Between two senior politicians and three journalists, none of us knows how to make it work

That’s a direct quote from Tony Abbott with respect to the satellite phone that nobody could make work during the few hours his party spent out of contact in the remote Northern Territory while waiting for his local guide, pastoralist Ian Conway, to return from a “quick” sidetrip earlier this week.

He also acknowledged that his party did not have enough fuel or water for their own safety in the event that Conway had not returned to them at all. Great leadership skills there, Tony.

I realise that he’s far from the only tourist who relies entirely on the professionals/local experts to look after them instead of taking some basic steps for their own safety independently. But I for one would never consider going into the desert without checking that the party as a whole had plenty of spare fuel and water supplies, and without asking for some instruction in using the satellite phone that was the only form of emergency communication (not even a GPS emergency beacon? for a trip to the desert with quadbikes that are notoriously prone to mechanical failure?) They set off without even a compass, which is an astonishing failure in the bush safety department.

The media narrative over the last few days has been remarkably replete with Abbott the Adventurer articles and astonishingly bare of Lost In The Political Wilderness articles. Why is that, I wonder?

There’s also been a notable lack of any articles discussing the breathtaking irresponsibility of Ian Conway, who was leading the party. The heading of this article from Paul Toohey in the Herald Sun is quite disgusting: Tony Abbott lost in the outback for hours after being abandoned by traditional Aboriginal guide. The fact that Conway was the one who wanted to go looking for pitchuri (a bush narcotic) and took “traditional Aboriginal” Junior Impu (who was NOT a guide, being from a different part of the country) with him for that purpose is utterly disappeared in that headline. (addit) While Conway himself is of indigenous descent, he does not appear to be considered a tribal elder of any sort and could hardly be described as a “traditional aboriginal” either.

Since Conway is also described as “somewhat of a force of nature” in Toohey’s text (I believe most people refer to folks like that as “stubborn hothead arses who never listen”), why doesn’t that headline read “Tony Abbott lost in the outback for hours after being abandoned by conservative pastoralist guide”? Does anybody paying attention really think that it was Impu who kept them looking for the stuff for more than two hours when Conway’s original estimate was 20 minutes? The whole story shows Conway pushing the party beyond the halfway point of their fuel reserves in search of what he wanted, in a place that he had apparently not been in 30 years and where nobody else in the party had ever been at all.

It was getting onto six pm and Anselem expressed concern that if Conway was not back soon, we’d have trouble finding our way back to the truck in the dark. He said he could find our way back if we needed, but only by following the tracks we’d come in on.

But there was not enough fuel in the quads to do this. We were relying on Conway, who said he knew a short cut to the truck.

Conway also left Abbott and the others with no water, telling them that they would find water nearby along the creek, but without checking to see that this was true (it wasn’t).

The general level of tactical nous in the party did not improve once Conway and Impu returned. Conway raced off to try and find their tracks on his larger bike, making no attempt to keep the party together. Toohey describes Abbott as making an effort along these lines, racing ahead to tell Conway to slow down so that they could all follow him, but there’s one glaring opportunity for the party’s safe rescue that the man who would be PM failed to recognise:

Conway, who did know how to use the sat phone, could have rung Kings Creek and told them we’d be late. He did not think of this. Nor, truth be told, did anyone else. (emphasis mine)

Hm. I’m taking a lot of what Toohey wrote with a large dose of salt, naturally. After all, he wrote (as if this is something everybody would know), that helicopters can’t fly in the dark.

The plan – not much of a plan – was to ring Kings Creek station and tell them where we were. The only problem was we did not know where we were.

We also knew Kings Creek had a chopper. Another plan was to ring them and get the pilot to drop off, in order of priority, red wine, water, blankets and food. But we could not give the pilot directions – and, besides, helicopters cannot fly at night.

And there was another problem. We could not work the phone.

I must be imagining the night skies near Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney International Airport then. And all those fugitives running at night from helicopters with searchlights in television and movies. Those whirlybirds certainly do seem to be flying, in the dark, but of course they can do all sorts of tricks in movies. [/snark]

In all seriousness, I presume that Toohey meant that there was some reason (which he didn’t care to share) that this particular pilot/helicopter combination couldn’t fly at night over that particular terrain, but that’s not what he wrote, and such a lack of clarity and precision on something as obvious as the fact that helicopters demonstrably do fly at night all over the world doesn’t give one much confidence in his perspicacity on much else, does it?

Someone at the Herald Sun should officially retract that disgusting headline. Going by normal newspaper procedure, it was almost certainly a subeditor who gave the article that headline rather than Toohey himself, but it’s still an appalling misrepresentation of the facts as he laid them out, and it’s a terrible (actionable?) slur on Junior Impu.

Categories: media, Politics, technology

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11 replies

  1. This piece of advice is from Phillip Greenspun who runs a helicopter pilot training school.

    Don’t go anywhere at night that you haven’t been to a lot of times during the daytime.

    I would assume that this is why the pilot couldn’t fly at night.
    The slur on Junior Impu is just disgusting and the paper should print a retraction.

