2019. I was an intern with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Our group of four was camping across Western Australia to record bird songs for the Macaulay Library (a digital library of bird pictures and recordings).
Our days went like this:
- Pre-sunset wakeup. Sad breakfast of soggy oatmeal. Gather microphones.
- 20 minutes later. Disperse into the outback. Record bird songs.
- Sunset. Meet at the campsite. Break down camp. Drive to our next destination.
- 8:00 PM. Set up camp. Dinner. Sleep.
It was pretty smooth sailing…until the day sunset came and I couldn’t quite find my way back.
Read on for the 3 things that saved my life…
The Stakes Were High
It’s no exaggeration to say that my life was in danger. Everyone knows Australia for its deadly redback spider and numerous venomous snakes. The likes of which were just beginning their nighttime prowls.
Dangerous animals aside…I was completely isolated. The closest town was hours away by car. Even if I could walk all that way without collapsing from dehydration, I had to find the road first. Easier said than done. In the wilderness, it’s incredibly easy to unknowingly wander in circles.
The reason I got lost in the first place? I came down from a mountain at a slightly different angle. And I probably wasn’t walking in a straight line anyways.
Oh yeah, and there was no cell reception.
So, how did I survive?
1. A Constant Stream of Internal Monologue
After I had been walking “back to camp” for about half an hour, panic began to set in. Shouldn’t I be there by now?. Why didn’t I recognize this thick patch of bushes?
Heart racing, my strides lengthened until I was almost running. I swiveled my head, trying to find something familiar. I heard birds but didn’t bother stopping to record them.
I cannot panic.
I forced myself to stop and close my eyes. The sun had set, I had drank all my water, and I was all alone. I cannot panic.
I started an internal monologue, narrating my experience to my friends. Because if I was talking to my friends, I had obviously survived and arrived safely back home.
But does the advice “stay in one place when lost” work in the outback? These were legitimate questions to ask at the time.
I didn’t even know if my team knew I was lost yet.
Oh, but I did this very smart thing where I amplified my phone flashlight with the parabola microphone.
Yeah, I really had no idea which direction to head in…
2. Writing Fake Headlines
Sometimes my internal monologue just served to remind me how lost I was.
I walked out in various directions before returning to an arbitrary center point. I didn’t want to walk even farther in the wrong direction. But I also wasn’t any nearer to it. I forced myself to laugh at all the dramatic headlines that might be published about me.
Clueless Girl Loses Her Way 50 Meters From Teammates
A Dingo Ate Her, But at Least She Didn’t Dehydrate
Birds Aren’t Real: How the Government Took Out the Girl Who Knew
5-Year-Old Corpse Found: Could it be the lost princess of _____?
What picture of me would they choose?
3. I Put My Pride Aside…I Screamed
And finally, I was left with no choice. I had made no progress in finding my way. The temperature was rapidly cooling. And it had been dark for a good 15 minutes. I yelled, calling out the names of my teammates.
I advanced forward in a random direction and called out again. No response. I tried another direction, “ELLIIIIIOOOOOOOTTTT”
And from a distance someone called back. It was so faint, I couldn’t make out what they were saying. But I had a direction. Long strides covered the distance until I finally saw the headlights.
I Was Found
The team of three flocked toward me as soon as they saw me. “What happened? Are you okay??”
The team leader hopped out of the car, which he had been about to take into the outback to find me. “I was afraid you were bitten by a snake!”
Chagrined, I explained that no, I had just gotten lost.
To this day, I remain mortally embarrassed. I was the only one who got lost during the whole expedition. But I suppose being lost is better than being the newest headline on The Wombat Report…
I’ve got quite a few more stories like this…Life as a field ecologist is filled with adventure and potentially near-death experiences. Subscribe to read all about them!
Btw, this trip to Australia was 100% free. Come back tomorrow for my 3 Secrets to Scoring Free Travel as an undergrad!
You can read more about this internship on the Macaulay Library blog.