Police believe the Page family of five died of thirst on Boxing Day 1963, surviving only 48 hours after they walked away from their Ford V8 and trailer on Christmas Eve near Deadmans Sandhill. They thought the Pages' had exhausted all of their spare fuel in overcoming several earlier sandbogs along the Birdsville Track and missed a vital signpost when driving blind during a severe sand storm, but locals denied any such storm had occurred in the vicinity.
Neighbouring station staff and mail drivers believe the signpost (to Clifton Hills) was ignored by Ernie Page when he came upon the turnoff at dusk. He elected to carry on, confident he had the ability to reach Birdsville safely. Although meteorological observations recorded "widespread dust in suspension" for Monday 16th December over Birdsville, which was leapt upon by newsmen, locals doubted "very much" that would have caused the tragedy.
Mr CJ (Jimmy) Dunn of Kalumurina Station on the Warburton below Clifton Hills said later that he came across the Pages' bogged tracks on the Ooroowilanie sandhills, about 190km from Marree, on Sunday 22nd December.
They seem to have lost two days, using up precious petrol getting out of a series of sand-drifts there, he observed. Jimmy Dunn, who also doubled as the Marree butcher, was not alone in respecting the hazard,
"I've often taken two days to get through the Ooroowilanie sandhills," said Tom Kruse, quoted in John Maddock's 'Mail for the Back of Beyond' (Kangaroo Press 1986). "I've seen it blow all day, stop at sun-down and re-start in the opposite direction at midnight."
The Page family got going again but on Saturday 21st December, with temperatures rising to 50°C, the first of a series of telling decisions caused them to forego calling in to Clifton Hills altogether, despite the advice of Noel Glass, the mail truck driver who had taken Clifton ringer Robert Page to his surprise family meeting earlier, at the Coopers Creek Crossing. It was dusk when the Pages' decided to strike out for Pandie Pandie, leaving Clifton in their wake.
Other Parties Made the Same Detour Lately
Noel had impressed upon Ernie that he should make a minor detour upon leaving Clifton Hills and so avoid bogging due to the recent local rain. Young Robert Page was aware that the station folk were making this detour over the past few days and would have echoed Noel's clear instruction to his father that he was to take the outside track for about six kilometres, then turn left where he saw the fresh tracks divert. He should then go on to meet up with the inside track, which had escaped the rain and would afford them all an easy straight run to Pandie for a camp overnight and then on to Birdsville in the morning.
Easier said than followed. Ernie won most arguments he engaged in and so blithely motored on, heading East Nor' East along the rarely used outside "wet" track for much further than was prudent, into the night.
Gibbers Damage the Customline's Gear Selection
The Page Family were skirting the Goyders Lagoon flood plain in darkness, with no hope of holding to the poorly defined track. Suddenly, they were running on gibbers, entering Sturts Stony Desert. Mile after mile of unforgiving gibbers - hard, dense, sunbaked-red lumps of ironlike stone everywhere, allowing nary a wheelprint to show for their progress, which they would have noted with some alarm when finally they sought bearings in the morning. Where had they been? Where were they now? On the first day out from Clifton and only a day away from Birdsville, the Page Family might as well have been on Mars.
Worse was to come. Gibbers thrown back by the front wheels had bent the makeshift bar beneath the car which Ernie used to change gear from the driver's seat. Although it was an automatic gearbox, it was jammed by the bent bar and stuck in second gear, which meant lost or found, if he couldn't reshape the bar they would use up too much fuel to have a chance of reaching Birdsville. Sunday, 22nd December came - another excruciatingly hot day to suffer. Amongst his tools, he had a shifter. Ernie must have tried desperately to straighten the bar in the heat of the day to limit his waste of precious fuel.
Reaching the Point of No Return
Perhaps it was Robert who realised they were heading more east than they should be, burning up petrol and tempers and travelling further off the Birdsville Track. The sun shone mercilessly through the day and Ernie chose as his best chance of survival, to regain the track and return to Clifton Hills. The family may have agreed to stick by the car and drive by night, that fateful Sunday. Not an easy task with emotions running high; a fearful mother and younger children pressuring Ernie as panic surged noisily, quickly surmounting reason. The "point of no return" was imminent. All the while, second gear drained the fuel tank.
Jimmy Dunn knew on this day there was a lone vehicle further up, taking on the Birdsville Track, but could not have imagined the series of disasters that was overtaking them nor how deeply imperilled they were becoming. Their luck would not have changed, even if Jimmy had got on the radio to warn Birdsville that travellers at risk were heading their way.
In daylight on Monday 23rd December, Ernie surveyed his prospects. Out of petrol altogether, they had come to a halt overnight. Not a skerrick of fuel left and the last of his jerrycans of water empty. Looking about, he could see they were free of the gibber country and back on the floodplain but with no sign of tracks marking the road. He was never to learn they were cruelly lost at the appropriately named Deadmans Sandhill.