  2. My father has spent forty years flying mostly rotating-wing aircraft and teaching others to fly them for a living. He’s kind of a nerd (gosh, you’d never have guessed with me being his daughter, amirite?) and likes to talk about his work. I’ve been in small fixed-wing and rotating-wing aircraft and it’s lots of fun. Oddly, in these I don’t have the same anxiety/fear/vomiting I do with airliners. Maybe it’s the crowding and not being able to see. Anyway!
    Darkness is an adverse weather condition; like fog and rain and snow it makes it hard to see. Reduced visibility makes things difficult. Being unable to see the ground makes maintaining level flight difficult: humans turn out to be pretty much unable to tell when they’re flying at a list or upside-down without visual indicators. Which is why aircraft have instruments. Like an artificial horizon, and a compass (and/or GPS display), and an altimeter. It takes training and practice to use them.
    And many helicopters have searchlamps mounted under the nose that the copilot can use to illuminate stuff on the ground. Which helps in avoiding trees and suchlike.
    .-= kaninchenzero´s last blog ..Re: Trust Me =-.

  3. I was struck at the outset of the story, before I even got to the bit about no water and nobody having so much as a light jacket, by the part about hooning around on quad bikes in the remotest outback with no apparent semblance of an emergency plan – and, given that they were travelling without enough water, they likely had no medical supplies of any kind either. What exactly were they planning to do in the event of a (very very common with quad bikes) spinal injury or head injury or major fracture?
    And I can well embrace the idea that Abbott might be exactly this ignorant and careless, but did no-one in his office raise the issue of outing planning either? A fool who surrounds himself with other fools is a particularly dangerous political prospect.

  4. Dare I say it, someone like Kev who was a bit nerdy might have been a bit… useful!
    We’re used to helicopters at night in Melbourne; the cops use them to track “offenders”.

  5. Unfortunately the media is spinning this bush jaunt as a funny story about Abbott. I fear nobody sees what a dangerous, thoughtless person he is.

  6. I just asked my kid what he would do if he was stuck in the desert with only a satellite phone. “Call an ambulance, and ask them to bring sandwiches when they come,” he said.
    Verdict: Prime Ministerial candidate officially less smart than a second-grader.

  7. Did you tell him that the potential PM couldn’t work the satellite phone, and neither could any of the other adults there? (And slightly O/T, how come their innate biological gendered affinity with gadgets didn’t kick in there?) [/snark]

    • I’ve never been near a SatPhone. I took a look at an online instruction manual for a popular model and it doesn’t seem that complicated – the menu offers Network Selection and you choose either Satellite or Cellular mode, and then you attempt to register a satellite network and check for signal strength. If there’s no signal from an available satellite, you wait a few minutes and try again to see if another satellite has come into range. Keep trying every few minutes until you get a signal.
      This was exactly what I was expecting, so would have been what I would try were I out bush and attempting to use one for the first time. Surely they got at least as far as choosing Satellite mode? I bet they just didn’t understand that there has to be a satellite above the horizon before you will get a signal. If just one person in the party had understood that satellites MOVE and that just like buses another one will be along shortly, they would have been able to place a call eventually. They just didn’t have that basic knowledge, or the patience to keep on trying every 5 minutes until they got a signal. So they couldn’t make it work.

  8. *headdesk* *headdesk* *headdesk*
    This person thinks he can lead a country?
    And ZOMG that article is full of fail, even apart from what you’ve put in, tigtog.
    Just two examples that I think show how irresponsible the tourists seem to have been:

    We had no food. No beer.
    [emphasis added]

    ’Cos, you know, that’s what’s important…

    Another plan was to ring them and get the pilot to drop off, in order of priority, red wine, water, blankets and food.

    Being lost in the desert is no fucking joke, Toohey!

  9. Jo Tamar that’s the other stuff that bugged me – it seemed a big chance to grand-stand over how blokey and Common People they are…there was a quote in one of the articles I read about it citing Abbott crapping on about wanting someone to bring beer, water, blankets…but most importantly beer. That sort of ‘No really….maaaaate, we’re all men here, I’m not *really* a fundamentalist – BEER unites us all and is more important than anything’ crap has been bugging me a lot lately.

  10. Yeah, that has been getting to me, too.
    The other thing that really got to me, which I’ve just worked out how to articulate fairly briefly and in a way that distinguishes the point from what tigtog has already said, is the whole “mystical native” thing that’s going on throughout the article (together with a sort of put out tone from Toohey because the Aboriginal people didn’t live up to the “mystical native” stereotype):

    The traditional owners were not much help. They had never visited this part of their country.

    Abbott said to Anselem: “So mate, where are we?”
    “F***** if I know,” said Anselem.

    Terry Mills said the Aborigines did not eat [camels] because they had carried the three wise men. I asked Anselem about this.
    “Three white men?” No, wise men.
    “Nah, not because of that,” said Anselem. “We used to ride on camels when our grandfathers was alive. That’s why we don’t eat them. We feel sorry for it. That’s why we don’t eat them.”

    With a bit of “Aboriginal people are lazy” thrown in:

    The Aboriginal men in the party had no interest in walking up the creek bed. They sat in the shade near the quads. Asked if they knew this country, Hubert said no.

    (Personally, I think sitting in the shade near the quads sounds bloody sensible.)

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