Home            Lost in the Desert
 This story is an extract from the Book "A Bad Boy".
Lost in the Desert

 Work Experience


Peter was fourteen.  He and Angie were still secretly in love.  They were able to see each other every holiday, but as far as they knew the only other person who knew about their growing attachment for each other was James.  Peter sometimes got teased at school because he did not have a girlfriend, and Angie had similar teasing.  Their love for each other had given them the confidence to accept the teasing with just an inward smile.

Peter had many interests, but had not decided on a career.  He was adamant he would have a career of his own and would be self supporting as an adult, not making use of his stepfather’s wealth or growing influence, and the idea of using the special handouts available from the government because of his race, was even worse.  He knew his father had always avoided them, and his father’s father had stopped them as soon as he was old enough to have control over his life.

He was still a year ahead of his age group, and physically felt he was very backward compared with his class mates who were mostly fifteen.  He was not short, and certainly not weak, but, for example, he was the only boy in his class whose voice had not broken. James’s voice had broken at twelve, and most of his other friends voices had broken before they were fourteen. Peter wondered how much longer he would have a little boy’s voice.

Peter had been doing work experience for an engineering company in a mining town and was flying back home.  His family was waiting for him at the airport.  As usual when they went somewhere as a whole family they had brought both cars.  His mother, Sarah, now had a hybrid car which Andy had modified slightly.  He had put a second battery in and a charger so the car could be run as a plug in electric.  Then he had put solar cells on the roof.  The amount of electricity it got from these was not enough to add much to its range, but if it was parked outside in daylight it would recharge its own batteries.  Andy was seriously considering removing the engine completely.  It very rarely got used and just added to the weight of the car. It had a range between charges of about ninety kilometres.  The great majority of journeys it was used for were less than that, but the motor was available for longer journeys.  The motor was diesel, and they used bio-diesel for it.

Their house now had an arrangement of solar cells which Andy referred to as his Very Large Solar Array which generated, overall, much more electricity than they used.  The excess power was fed into the town electricity supply, and at night, when there was not enough light to generate power, they used the town supply.

Andy was still sticking to his old all wheel drive, although he was thinking about changing to a more environmentally friendly vehicle.

The plane was late and the twins were getting restless.  The arrival screen at the airport was not very helpful and they went to enquire at the information desk.  They were shown into a room where they found several other people who were waiting for the flight.

After a short delay three people came in.  One man was from the airline and another was a female officer of the Australian Federal Police.  The other man was not introduced.  They did not try to conceal the situation.  A distress call had been received from the plane, and soon afterwards all contact had been lost.  A search was already underway and there was no reason to fear the worst.  A hotline number had been established for relatives of the passengers and crew to get updates on the situation. 

“Please give your details before you leave, and pick up an information sheet which includes the hotline number.”

Andy and Sarah were devastated and the twins started to cry.  Andy had lost one son, together with his first wife many years before.  He could not bear to lose Peter.  When Sam was dying he had sat helplessly beside his hospital bed.  There was nothing he or anyone else could do.

Now was different.  Andy was not generally a pessimist, and he refused to accept Peter’s was dead.  Andy was a multimillionaire, but he would gladly give all his money and property to get Peter back.  He resolved to use all his resources and abilities to find Peter. It certainly would not be the first search he had been involved in.  While there was a chance Peter was still alive, Andy would not rest.

Sarah took the younger children home while Andy went to see a person he had met only a few days before.  When he was a teenager, Andy had joined an organisation named Mensa because his first wife had joined and managed to talk him into taking the test for the organisation, despite his belief that he would fail the test.  Because of other things happening in his life at that time he had not continued with his membership.  Recently he had rejoined, and had been attending a conference being held in his own town.  He had met a man with some interests in common with him.

Rick was also a photographer, and both had been talented chess players when they were younger.  They had quickly become friends.  The reason Andy was going to see him was that for most of his working life, Rick had been an air traffic controller and was a specialist in search and rescue.

Rick was no longer working in air traffic control, but since he had left he had done some work for the United Nations on air safety in Africa.

Perhaps he could help Andy find Peter.  He had contacts in the aviation industry that Andy did not have and would know how to help the search.  Rick agreed without hesitation to help.

Within an hour they were studying maps at Andy’s house.  They had got the maps from the internet and printed them out on one of Andy’s printers.  Rick had obtained, through one of his contacts, the actual words of the distress messages.  The first one had said that one engine had failed and the other was close to failure. The second, very short, message was a strange one.  It was very garbled, as if it had been transmitted from low altitude with hills in the way.  It had been picked up by an airliner a long way away.  They had no way of knowing the position of the transmission, and there was considerable doubt about whether it was even from the plane Peter was on. Computer enhancement had been used and the message appeared to say:

‘NO!  We can’t land there, we’ll have to ditch!’

This was a very odd message for a pilot to send, and they speculated that it had been sent accidentally and it was something the pilot had said either to himself or to someone in the plane with him.

The reference to ditching was particularly odd.  As Rick explained it suggested putting down in water.  The plane had been flying over the desert. It was a long way from water. They were examining the maps to look for a body of water a plane could have tried to ditch in.  There were many salt lakes in the large area the plane could have gone down in.  There had been no rain in the area for over three years.  It was expected all the lakes were dry.  Perhaps some had water in?

They checked the areas which water could have flowed from.  A year before a cyclone had broken up on the land and brought over six inches of rain to some areas.  They decided that this must be where the water came from, if there was any water, and they were not on the wrong track.  Rick was able to speak to one of the people controlling the search. Yes, they had considered the same things and planes had already started searching possible lakes.

Hours before, Peter had got on the plane for the flight home.  The actual work he had been doing was a bit boring, but he had learned a lot and was thinking about a possible future career in engineering.  He also was looking forward to the holiday when he could see Angie again.  Although they had been in love for several years now, they actually had done nothing of a sexual nature.  Not that Peter had never fantasised about things.

