camping.

Communications: Don’t count on 3G or Next G communications in the bush. Telstra has the only network suitable for travellers as other network providers do not have nearly as extensive coverage. Telstra claim 95% coverage of the Australian population however that only equates to about 8% of the land mass. There are some urban myths spread about the capability of mobile phones in an emergency and I have seen reference to these myths on Internet forums. There are no 3G, Next G or GSM mobile phones on the Australian market that have the ability to send or receive emergency messages by satellite. So unless you have a dedicated satellite phone you must be in range of a network tower to send or receive even in an emergency.

To get help from police, fire or ambulance services in Australia, dial ‘000’ or ‘112’. Contact can even be made if your mobile has been blocked or your security settings have been activated. You can still attempt a normal ‘000’emergency call from a GSM or Next G™ mobile but if you do not have reception with your own carrier, you can dial ‘112’ and your call will be carried by any GSM network if it is available. Remember though, you must be in range of a network tower. Despite another urban myth emergency calls are made at the same power as any other call.

So if travelling in remote areas the prudent traveller will have either a HF (high frequency) radio transmitter or satellite phone. An HF radio is my preferred choice. With an HF radio and membership of the VKS-737 Radio Network you have access to a wealth of information and assistance.

The VKS-737 Radio Network is an HF Radio communications network licensed by the Australian Communications Media Authority to serve Australian travellers (land, sea or air). Primarily, they provide safety orientated information, pass on messages and arrange rescue/support for people in difficulties. With their many strategically located bases, they effectively cover the nation. Base station operators have access to a database listing support services and can therefore put you in touch with the appropriate service. They are also aware of which other VKS-737 members are in your vicinity and who may be able to offer assistance.

However with a satellite phone you are on your own, with no community support such as VKS-737.

You may also consider carrying a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon). However these should only ever be used in situations best described as “in grave and imminent danger and requiring immediate assistance”. They are not a substitute for good communications. In some articles I have read lately, both on the Internet and in Caravan/Motorhome magazines there is a degree of confusion about the  terms EPIRB, ELT and PLB

These are the three types of distress radio beacons currently in use with the Cospas-Sarsat system:

  • EPIRBs (emergency position-indicating radio beacons) signal maritime distress.
  • ELTs (emergency locator transmitters) signal aircraft distress.
  • PLBs (personal locator beacons) are for personal use and are intended to indicate a person in distress who is away from normal emergency services;  They may also used for crewsaving applications in shipping and lifeboats.

If you do activate your PLB search and rescue authorities will undertake a search for you, but depending on your location it could take considerable time to reach you. Meanwhile you have not been able to convey details of your emergency nor have you been able to seek medical advice if it is a medical emergency nor mechanical advice if the situation involves your vehicle. Remember simply having a vehicle break down is not in itself a “in grave and imminent danger and requiring immediate assistance” situation. However running low on water and food as a consequence of a vehicle break down would certainly qualify as an emergency situation. Certainly carry a PLB but ensure you have adequate communications equipment.

Of course all vehicles travelling into remote areas should have a UHF fitted to allow short range communications to other vehicles. Currently UHF utilise 40 channels but new 80-Channel units are now coming on the market. Channel 40 is known as the highway channel and is used by almost all truck drivers, the language can be a bit colourful at times. Channel 18 is used by caravans and campers and channel 10 is often referred to as the desert channel being used in the outback as an aid when in sand dune country. Lately motor homes have begun showing stickers “CMCA use Channel 20” it appears they don’t want to talk to anyone but themselves and this seems to defeat the intended purpose of channel 18 being a general travellers channel. Remember that to talk to truck drivers you will need to use channel 40.

Emergency RFDS airstrip

 First Aid: Consider the possibility that you may be hours or even days away from assistance in the event of a life threatening situation. With good communications you can get medical advice from the RFDS (Royal Flying Doctor Service) but until you can get to an airstrip you cannot be evacuated. The RFDS use fixed wing planes, they do not use helicopters. For non life threatening situations it could be many days before you get to the nearest clinic. So choose the contents of your first aid kit carefully and ensure that you have received at least basic first aid training. Some commercial first aid kits seem to be full of bandages and little else when in actual fact it is the dressings you really need as bandages can be made from almost anything. You should consider including the following in your first aid kit:

  • Lomotil – someone will almost certainly get diarrhoea;
  • Anti histamine tablets – allergies, hay fever and rashes including sand fly bites;
  • Sterile water ampoules – irrigating eyes and wounds;
  • General burn and antiseptic cream;
  • Burn dressings;
  • Wound dressings;
  • Butterfly closures – for temporary closure of cuts that may require stitching;
  • Tourniquet bandage – for major wounds or severed artery;
  • Elastic bandages x 3 – snake bite and general bandaging;
  • Maxolon – anti nausea and vomiting medication;
  • Codeine Forte – strong pain relief;
  • Various plaster and bandaids;
  • Scissors and tweezers;
  • Bushman Plus 80% DEET with sunscreen – the best insect repellent available;
  • Itch Eze Plus cream – the best relief for insect bites and stings; and
  • Vinegar – if travelling in the tropics and intending to swim ensure you have a large bottle in case of marine stingers.

