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Black Roads, Dark Highways - 2

Killer Outback, Outback Killers

(Originally appeared in "Black: Australian Dark Culture Magazine #3)

It is a widely rumoured fact that the Outback is nothing more than an enormous touristic black-hole, sucking in tourists and backpackers to their doom. Giant razorbacks and baby-eating dingoes patrol the scrub. Man-eating crocs own every billabong. Unshaven killers in blue singlets and flanno shirts line the highways, thumbs outstretched for a ride, gaffer-tape and hunting knives tucked neatly out of sight in the waistband of their stubbies.

But most of us sit safe along the coastal fringes with our air-conditioning and manicured lawns. We watch Ernie Dingo on The Great Outdoors and, one panoramic shot of the Olgas later, we're all piled into the Commodore on our way across the Stuart Highway with nothing more than a slab of VB and our AC/DC collections to keep us company.

Tourists from overseas are just as ill prepared. They've see the advertisements and Steve Irwin documentaries on their cable channels. Before you can say throw another shrimp on the barbie, they're packing their loud shirts for a hiking trek to Uluru. When they go missing a few weeks later its the relatives back home who'll be shouting ­where the bloody hell are ya?­

But what are the facts?

Around 35,000 people are reported missing in Australia every year! A staggering number... and yet, 95% of those persons are found, usually within a week. And by found, I mean found alive.

So, what of the other 5%?

A good proportion of them are found too, it just takes a little longer. Often this is because they don't really want to be found in the first place. In the end, statistically, only a very small number of people actually go missing in the Outback.

If you do get lost in the Outback and you're very lucky, you'll picked up by a passing truckie or stumble across a small town or station. If not, you'd better hope someone back home notices you're gone. If you've left enough clues, they just might be able to find you.

If they don't, the alternatives are quite horrendous to contemplate.

The human body can last around 3 weeks without food. Only 3 days without water. If you're stuck in a stony desert topping 40ºC you've probably got a little less than that - and dying from thirst is probably one of the most gruesome ways to go.

First come headaches, dizziness and stomach cramps. Your urine will become a dark, concentrated, and increasingly rare drizzle. Your skin will shrivel and wrinkle like old parchment. You might become delirious, or suffer seizures. Your tongue will swell until it feels like a dry old sock shoved down your throat and, eventually, painfully, you will die.

But don't let me discourage you. Not everyone who goes missing in the Outback gets there by way of their own stupidity. There are still a few cases that can't be classed as 'Death by Misadventure'.

Generally those left over cases fall into one of two categories: Unsolved, or Murdered.

Of the unsolved cases there is not much we can surmise without entering the realms of fantasy.

The murder cases?

I'll begin with Mark Jeffries – bushranger, serial killer and cannibal. In the early 1820s he escaped from a convict prison in western Tasmania. Known to have murdered and eaten at least four people, one of whom was an accomplice. He later kidnapped the widow of one his victims, and killed her five-month-old baby by bashing its head in against a tree. Jeffries was captured in 1825 and executed at the old Hobart Gaol a year layer.

Then the 1976-77 murders of seven women in bushland near Truro in South Australia. In 1977, the alleged perpetrator died in a car crash along with a woman who most probably would have been his next victim. Thus, the Truro murders ended before the first body was discovered by bushwalkers in 1978.

And who can forget the two 'real life' inspirations for the film Wolf Creek?

For a time in the early 90s, no backpacker was safe. In Belanglo State Forest the bodies of two male and five females were discovered in shallow graves. Ivan Milat was eventually arrested and charged with those murders in 1996. Once he was caught the tourism industry ramped up the advertising and, before long, the Youth Hostels were full again.

Then in 2001, along came the Peter Falconio case.

The Falconio case has stayed at the forefront of the world's collective image of outback dangers ever since. If there is one Bradley John Murdoch out there on the desert highways, how many stalk that huge expanse? 1 serial killer for every 500 square kilometers? 1 for every 1,000 backpackers or tourists?

But how do you protect against your fellow human in a situation like that? Do you ignore the stricken hitch-hiker when they're in that landscape? Do you drive past the broken down 4WD and tell yourself they don't really need your assistance? Is everyone out there a killer?

I'll leave those moral dilemmas for you to answer for yourself while you're out there exploring Australia's dark and dusty highways.

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