Now he was wondering what a really passionate kiss would be like.  He and Angie had kissed many times before, but their kisses had been the sort cousins give each other.  He had heard about passionate kisses from James who had had several girlfriends.  Peter wanted to try it with Angie.

Peter was roused from his day dreams by a noise and a shaking, followed by a commotion among the other passengers.  One of the propellers had stopped.

In the cockpit the pilot was adjusting the controls to compensate for the loss of the engine.  His gauges showed trouble in the other engine.  He sent out a distress message.  With the extra strain on the one remaining engine it was only a matter of time before it failed.  There was no way he could reach his destination.  There was a dirt strip much closer.  He changed direction towards it.

The controls were taking up all his attention so he could not send another message.  The engine was getting worse.  He called the stewardess into the cabin to get out his charts.  Was there a possible landing place closer than the dirt strip? She found a salt lake almost on their present course:

“Can the plane land on a salt lake?”

“If we are lucky we can.  There’s been no rain in this desert for over three years.  With luck the salt will be dry and hard. Anyway there’s no alternative. If the engine holds together we will make the little airstrip, if not we’ll land on the salt lake.  Go back to the passengers and prepare for a crash landing.”

The engine failed before the lake was in sight.  The pilot was attempting to glide to the lake, losing altitude as he went.  He did not see it until he was almost on top of it.  He had just turned on his radio to transmit a final message when he was horrified see water in the lake.  The plane was not even carrying life rafts and life jackets!  Only planes which fly over water were required to carry them.

There was no alternative and the plane hit the water.  It hit hard and was badly damaged; it would sink fast.  The stewardess was evacuating the passengers. She did not know how many could swim, but to stay on the plane was certain death while in the water they had a chance.  She managed to get everyone out and did a count.  They had had ten passengers.  Yes all ten passengers were there beside her in the water.  But where was the pilot?  She called:

“Captain, where are you?”

Peter heard an answer.  The pilot was still on the plane!  Peter started to climb back on.  The stewardess called:

“No don’t get back in; the plane will go down any minute.   You’ll be trapped.”

Peter ignored her.  He could not leave someone to be drowned.  He went into the cockpit.  The pilot was still there.  He told Peter his leg was trapped by the seat which had been bent in the crash.  Peter tried to free the pilot’s leg.  He could not move the seat at all.  Peter looked for some sort of lever to free the pilot. He could not find anything.  The plane was rapidly filling up with water.

He moved into a better position and tried with all his strength.  He still failed to move the bent part holding the pilot’s leg but he thought there had been some give.  Peter took a brief rest and prepared himself mentally. In the delay the water in the plane rose higher.  The plane was sinking.  He imagined himself to be as strong as his father.  Not that nice man, Andy Jones his stepfather, but the mighty man, his real father, Horatio Jones.

Since they had first gone to live with Andy Jones Peter had joined his stepfather in his exercises, and Andy was a fitness fanatic.  Peter was a competitive person and tried to be the best and the strongest in his class even though he was a year younger than most of the others, and a bit behind the average in development.  This was an uphill task, but Peter had worked hard and consistently.

Now he exerted all his young strength; his father could have done this task, he could do it.  He felt the seat move.  Not much but the pilot was able to slide his leg out.  He seemed to be in pain, and Peter helped him out of the plane.  They were out!  His father would have been proud of him.  Two minutes later the plane went down.

They were two hundred metres from the shore, and no one had sunk although a few were flopping around helplessly as if they had no idea how to swim or float. The stewardess could not understand it at all.  The pilot explained it to her:

“This is a salt lake.  The water is probably more salty than the Dead Sea.  People do not sink in the Dead Sea.  Drowning is the least of our worries.  The swimmers among us will have to tow the non swimmers to the shore.  I can’t do much; I think my leg is broken.”

The pilot’s leg was not just broken, it was also cut and the salt in the wound was excruciating.  He would be glad when they could get out of the salt lake and wash his cut with fresh water.

The swimmers in the group were able to tow the others to the shore and soon they were standing on the shore taking stock of their situation.  The pilot, despite his belief that his lower leg was broken, was able to stand, and even walk a little, but with considerable difficulty.

They were in the most inhospitable place most of them had ever seen. The only water visible was the salt lake, and there was almost no vegetation.  The pilot told the others a search for them would be organised immediately. He knew his first distress call had been received.  As soon as air traffic control found the plane could not be contacted, there would be planes up looking for them.

Meanwhile, they had no water and the sun was already very hot despite the early hour. The first priority was to arrange some kind of signal so a search plane would not miss them.  Some of the passengers were already discarding their outer garments and the pilot directed the others to arrange these in a pattern on the shore of the lake.

This done, they needed to find shade.  This was more difficult.  There were no trees and no convenient overhanging rocks.  The Sun was very close to vertical.  It was difficult to find even tiny patches of shade.  There were loose rocks, but to build some sort of wall to give them shade was probably beyond them and not worth the effort. They would have to stay in the sun. The sooner they were found the better; without shade or water they would be in trouble very quickly.

To give the passengers something to do, the pilot decided to take stock of any tools or useable items.  Because of security concerns there was very little.  Most things that can be used as tools can also be used as weapons, and people on a plane are not allowed to carry them.

The boy who had gone back for him suggested trying to get things from the plane. The pilot did not like the idea and ordered the boy not to do it.  They did not even know the exact position the plane went down, or how deep it was. Most salt lakes are quite shallow, but they did not know how deep this one was.  A few people tried lying in the water to keep cool.  They quickly found this did not work.  The shallow water near the edges was warm, very close to blood temperature.  It was even worse than being in the sun.

Peter decided to try to find the plane.  Before he started he gathered some rocks.  He put them in his pockets.  At least the water further out was a little cooler.  Peter swam out to his estimate of the plane’s position and dived down.  Nothing, but he did discover that the water there was about five metres deep.   Peter came up and looked at the shore.  He was finding landmarks to sight on so he could identify the point in the lake that he had started his search.

Peter swam a few strokes and dived again.  Nothing.  He was starting to realise how difficult the task he had set himself was.  After two hours of searching Peter was becoming exhausted.  He knew it would be sensible to stop.  He decided to dive once more.  This time, he found the plane.  He had been lucky.

