‘Facebook saved me from certain death’
SETH Bauer had been walking for too many hours when he slumped against a tree to rest. He'd been out in the north Queensland heat with no water. Nobody knew where he was. Nobody would come looking.
He'd fallen asleep under that tree. And woke to a wet crotch. A moment of confusion before he saw it - floodwaters, creeping towards him, surrounding him.
It was the last days of January 2019, and Seth was driving from Brisbane to Normanton to start a new job at the landmark Purple Pub.
He'd filled his car with his clothes and possessions and set out to his new hometown in the Gulf of Carpentaria - a 22-hour drive from one end of Queensland to the other.
He didn't realise he was travelling the length of the state during a major flooding event - one that would swallow much of northern central Queensland.
He'd driven through Winton, in the state's central west, when the dirt road he was travelling turned to mud.
"I noticed the vehicle start to - it was like it was just lowering," Seth said.
"I knew something wasn't right there, so I've hit the brakes and opened the door. There was mud right up to the floor. I was bogged. In the middle of nowhere. I had no communication devices, no range, nothing. About half an hour had passed and I realised, if I don't do something, I'm going to die out here."
Nobody came by in the hours he spent under a hot sun trying to free his car from mud like quicksand.
"The more I tried, the deeper it went," he said.
"I ended up spending five and a half hours, exactly five hours and 34 minutes trying to get that car un-bogged."
When he finally freed his wheels, the car was no longer drivable. He was stranded.
"After a few hours I came to the realisation that I was the only human being out there and there was no one coming my way anytime soon," Seth said. "I made the decision to leave my car."
He walked and walked. He walked until blisters formed on his feet, until his whole body ached, until he was so dehydrated he felt sick from it.
"The heat was phenomenal. I think that's what killed me the most," Seth said.
Eventually the sun went down. He'd started seeing things, hearing things. Then he woke up to find himself lying on the bitumen. There was water everywhere. Shallow at first. But it got deeper and deeper.
"I'm now walking in waist deep water. The mud was to my shins. With every step I took, I sunk," Seth said.
Sometimes he'd find dry ground. In some parts he waded through brown muck that came up to his chest. It was dark. He couldn't see anything. It started raining, heavily, so he tried to take shelter under a tree.
"I thought, I'm going to die out here," Seth said.
He took out his useless mobile phone and typed a letter into his notes, writing to his children, hoping someone might find his phone if he succumbed. He fell asleep there, his back against the tree. He woke with his pants wet, with floodwaters lapping against him.
There was nothing else to do but keep walking.
"Before I knew it, the sun was coming up. I reached for my phone, but by then I realised it was water damaged," Seth said.
He pitched it in frustration and left it behind. Some time later he saw the sign. It had a name on it - someone's property was 3km ahead. He collapsed in front of it, thought about hugging it.
It was early afternoon when he found the farm. He screamed and shouted. He banged on the door. But nobody came. He found water in an old laundry trough under the house. He drank until he vomited and then drank some more. He spent the first night asleep at the back door, too scared to break in.
The next day, Seth worked up the courage. He didn't find a phone, as he'd hoped. But he found a laptop - and the Queensland Ambulance Service Facebook page. It was 12.44pm on January 1, 2019, when he sent the first message.
"Hello, anyone there?" he wrote. "I need help. I'm on a property in Colston. I don't know exactly where I am. This property has two houses and about four stables. I've been lost in bushland and walked about 11 hours til I found a house, but this house is empty.
"Found this laptop to contact YOU. PLEASE SEND HELP."
Media liaison staff monitor the QAS Facebook page.
"People needing an ambulance should call triple-0," acting media and communications supervisor Melissa Mangan said. "But this situation was unique."
"Hello Seth," Melissa replied after spotting Seth's messages on Facebook.
"Are you injured? Do you require an ambulance? Is there some mail in the residence with the address on it, so we know where to send the ambulance? Is there a phone you have access to?"
There was no phone. Seth's mobile was in the mud somewhere behind him.
And behind Melissa, a team was getting to work.
Senior Operations Supervisor Colin Allen was contacting police. He was looking into a rescue helicopter. But mostly they were trying to work out where Seth was messaging them from. They asked him to explore the farm. What could he see? Were there any vehicles with registrations?
"Just making sure you're OK?" Melissa messaged.
"Clothes covered in mud and I smell," Seth wrote.
"No food or water, slept in bush, no cover, heavy rains starting to flood, I had to go. I feel terrible for entering these people's house, using laptop, they don't know I'm here."
Seth gave them registration details of some vehicles at the property. He told them about a tennis court.
Back in Brisbane, Colin was scanning Google Maps on satellite view to find a property matching Seth's description. They explained to Seth he would need to spend the night there. Road access to the property was impossible.
"Queensland Police have spoken with the owners and you have their permission to remain in the house and eat, drink and rest inside until we can get to you," they told him over Facebook.
They checked on him the following morning.
"We are doing a lot of work in the background to get you to safety Seth," Melissa wrote.
Finally, 24 hours after he'd first made contact, QAS made contact with a neighbour, Brian, who'd offered to try and get through. He'd told them he had a "50-50 chance" of making it through muddy paddocks to the farm. Seth heard the hum of the quad bike long before he spotted Brian.
"He is here," Seth wrote to his saviours. "OMG human contact. Thank you guys."
Brian said hello to Seth, went inside the house and came out with a drink - an alcoholic one.
"Shut up and drink," he told him. He would spend weeks at Brian's home, where Brian's wife Sharon handed him a towel and ordered him into the shower. She washed his clothes and cooked him a roast.
The 22-hour trip to Normanton would take months. Seth was eventually choppered out of the Opalton property and remained in another town until floodwaters receded and the road to Normanton was clear.
"There are honestly no words that can describe just how appreciative (I am)," Seth said of the people involved in his rescue.
"I could very well be dead now."