IT was to be the start of a new beginning.
Maria Soper, 20, of Martins Creek near Maitland, arrived for her first day at work as a gardener at Queensland's remote Dolgonally Station, near Julia Creek, in January 1999. Less than two weeks later, she was dead. Maria died from heat exhaustion within four hours after walking 15.9km in searing heat from her broken-down car.
Almost two decades later, the police investigation into Ms Soper's death was used by Queensland police last week to inform the outcome of an inquest into the disappearance of another Hunter person, Jayden Penno-Tompsett, who went missing outside Charters Towers in December 2017.
Their separate lives may bear little similarities, but police believe the Hunter pair suffered the same tragic fate 18 years apart in remote locations in Far North Queensland. They were both left alone in horrific, almost 40 degree summer heat, at similar times of the day, neither had water and both were wearing thongs. Two Queensland coroners found Maria and Jayden's ill-fated journeys ended with them both dying of exposure in the harsh conditions.
To many on the east coast, Charters Towers and Julia Creek are at the end of the world. The hot, harsh climates and the red earth of the towns, five hours drive apart across the vast plainlands in the lower Gulf country of northwest Queensland, only reinforces their isolation.
Charters Towers is 135km from Townsville and Julia Creek a further 500km inland. The final hours of Maria's and Jayden's lives became the focus of major police investigations and coronial inquests.
Maria's lonely death on a remote bush track still causes intense grief to her Maitland-based family. Her brother, Donnie Soper, told the Newcastle Herald this week that almost two decades later it remained difficult to comprehend.
Maria's body was found on the Old Normanton Road after her car broke down and she attempted to walk back to the station. Stranded with no apparent sign of rescue, she walked on and on in a vain for 15.9km in a desperate attempt to find a way out of the heat. During the walk, she passed the entrance to another station and a water tank, and was unaware she was parallel to the flooded Julia Creek.
"There was just disbelief for a very, very long time," Mr Soper said. "I guess it was one of those things I suppose, but the whole thing just seemed very strange to me. It really took its toll on our family. Everything from the way it happened, to when it happened was so difficult."
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The station's head stockman had taken Maria into Julia Creek around 8am on the day of her death to pick up parts for her station wagon, which had broken down on Old Normanton Rd with a damaged radiator hose. After he fixed the car, he drove on in front of Maria, and for the next 14km kept her car in his sight. But then, believing everything was all right with the car, he drove back to station and had a sleep.
It took more than three hours after Maria was stranded for a search to begin after her best friend from Maitland called the station looking for her. But help arrived too late. She was found dead on the road from heat stroke after walking 15.9km.
Mr Soper remembered his sister as "loving life" and said she was never afraid to try new things. "She made friends very easily and was always up for new challenges," he said. "She wasn't a person to be afraid of anything. She was very happy-go-lucky sort of person."
With no body found since Jayden vanished in December 2017, the circumstances surrounding his disappearance remain tormentingly unclear to his family. Last week, Coroner Nerida Wilson found Jayden died of exposure after being left alone in extreme heat in a remote area outside Charters Towers.
Jayden and his friend Lucas Tattersall were travelling to Cairns to ring-in the New Year with mates when they had a disagreement and Jayden left the car in the early hours of December 31, He was not reported missing for three days and a search of the area where he was last seen did not start for nine days because Mr Tattersall told the inquest he was 'off' his head on drugs and unable to pinpoint the location.
The court heard that police believe Jayden perished in the harsh conditions and was dead before he was even reported missing. Not satisfied with the official findings, Jayden's mother Rachel Penno said she could not reconcile the fact that her son simply vanished into thin air.
She still maintains that foul play was involved and said she would continue her search for the truth. "Why has nothing ever been found," she said. "I know there is more to it. Hopefully if we do get a reward ... hopefully we'll get more information to help push to have this further investigated."
The inquest into Jayden's disappearance heard last week that a critical factor in both deaths was that the pair came from the Hunter and were "not acclimatised", with temperatures reaching around 40 degrees when they were both stranded on foot.
Veteran Queensland police search and rescue coordinator Senior Sergeant Jim Whitehead, who coordinated the search for Jayden and investigated Maria's death, said the hostility of the unforgiving Australian landscape was as deadly as a bullet.
Snr Sgt Whitehead, who has been involved in more than 12,000 searches for missing people over 16 years, said on average a person could last about three days without water, but it could be a lot less in extreme heat. He said the fact that Jayden and Maria were from the same area, meant they were not acclimatised to the harsh conditions.
"There were a lot of similarities," he said. "Neither of them had time to get acclimatised. Even for people who live out here, the heat is extremely dangerous. But when you are not acclimatised you sweat like mad and lose more water. A lot of people don't realise, it's like standing in an oven."
More on this issue: Coroner rules out foul play in Jayden Penno-Tompsett disappearance
The Sopers and the Penno-Tompsetts are two ordinary Hunter families, whose fates have been crossed by coroners' findings that their children died in remote Queensland locations due to exposure in extreme heat.
"Survival skills don't work really well in Australia, because it's very hard to survive in Australia," Snr Sgt Whitehead said. "The conditions are extreme and a lot of people just don't fully understand that." Then aged 37, he was stationed at Julia Creek when Maria died. As part of the police investigation, he volunteered to re-enact her 15.9km trek. The result is Maria's legacy and has helped police and medical experts better understand the effects of extreme heat exposure.
Knowing the terrain and how devastating the 40 degree heat could be, Snr Sgt Whitehead carried water but didn't use it. Wearing a hat and walking shoes, he made the distance in three hours and 10 minutes.
But the extreme conditions took their toll: he suffered severe blisters on both feet and when he went to Julia Creek Rural Hospital to get them treated, he was diagnosed with kidney failure and muscle wastage and airlifted to Mount Isa Hospital.
"I might have died that night if untreated," he said. "From that time what happened to me has become medical evidence of the effects of heat stroke, and as almost no one survives in the outback once it starts, my experiences were extremely valuable to those who deal with survival medicine."
Walking along the remote track, Snr Sgt Whitehead said he became increasingly disorientated and his vision narrowed as he overheated in the sun. He said Maria would not have seen a 10,000 gallon water tank beside the road, or the nearby Julia Creek.
"When people are lost but have gone past the stage when they should be sitting down, they have tunnel vision and can walk past signs and roadways," he said. There have been cases of people dying of exposure to extreme heat in the outback in as little as "two or three hours".
"You don't know it is happening to you," he said. "You will be going down hill, but you don't register that. You go past the stage of needing help and you don't recognise the signs until it's too late." Mr Soper, who travelled to Julia Creek for his sister's inquest in 1999, described the heat as unbearable.
"I was walking from one end of town to the other in November, and it was just unbelievable," he said. "It was just a 1km walk and the heat was insane. I was absolutely stuffed.
"I could never understand how Maria made it so far in the conditions."
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