Back on the surface he took careful sights on different rock formations so he could find the plane again.  On his next dive he actually went into the plane.  He could not see much, but was able to grab something loose. Back on the surface he saw it was a sheet of plastic.  He did not know what it had been doing floating loose in the plane, but it would be proof he had found the plane.

Peter was an excellent swimmer and diver, as well as being very fit, but on the last dive he was getting dangerously close to exhaustion.  He decided to go back to the shore and tell the others.

Peter’s news was greeted without much enthusiasm, and no one was willing to join him in another attempt to get useable things from the plane.  Peter talked to the stewardess and got the positions of the cabin stores.  He had visions of being able to get the water the plane carried for the passengers. Water was already becoming an important part of the thoughts of all the people.

Peter tried to recover from his exertions but found resting in full sun is not very relaxing.  Peter had no way of measuring the actual temperature, but he thought the temperature in the sun must be well over fifty degrees Centigrade, and it would get hotter.  The temperature in the shade was irrelevant. There was no shade.

After an hour, Peter decided to try again.  This time, with the help of his landmarks he found the plane quickly. The first thing he found was another piece of plastic.  He wondered where they had come from.  Peter was struck by an idea, and took the plastic with him.  He went back to the surface, and while he got his breath back he thought about the situation.  Of course, he had known about the much greater density of salt water than fresh water before the pilot had mentioned it.  He knew about some things floating in salt water that would not float in fresh water.  It was obvious this lake had a saturated solution of salt; the salt was visible where it had come out of solution.  The reason he had filled his pockets with rocks was to make it easier to swim down.

Peter wondered what else would float.  On his next dive, as soon as he was in the plane, he allowed himself to stay at the top.  The plane was not level, and he quickly moved towards the highest point.  This was where things would have floated to.  Yes, there were a lot of things.  Peter found cans, but his biggest find was an almost full two litre plastic bottle of orange juice.  He gathered them together, and making a bag by holding the corners of the plastic sheet together was able to bring his find to the surface.

Peter had been under water too long and rested on the surface before he made his clumsy swim to the shore.  His swim was clumsy because he was holding tightly to the corners of the plastic.  He was looking forward to having a share of the orange juice.

One thing he had brought was a quarter full brandy bottle.  There was some discussion about what to do with it. Several people wanted to drink it, but the pilot told them that drinking it would make them thirstier and it was not a good idea.  Peter said to the pilot:

“I know it would not be safe to drink under these conditions, but I think it would be useful to wash the cuts on your leg.  It will sting, but at least it will wash some of the salt off.”

This is what the brandy got used for.

This time his find was greeted with a lot more enthusiasm; the pilot took charge of sharing out the drink.  He expected they would be found soon so there was no need to keep any of it. There was little enough for twelve very thirsty people. They felt a little better after the drink.  After a rest, Peter made another trip out to the plane. He had talked to the stewardess again, and this time had some idea of how much drink the plane would have had left. It was not much, but there were a reasonable number of cans of soft drink and beer.  There had only been three bottles of orange juice and two were already empty.  Peter found another six cans and an empty juice bottle which he brought.  It might have a bit of juice left.

Over the rest of the day, Peter made several other trips out to the plane and recovered an assortment of things, including more cans.  He was unable to persuade any of the men to join him, but the stewardess came.  She was not a diver but was still helpful.  Peter brought up things and she held them.  Then they both brought them back.

By this time it was late in the afternoon, and there was no sign of a search plane.  At least the sun was lower now and they were able to get shade behind rocks.

When the sun was just going down, they heard the sound they had been hoping for all day.  It was a plane!  They all got up on their feet, and waved their arms.  Their signal on the beach was still there as well, and they had added their empty cans to it.

There had not been enough to drink for anyone, but the pilot had kept one can of soft drink for each person in case they were not found by the morning. Peter had actually had a bit more than his share.  The pilot had suggested this.  Peter had got the drink, and had tired himself doing it.  There was majority agreement.  The pilot then went on to try to bribe anyone else to go and help Peter. The pilot was worried about Peter; diving by yourself is dangerous.  He could not help because of his injured leg.  There were several apparently able bodied adults who, for various reasons felt they could not help.  The pilot tried bribery and other methods to persuade someone to go with him.  He even tried shaming them:

 “You are letting a child do a man’s work while you lie here.”

Peter did not like being called a child.  He was fourteen, even if he looked and sounded younger.  Still he appreciated the pilot’s attempt.

Certainly the sight of the search plane was a welcome relief. Unfortunately, despite their enthusiastic waving they were not seen.  The plane did not fly over them; it was mostly on the other side of the lake. Then the sun was down and night fell quickly.  The plane had gone away.

After the plane had gone away there was despondency, but some were optimistic.  Probably the search plane had returned to its base because the light was failing. Perhaps it would come to search the area again in the morning when the light was better.

Peter hoped so, but he was thirsty, and got very little sleep. Later in the night he was also cold. Desert nights can get very cold. He was becoming obsessed by thoughts of water.  Once when he was asleep he dreamed of swimming in their lake with Angie, then having some of Andy’s special fruit juice with her.  It was a nice dream.

While he was awake Peter thought about things.  What would his father do if he was here?  Peter’s father had died when he was only seven, and his ideas of what his real father was like were not realistic.  He could not really imagine what Horatio Jones would do in this situation. Instead Peter thought about what his stepfather, Andy, would do; something clever, no doubt.

Perhaps Andy would build a transmitter and radio for help.  Peter thought about how to do that.  He was very good at physics and chemistry at school. However, Peter could not even work out how to generate power.

The batteries in the plane, even if he could somehow get them out and bring them to shore, would be useless.  They had been immersed in salt water all day and their power would all have leaked out.  Peter thought about making a battery.  They had salt water which could be used as an electrolyte.  If he put two different metal plates close together in the salt water and connected the plates with wires, perhaps a useable current would flow? The trouble with that idea was that he only had one sort of metal; the metal from the cans.  Anyway, Peter thought the current would be too little even if he succeeded in making a battery.

