'Thought we would die': Couple's outback ordeal trying to avoid Covid borders

Josh Dutton
·News Reporter
·3-min read

An Adelaide couple are lucky to be alive after they became stuck in remote South Australia while trying to return home from Far North Queensland during coronavirus lockdown.

Nicky Wong, 32, her fiancé Jose Merlos, 29, and their Dalmatian Loki, became bogged on an outback road near Innamincka in South Australia’s northeast on January 3 in their Toyota Rav 4.

The couple had decided to take a detour to avoid driving through NSW as states closed their borders during the Covid outbreak around Christmas time.

Instead, they entered South Australia through the remote northeast corner following advice from a fellow traveller.

Jose, Nicky and their dog Loki became stranded on their journey from Cairns to Adelaide. Source: Royal Flying Doctor Service
Jose, Nicky and their dog Loki became stranded on their journey from Cairns to Adelaide. Source: Royal Flying Doctor Service
The couple left this note behind in an attempt to get help. Source: Royal Flying Doctor Service
The couple left this note behind in an attempt to get help. Source: Royal Flying Doctor Service

But their car became stuck and they had no luck calling for help.

Mr Merlos said the couple decided to leave a note saying they had walked to Innamincka.

“It was so hot, and we were scared. I thought we were going to die,” he said.

The couple walked 40km and left SOS notes in the sand. Such was the heat and lack of water in the area, Mr Merlos turned to drinking his own urine along with dirty water he found.

Ms Wong couldn’t stomach doing the same, and began falling weak, struggling to walk.

Another of the notes left behind by the couple. Source: Royal Flying Doctor Service
Another of the notes left behind by the couple. Source: Royal Flying Doctor Service

Mr Merlos said the pair “hardly spoke” as their mouths were so dry. He was also worried his partner “wouldn’t make it”.

“I had to beg her to keep walking,” he said.

SOS scratched into the ground

They spent two days without food or water until they encountered a Santos worker named Craig working at a satellite station nearby.

Craig had seen the SOS notes written in the ground and a number of handwritten ones from the couple.

Mr Merlos said Craig informed the couple he only took the road once every six weeks and Innamincka was 25km away.

One note was found being weighted down by a screwdriver. Source: Royal Flying Doctor Service
One note was found being weighted down by a screwdriver. Source: Royal Flying Doctor Service

Royal Flying Doctor Service nurse Chris Belshaw was part of the crew that tended to the couple at the service’s remote clinic at Innamincka.

He said the couple survived the ordeal in surprisingly good condition which he credited to their strong relationship.

“They were really, really good. They were a tight-knit couple and they kept each other going,” Mr Belshaw told Nine’s Today program on Friday.

“Jose was trying to lift Nikki up and push her forward to keep her going. The two of of them managed to survive due to good resilience and a really good solid relationship.

The couple wrote a giant SOS in the dirt. Source: Royal Flying Doctor Service
The couple wrote a giant SOS in the dirt. Source: Royal Flying Doctor Service

Any hotter and they would have perished

If it had have been the usual 45-degree day while the couple were stranded, Mr Belshaw said he had no doubt they would have not survived.

“In those temperatures, if we had the normal ones of 45 degrees, I believe they would have perished. Luckily those days it was only in the high 30s, so they were able to survive a little bit longer,” he said.

He urged those planning an outback trip to keep regular contact with people, have a well-planned route and phone ahead to authorities and accomodation to let them know when to expect your arrival.

Travellers should also ensure their vehicle is up to the job, and that they’re well equipped with tools, food, water and a first aid kit, and not leave their vehicle if they get stuck.

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