Ensure that the tourniquet bandage, elastic bandages and vinegar are easy to get at and the location is known to everyone in your party.

If intending to swim make yourself aware of the correct procedure for the treatment of the many venomous creatures found in Australian waters.

You should of course carry enough prescription medications for your needs and consult your doctor as to the final requirements of your kit.

Consider the following. Its late afternoon on a remote gravel road with dusk fast approaching. You find yourself confronted by a car roll over. Three people unable to move and with possible spinal injuries, one person with head lacerations, a baby with gravel rash to the scalp, depressed breathing and a barely detectable pulse. All in shock. This actually happened to us on the Tanami in 2009. With an HF radio we could summon assistance and seek advice from the RFDS but it was a very long six hours before medical help could get to us.

Washaways - Gunbarrel Highway

Vehicle and Caravan: There have been countless articles written on what a well equipped 4×4 should carry in the way of spares and tools so this is not another of those lists. Rather this is just some issues you may wish to consider before heading into remote areas;

  • Is your vehicle in good mechanical condition?
  • Can you carry out basic repairs?
  • Do you carry an adequate tool kit?
  • Do you carry basic spare parts?
  • Will your jack lift the vehicle or van without them having to be unloaded?
  • Do you carry two spare tyres for each wheel size. That is car and caravan?
  • Do you carry a tyre repair outfit including bead breaker?
  • Do you carry drinking water in your car as well as the van?
  • Do you carry a spare set of wheel bearings for both the car and van?
  • Do you carry a couple of spare safety chain shackles?

Spend some time on making up a list that will be suitable for you and your vehicle.

Taking into account the above, are you properly prepared for remote travelling because if you are not you not only put yourself at risk but others who may have to assist you.

Let me give you a couple of examples of something so basic as carrying two spares tyres and a tyre repair kit:

  1. Camped at Docker River on the Great Central Road a car came into camp, chap wandered over and queried us as to where he could get a tyre repaired. He was only carrying one spare and that was punctured. He assumed he could get it repaired at the next roadhouse but was a little surprised when he was told the roadhouse had the necessary tools chained out the front and would sell him a patch or a new tyre but it was strictly DIY. We offered to repair his tyre for him but he declined and headed south. I don’t think he believed us. He was totally unprepared for this road and if he suffered a further puncture before repairing his only spare he would have inconvenienced other travellers by needing assistance because of his lack of preparation.
  2. Have just read an article in a caravan magazine about a couple taking their van on the Gibb River Road. No big deal for those prepared, but this couple were not. They had one spare for the caravan and this received a puncture. For three days they had no spare until they could get it mended. If they had suffered a further puncture they would have had to leave their van beside the road whilst they attempted to have their tyre repaired.

There can always be unforeseen accidents and emergencies but with good preparation these can be minimised.

General Driving: There seems to be an increasing level of speed and aggressiveness in the driving of a significant percentage of the population. So slow down, cool off and enjoy the drive but above all be courteous to other road users.

I like to make camp by 3:00PM so that I can relax and have super under way before darkness. Unless in an emergency I would not consider driving of a night, for two reasons. One is the very real danger of hitting an animal, consider the damage to you and your vehicle a collision with a camel could make. Two is the increased likelihood of being involved in an accident after dark.

On a sealed road when you have a truck behind you do NOT slow down in the mistaken belief this will assist the truck driver to overtake you. By decreasing your speed and therefore the trucks speed you are making it more difficult for the truck to pass. Rather hold your speed until the truck has pulled out and is alongside you, this is then the time to brake to assist the driver to swiftly pass you. Of course you will have used your UHF CB on channel 40 to tell the truck driver your intentions. When the truck is safely passed you give the driver a quick “you’re clear” call. Your actions will be appreciated by the truck or roadtrain driver.

If travelling with others ensure that you leave at least 200 metres between vehicles. This will assist other drivers when overtaking.

If you are travelling slower than the maximum posted speed limit then there is a fair chance you will have other road users behind you. Keep an eye on your rear vision mirrors and if they are having difficulty passing you pull over to let them through. As well as just being courteous this minimises the risk of some aggressive driver involving you in an accident as they attempt to pass.

updated 19/11/2011

goldstream, goldstream explorer, goldstream caravan, off road caravan, outback travel