A perfect place to hide - and kill

Vast landscape of the Northern Territory refuses to yield the secret of missing Briton
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The Independent Online

They say that in the Australian Outback, no one can hear you scream. The ancient landscape that swallowed up Peter Falconio last weekend is so vast you can drive for hours without passing another car, and so flat you imagine you can see the curvature of the Earth.

The sunsets are legendary in this corner of the planet, and Mr Falconio and his girlfriend, Joanne Lees, a British couple touring around Australia, may have sealed their fate when they stopped to watch the sun descend over the red desert before resuming their journey through the Northern Territory.

Police believe the gunman who waved them down on a lonely stretch of highway may have selected his prey when the pair paused an hour earlier at Ti Tree, 125 miles north of Alice Springs. The theory is that he resolved to follow their camper van, dispose of Mr Falconio, 28, and rape and murder 27-year-old Ms Lees.

The plan appears to have worked, to begin with. As the couple drove along the Stuart Highway, a strip of bitumen that runs arrow-straight from Alice to Darwin, the man signalled to them to pull over, indicating a problem with their exhaust. Ms Lees heard what she thought was a gunshot after Mr Falconio got out to speak to him. She was bound, gagged and bundled into his pick-up truck, but escaped and hid in the desert scrub for six hours before scrambling back on to the highway, bruised and terrified.

After a week-long manhunt assisted by spotter helicopters and Aboriginal trackers, the assailant is still at liberty and is expected to strike again. Yesterday, police issued an artist's impression of his distinctive, white four-wheel-drive utility vehicle and continued to follow up reported sightings. They said it was probably custom-built with an opening linking the cabin and the back.

The Northern Territory is five times the size of Britain, with a population of 190,000, and the gunman could have evaded police by travelling on back roads or cross-country. "We're looking for a needle in a haystack, and you don't get a haystack much bigger than the Northern Territory," said Commander Bob Fields, head of the investigation.

Police fear the worst for Mr Falconio, a building surveyor from Huddersfield. DNA tests on his father and brother have established that blood found at Barrow Creek would belong to him.

The horrific events have alarmed tourists and backpackers, who regard a pilgrimage to the Northern Territory as a quintessential Australian experience. It has also served as a reminder that there is a sinister underside to this most welcoming and accessible of countries.

Immortalised in films such as Mad Max, Crocodile Dundee and Picnic at Hanging Rock, the emptiness, harsh beauty and endless vistas of the Outback exert an irresistible pull. Alice Springs sits at the centre of a continent the size of the US; the surrounding desert – dotted with spinifex grass, mulga trees and red granite outcrops – is the physical and spiritual heart of Australia. It is a mystical and timeless landscape, a place of secrets, where men come face to face with their souls.

Voss, the title character in the Patrick White novel who sets out to cross the Australian continent, calls it a place to "discard the inessential and attempt the infinite". Aborigines derive their complex system of spirituality from a spectacular and unforgiving land crisscrossed by the "songlines" that so fascinated the author Bruce Chatwin. Remote communities still depend on the School of the Air for education and on the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

Early European explorers wrote of an eerie silence in the Outback, and many perished in the attempt to chart it. Its physical challenges are still underestimated by thousands of tourists who rent camper vans in Sydney and head for the Red Centre.

Summer temperatures reach 50 degrees Celsius in the shade, and people without water can die of dehydration in two days. Distances that look deceptively small on the map translate into hundreds of miles between roadhouses that are the source of food, fuel and water. The region is roamed by spiders the size of dinner plates and several species of poisonous snakes, including the feared taipan. In the north, there are saltwater crocodiles that grow to up to 21ft long and regularly attack people. Dingoes, the native wild dogs that killed a nine-year-old boy in Queensland in May, are ubiquitous.

It is a tough environment that attracts more than its fair share of rednecks, oddballs and desperadoes. Many of the hard-bitten, hard-drinking characters encountered in the Outback are on the run: from a broken marriage, the courts, the child support agency. A dog, a gun and a pick-up truck are standard accessories.

It is a perfect place for exile, and a perfect place to commit murder. Police took months to find the grave of Dean Robinson, a 20-year-old Australian killed in 1989 by two men who invited him to join a wild pig hunting expedition. His body, buried under a giant termite mound, was located only after his bones were unearthed by scavenging animals. Josef Schwab, another Outback murderer, went on a killing spree in the Northern Territory and Western Australia in 1987, shooting five people in the space of five days.

Now, with another psychopath at large, police have warned travellers that they should break one of the oldest rules of the Outback and avoid stopping to help stricken motorists. Few people would contemplate ignoring that advice.