The world’s driest continent presents a serious challenge to those who hope to explore its vast unforgiving landscape. Australia’s outback is arid and can indeed be dangerous, but is surprisingly beautiful when experienced firsthand. Still, it might come as a shock to some that this landscape also claims the lives of about 44 people each year.
We first met Bob Cooper at the Explore Australia Expo where he was doing a seminar on Outback Survival. We thought we would catch up with Bob to find out a little bit more about his experiences in unique outdoor environments, and what motivates him to teach the art of Outback Survival.
Bob Cooper has spent the last 30 years teaching people how to survive in situations that would otherwise terrify and dishearten even the strongest and fittest of outdoor adventurers.
Growing up in WA, Bob has always had a strong connection to the outback. After completing his first survival course, in which he excelled, he discovered his passion for teaching. Bob was invited to teach at the next course, honing his survival skills and techniques, which he would later go on to share with Australian Special Forces Units. Working with SF units he learned to use technology to his advantage. But it wasn’t until he was invited to visit local Aboriginal communities that he realised there was always plenty more to learn.
During his first visit to these Aboriginal communities, Bob spent seven weeks with the traditional landowners of the Great Sandy Desert sharing knowledge and absorbing all there was to learn about traditional bush craft.
Since that first visit to the Great Sandy, Bob has travelled Australia and the world, visiting different peoples and cultures, sharing his own knowledge and learning everything he can about survival situations. He’s spent time with the Bushmen of the Kalahari in Botswana; he has learnt the ways of the Orang Asli people in Malaysia, and has lectured alongside the Texas Parks and Wildlife Service in the Mexican Desert. Bob has experienced environments of almost every known variety, building his knowledge in order to teach others how to overcome the odds if they happen to find themselves in similar situations.
Bob explains that there are more than a few misconceptions that can lead to trouble if you find yourself stuck in the wilds…especially if it’s somewhere like the Australian Outback.
When we ask him what the biggest one is, he’s quick to answer.
“There are many, but the main two are the tendency towards total reliance on technology, and the mismanagement of water.”
Mistake No. 1: The Reliance on Technology
“Bush craft skills come first, then you use technology to back them up.”
One of the first things that Bob teaches his students is that technology should never be your no. 1 resource. Aboriginal communities have learned to thrive and survive in some of the harshest conditions on the planet, with very little in the way of technology. For Bob, knowledge is the number one tool for surviving a potentially deadly situation.
“If your technology fails and you haven’t got a backup, you are in trouble. Anything with a battery is eventually going to go flat,” he reminds us.
Before you even take out your satellite phone, or your GPS device, Bob says you should be considering the five necessities for survival:
And the order in which he lists them is not to be taken lightly.
In most cases your first priority is ensuring you have clean drinking water. It is imperative that first you look out for your own wellbeing, establishing your ability to survive first – especially if it means you will be spending some time in the outdoors, possibly for an unknown number of days and nights . Once you have taken care of your immediate needs, you can look at using some know-how and technology (such as the tools found in Bob Coopers excellent survival kit) to signal for help, and satisfy your hunger. Interestingly, food comes last. The human body is capable of surviving without food for weeks — without water you could perish in hours in any hot climate.
Mistake No. 2: The Mismanagement of Water
The single most surprising fact that Bob shared with us and the other interested listeners at the Explore Australia Expo was that – contrary to popular belief – you should NOT sip your water supplies slowly. In an environment like the Australian Outback, it is likely you will be experiencing temperatures ranging between 35-50 degrees Celsius.
“Just two litres of lost fluid can lead to a 25% reduction in cognitive function and your ability to think rationally,” said Bob.
In a survival situation, your hydration needs are very different from those at home. You may have heard that it’s healthy to sip water regularly in order to maintain your body’s hydration levels. But this is the desert and the goal is different.
At home, you have a limitless supply of water – in the desert the aim is not to preserve your water supply for as long as possible, but to keep hydration levels above the minimum threshold for as long as possible. To do this, you are going to need to ration your water, and drink each ration in one sitting.
Bob explained that, “depending on your individual needs and exertion, you can lose up to one litre of fluid every 30 minutes in temperatures above 40 degrees.”
Bob with a group of basic training participants
If you sip slowly, that tiny little amount of water is going to be used up immediately by other bodily functions and will never make it to the organ you need it to reach the most; your brain.
Bob explains that severe dehydration is one of the most horrible experiences he has ever been through, and one that can lead to people making odd decisions in survival situations.
Dehydration dementia, Bob says, is experienced when severe dehydration of the brain occurs, leading to a decline in in mental functions, hallucinations and even seizures.
“People do bizarre things when they experience dehydration dementia. One man who's body was found by rescuers had taken off all his clothes except his boots in 47 degree heat, folded them neatly in a pile and walked off before dying, naked in the desert.”
Bob himself was forced to experience the effects with the Special Forces, deprived of water for three days as part of a training session that was practiced in those days.
“After that much time without water, your fingers and toes start to tingle, your tongue starts to swell up. You would come up to something like a tree root on a track, and it would seem like a mountain standing before you. Just lifting each leg to step over feels impossible.”
In order to avoid this, the most important thing to remember is: drink, don’t sip. Stay hydrated and stay alive.
Stay tuned for more from Bob Cooper, Outback Survival Expert.