Police have found a set of footprints they hope will lead them to two friends missing in the searing Northern Territory outback for almost a fortnight.
Their companion, Tamra McBeath-Riley, 52, was rescued late on Sunday afternoon, but Claire Hockridge, 46, and Phu Tran, 40, remain missing in punishing terrain south of Alice Springs.
A helicopter has spotted a set of footprints they believe belongs to one of the missing pair. Search crews are following those footprints, hopeful of still finding Ms Hockridge and Mr Tran alive.
The drama began when the trio’s ute got got bogged in the bed of the Finke River after the group went on a drive outside Alice Springs on November 19.
Alice Springs Superintendent Pauline Vicary said they initially waited with their stranded vehicle.
But two days later after no-one came looking for them they abandoned the vehicle, leaving a note inside to indicate the direction they were heading.
The group walked about 1.5 kilometres west, where they found puddles of ground water from unseasonal showers that have fallen over the dry river system in the past fortnight.
For one desperate week they stayed together, gathering the dirty water, boiling it when they could and using a shirt to strain out the sediment, Supt Vicary said
Again they waited for help but when none came they decided to split up to reach help.
Ms Hockridge and Mr Tran, who had a TomTom device for navigation and a compass, headed north, towards the Stuart Highway, about 20km away.
“We do know that they have left together. We have located one set of footprints which we are now focusing our search area on. But we have not located the second one at this stage,” Supt Vicary said.
“It’s quite a diverse terrain. There’s sandy dunes, there’s hard clay, there’s areas of dense trees, but there are also rocks and rangers in the area.”
The group had little food with them – some biscuits and some beef noodles which would not have lasted long, she said.
Two helicopters are searching for the missing pair as Ms McBeath-Riley recovers in hospital from dehydration, exposure to poor quality water, and temperatures that nudged 40C in recent days.
She was rescued after a local station worker noticed tyre tracks and alerted police to an area that was not previously searched.
Authorities found the ute and from there tracked to the group to the Finke River site where they found water, locating Ms McBeath-Riley there without her friends.
She is expected to be released from the Alice Springs hospital on Monday afternoon.