In May 2017 a chopper pilot was flying over a remote stretch of coastline in Western Australia when he spotted a sign made up of rocks: it was the international distress code, “SOS.” But was it the work of some pranksters, or was it a genuine call for help?
The site, after all, was extremely inaccessible. Swift Bay on Australia’s northwest coast is 620 miles from the nearest city, Broome. The nearest human habitation, meanwhile, is the Kalumburu Aboriginal Community, 75 miles east. Without a boat, a helicopter or a sturdy four-wheel-drive, getting in and out of Swift Bay is, then, a considerable challenge.
What’s more, the bay’s fierce climate – which alternates between tropical wet and dry seasons – makes it an extremely dangerous place in which to be stranded. Temperatures in the region can reach blistering highs of 112 °F in the summer. Further environmental hazards include heavy rain and cyclones.
The pilot, then, informed the authorities of what he had seen, and they immediately mounted a search operation. However, the site proved so tricky to access that Western Australia Police had to commission a helicopter charter company. They subsequently surveyed the site and its surroundings from the air but found no indication of a living human presence.
Meanwhile, a ground search of the site revealed few additional clues except that somebody might have once camped at the location. The age of the sign could not be determined, either, which begged the question – where was its maker now? Had he or she decided to leave the area, or would they return? Or had they perhaps died years ago?
With few leads, the police put out a call for information. “We’re asking for anyone, if they have any knowledge of the person who may have been in distress and may have made that sign, if they can contact us,” Senior Sergeant Peter Reeves told ABC Radio in May 2017.
Of course, the Australian Outback is notorious for its inhospitable – and, in some cases, completely uninhabitable – environment. This is one reason why most big cities in Australia are built on the coast. Venomous snakes and spiders, carnivorous animals, bushfires and the blazing sun are just some of the hazards facing would-be explorers of rural Australia.
Indeed, countless Outback horror stories recall unprepared adventurers who either vanished without a trace or barely survived some terrible ordeal. Robert Bogucki, for example, spent 43 days lost in Western Australia’s Great Sandy Desert before he was found. By that point, he had not eaten food for six weeks and had not had any water for 12 days.
However, some wrong-footed travelers do sometimes get lucky. In July 2015, in a case that resembled the mystery at Swift Bay, a helicopter pilot spotted an SOS message written in the sand of a remote beach in Queensland. It had been made two days earlier by a British tourist who had gotten lost while looking for a waterfall.
Geoff Keys, 63, had failed to find the waterfall after swimming up a creek near his campsite. However, instead of swimming back the way that he came, he decided to cut across the bush. He then promptly got lost. “It was nearly dark. I had no shoes. What was I thinking of?” he later wrote on his blog.
Fortunately, Keys’ companions back at the camp informed the police of his disappearance, and they immediately deployed a search team. After subsequently scouring the area with a helicopter, they were about to try a new location, but then they spotted the SOS sign and found the missing man. In all likelihood, Keys’ SOS message had saved his life.
Unfortunately, however, Western Australia Police were finding the case of the SOS sign in Swift Bay harder to solve. That was until they were contacted by a man called John Burn, who said that he might know the answer. “[He] actually saw an article on the BBC,” Senior Sergeant Dave Rudd told the same news outlet.
John Burn’s brother, Robert, and a female companion had actually been stranded in Swift Bay in 2013, and it soon transpired that the sign had been made by Robert after a yachting trip gone wrong. He and his crewmate, Joan, had anchored about 550 yards offshore in order to explore the bay and locate a freshwater spring, and they set out in an inflatable dinghy.
After they subsequently landed safely on the shore, the pair secured the dinghy to a rock. It was then that they saw a massive 11-foot-long crocodile heading right for them. They therefore ran to safety and began hurling rocks to scare the fearsome creature away. Unfortunately, however, the crocodile was not at all discouraged.
“He was not deterred,” Burn said in a statement to ABC in June 2017. “He went to the dinghy and tore off the back of the inflatable pontoon. It was all quite quick, and we realized we were not getting back to our little ship any time soon.”
Indeed, Burn and Joan were now stranded without food, water or any means of communication with the outside world. Luckily, then, they managed to locate the fresh spring that had drawn them to the bay in the first place. For food, meanwhile, they were able to harvest oysters during low tide.
Several days went by, and Burn built the SOS sign to draw the attention of any passing vessels, while Joan kept lookout during the shellfish forages. Both of them kept a close eye on the crocodiles, too. “After a couple days we worked out there [were] at least two of them,” Burn said in his statement to ABC.
Finally, on the eighth day, they were found and rescued. It was an emotional moment. Joan, for her part, had lost nearly 18 pounds during the ordeal. “I guess we could have survived for a month or so on the water spring and eating oysters,” said Burn. “But we would have been in poor shape.”
Burn’s advice for other travelers is “to be extremely prudent when venturing ashore in that neighborhood.” The most important thing, said Burn, is to keep a satellite phone to hand. And, having made the error of leaving his satellite phone on the yacht, he spoke from hard-earned experience.
Fortunately, though, Burn’s ordeal in Western Australia has not diminished his appetite for adventure. In June 2017 he was still yachting, this time in Turkey. Indeed, he is continuing to tick off items on his “bucket list.” And he has wisely replaced his chewed-up rubber dinghy with a crocodile-proof aluminum one.