Peter mentally reviewed the small collection of things he had recovered from the plane.  How could he make water from those things?  He thought of several ways, but had to reject most of them as impossible. Then he thought of a way that would work.  He would make a solar still!

As soon as it was starting to get light, Peter got to work.  He found a depression in the ground, covered it with the largest sheet of plastic, and put rocks around the outside to hold it in position.  Peter then lifted one side so he could work a little under the plastic.  Peter took the two empty orange juice bottles, and got salty water from the lake.  He made a lot of journeys, putting the water into the depression.  It did not matter that it soaked away.  Peter was putting enough in to make sure the air under the plastic was humid, and evaporation from the damp soil would do this.  When the sun hit the plastic, the temperature under it would get quite high.  In the next night when the place cooled, condensation would form on the plastic.

Peter was able to make a collector for this out of one of the empty cans.  He was able, with some difficulty, to cut the side of the can near the top.  Once it was cut he was able to tear the aluminium of the can, and ended up with a sort of small cup.  This he placed carefully under the plastic, and supported it with rocks around it so it could not fall down.  On top of the plastic he put a small rock so the plastic was lower where it was above the can.  Drops should form on the plastic, run down to the lowest point of the plastic, and fall into the can.

By the time he had finished, several of the others were watching him. Their attitudes varied.  Some regraded it as play by a child and took little notice.  A few, including the pilot, decided it would work, but the amount of water produced would be pitifully small.  Some of them helped Peter make more of his ‘solar stills’ using the other odd pieces of plastic. It would pass the time until they were rescued.  It was a pity the plastic was such odd pieces.  If they had got nice big sheets they could do a better job.

The pilot was hoping the stills would be unnecessary, and that they would be rescued soon.  There must be a full scale search by now.

After using all their plastic sheets making the ‘solar stills’, Peter started exploring the desert near by to find a possible place away from the salt lake to try to dig for fresh water.  He failed to find a place to dig that looked any more likely than any other to have fresh water under it, but he looked at the very small number of plants growing in the desert.  He found one that had a slightly fleshy root.  He tried eating it.  It was extremely fibrous, and certainly did not taste great, but he got a little bit of moisture from it.  Unfortunately there appeared to be very little of the plant.


Back home, Andy and Sarah had been waiting anxiously, although, as usual, Andy was not simply waiting doing nothing. The plane had not been found and Andy was exploring the possibility of hiring more aircraft for the search. Rick asked him:

“Do you have any idea what it costs to hire even one aircraft for a few days?”

“No, tell me.”

Rick told him, and Andy asked how many he thought they could get hold of. While Rick was phoning around, locating suitable aircraft in Australia and neighbouring countries, Andy was raising the ready money to pay for them.  Although Andy was a multimillionaire, the most of his wealth was in real estate.

 Getting a lot of money very quickly would be difficult from his real estate, but in recent years he had diversified his investments.  Andy contacted a friend of his in the Rotary club who was a Mortgage Broker.  He was able to arrange a very fast loan based on Andy’s assets.  Andy gave instructions to his sharebroker to sell all his shares immediately.  He also ordered all the other investments that could be turned into cash quickly to be sold immediately.  Andy was a careful man.  His wealth had been built up over many years.  Now he was going to spend it in the hope he could get his stepson back.

Michael understood what was going on and immediately offered all his money to hire aircraft to try to find his brother.  Andy’s generosity was a byword in the town.  As when he had his shop, any child who was in a walk-a-thon or similar charity event knew that if they were willing to walk or ride up the steep road to Andy and Sarah’s house they could get a sponsor as well as a drink and light refreshments.  To his own children, Andy was generous, sometimes even indulgent.  But one thing surprised people when they found out about it. Andy had never given his children any pocket money.

Instead he made it possible for them to earn money.  At first the boys sold the surplus fruit and vegetables that Andy grew.  He grew vegetables for the family, and the already excellent orchard had been improved still further.  Andy never used sprays or chemical fertilizers.  He did not call his produce ‘organic’.  He preferred a simple description of how it was grown.

When he was younger he had been a member of one of the organisations involved with the certification of ‘organic’ food.  He left because he regarded the standards, with respect to sprays, as too low. In recent years, Andy had become disturbed by the proliferation of products claiming to be ‘organic’ that people were using on their crops and then selling their produce as ‘organic’. Were some of these new products just as dangerous as other chemicals?

Andy’s produce was famous locally and the one greengrocer the boys supplied was an honest man called Mario who gave the boys a fair price for the produce. Mario had the minor distinction of being even shorter than Andy although he was very heavily built where Andy was very lightly built.

While this was Michael’s only source of income until he was nine, since then Michael’s paintings had been attracting attention.  Andy had not allowed him to sell any of them, and this had driven up the amounts people were offering for them, and Andy had been selling framed reproductions of his works.  Michael would sign them individually and they sold readily for surprisingly large sums which Andy gave to Michael.

Some of Michael’s money had been invested in long term investments, but there was nearly one hundred thousand dollars which could be accessed, so his offer was not of a trivial amount.

By lunch time there was no news.  Andy had a call from his friend, Sam O’Reilly.  Sam had been in hospital with acute appendicitis but was due out the next day.  Andy and Sarah had been visiting him each morning.  Andy explained what had happened.  Sam offered to help.  Sam had inherited a lot of money, but most of it was invested so Sam could not get it quickly.  He just got the seven figure income from the investments.  Although he spent a lot of money, he was living well within his income. He had over a million dollars available and immediately offered it all if it would help.

Andy felt he had done all he could at home and decided to join the search himself.  He did not have a flying licence.  He thought about buying or hiring a four wheel drive vehicle suitable for the desert. He decided instead to use his own little all wheel drive.  It had served him well for several years, and he knew how to drive it.  He had cushions which allowed him to see over the dashboard while still reaching the pedals.  A larger vehicle might be difficult for him to drive.

