COVID-19 travel restrictions have prompted a surge in domestic tourism, with people who have been forced to ditch overseas holidays choosing to explore their own backyards.
But many people are discovering for the first time just how harsh life can be in the Australian outback.
In Western Australia — where until Saturday residents who left the state during the COVID-19 pandemic risked not being allowed back in — at least four tourists have died from dehydration or drowning in the past few months.
Several people have been rescued after becoming lost, while many more would have presumably encountered equally dramatic outback mishaps that never made headlines.
Survival expert Bob Cooper said the key to surviving in the bush was thorough preparation.
“My best advice to anybody is to be prepared … mentally and physically for a mishap to happen,” he said.
“You don’t expect it, you don’t want it, you don’t wish it, but you can plan for it.”
For more than 40 years, Mr Cooper has taught thousands of people how to withstand the harshest environments in Australia.
During a gruelling 1982 special forces training course, he spent eight days in the searing WA desert with minimal food and water.
“What I learned about myself when I was dehydrated was fantastic,” he said.
“You can always rely on nature to give you what you need. Not necessarily what you want, but what you need.”
Mr Cooper has some sound advice for travellers embarking on an adventure during the pandemic.
Carry lots of water, but don’t sip it
“We need to take as much water as we need … and then a little bit extra in case we are stranded or in some cases geographically embarrassed, which is a very nice way of saying lost,” he said.
Mr Cooper said people should gulp water instead of sipping.
“If you sip water, it doesn’t prevent dehydration,” he said.
“We should be drinking water at room temperature to help the body digest it.
“If you stuff your water bottle full of ice and then drink the ice cold water, the water has to be warmed up by your body which means it actually increases your body temperature to consume it.”
Keep a cool head
Mr Cooper said people needed to be mentally prepared to deal with the prospect of becoming lost in the bush.
“The fear of being lost or staying lost is quite terrifying to most people … and then that’s where mishaps turn into tragedies,” he said.
“When you’re in one of these situations, you tend to be emotional about it … you make decisions based on all those emotions.
“The poor rational side of your brain is saying ‘can you stop for a moment and think about it?’
“Sit down and accept the situation, ‘I’m lost.’
“Make sensible decisions while you’re hydrated and let the rational side of your brain take over and deal with the cards you’ve been dealt.”
Tell others of your plans
Mr Cooper said it was imperative to let a family member or friend know not only where you are going, but what to do if you do not return as expected.
“Leave the information with someone reliable and ask them what they’re going to do if you don’t turn up on time.
“That’s so you know what their plan is. That could be phone the police or call the SES and then you know the search will begin that afternoon as soon as they can get organised.
“Then you know when to signal [for help] and how to signal.”
What about survival on the water?
Marine safety officer Laurie Adams said the biggest impediment to surviving a mishap on the water was getting hypothermia.
He said the most practical thing someone could do was wear a life jacket.
“Having a life jacket on will actually reduce the requirement for you to swim so it actually reduces the loss of heat from your body,” Mr Adams said.
Mr Adams said people who found themselves unexpectedly in the water should huddle together to conserve heat.
“If you’re by yourself, you can go into what is known as the ‘help’ position,” he said.
“Bring your knees up, wrap your arms around your knees and tuck your elbows in.
“You’re basically reducing heat loss, which means you’re going to survive longer, which will give the rescue guys more time to find you.”
But before you even head out to the coast, tell someone of your plans.
“If you don’t come back, and you’ve told someone where you are going, help is going to come so you only have to survive for that period of time,” Mr Adams said.
“If no one else knows you’re out there, then help will never come.
“If you’re on a boat, that foresight also extends to being familiar with the necessary safety equipment.
“What we’re finding in a lot of the incidents and fatalities, which is really sad, is that people carry all the right gear on their boats, but accessibility and understanding how to use it is quite low,” Mr Adams said.
“Don’t swim unless you are absolutely certain you’re going to make it to shore.
“It’s quite deceiving the currents, the wind, the seas and the swell out there when you’re trying to swim against it.”
Pack to survive
Mr Cooper suggests packing a small survival kit with items like a compass, whistle, knife, bandages, stock cubes, torch and flint.
“The essence of a survival kit is to manage water, warmth, shelter, signals and food,” he said.
“It has to be small enough to be carried every time you go out on an adventure whether it’s a two hour walk in the back hills [of the city] or a long expedition in another country.
“That’s just the same as taking spare parts for your vehicle in case it breaks down — you take spare parts for you in case you need them.
“Get out there and wander out yonder but be cautious and have a plan B in case plan A is not there anymore.”