Ample Water at Turkeys Nest
Within view was the windmill belonging to Turkeys Nest Dam (Wirripirie, pronounced by the locals "Wirrapilly") and they struck out for it on foot, three kms distant. The father and eldest son walked there carrying a four gallon drum and on the way, testament to their poor condition and rapid recognition of their approaching doom, shot the distressed dog to spare it further agony and partly buried it in a sandhill. Their cat had hours before decamped into the night.
Ernie filled the drum with water from the bottom of the soak and with a stick through the handle and one man each side, carried the water back to the car, not mentioning the loss of the family pet to the others. Two 44 gal drums filled with better drinking water and left for use of station ringers when working in the area, went unnoticed.
Life-giving Water Can Be Undrinkable
When people are at risk of dying of thirst in extreme temperatures, very hot or very cold, there is a dilemna to overcome. Any water they find to drink can be inexplicably unpalatable, strange as that may seem. One of the survivors of an airplane crash in the Andes who sustained themselves by eating the flesh of their dead companions (Miracle in the Andes Orion 2006), author Nando Parrado explained the quandary this way:
"People always want me to talk about the hunger, but the thirst and the cold were much worse for me. Our lips were cracked and bleeding and every drop of cold water was painful to drink."
Hold Back on Slaking That Thirst
The night-time temperature at Birdsville was 104°F while the search for the Page family was going on, prompting Sgt Dowling from Port Augusta Police to declare,
"We had plenty of water while we were out there, but this doesn't mean you can drink it. It gets so hot you can't bear it in your mouth - it gets just as hot in the waterholes, too."
Experienced bushmen, skilled in the dangers to be faced in the Australian outback, advise those unfortunates they might find suffering from exposure to rehydrate cautiously. While the natural impulse is to seize the water bag and swig it down, commonsense denies them the bag for they'll immediately regurgitate what they drink, so instead, the canny rescuer will take the time to light a fire and boil a billy, enough to make scalding hot cups of tea laced generously with sugar and force the victim (or victims) to sip from the cup until they can stand drinking it, before trying to retain draughts of cooler, fresh water.
Hospital "Galah Session" on 8XR Birdsville
The perish of the Page family was by this time inevitable unless they were to be discovered imminently and rescuscitated. That they failed to call in on stations or advise people of their travel plans, was merely careless, not critical, in view of the fact that the normal radio network and the "galah sessions" along the track that could have saved them, was disfunctional owing to the absence of listeners on Christmas holidays. That no one in a position to help them actually knew who they were, where they were going or which way and when they should get there, is also problematical.
The Pages' managed to keep two days or more in front of any likely saviours. Ernie kept his family together with him by the Customline for a further two days. It didn't occur to him to rig up the tarpaulin on the trailer and shelter from the relentless heat of the sun. Summertime temperatures often took until 2am to dissipate and it was little comfort after a few hours' relief to find the heat rising again. They lay by the vehicle all that day Monday, moving only to seek shelter behind the car as the sun dictated. On through the night, they lay, tortured by the sweltering temperature with not a breath of breeze. And Christmas Eve came to greet them with another scorcher of a day.
It became intolerable to just lie there any longer. They determined to walk back to Clifton Hills that evening. Ernie wrote the fateful mis-spelt note, stuck the carkeys in his pocket and they went off, finally abandoning their only water a short distance away from the car after finding it too burdensome to carry in their weakened state.
"The Page Family of Marree. Ran out of petrel. Have only sufficent water for two days. December 24th."
Eric Sammon's Mobile Headquarters
The car with trailer still attached was found about 60km south west of Pandie Pandie station on Sunday, 29th December. A driver from Copley, Phil McKenzie, out delivering rations for the rabbit camps and collecting rabbits to take back to the chillers in Copley and Lyndhurst, came upon the vehicle. Lost as well but in no personal danger, having 44gal drums of petrol on board, McKenzie was heading for Clifton Hills to reorientate himself (in those parts it was said "all roads lead to Clifton"). He found no sign of the occupants and checked the tank was empty, finding the radiator was OK for water. Their unused water drums lay several hundred metres away. He assumed the water was too heavy to carry for long and therefore abandoned. No amount of preparedness could have helped them once they had lost the good sense to stay with their vehicle.
It was a local effort that resulted in the discovery of the bodies under a coolibah tree by Deadmans Sandhill between Beckwith Swamp and Koonchera Waterhole, the scene of an 1880s massacre by the Qld Native Police and about 90km from Birdsville. For two days the Pages had wandered 30km on an otherwise 20km straight walk back towards Clifton Hills and then desperately doubled back another 20km west from where they left the car, in a rarely travelled part of Australia. Under extreme distress, the two younger Page boys had discarded most of their clothing.
Birdsville police Sgt Eric Sammon gathered his resources together once the alarm was sounded by Clifton Hills and finally after another dreadful, inexplicable delay the news was broadcast on Tuesday, 31st December over the AIM radio net. Eric Sammon commandeered a couple of the radio-equipped LandRovers CGG left parked by the Birdsville airstrip, for use on the search.
