A woman who survived 12 days lost in the Central Australian outback says she stayed alive by drinking water from a watering hole for cattle, eating biscuits, and sheltering in a hole dug under her car.
Tamra McBeath-Riley, 52, was found at a waterhole east of the Stuarts Well area, south of Alice Springs, late on Sunday afternoon, nearly two weeks after she and two others – Alice Springs local Claire Hockridge and South Australian Phu Tran – set out on an afternoon drive.
Ms Hockridge and Mr Tran remain missing.
The trio were stuck after their car became bogged in the Finke River.
Ms McBeath-Riley said they stayed by the car for about three days trying to free it, but they moved on after running out of supplies.
The group drank about six litres of water and about 10 iced vodka cans in their car before realising they needed to seek shelter elsewhere.
“Where we got bogged there was no trees or anything,” she said.
“We tried many times to try to get out, but just couldn’t get out, so ventured forth to try and find some shelter and some water.
“The river was just too large, we couldn’t get out.
“During the day it’s just really hot so we dug ourselves under the car during the day into the sand. At night they could sleep in the car.”
The trio left the car with a note indicating which direction they were travelling in.
At first, they stumbled across a cattle watering hole and drank from it before moving on to find a better location with shelter from the sun.
Ms McBeath-Riley said at night the group and their blue Staffordshire terrier Raya cuddled together to stay warm.
Dirty water and limited supplies
“They walked about 1.5 kilometres west and located an area in the Finke River where there is water,” NT Police Superintendent Pauline Vicary said.
“They made a decision to stay there and were using the water in that area to drink.
“Some of that water was boiled and sieved through a shirt so that they could drink it. It was still quite dirty, not hygienic water, but it kept them alive.”
Superintendent Vicary said the group quickly ate through their food supplies.
“They had very limited food – they had a packet of biscuits and some beef noodles between them and that obviously didn’t last them very long,” she said.
Superintendent Vicary said on about November 28, after the trio had been missing for nearly a week, they began to worry they would not be found.
“Tran and Claire made a decision to go north,” Superintendent Vicary said.
“They had a TomTom [GPS] and a compass with them. Their intention was to go north towards the Stuart Highway, which is about 22 kilometres from where they have left.”
As Ms McBeath-Riley explained, the decision to split up was not easy.
“We didn’t think anybody was searching for us,” she said.
“The quickest way to get found was to walk, and it’s safer if there is two.”
Ms McBeath-Riley said she stayed back with the dog, who would not have survived the journey.
She said Ms Hockridge and Mr Tran planned to walk at night and early afternoon when it was cooler and their intention was to stay together.
The pair took about six litres of water and Mr Tran swapped his thongs for Ms McBeath-Riley’s boots so he had better protection on the trek.
‘I’m worried to death’
NT Police had two helicopters in the air Monday, searching for Ms Hockridge and Mr Tran who have been missing for 13 days.
Ms McBeath-Riley was saved after a pastoralist told police they had spotted tyre tracks nearby. The air search for the missing group was redirected and spotted the vehicle with a note left inside.
The 52-year-old survivor said when the helicopter found her, she assumed Ms Hockridge and Mr Tran had reached the highway.
“To find out that’s not the case is worrying,” Ms McBeath-Riley said.
“All I know is they are 30 kilometres back from the highway. I’m worried to death.”
Ms McBeath-Riley thanked emergency rescue teams for their efforts saving her, saying on Monday it had been five days since she had last eaten.
She was hopeful her partner, Ms Hockridge, and their friend Mr Tran would be rescued.
“I’m sure he won’t want to go four-wheel driving with us ever again,” Ms McBeath-Riley said.
Superintendent Vicary said it appeared as though Ms Hockridge and Mr Tran had now split up, and they were following a single set of footprints.
“We have located one set of footprints that we are focussing on,” she said. “The footprints were located by the aerial search.”
Superintendent Vicary said officers were yet to begin searching the area by foot.
“Because of the terrain that they have gone missing in, and because we don’t have a particularly focused area, we are still doing the helicopters,” she said.
“It’s quite a diverse terrain – there’s sandy dunes, there’s hard clay, there’s areas of dense trees but there is also rocks and ranges in the area as well.”