Mystery of naked man who woke in desert with dingoes pawing then lasted 71 days

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Forget Bear Grylls and Ray Mears – if it's survival skills you're after, Ricky Megee is your man.

Fifteen years ago, Ricky was found by 'jackaroos' (cattle hands) close to death in Australia's Tanami Desert. Then 35, he was exhausted, emaciated, sunburnt and weighed just 7st – half of his usual weight.

He had survived, somehow, out there alone in the wilderness for 71 days.

But how exactly he came to be stranded in what has been described as "one of the most isolated places in Australia" remains, to some extent at least, something of a mystery.

In January 2006, Ricky set off on a 3,000-mile journey by car from his home in Brisbane, Queensland, to Port Hedland, Western Australia, to start a new job.

Driving a 2001 Mitsubishi Challenger, he took the Buntine Highway, which includes long stretches of desert track, through the desolate Northern Territory.

The events that followed are a little hazy.

When Ricky was found three months later, he apparently told rescuers that his car had broken down.

He then changed his story, reportedly telling The Washington Post that he had been drugged by hitchhikers and left for dead.

In the subsequent days, he elaborated, recalling how he had picked up a single Aboriginal hitchhiker who he believed had drugged him, possibly in a drink he had allowed the man to pass to him.

But to confuse matters even further, in his 2010 autobiography, Left For Dead: How I Survived 71 Days Lost in a Desert Hell, he said he had in fact stopped for three men who had run out of petrol.

He said he had offered to give one of the men a lift to a petrol station and that he could have been drugged in his drink or even stabbed with a syringe during a struggle.

The book, which Ricky wrote with journalist Greg McLean, told how he felt "dazed and confused" before he blacked out completely. He said he woke up some hours later in his captors' camp, where they had a gun and gave him water.

Eventually, they left, taking his shoes but leaving him with $12.30 he had in his pocket.

The next time Ricky came to, he said he was naked in a shallow grave of sorts, with a black plastic sheet covering him and "some rocks and dirt thrown on top". He was somewhere in the desert.

He said he had only woken up because four hungry dingoes were pawing at him.

Truly lost, with no shoes, clothes, food, water or vehicle, Ricky was well aware that in the blistering heat of the outback, the odds were stacked against him in the survival stakes.

Ricky walked for 10 days through the barren, sun-scorched desert.

He explained his reasoning in his book, writing: “I’d always been one of those blokes who ragged on people who found themselves lost in the desert. Now I was one of those people.

“It was hard, desolate country for a man all alone in bare feet. Nevertheless, I started to walk. And walk. The more I walked, I figured, the less distance I’d have to travel to get found. It was faulty logic, but it was the best I could come up with.”

With temperates above 40C, he passed out several times, suffering heat exhaustion.

He ate virtually anything he could find, from lizards and leeches to frogs and even snakes.

He also ate grasshoppers and caterpillars as well as a few of the edible plants that he knew aboriginal people had consumed for centuries. But this was still a gamble as many plants were poisonous.

Ricky ate one meal a day and drank water from dams and waterholes, at times resorting to drinking his own cooled urine.

He built shelters using branches and found an old windmill then made a "humpy" (temporary shelter) by flipping an old cattle feed trough upside down. He lived in the humpy for 10 weeks.

On his diet, he told ABC Radio: "I ate the leeches raw, straight out of the dam, grasshoppers I just ate them.

"But the only thing I really sort of had to cook was the frogs which I slipped onto a bit of wire and stuck the wire on top of my humpy, let the sun dry them out a fair bit until they were a bit crispy and then just ate them."

As much as he tried to survive on insects and creatures he found on the desert floor, Ricky was soon losing his battle and was gradually starving to death.

Increasingly weak and mentally drained, he even made a cross, marking what he thought would be his grave, praying his family would one day find his corpse.

By now weak and gaunt, Ricky also had the added worry that prowling dingoes were sizing him up for a meal of their own so he had to block the entrance to his shelter at night, hoping to keep the wild dogs out.

At one point, he got an abscess on a tooth which in his weakened state could have been fatal. Turning desert dentist, he extracted the tooth using his car keys.

Then, as he teetered on the brink of death, he was rescued.

Mark Clifford, the cattle station manager whose jackaroos found Ricky, described him as a "walking skeleton".

He remarked on the confusion around how he had ended up lost in the desert, telling the Daily Telegraph: "It's a bit unclear what the trouble was with the car, and why he ended up off the road.

"He's walked for about 10 days to get to where he is before he's realised that he's got to set himself up some shelter and start trying to get some food into himself.

"He basically sat where he was for about 10 weeks."

Ricky was taken to Royal Darwin Hospital where he was found to be surprisingly well hydrated. He discharged himself after six days. His car was never found.

In the weeks following, doubts were cast over the validity of Ricky's version of events, with reports suggesting police were not fully convinced due to his previous minor drug convictions.

Officers, though, dismissed any suggestions of criminal activity on his part.

Ricky stood by his story, even offering to eat frogs live on TV.

Survival experts survival said he made it through thanks to "instinctively solving the basic requirements of water, food and shelter—and adopting a survival mindset that pulled him through".

But Ricky suggested another force entirely had helped him through. He said the thought of seeing his friends and family again had spurred him on.

Having started a new life after his ordeal, Ricky now manages a construction team in Dubai.

One day, he also hopes to use his building expertise to do aid work in Africa.

“Before, I was a bit blasé about life, but now I cherish it every day,” he said.

"I just think I didn’t die for a reason, and I’m able to help other people.

“What I lived through is probably more than most people will ever have to endure, but anyone can apply those same instincts I relied on to problems confronting them.

“Be thankful for the good things in your life just in case they're snatched from your grasp and be sure to tell those you care about how you feel.

“It’s no good wasting your energy on angry thoughts, you’re better off dealing with the situation and planning ahead. Being afraid doesn't get you anywhere.”

  • Left For Dead: How I Survived 71 Days Lost in a Desert Hell is out now, published by Allen & Unwin and is available on Amazon.
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