Andy got a radio, second battery and a powerful winch fitted very quickly. Andy had helped many people over the years, and now people were bending over backwards trying to help Andy.  He was not calling in favours.  Andy was simply asking in his usual polite way, and people were immediately helping.  While the fitting was being done Andy bought some things and loaded them into the vehicle.

Andy set off in the early afternoon for the area where the plane had been lost.  Andy was one of the most law abiding people imaginable although his knowledge of the law was actually very poor.  He also had a serious fear of heights as well as some fear of high speeds in vehicles and boats although he had learned to drive his fast diving boat at full speed.

Andy had perhaps never broken a speed limit before in his life.  Now he felt that the sooner he could start the search the better.  He did not put other people’s lives at risk.  He still slowed down for towns, but as he got further into the outback he drove faster and faster.  Andy would only have stopped if he had been physically restrained.  He wondered what he would do if a police officer tried to stop him.  He did not mind possible fines, or losing his licence in the future as long as he could search for his son.  But what if a police officer actually arrested him and tried to keep him.  Would he use violence and escape?

No one who knew Andy could have imagined him doing this, or even contemplating it, even in the present circumstances.  Andy simply did not know what he would do.

In fact, he was only stopped by the police once.  The officer was an uncle of Peter’s friend, James.  He knew Andy and knew the things he had done for his nephew.  When he asked Andy why he was going one hundred and eighty in a one hundred kilometres an hour zone, Andy quickly explained what had happened.  Instead of a fine, Andy got a police escort to the end of the zone that James’s uncle patrolled.  The officer had radioed ahead and the escort continued until Andy was right away from settled areas.




Peter’s cousin and secret girlfriend, Angie, was thinking about Peter. She thought about him a lot.  The holidays were starting in a week and the family was going to stay with them as usual.  Dear Peter, he was such a darling as well as being probably the strongest boy for his size she had ever met.

He really worked at his exercises.  For some reason he seemed to have developed an inferiority complex.  He compared himself with his father, but he did not really remember what his father was like.  Peter had been only seven when his father died, and over the years had come to think of his father as superman.  She had asked Peter’s grandfather about his late son in law. He had a much more realistic memory of Horatio Jones.  Yes, he was a strong man as well as a kind, generous, artistic and highly intelligent one, but he was no superman.

Peter was starting to worry that the others in his class were leaving him behind physically.  Since he was one of the best in the class at most sports this idea made no sense. Peter was wondering when his voice would break.  He was the only boy in the class whose voice had not broken.  She could not understand why he worried.  He was only fourteen, and the others were fifteen. Anyway, he had a very nice voice. She loved him with the voice he had now. When his voice broke she would still love him.  Even if his voice never broke she would love him.

Then there was the minor fiasco of the annual school sports day.  Peter was very good at sports and athletics, and was hoping to win the under fifteen overall trophy.  He always exercised a lot, but increased this to an extreme extent. Even Uncle Andy told him to take it easy.

Peter might have won the under fifteen trophy except that he had overlooked one detail.  Peter was not in the under fifteen age group.  He was in the under fourteen one.  There was no rule against competing in a higher age group, but the decision on who went in which event was made by the house captains.  They were aiming to get the maximum points.  Each individual event got equal points.  Winning an under fourteen event got exactly the same points as winning an under fifteen one.  Peter’s chief rival for the under fifteen trophy was his friend, James who was in the same house as Peter.

It did not make sense to the house captain to put both James and Peter in an under fifteen event, when by putting Peter in the under fourteen one and James in the under fifteen event they had an excellent chance of winning both. Peter pointed out to the house captain that he could put him in the event in both age groups.  The rules did not prevent this.

Unfortunately although the rules did not prevent it, there were practical things which made it difficult.  Peter was not able to go in the under fifteen long jump, which was one of his best events, because the event in the two age groups were held simultaneously.  James won the under fifteen long jump and Peter won the under fourteen event with a jump eight centimetres longer than James’s winning one.  Both had broken the school record for their age group.

Peter had been able to go in both age groups in a few instances.  He did in the one hundred metre sprint.  Peter won the under fourteen one, but not as easily as he had expected.  He had been hard pressed and been forced to go his fastest.  Later he found he had broken the school record for the event in that age group.

After winning, he had jogged back to the start to be back in time for the under fifteen race.  He was still panting when it started and not surprisingly did not win.  The house captain congratulated him on coming third.  James had come first, so their house had got most of the possible points in the event.  The house captain was very pleased.

Peter won the under fourteen trophy and James won the under fifteen one. Uncle Andy took Peter, James, and both the families to a restaurant for a celebration dinner in the last holiday. Angie’s family was staying with them so they were invited as well.  She was able to sit next to Peter.  James had brought his latest girlfriend; they all had a great time.  But Peter had failed in what he had set out to do. 

The final indignity of that holiday, at least that was how Peter saw it, although she did not understand why, was that his younger brother Michael’s voice broke.

When she got home from school her mother was looking very worried.  She told Angie:

“Peter’s plane is missing.  It may have crashed in the desert.”

Angie burst into tears.  She said:

“We must go and find him.  The plane probably just crash landed.  I can’t believe Peter is dead.  He must be lost in the desert.”

“Wait till your father gets home, we will talk about it then.”

An hour later, Angie and her father, Tom, were in the car travelling to Melbourne Airport.  They had a flight booked.  By the time they got to Peter’s house in Queensland, Andy had already left on his mad dash to the desert.

Tom and Angie flew with Sarah, her father, Michael and Rick to the small air strip that was going to be used as a base in the search.  They took part in the search as observers in the search planes.


Three Days Later 


Andy had also arrived at the dirt strip which was being used as one of the bases for the search.  Rick was studying reports of the search flights.  He was looking for the possibility that they could have missed something.  When he found a possible place, Andy would go and check on the ground.  His little vehicle covered a lot of ground.

The limited refuelling facilities of the airport had been supplemented by tankers with fuel for the aircraft and vehicles.  Tents had been erected for the searchers as well as other facilities. The whole of the likely area had been searched, and the search area had been widened, and the likely areas searched again, but so far there was no sign of the plane or passengers.

