Australia's travel ban is inspiring city-dwellers to explore the Outback, with deadly consequences

Ronan O'Connell
·4-min read
Three have died in recent weeks exploring Mount Augustus in Western Australia - getty
Three have died in recent weeks exploring Mount Augustus in Western Australia - getty

Australia’s ongoing international border closure has sparked an unprecedented domestic tourism boom to remote, dangerous destinations including a giant monolith which has claimed three lives in six weeks.

It is twice as big as Ayers Rock, is one of the country’s most spectacular natural attractions, and is key to Indigenous mythology yet, before this tourism rush, Mount Augustus in Western Australia (WA) received few visitors.

However, because West Australians can’t travel overseas or even interstate due to Australia’s harsh coronavirus laws, locals who normally would holiday in Bali or Europe are exploring the farthest corners of their State.

Travellers swarming the 2,345ft peak, which is six hours’ drive from the nearest hospital, have been caught unaware by the extreme heat and rugged terrain, with three people dying while hiking there last month.

Located 528 miles north of Perth, in the largely-uninhabited Gascoyne region, Mount Augustus is undeniably beautiful. Surrounded by gorges, creeks and rocky plains, this five-mile-long monolith is called Burringurrah by Australia’s Indigenous people, who have lived in this area for more than 40,000 years.

But it is also very dangerous due to its dry, rough environment, lack of public facilities, and extreme weather, with temperatures of up to 47C.

WA authorities are investigating the causes of death of a man in his 70s and a woman in her 60s whose bodies were found in Mount Augustus National Park on September 16.

Hikers discovered the man’s lifeless body about 45 minutes’ walk from the car park, and the woman was then located a short distance away.

Just days earlier, a 53-year-old woman had died while exploring the mountain. This month, another tragedy was avoided at this same location, when a 74-year-old woman was found alive thanks to a huge search effort. 

The woman was reported missing on the October 16 and wasn’t located until the following day after an air and land rescue operation.

One of WA’s leading remote travel experts said such catastrophes are a constant threat in the State’s most secluded locations. Jan Barrie, director of WA outback touring company Global Gypsies, said the risk of an accident was particularly high for travellers who were unfamiliar with these hostile settings.

Many travellers are unfamiliar with these hostile settings - getty
Many travellers are unfamiliar with these hostile settings - getty

She said WA’s closed borders had prompted many city dwellers to venture far further into the “outback” than they’d ever been before.

Almost 80% of WA’s population of 2.75 million people live in the capital city Perth, which has a lush environment on the edge of the Indian Ocean. Many Perth residents are unfamiliar with the parched, isolated interior of the State, Ms Barrie said.

“Every year in WA we see emergencies with foreign travellers who don’t understand WA – how hot and massive and dangerous it is – but now we’re seeing that many West Australians don’t understand these dangers either,” she said.

“City people from Perth are driving out into the middle of nowhere to sight see and some of them are not just unprepared for that environment but also probably a bit too overconfident. These areas are so harsh and really so far from anywhere that if you make a mistake it can cost your life.”

The WA Government Parks and Wildlife Service website instructs visitors to Mount Augustus that the “risks from exposure and dehydration are significant in this area”.

It warns hikers of unstable surfaces, loose cliff edges, extreme temperatures, and a lack of drinking water in the park. Visitors are advised to walk in groups of three or more, carry several litres of water per person while hiking, have a satellite phone or Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), and to inform a trusted person of their exact travel plans.

Ms Barrie said accidents will continue to occur in remote WA locations unless travellers take heed of these recommendations. She added that, across her years of running tours in isolated patches of WA, she was shocked by how often Australian and foreign tourists were not aware at the lack of internet and phone reception in these areas.

Ms Barrie said tourists keen to explore such remote regions for the first time should either join a guided tour, or travel alongside a friend or relative with experience of navigating the Australian outback.

“It’s called the outback for a reason – there are no facilities there, no way to easily contact people, and no one just waiting by to save you if you get in trouble,” she said. “So tourists really need to study the dangers before they go, and also practice camping and driving close to Perth a few times before setting off into the outback.”