It sounds like the plot of a survival-against-the-odds adventure movie.

A married couple embark on a four-wheel-drive odyssey through the Aussie outback, only to become stranded on a remote bush track.

For three days they walk without shoes through scrub and soft sand, sleeping on the banks of a crocodile-infested river.

Just as morale is bottoming out and their skin peeling from sub-burn and insect bites, help arrives in the form of two passing musicians, who scoop them up in their troop carrier and deliver them to safety.

This is the story of Gerald and Lotti Augsburger, who have become the latest in a long line of visitors to the Kimberley that strayed too far from the beaten track and lived to tell the tale.

But emergency service agencies in the Kimberley say their ordeal was entirely preventable and more needs to be done to get the message through to foreign tourists that the Australian outback should not be tackled on a whim.

Stranded

Gerald and Lotti were staying at a hotel in Kununurra when they decided to visit the nearby town of Wyndham. On their return they made the fateful decision to take the off-road route, rather than complete the one-hour highway drive back to Kununurra.

The Augsburger's English is very limited and it was only via a translator from the Swiss embassy that they've been able to tell their story to the officer in charge of the Kununurra police station, Senior Sergeant Jack Lee.

He says it was on the notoriously boggy Karunje track that they got into strife. Unable to budge the rental four-wheel-drive, they set off on a 75-kilometre walk down the Pentecost River that they were lucky to survive.

"They obviously had no water and no food," he said. "They've pretty much lived off the land and drank from pools along the river.

"They had no camping gear and they would've been sleeping alongside the Pentecost River, which has some pretty large crocodiles in it."

Temperatures topped forty degrees as they trekked south.

Gerald lost his shoes in the water, so he resorted to ripping up his t-shirt and tying them around his feet to try to continue walking on the burning hot sand.

"They certainly are survivors," Senior Sergeant Lee says. "They did a remarkable job trekking through that environment and we were surprised they walked the distance they did."

Three days later they reached the Gibb River Road which, while still a remote dirt track, receives more traffic than the area where their car remained bogged.

Wyndham musician Damian Day was on a road trip with his fiancée when they spotted the pair.

"They stood out and waved us down and asked us for help," he said.

"They seemed to survive the ordeal well and seemed in good spirits given the circumstances.

"We had a bit of water to give them. They were pretty hungry as well."

In broken English, Gerald and Lotti told their rescuers they'd survived by walking as far as they could in the cool of the morning, then sheltering in shade during the midday heat.

"They seemed to be pretty smart about what they did," Mr Day said.

The pair were delivered safely to Kununurra and treated at the local hospital for sunburn, dehydration and insect bites.

Remarkably, their health was otherwise good and they were released within hours.

Sensible Risks

But as the story surfaced questions began to be asked about how and why they came to be stranded.

Those familiar with the region agree they should never have been on the Karunje Track in the first place.

Veteran SES officer Brian Johnson says even locals are wary of travelling down the road.

"That area is definitely for experienced four-wheel-drivers," he said.

"Parts are quite good but other parts you run into some pretty deep sand.

"If they're not experienced four-wheel-drivers, and they're not properly equipped and don't know about deflating their tyres and engaging four-wheel-drive and so on correctly, then it's not surprising at all that they got bogged."

Their biggest mistake was not letting people know their plans.

Authorities were only alerted to their absence on Sunday when their Kununurra hotel noticed they had not checked out as scheduled.

Senior Sergeant Lee says the 24-hour delay in launching a search could have been the difference between life and death.

"We didn't start searching until Monday and they'd been out there since Saturday," he said.

"We could have started searching on Sunday and had them back at home safely that night."

He says both locals and overseas travellers often fail to let people know their movements before embarking on an outback drive.

"It's absolutely critical - and this is for the locals too - that if you're going out somewhere, let someone know where you're going and when you're due back," he said.

The third mistake Lotti and Gerald made was to abandon their vehicle once they become bogged. Emergency authorities recommend that unless you are sure help is very close by, it's best to stay with your car as it's much easier for search crews to spot than a person moving through the bush.

An ongoing problem

Each year, emergency crews and volunteers spend countless hours search for missing travellers who underestimate how hostile the Australian terrain can be.

The Department of Fire and Emergency Services says it's a mix of locals, interstate and overseas travellers that run into trouble.

But SES officer Brian Johnson says it's those new to the Kimberley that make the most rookie errors.

"I've seen all sorts of people get into grief because they're really not familiar with the terrain. They're generally city folk or overseas people who just have no idea of how remote the area is and how vast the distances are," he said.

So what's being done to educate travellers that are encouraged to visit the region for its stunning outback vistas and challenging terrain?

Glen Chidlow is the CEO of Australia's North West which markets the Pilbara and Kimberley to overseas travellers.

"There is a large amount of information out there about the Kimberley," he said.

"We produce an annual holiday planner which contains a significant amount of information about safety on the roads, the flora and fauna, the do's and don'ts.

"It also covers what you should be taking with you when you do head outside of the major towns, like spare tyres and water and food and those essentials, as well as the need to let people know where you're going and where you'll be back."

But he says language can be the biggest barrier to communicating the travel risks to new arrivals.

"Language is always going to be a bit of a barrier, so the information's also available on our website in a way that you can look at it in a number of different of languages," he said.

Mr Chidlow says local hire car companies are often the last point of contact for travellers heading off on road trips and they are on board with safety warnings.

Motor Trade Association CEO Stephen Moir says conditions are included in rental car contracts to protect both the vehicles and the travellers.

"There are quite stringent guidelines put in place by the rental car companies operating in the Kimberley," he said.

"For instance, there are limitations about what type of roads they can go on.

"The old favourite of driving along Cable Beach, you'll find the contracts actually don't allow for that to occur."

But he says there'll always be tourists intent on breaking the rules.

"It's an ongoing problem," he said. "They don't allow for the fact we're in the wet season right now and that road conditions are not as good as they are in the peak dry season.

"They feel they've got a robust four-wheel-drive and it should be able to take them wherever they want to go but that's not the case."

It's a lesson learnt the hard way by Gerald and Lotti Augsburger who are resting up at the Kununurra Country Club after their three-day ordeal.

The Swiss Consulate been helping them keep in contact with their daughter back home as they prepare to fly to Darwin for the next leg of their journey.

They'll certainly have quite a tale to tell when they return to Switzerland, a world away from the heat, mosquito bites and crocodile-infested waters that unfortunately featured in their Kimberley adventure.

 

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