Oval Talk

Rugby shorts saved my life, says English teen lost in outback

Sam Woodhead (left), and (right) with his rescuers (Facebook / Reuters)

An English teenager has claimed that his rugby shorts saved his life after he ended up stranded in the Australian outback.

Sam Woodhead of Richmond, Surrey, went missing after going for a run in central Queensland. He got hopelessly lost, and spent three days without food or water in 40 degree heat and under the blazing sunshine of the fierce Australian summer.

But the 18-year-old was eventually saved after making an SOS flag out of his old rugby shorts.

Sam was in Australia taking a gap year, and was working at the Upshot Station cattle farm, some 90km from the nearest town, Longreach.

And it was from the cattle station that he set off for his run last Tuesday. He took a backpack full of clothes on his back - he hopes to join the army and thought running with a pack would help his training - but he got lost in the wooded landscape after going just four miles.

He walked for four or five hours trying to find his way back, but couldn't find his way - and in the brutal conditions, dehyrdation and disorientation set in quickly. The water he had taken with him quickly ran out, and he was stuck zig-zagging fruitlessly through the trees trying to find his way back.

Sam would ultimately be left with liver damage, and lost two stone during his ordeal - but even though death seemed certain to him at some points he refused to go out without a fight.

He sipped cautiously at his contact lens fluid - the last liquid he had in his pack - and tried to attract attention.

"I took all the clothes I had and made an SOS signal in the clearing," he told The Australian newspaper.

"I used jumpers, a couple of pairs of shorts and spread them out to make the SOS signal as big as possible."

The sign didn't work, however: a rescue helicopter flew overhead on Thursday without spotting him - "my relief turned to panic. It was one of my lowest points" - and when a second helicopter passed over him a day later he thought he would never be found, and that his body would be left to the dingoes which prowled around him as he slept.

An arrow shows Sam's location in the Australian wilderness (Yahoo! Maps)

But the second helicopter turned around after the pilot noticed Sam's rugby shorts which got caught in the draft of the rotor blades.

"I asked the pilot afterwards and he said, 'The only reason we turned around was because we saw something fly up from the ground'," he said.

"It was a pair of my white rugby shorts that I used in the SOS sign.

“The crew had flown over and hadn’t noticed the sign, but they were so low their rotors blew my shorts up into the air and that was what they saw.

“They told me afterwards they only had 15 minutes of fuel left in the helicopter. If they hadn’t spotted me when they did, they’d have gone away again,” he said.

Sam explained how he had become disorientated and even hallucinated.

"My mind was playing tricks on me and really tormenting me,” he said. “I started creating these personalities and talking to them, even though I knew they weren’t real."

He also feared being attacked by the wild dogs.

“There had been dingo attacks on the homestead where I was working and I knew what they were capable of,” he said. “The worst thing is I could hear them in the dark but I never saw them.”

Incredibly, Sam was never more than six miles away from the cattle station - but despite his ordeal, he has insisted that he won't curb his adventures in future.

"But it might make me think more about the things that can go wrong," he added. "And I will probably bring more water with me in future!"