Desert breakdown ends tragically in killer heat
Date: November 7 2012
The man who found one young man dead and saved the life of his mate in the Simpson Desert says he was more angry than saddened at the needless loss of life.
Mauritz 'Mo' Pieterse, 25, and his co-worker, Josh Hayes, left Ethabuka Station on Monday morning to work on a bore, but their Toyota Hilux became bogged about 16 kilometres south of the homestead in southwest Queensland.
After several failed attempts to free their vehicle, the pair decided to abandon the vehicle and walk back to the station, but they did not have enough water for the long journey in temperatures that reached 45 degrees.
Mr Pieterse collapsed after walking six kilometres.
When the men didn’t return to the homestead by nightfall, others set out looking for them.
After setting out just before dark Greg Woods, from neighbouring Carlo Station, found Mr Pieterse’s body about 11.30pm on a bush track.
‘‘I found Mo’s hat and shirt and car keys where he’d dropped them and I came across him a bit further down the track but he was finished,’’ he said.
‘‘You get so hot once you get overheated like that you can’t think straight and you don’t know what you’re doing - a lot of people who perish do strip off.
‘‘I was more wild with him for doing it than I was bloody sad for him - I thought he had more bloody sense than that, but anyway that’s the way it turned out."
Mr Woods retraced his tracks and found Mr Hayes, who had been wearing only thongs, singlet and no hat, a short time later.
‘‘He’d been curled up under a bush, so I didn’t see him when I drove past the first time, he ran out behind me, he said, then stayed on the track in case I came back.’’
Mr Woods said he was in a pitiful condition and near death.
‘‘Another hour and he would have been gone too, he was just bloody lucky he got through.
‘‘He was well and truly perished.
‘‘His eyes were like owl eyes, wide open and sunk in his head, he was flat out bloody walking and you could see his heart beating out of his chest and he reckoned he couldn’t hear anything other than his heartbeat.’’
After getting Mr Hayes into his air-conditioned vehicle and giving him water to sip on, Mr Woods drove him back to the Ethabuka homestead where he was put into a cool shower until medical help arrived.
Mr Hayes is now in a stable condition in Mt Isa Hospital recovering from severe dehydration and exhaustion.
Speaking from the family’s home in Western Australia today, Mr Pieterse’s sister Jani said: ‘‘Our family will never be the same again’’.
She said she was sure her nature-loving sibling was ‘‘doing the right thing’’ when he made the routine morning maintenance check on the bore, as he was experienced in bush environments.
Ethabuka Station, about 1600 kilometres west of Brisbane and 200 kilometres north of Birdsville, spans about 215,000 hectares in the northeast corner of the Simpson Desert.
Police Inspector Paul Biggin said it was not clear why the workers had left their vehicle to brave the unforgiving conditions without adequate water supplies.
"As to why they were caught out without water will be part of the investigation," he said.
Ethabuka Station is owned by the conservation group Bush Heritage Australia, which is helping regenerate the site after degradation caused by cattle and feral camels.
The group’s spokesman, David Whitelaw, said the men’s vehicle was fitted with a working radio, adding that Mr Pieterse had undergone safety training as recently as last week in Victoria.
‘‘We are obviously looking forward to getting greater clarification as to what occurred and what led to the circumstance where obviously Mo perished due to some heat exhaustion and dehydration,’’ he said, noting that the group had a range of safety systems in place for remote operations.
‘‘The police have identified a few key elements as to what’s occurred ... we’re keenly interested in what went wrong."
Mr Whitelaw expressed his deep gratitude to the local police and the community for their support and remembered his late colleague as a "fantastic young man".
‘‘He [was] very passionate and dedicated to his work,’’ he said.
‘‘We obviously have a work community out in the Simpson Desert, but it’s also their home, so obviously it’s a very difficult time out there.’’
One friend of Mr Pieterse, who requested not to be named, described the 25-year-old as ‘‘top bloke’’.
‘‘He was a loyal, loyal, hard working top bloke,’’ she said, struggling to contain her grief.
The South African-born station worker had spent the past year at Ethabuka Station and Cravens Peak where he was responsible for weed and feral animal management.
He spent many years living with his family in New Zealand, before moving to Australia where he worked with Greening Australia in the Torres Strait and more recently with Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service as a ranger.
The son of two environmentalists - his father was director of the Mpumalanga Parks Board and his mother was the head of the Herpetological Association in Pretoria, South Africa - he spent most of his life working and living on nature reserves with wild animals, and his favourite species, reptiles.
Inspector Biggin said the tragic incident served as a warning to those travelling in Queensland’s outback.
"Obviously out in those temperatures with 45-plus degree heat people can deteriorate rapidly without sufficient fluids and it’s important you’re able to sustain yourself until rescue," he said.
Workplace Health and Safety Queensland is also investigating the death.
The tragedy is reminiscent of the deaths of two young jackaroos from isolated outposts in Western Australia more than 25 years ago.
James Annetts, 16, and Simon Amos, 17, died in the Great Sandy Desert in December 1986 after their utility got bogged.
Their remains were found nearly five months later, but the circumstances of their deaths are still unclear.
- with AAP