Andy got back to the airport one evening.  Sarah saw him and persuaded him to see the doctor who was standing by in the hope survivors would be found.  He asked Andy when he had last had sleep.  It was a long time ago, and the doctor gave him a tablet:

“Take this, and go to bed immediately.  It will knock you out for eight hours.  You cannot continue as you are.”

Andy took the tablet, but only slept for six hours.  Then he was up.  He went to see Rick, to see if he had worked out other possible areas to search. All the likely areas had already been rechecked, either by Andy or by others.

Rick had found a faint possibility.

“On the first day a salt lake was searched by a plane.  There was water in it, but no sign of anything.  I have talked to the pilot and both the observers. They are absolutely certain there was nothing there, but they only flew over the lake once.  They said all sides of it were clearly visible, and there was nothing there.”

“The only reservation I have about it is that at the time of the flight the sun was almost down.  The South West bank would have been in the shadow of the hills behind, and the sun would have been just above the hills.  The lake is not in one of the more likely places for the plane to come down, so, at best, this is only a very faint possibility." 
Andy noted the coordinates of the possibility and went.  He refuelled the vehicle himself, refilling the twenty litre drum of water he had used on his last trip.  The drums were in the back seat.  He kept the food and water in the back seat and the tools and reserve fuel in jerry cans in the cargo area behind the seat.

As he was about to close the door, he stepped back a little, holding the door as if he was letting someone in to sit on the small area of seat left, gave them time to get in and gently closed the door.  Andy got into the driving seat and adjusted his cushions. He stopped to wonder why he had done that at the back.  There was no one there.  To confirm this he actually looked at the back seat, no, there was no one there.

He started the engine, and as he drove out he heard, in his mind, a voice saying, ‘Go, Daddy, go!’  Andy thought the doctor was right, he had been too long without sleep, or perhaps it was an after affect of the tablet the doctor had given him.  He had just imagined that his son, Sam, had spoken to him. Sam had died many years before. Andy dismissed the incident, but somehow felt slightly more hopeful than he had since hearing that Peter’s plane was lost.  It was still dark, but the lake was a long way away.  The sooner he got there and checked it out the better.

At the lake, the people were trying to survive on the small amounts of water produced by Peter’s solar stills.  There were only eleven people left.  The one who had gone was the one the pilot had expected to live the longest. Peter had disobeyed his orders to stay and wait for rescue.  He had wandered into the desert two days ago in the hope of somehow reaching help. There was no water at all in the desert. He would have died within a day of leaving.  He was just as thirsty as everyone else; at least by the lake they had the little bit of water from the stills.

They were not much better here.  Before the end of the day, the weakest of them would be dead.

In the desert, Peter was not dead.  He also was not wandering around lost, like the pilot assumed.  He was going in one direction. The stewardess had mentioned the airstrip about one hundred and fifty kilometres away that they had been trying to reach, not dreaming he would be so stupid as to try to walk there to get help.

Andy had taught him to tell directions by the sun in the day, and the stars at night.  The diving watch his parents had given him as part of his fourteenth birthday present was still working perfectly.  The desert had no water and almost no vegetation, but Peter had found a plant that, if he chewed the root of, he got at least some moisture from.  The plant seemed to grow only at the base of a few of the harder ridges, and then only on one side of them.  Most of the ridges did not have any of it.  He would look for it as he came to each ridge, but only stop if he saw any of it.

Peter’s mind was wandering a bit, but this did not stop him from going on. He had been walking all the time since he had started.  It was cooler at night, but he had fallen down a slope and hurt his leg.  It was not broken, so the injury did not stop him.

Peter went across a long stretch of sand; it was difficult to walk through and he was glad when he reached the harder ridge behind.  As he climbed up it he thought of a bit of one of Henry Lawson’s poems. His brother, Michael, had liked the poem and recited it at home, to the amusement of the family:


‘And may good angels send the rain,

On desert stretches sandy;

And when the summer comes again

God grant ’twill bring us Andy.’


Thinking about odd things took his mind off his thirst, and made it easier to continue.  Rain would be nice.  When he died he would have a quiet word to some good angels.  However, he must have covered over half the distance to the airstrip. He could make it.  Even if he could not find any of the plant he would still do it.

When he reached the top of the ridge he saw that, after the ridge there was a small sandy stretch, followed by another ridge.  On the ridge there was an interesting mirage.  The mirages he had been seeing were the illusion of water. This type was very common in Australia.  But the one he could see now was an actual object.

Peter knew that mirages of this type are showing a real thing, but not in the place they really are.  In theory, if you go in exactly the direction the mirage was in, eventually you will reach the object.  The mirage was of a red vehicle, coming down the ridge.  It looked like Andy’s car, but it could not be.  Andy never drove like that.  He was a slow, careful driver.  He would never drive down a slope like that at the speed he was going. The driver was over revving; something Andy was always careful not to do.  In normal driving Andy’s car was quiet.  It was only if it used high revs that it became noisy.

No, it could not be a mirage.  You cannot hear mirages; they are an optical illusion only.  This must be a hallucination.  You can imagine things with any senses.  He watched the hallucination go across the sandy area as he went down the slope.  He decided hallucinating was useful.  He had got half way down the slope and had hardly noticed his thirst.

Since hallucinations are in the mind, perhaps he could change it.  He tried to imagine seeing Angie in her bikini next to their lake.  He could imagine it, but the hallucination had not changed, now the hallucination stopped next to him.  He gratefully leaned against it, but recoiled quickly.  It was a hot hallucination.  Then Andy was in front of him and passed up to him a two litre plastic bottle of water.  As he raised the bottle, he suddenly realised: ‘This is no hallucination; this is real!’

Peter’s whole body craved for the life giving liquid in the bottle, but he lowered his hand.  There was something else more urgent even than drinking.  He must tell Andy about the others.  Peter opened his mouth to tell him, but instead of his normal clear treble voice, all that came out was a hoarse croak.  Andy was looking at him in concern.  He said:

“Your throat is too dry to talk.  Drink some water and try again.”

