Desert death: 'The mind does pretty funny things'
It's vast and empty. The searing heat saps strength and mental capacity.
Without shade or water a human does not last long in the Simpson Desert.
You get so hot once you get overheated like that you can't think straight and you don't know what you're doing
Mauritz 'Mo' Pieterse, 25, perished less than 12 hours after becoming stranded in the desert, on Ethabuka Station, on Monday.
Ethabuka Station is in the heat-baked remote "corner country" of Queensland. Photo: Google Maps
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.
Mr Pieterse and his 30-year-old co-worker, Josh Hayes, set out from Ethabuka Station about 8.30am, 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 made the fateful decision to head for the homestead on foot, but they did not have enough water for the long journey in temperatures that reached 45 degrees.
Mauritz 'Mo' Pieterse, as shown on his facebook page.
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.
Had the men stayed with their air-conditioned vehicle, sought shade and conserved their energy, Mr Vroomans said the 25-year-old station hand may have survived.
But even the most experienced bushman can be overwhelmed by basic survival instincts, he said.
"People often find themselves in a stuck situation and they are overcome with this urge to go for self-rescue, instead of staying by the vehicle," Mr Vroomans said.
"The mind does pretty funny things.
"We as humans are very social animals and as soon as we're away from society, this amazing urge takes over that we need to get back to society."
When the men didn't return to the homestead by nightfall, others set out looking for them.
Greg Woods, from neighbouring Carlo Station, set out shortly before dark. Even at that late hour, the heat from the sand is so intense that driving through the dunes comes with a high risk.
He 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, a 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 said. "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 said.
"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."
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 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.
Mr Hayes is recovering from extreme dehydration and heat exhaustion in Mt Isa Hospital.
Speaking from the family's home in Western Australia yesterday, 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 maintenance check on the bore, as he was experienced in bush environments.
Ethabuka Station is owned by the conservation group Bush Heritage Australia, which is helping to 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 and added that Mr Pieterse had undergone safety training as recently as last week, in Victoria.
"He [was] very passionate and dedicated to his work," he said of Mr Pieterse.
"The police have identified a few key elements as to what's occurred ... we're keenly interested in what went wrong."
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.