Terror Australis

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She couldn't even cry out. After six hours hiding from the gunman who is thought to have executed her boyfriend by the roadside and trussed her up to keep for later, Joanne Lees stepped out of the inky dark of the central Australian desert night. Her hands bound so tightly her wrists were bleeding, and with electrical tape looped round her neck and gagging her mouth, the 27-year-old British tourist stumbled into the headlights.

Barreling south along the Northern Territory's Stuart Highway-about 280 km north of Alice Springs-past midnight on July 15, truck driver Vince Miller only glimpsed the ragged woman before he jammed on the brakes. With the trailers of his road train snaking out of control behind him, Miller panicked. "I've just hit a woman, I hit a woman," he yelled to his sleeping co-driver as they shuddered to a stop. But he hadn't hurt Lees; he had saved her. Bleeding from the cuts lacing her body-her shorts and singlet no protection from the thorns and burrs of the mallee scrub and spinifex grass through which she had burrowed-Lees fell into Miller's arms and began sobbing out her tale of horror. "This whole thing is really so bizarre," says Police Commander Bob Fields, who is leading the investigation, "it almost defies belief."

The desert here is monotonously flat, rising only for escarpments and ridges a couple of hundred meters high-ribs off the ancient, eroded spines of the MacDonnell and Davenport Ranges. From horizon to horizon there is nothing but red earth, squat, pale-green mulga trees and dense mallee shrubs. And when night falls, the darkness is almost palpable.

An hour after sunset on that Saturday, Lees and 28-year-old Peter Falconio, six months into the Australian leg of their round-the-world holiday, were cruising in their orange Volkswagen campervan-Falconio at the wheel-when a white four-wheel-drive pickup drew alongside. The driver gestured that he could see sparks coming from the exhaust of the campervan and, after some discussion about whether to heed him, the couple pulled over. Falconio inspected the van with the stranger, then came to the front and asked Lees to rev the engine. When he walked behind the van again, Lees heard a bang. It was the last she saw of her boyfriend. Tying her up, the gunman put her into his pickup while he went to the campervan. His mistake, and Lees' fortune, was that he restrained her hands in front, allowing her to maneuver out of the ankle bindings and escape into the bush.

The darkness that allowed the gunman to commit his crime unobserved proved Lees' savior. She was able to lie undiscovered in the thorny scrub as the man searched for her with a torch and a dog. Now the hunter is the hunted: more than 100 police, of a Northern Territory force of fewer than 1,000, are searching for the gunman, but the area they must cover-a million sq. km-is daunting. "We're looking for a needle in a haystack," says Commander Fields, "and you don't get a haystack much bigger than the Northern Territory."

The harsh remoteness of the outback, and the pioneers' struggle to survive it, are more than a memory in these regions. "The Territory remains an area of adventure," says Les Pilton, proprietor of the Barrow Creek Hotel, who took in the distraught Lees until police arrived three hours later. "It's one of the last frontiers. Part of that is that there is a danger; it's life on the very edge." Distances are almost unimaginable to outsiders: once a week Pilton makes a 570-km round trip just to go to the bank, or for a haircut. Roads run in numbingly straight lines, up to 30 km without a bend, their ends shimmering and liquefying in optical illusions as they bleed into the sky; families live on remote cattle properties, hundreds of kilometers from their nearest neighbors. As a result, country friendliness here extends to a code of mutual assistance on the road. Vehicles take such a pounding that breakdowns are common. Stranded travelers are not strangers to these folk, but friends in need-though that tradition is gradually being eroded. "You've got to be careful," says Rodney, from the Anmatjere Aboriginal community, south of Barrow Creek. "We won't stop for a bloke with his hood up, no way. We'll stop if there's kids, but not otherwise."

People traveling in central Australia now share his concern. Holidaymakers who normally camp by the side of the highway have begun clustering at night under the lights of service stations and roadhouses as if in Wild West wagon trains. People are afraid to stop on the open road even to relieve themselves, says Greg Dick, owner of the Aileron roadhouse where the couple had their last meal-of toasted sandwiches-together. "Our toilets are doing a roaring trade." But life will go on. Says Pilton: "The public forgets tragedies very quickly, and there's always new people coming in who haven't heard the news." Dick agrees: "I found nine people sleeping out the front here this morning, but that'll change. Something else, like another crime, will happen in another town or city in a few weeks, and the attention will go away."

Locals insist the Barrow Creek incident is an aberration: "These crimes happen everywhere, not just the Territory," says resident Harvey Mitchell. And sensational media reports to the contrary, the Territory is not a place where you take your life in your hands with every trip. But the dark side of this lonely region is never far away. There were police roadblocks here only two weeks ago, after a man's body was found near Mandorah, in the far north, burned in a campfire.

Despite their optimism, Territorians have been prodded by the week's events to reflect on their home, and the vulnerability that comes with isolation. Dangling a shotgun as he waves down vehicles for inspection, a young policeman says this kind of violence is rare. But before motioning the next vehicle on, he adds a chilling caveat: "Now you wonder, though, how often murder does go on and we don't know about it."