Peter thought this was good advice and drank some water.  He tried again.  This time he did better, and the words were understandable although his voice was still very harsh.  Andy got on the radio and passed on the message:

“I have found Peter, he is all right. The other eleven survivors are on the south western shore of the salt lake, ninety kilometres North West of here.”

Andy then gave the coordinates of their present position, reading them out from his satellite navigation unit.  Peter had drunk all water in the bottle.  He hoped Andy had more.  They stayed where they were while, first, a small plane went over, and later two helicopters came.  On the radio they heard that the others had been picked up.  Sarah was on one of the helicopters, and was able to talk to her son on the radio as they flew over on the way there.  Peter’s voice had improved although it was not back to normal. 

Andy and Peter stayed waiting in the car until it was confirmed that the others had all been rescued.  They were drinking a lot of water and eating a little.  Apart from the plants he had chewed, Peter had had no food since the plane had gone down.  Andy had the air conditioner on full, and was sponging Peter’s face to cool him down. He washed the cut on Peter’s leg and put Betadine on it.

The pilot was being treated by the doctor.  He confirmed that the pilot was right; he had a fracture of the smaller bone in his lower leg.  The pilot was talking to the nurse while the doctor was making his leg more comfortable. He talked about the boy who had rescued him from the plane, then recovered the drink from the plane underwater, and set up the solar stills.  The pilot had already passed on the information about Peter through the radio that had been dropped with the food and water by the plane.

“He saved the lives of all of us, but went off to die in the desert.  It’s two days since he left so there’s no chance he is still alive.  I'm going to try to get him a posthumous award.  It might consol his family a little, knowing their son died a hero.”

Sarah answered him:

“His family will like that, but the award won't be posthumous.  I spoke to Peter on the radio on the way here. He's very much alive and recovering quickly.  He's with his stepfather; my husband.”

“He's your son?!  You must be very proud of him.”

“Yes we are very proud of all our children.”

On the way to the airstrip, Andy had gone back to his normal careful driving. Peter fell asleep and slept until they were almost at the airstrip.  He had another drink and some food.  He was indeed recovering quickly.

The search planes were already being dispersed, and not many were left. The other survivors had already been flown to the nearest major hospital.  The doctor was still there, and wanted to examine Peter immediately, but he had to wait.  Peter’s mother wanted to see him first.  One thing Andy had not told Peter because he wanted it to be a surprise was that Angie was at the airstrip waiting for him.

The kiss they gave each other was not a cousinly one.  Afterwards, Peter thought it was even better than James had told him.

The doctor saw the kiss.  Even before he examined Peter he knew there was nothing seriously wrong with him. His voice was still not back to normal and as a precaution; Peter was also flown to hospital for observation.

After they had been rescued the survivors were in great demand by the media. Some of them sold their stories. Andy and Sarah talked to Peter about this.  While Peter had no objection to the others selling their stories, he did not want to. With Peter’s approval, Andy made a contract for Peter with the local television station for an exclusive interview. The payment for this was small and was to be donated by the station to charity.

By getting the contract, Peter could now more easily refuse to talk to reporters.  When the interview was done, it was after Peter had been discharged from hospital and was in his home, with his family around him.  One of the conditions of the contract was that the interview was to be conducted by their reporter friend who had interviewed Andy several times before, with just one photographer.

Peter was able to tell his side of what had happened without boasting or implying any criticism of anyone else.




Peter had been released from hospital after two days, and now, a week later, the family was talking about what had happened.  Of course much had been said before so they had most of the story already.

They were talking about what might have happened.  Peter was saying:

“I suppose I should have obeyed the adults in authority more than I did. I disobeyed instructions at least three times.”

 Andy answered him;

“You acted on your own judgement and were always acting in the way you thought best.   It is true that in all three instances the adults were trying to prevent you doing what they thought were dangerous and foolish things.  I would be slow to condemn either you or them in the circumstances.”

Andy said:

 “Going back into an aircraft about to sink was certainly dangerous.”

“You would have done it!  It was like the time in Venice when you rescued Karl.”

Andy was forced to admit that he would have done the same as Peter had done; adding that he probably could not have saved the pilot because he was simply not strong enough to bend back the distorted metal of the seat as Peter had done. Then he said:

“Of course the stewardess did not know what a magnificent swimmer and diver you are, and she would not have known that you can hold your breath underwater for over three minutes.  Most people can’t.”

“In the second instance that you disobeyed, you went back and found the plane and then recovered some drink as well as other useful things.  Again, the pilot did not know how good you are in the water.  It was still dangerous.”

Peter said:

“But in the third case when I went out into the desert to get help, if I had stayed where I was as the pilot ordered me to, you would have reached us in a couple of hours, so I was wrong that time.”

“Well, I would have got there eventually, but it was about ninety kilometres of very difficult country.  Even if I didn’t get stuck, four hours would have been a more realistic estimate of the time it would have taken me.  If I had got stuck a few times and had to winch myself out each time it would have taken much longer.”

“After four hours, you and some of the strongest would still have been alive, but at least four people would have died. The last of the passengers were only taken off the critical list yesterday.  They will still have to be in hospital for a while.  The first plane we saw going over dropped water and other supplies to them.  This saved their lives.”

Sarah then said:

“The thing that still worries me is that it was only chance Andy found Peter in the desert.  They could have gone past each other a few kilometres apart.  What would have happened if they had?”

Andy thought about this and said:

“Well the others would have to have waited till I got there.  Several would have died.”

“Yes, but what about Peter?”

“Peter was going strongly when I saw him.  On the way back I saw a lot of the plant he had been getting moisture from by chewing the roots.  He would have continued on till he reached the airstrip. He was on the direct line between the airstrip and the lake, which I was also following.  He would have been able to see the position of the airstrip from a considerable distance.  There were a lot of aircraft taking off and landing.  Even if no one saw him as he got nearer, he would have been able to see where it was.  Even if he had missed it he would have hit the road leading to it.  There was a lot of traffic on it with the search.  He would have been picked up quickly.”

