As a veteran hunter who prefers to hunt alone and do the extra yards, I have never lost my way in the bush ‑ although I’ve come close and consider myself fortunate. However, having said that, I have always taken proper precautions to ensure a safe return to camp.
Without a suitable respect for the bush, an adequate understanding of the terrain, preparation and aids to assist, it’s unwise venturing out into the scrub, especially if it’s for the first time. Even tourists, campers and hikers on well-marked trails have become disorientated and lost through a momentary distraction or veering off the path to explore, often requiring the involvement of the Emergency Services in a search and rescue mission.
Fences and waterways
Some of the safest hunting can be had by sticking close to or near a property fence that, depending where you are, can travel in a straight line for kilometres. When another fence is intercepted, mark the ground or use available material such as sticks or stones to indicate the direction back to camp or your vehicle. If turning away from a fence to peer over a hill or likely place where game might be present, be conscious of the route taken. Don’t stroll away too far or for too long and return to the fence. Do the same if following a well-worn game trail or waterway such as a river or stream, noting the course of the water flow.
Landmarks and markings
A map of the region or one constructed from the property owner’s input is a good idea, noting north south guidelines, bordering fence lines and significant or obvious landmarks such as a windmill, dam, water-channel, shed or hill. Google Maps can sometimes help provide an aerial print of an area.
Observing and noting unusual formations or sights such as a stumpy knurled tree, a particularly tall standout tree or windmill that can be seen from afar, a raised earth mound riddled with rabbit warrens, a patch of scattered animal bones, a lone patch of lignum, dams and other similar examples, can act as a guide as you trek. In thick bush, tying small lengths of pink or a standout colour ribbon on tallish bushes and trees every 100m or so as you go and retrieving them on the return trip can assist.
Where, for example, there are no fences or waterways to follow and in the event that a compass or GPS is left behind, and the sky is not completely overcast, knowing where the sun rises in the east and sets in the afternoon can assist in determining direction.
More accurately, in the southern hemisphere a commonly known method is the use of an analogue watch which means holding the watch flat and pointing the 12 o'clock mark towards the sun. The north-south line is obtained by bisecting the angle between the hour hand and the 12 o’clock mark. Try it at home. Until more fully familiar with the country hunted, it is best to journey out at a leisurely pace for short distances at a time before returning. In the case of injury or disorientation, it’s important others are aware of your intentions when setting out and roughly for how long you will be away.
At night, and again provided it’s a clear sky, knowing at least where the Southern Cross constellation sits in the sky can help. A while ago, my hunting mate and I bagged a few rabbits on a bush paddock we had frequented many times over the years, returning to the vehicle just on dark. Driving out, we must have taken a wrong turn because try as we did, tall stands of bushes that we hadn’t noticed before, blocked our path. We had essentially driven in a wide circle. With the real thought of enduring an uncomfortable night in the vehicle, I racked my brain to figure a way out. It was also one of the first times we had left our GPSs in camp. Then it occurred to me the fence traversed on the way in a kilometre or so distant, travelled in an east-west bearing. By spotting the Southern Cross constellation in the clear sky I was able to determine where the fence was and soon exited, much to our relief. It just shows how easily disorientated you can become, despite the familiarity with the area.
Today there are various GPS tracking devices with map software incorporated and aids to lessen the risk of losing yourself in unfamiliar territory. GPS back-trackers, satellite phones, UHF handsets, beacon locators and even mobile phones for communication and GPS, if there is reception, all provide a degree of comfort. However, it’s important their workings and capabilities are properly understood and trialled beforehand in a park or like area, and not out in the field, particularly if tackling heavily forested zones. When panic and confusion sets in, it can become difficult to focus and think clearly and calmly.
Having previously successfully used a more technically enhanced Garmin device in outback remote places, my preference these days is for a simple Bushnell GPS back-tracker displaying north-south, with three fixed positions denoted by the symbol of a house, car and star. They can represent camp, vehicle location and perhaps where a deer has been felled for later retrieval. All I need to do is key-in the point I want to go to and follow the arrow. The displayed distance reduces as the location is neared. I also take along an extra set of batteries, just in case.
Check weather conditions and dress appropriately. Be aware of the time travelled to your furthest point travelled so you can return to camp in good time or before dark, and don’t discount taking a notebook to record details, landmarks, waterways and places to guide you along the way. It’s a good idea to carry a manageable backpack with minimal survival items. These would be an all-purpose knife, a small torch or headlamp if you are out for longer than anticipated and need to return in the dark, a length of cord, water bottle or canteen, some food or muesli bars, matches, lighter or fire steel flint and striker, a crepe bandage roll and a few larger band-aids. Definitely take a GPS and compass, plus a lightweight emergency thermo blanket if for instance you need to spend a night out in the elements. A course in bushcraft and survival skills at some stage would be handy. Also the pocket size SAS Survival Guide by John Wiseman, a former professional soldier, is worth bringing along.
Other locating methods
If a mate is delayed returning to camp, the tooting of a vehicle horn will carry a long way and hopefully catch his or her attention. At night a lantern anchored high in a tree or on a post can guide a hunter to camp. Lighting a small fire in a clearing and only if safe to do so, partly smothering the flames with green leafy material to produce a rising smoke column can help steer others to you.
Where the bush is thick, and again only if safe to do so, carefully climb a tall, well-limbed tree to gain height to spot any farm buildings or signs of human activity. All else failing and if carrying a firearm, firing three consecutive shots into a mound of dirt or in a similar safe manner at short intervals and listening for a response each time, can assist to indicate a need to be found and likely direction of the shots.
Frame of mind
In a lost situation where anxiety, confusion and helplessness sets in, it’s important to stay calm, gather your thoughts and rely on your knowledge, ingenuity and experience to find your way out.
Some years down the track, I booked a wild boar safari in the Northern Territory. Three days in, equipped with rifle, backpack and GPS, I left the Professional Hunter and fellow companion for a brief hunt in the tropical growth bordering a floodplain. I had no intension of wandering far in the thick growth or for any length of time. After travelling less than half a kilometre, it appeared I had walked in a wide arc back to a small water soak not far from the vehicle, except on closer observation I realised it wasn’t the same soak and nowhere near the vehicle.
Suddenly I began to worry. Through experience and having previously read on the subject, I told myself to remain relaxed, regain my composure and importantly don’t wander further. However when anxiety sets in, trying to keep your self-control isn’t easy and activating the Garmin GPS to determine my start point seemed to take forever. If not for taking stock, it could have been a different outcome.
A prepared hunter who understands his or her own capabilities and limitations without taking unnecessary risks is always the sensible approach. Hunting in company is also a good idea, particularly in the event of injury.