54 shipwrecked Chinese survive brutal weeks in Australian Outback

January 21, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

MELBOURNE, Australia -- In a dramatic story of survival and endurance, 54 Chinese who fled their homeland by boat have been found wandering in some of Australia's most forbidding terrain after surviving the Outback's searing heat and a diet of crocodiles, snakes and weeds.

Police and coast guard planes and helicopters stepped up their search today for two other people still missing three weeks after their small fishing boat ran aground in a crocodile-infested mangrove swamp in Montague Sound on the remote northwest coast.

Wearing rubber sandals or rags on their swollen feet and braving daytime temperatures that reached 113 degrees, the first 35 men and women stumbled onto a ranch last Thursday after trudging 90 miles across harsh desert.

The others have been rescued in groupsover the last five days amid the desolate expanse of rocky gorges and rugged bush. Five men and a woman were found yesterday after night-flying planes spotted their campfire on a beach. They had apparently hiked 150 miles in a circle.

"They're shuffling and using sticks to walk with," said Inspector Con Calameri, head of police operations.

Two of the immigrants have been hospitalized in Darwin for malaria, but the others -- mostly men, ages 16 to 50 -- apparently survived with only blistered feet, sunburn and dehydration.

They carried rice, noodles, sugar and cooking pots, and supplemented their meager diet with what is known locally as "bush tucker" -- native plants and animals.

Inspector Calameri said the Chinese used twine and a bent nail to catch rock cod. They also roasted goannas and other large lizards and clubbed a crocodile, which they skinned with a spoon sharpened on a rock. One man was carrying a half-eaten 6-foot brown snake when rescued.

Water was not a problem because heavy thunderstorms drenched the area.

The captain of the 52-foot wooden fishing boat told police that he divided the 56 Chinese passengers into two groups after they shipwrecked on New Year's Eve. He gave them a compass, a crude map copied from an atlas and rough southeast bearings to follow. Several stragglers were left behind as the groups hiked across the treacherous Mitchell Plateau.

"It's an up-and-down bit of hell, full of crocodiles and snakes," said Wyndham police Sgt. Michael Harper. "It's certainly the worst bit of country up this way."

Immigration officials said the Chinese would be detained and charged as illegal immigrants, and would begin appearing before a magistrate in Darwin later today. They were expected to seek asylum in Australia, joining 23,000 others who have applied to qualify as refugees with a "well-founded fear of persecution" under U.N. guidelines.

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