The Last Hurrah for the Search Party
Jack Clanchy owned the pocket cattle station near Bedourie called Kamaran Downs. He was among the local pastoralist/flyers mustered by Sgt Sammon to help find the Pages. No one was to know they had already perished a week ago and of course that possibility was no deterrent to the searchers. An RAAF Dakota DC3 flew up from Edinburgh RAAF Base in Salisbury days too late into the search but Kron Nicholas of SAATAS, the CGG pilot, came across in urgency from his Oodnadatta base to join in as soon as he heard. What could have been achieved had the CGG seismic crew and their strength of 45 men been available, cannot be considered as being vital due to the poor communications throughout the back country distances at the time.
There was little joy on the first day. Ground parties had no luck at all and there had been no sign of the distressed family from the air until at the end of the second day when Jack Clanchy, who had already flown over the spot several times, went back to have a last look at sundown. Jack's experienced observer was George Morton from Pandie Pandie. It was said George knew every dead bullock's bones in that area, even though it was Clifton Hills' property where they died. Had Jack flown one hundred yards to one side, they would never have seen them. Even more disastrous was the fact that those in the aircraft could see a lagoon twenty yards long, leftover from recent rains about eight kilometres away from where the bodies lay.
CGG Desert the Desert on Xmas Leave
Four bodies were spotted under the tree. Three were sheltered by the branches and the fourth, that of a small boy, was lying a few feet away in the open.
The ground party found food beside the bodies, but no water. They collected however, a discarded pair of ringer's boots, distinctive RM Williams' with cuban heels, which indicated Robert might be nearby. Trackers determined that Ernie and Robert led Mrs Page to the shade of the coolibah from which she never left and found that Robert had taken the two young boys away from the tree, with the ringer boots going out and then bringing the boys back to the tree again, with the father.
It was not until the next morning that his employer Fred Wilson, who had come down from Birdsville to help on the search, came upon the bootless body of Robert half-way up the side of a dune under a tree where he'd dug a trench in an arc to lie in, so that he might follow the shade and seek the cool earth deeper down.
Scoopmobile Used to Bury the Page Family
The word had not yet flashed around the country that the search was over. The following Saturday the CGG party returned to Birdsville from their Christmas leave, all abuzz to find out progress, only to get the sad news directly from the man himself, Eric Sammon. CGG had left more than a dozen trucks and LandRovers by the side of the airstrip near his Post Office/Police Station (now the most northerly building of the three on that side of the strip) and I had entrusted all of the keys with Eric. He was appreciative of the use of several of our vehicles during the search, including the CGG Scoopmobile, driven down from Birdsville by Len Gaffney for the purpose of burying the hapless family.
At the request of police, Pointon's sent a crew from Port Augusta to recover his Big 'V' and after refuelling it, couldn't find the ignition keys. The police said they saw the outline of the keys against the swollen leg of his trousers as Ernie was interred but instead of further disturbing the body, the Pointons men "hot-wired" the car to start it. Perhaps with uncommon courtesy, once back in Port Augusta, Ernie and Emma's married daughter Judy and her husband were invited to come and collect the vehicle and take it back to their home in Col Light Gardens.
Judy Pilcher, well settled with her husband in Adelaide a full twelve months prior to the rest of the Page Family migration, had chosen not to follow her family of adventurers into the Australian Outback.
Lonely Marker for a Desert Tragedy
At one time a small metal cross bore a simple message "The Pages Perished Dec 1963" at the site. Adventurers Gordon Gant and Ian McDonald are credited by the Toowoomba Chronicle (2nd October 2002) with searching and tracking down the graves. In 1970 they placed the cross to mark the final resting place.
No inquest was ordered for the deceased persons, nor was an official rememberance service held; nothing special was offered the victims at the moment of their final rest but one particular offering was recorded by the Marree Police. They reported languidly 'progress was held up because of darkness, and the bodies were buried on the morning of the 3rd. A short service was given at the graveside by Sgt. Dowling of Port Augusta, and Mr Len Gaffney.'
Innocents, Lost in the Bush
Judy's daughter Avril Howard was determined to place a fitting tribute to her predecessors who had suffered such an horrific ending to their lives as innocents in the bush and did so appropriately in 2011 in their honour. Searcher Sgt Dowling was not as disparaging of Ernie Page as others have been. Speaking of the time after they had left Clifton Hills in their wake, in the Sydney Daily Telegraph of January 6th 1964, he said for those last two days they did everything right :
"They stayed at the car after finding water at Turkeys Nest Waterhole, about 3kms away. They were all right with the car - they had food. They'd found water and they had camping gear in their trailer which would have enabled them to stay alive if they had stayed near Turkeys Nest. But imagine how they must have felt when no help came after two days. They had a young family with them and they didn't have a bushman's experience. Those temperatures .." he continued ..
"It's all very well to say 'If the Pages had done this or that' but you have to be there yourself."