Channel 9 news reader Melissa Downes during the trek through the Simpson Desert, raising money for Youngcare.
Channel 9 news reader Melissa Downes during the trek through the Simpson Desert, raising money for Youngcare. Channel 9

Newsreader taken out of her comfort zone and into the desert

MELISSA Downes' eight-day trek through the Simpson Desert earlier this year began and ended with the threat of disaster.

By lunchtime on day one, the Channel 9 news reader and her fellow trekkers were told they could not go on - radiating heat had pushed the temperatures up to the point where 60 degrees of fierce heat bounced back at them from the red sand.

A week later, they were again told they could not go on.

Instead, they were bundled into 4WDs and sent hurtling across the high sand dunes in the dark for almost eight hours.

They had been forced to call off the final day of walking so they could beat potential rain threatening to leave them stranded in the wilderness for another week.

The days in between these two events offered their own trials.

Flies bothered them by the hundreds, scorpions and spiders hung out with them at camp time and the food was definitely no damper by the fire.

They had no phones, no beds, no showers and often no idea of what was planned for them next.

These tests thrown up by the Australian outback were all part of a broader, months-long challenge to help thousands of young people across the country who are forced to live without the care they need.

The Youngcare Simpson Desert Challenge is an annual trek across more than 250km of dirt, sand and spinifex.

Melissa ditched the newsroom to be one of 18 trekkers who took part in this year's challenge, held between April 28 and May 8.

They walked from Poeppel's Corner, a landmark at the border where Queensland meets South Australia and the Northern Territory, to a tower that marks the centre of the Simpson Desert in a giant loop that began in Birdsville.

As well as raising more than $650,000 for Youngcare, their trek was also made into a documentary airing across the country this weekend.

Melissa said the presence of a film crew added a little reality television feeling to an event that look a whole lot of endurance and a willingness to embrace the elements.


The documentary crew films walkers during their trek through the Simpson Desert.
The documentary crew films walkers during their trek through the Simpson Desert. Channel 9

She spent her nights sleeping out in the open with a sleeping bag and a mat laid across the sand.

They rose before the sun every day to be ready for the morning trek by 5am.

The walking was hard work that took months of training to prepare for. Melissa and the other trekkers had to manoeuvre around shrubs that had sprung up with the wet weather and they even broke into a rendition of Waltzing Matilda after spotting some coolibah trees. "You really had to focus on where you were walking," she said.

One unsettling, and deliberate, feature of the trek was the lack of information about what would happen next. Melissa said they sometimes did not know when they would leave a site, or arrive at the next one.

The move was something Youngcare organisers used to show the 18 trekkers what life is all too often like for young people with a disability.

Lack of information, lack of funding and a lack of consultation is something that affects young people with high-care needs across the country.

Youngcare estimates about 7000 people under the age of 65 are living in aged care homes because there is nowhere else for them.

They may have acquired brain injuries that mean they can't stay at home, or they may have an illness such as motor neurone disease, cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis.

In its submission to the Australian Senate last year, Youngcare highlighted the extreme problems that come with putting a young person with complex needs in a facility designed only to respond to the problem of aging.

"People under 65 with a disability enter residential aged care for a variety of reasons, but predominantly due to a lack of state-funded disability services and a shortage of suitable housing," the submission said.

"The most obvious and emotionally traumatic issue is the social isolation it creates for younger people. For example, less than 54% of young people in RAC receive a visit from friends annually and even less will leave an aged care facility to visit a friend."

The problem is not limited to those living in a care facility.

Melissa highlighted the challenges facing one young man who used a wheelchair and whose family could not afford to retrofit their home with a disability-friendly bathroom.

It meant he showered only once a week, when a family member was able to take him to a facility with an appropriate bathroom.

"That was what they were trying to show us," Melissa said.

"Part of the experience was to take us out of our comfort zone to a place where we didn't have control."

Melissa said she hoped the trek and the documentary would highlight the need for the right care for young people with a disability.

The documentary 8 Days In the Desert will air on Channel 9 in Queensland at 4pm today and in Sydney from 2.30pm today (May 28).

It will air in Melbourne on Sunday from 2pm and in Adelaide, Darwin and Perth from 1.30pm on Sunday.