They had talked about what had happened several times before, and they all knew about the odd incident at the beginning.  Andy, for no reason, had held the back door open for a non existent person to get into a space which was too small for an adult to fit. And then had, in his mind, heard his dead son’s voice encouraging him; they also knew about the time just before they met in the desert when, in his mind, Peter had recited the little bit of Lawson’s poem, which was like a prayer.

Michael often seemed to have a slightly different way of looking at reality which was still just as valid as the normal way.  This sometimes made things difficult for him at school, but Andy tried to encourage him to think for himself.  His way of looking at things appeared to be one of the sources of his incredible creativity.

Michael said:

“Peter had asked good angels to send the rain, but perhaps there was a good angel in the car who, instead of sending the rain, sent him Andy.”

This was meant as a joke, and there was plenty of laughter.  Afterwards Andy thought about it.  He knew that at the time his mind had not been normal, and thought he had simply imagined the voice.  The idea his dead son was now a good angel who was watching his new family and helping in times of need was ridiculous.  Nevertheless he was somehow made happier by the thought.

Peter asked:

“One thing I don’t understand.  Normally you are the most cautious person I know.  You bought what was probably the most strongly built house in town. You studied the structure, identified any weaknesses, and spent a lot of effort strengthening it further.  Then you extended the underground section of the house and turned that section into a storm shelter.  The same caution is evident in everything you do, but when you found me you were alone in the car, and Mum told me that was how you were searching. This just does not fit with your normal character.”

“Yes, it is quite true long desert journeys alone are not safe.  I know my caution causes a lot of amusement, and sometimes even a little resentment.  For example I still don’t allow Michael to swim in the lake without either me or his mother, and I only allow you to swim in the lake with people I have specifically approved like James or Angie, despite considering you to be an excellent swimmer and diver, and Michael to be a very good one.”

“Many years ago I lost my wife and son.  There was nothing I could to save Sam as I waited at his bedside in hospital.  When we heard your plane was missing, I could not bear the thought of losing you.  I resolved to do whatever was necessary to find you.”

“I certainly was not in my normal mind while I was doing it.  I recognised this.  Whether I was actually insane at the time I am not sure, perhaps not quite, because although I realised I was doing dangerous things I still did not want to risk the lives of other people.  I was out without sleep for ridiculous lengths of time and driving through the desert in a totally wild way.  If someone else was with me we could not have covered anything like the same distance, and they would have been at risk.”

“I’m sorry to have caused so much trouble.”

‘It certainly wasn’t your fault the plane crashed.  The department is still investigating the crash.  They have raised the plane and brought it to the shore. The engines are being examined closely. You certainly don’t have any need to apologise.  The way we reacted is how parents do react to things to do with their children.  It is part of what it is to be a parent.  You will discover this when you are older and become a father.”

This was a minor revelation for Peter.  He liked, loved and respected his stepfather, and had no doubt Andy had the same feelings for him, but he was only a stepson and had assumed Andy’s feelings for him were not as strong as for his own, biological, children; Sam who had died before he was born, and now the twins.  Peter did not in any way resent this.  He simply regarded it as normal and logical.

He made a clear distinction between his father and stepfather.  He had never resented Andy because he did not threaten his image of his father.  This was partly because they were so different in superficial ways. Peter’s idealised image of his father was of a superman physically, but he did not give his father full credit for his intelligence.  Horatio had been an extremely intelligent man, just not an intellectual.

Andy always seemed to help anyone who was in trouble, even in rare cases where he risked his life to do it.  Naturally he would have tried to help his stepson.  Peter was not surprised about this.  The difference was that in helping people normally, Andy would retain his normal calm and methodical state of mind.  In attempting to find Peter, Andy had rapidly gone to the edge of insanity, possibly even over it.

Peter understood for the first time that Andy’s love for his children made no distinction between his stepsons and his natural children.

Peter’s voice had not returned to what it was before, and an appointment with a specialist was made.  There was a three week delay in seeing him.  By the time of the appointment it was clear that Peter’s voice would not return to the clear treble he had before.  Partially hidden by the extreme dryness of his throat which caused some considerable but temporary damage was the fact his voice was breaking.  Peter was young and his throat healed quickly, leaving him with a deep teenager’s type of voice.  Angie told him how nice his voice was and how mature he sounded.

Peter had been getting a lot of compliments recently, but the ones which pleased him the most were from his mother’s father and his father’s mother. Sarah’s father told Peter that now his voice had changed he sounded just like his father, Horatio, used to.  Peter and Michael were still in close contact with their Father’s parents.  They were lucky in having all six of their grandparents in close contact with them. 

When he talked on the phone to his father’s mother, she told him the same thing.  She said it was just like talking to her son again.

Peter and Angie were now openly boyfriend and girlfriend.  Their parents, who had guessed their secret long before, were very happy with the situation.


 Andy's Gone With Cattle
  Our Andy's gone to battle now
   'Gainst Drought, the red marauder;
   Our Andy's gone with cattle now
   Across the Queensland border.

   He's left us in dejection now;
   Our hearts with him are roving.
   It's dull on this selection now,
   Since Andy went a-droving.

   Who now shall wear the cheerful face
   In times when things are slackest?
   And who shall whistle round the place
   When Fortune frowns her blackest?

   Oh, who shall cheek the squatter now
   When he comes round us snarling?
   His tongue is growing hotter now
   Since Andy cross'd the Darling.

   The gates are out of order now,
   In storms the `riders' rattle;
   For far across the border now
   Our Andy's gone with cattle.

   Poor Aunty's looking thin and white;
   And Uncle's cross with worry;
   And poor old Blucher howls all night
   Since Andy left Macquarie.

   Oh, may the showers in torrents fall,
   And all the tanks run over;
   And may the grass grow green and tall
   In pathways of the drover;

   And may good angels send the rain
   On desert stretches sandy;
   And when the summer comes again
   God grant 'twill bring us Andy. 

  Henry Lawson