18 September 2023

Brush with death: Couple’s trip of a lifetime goes up in flames

| Matt Nicholls
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Jake Gretten and Sam Bakker were getting ready to finish their trip around Australia before they got caught in a Cape York bushfire last week.

“I THOUGHT we were going to die.”

Those are the words of Sam Bakker, who said she had accepted her fate as she and her partner Jake Gretten were caught on foot in a bushfire last Tuesday.

What started as a morning stroll to watch new-found friends tackle the Old Telegraph Track ended with them medivacced via the Royal Flying Doctor Service with serious burns.

“I think we’re really lucky and really unlucky as well,” said 25-year-old Sam, a nurse from the Yarra Valley in Victoria.

“The fire just came out of nowhere.”

Their life-threatening experience put an end to what had been the adventure of a lifetime for the young couple.

Last year, Sam and Jake packed up their lives and hit the road, traversing across the Nullarbor, up the coast of Western Australia and into the Northern Territory.

After spending eight months in Darwin, working and exploring the Top End, they made their way to the Cape just a few weeks ago.

“We had left our boat at the Bramwell Roadhouse and spent two weeks up the top, driving the Old Tele Track and exploring around Bamaga and the Tip,” Sam said.

“We were on our way south again and were camping at the roadhouse again. That night, we met some people from back home, so we decided to go to Palm Creek in the morning to watch them start the Tele Track.

“Our vehicle had a broken spring leaf (suspension) so we just walked from the roadhouse. It’s not that far, only a few kilometres.”

As Sam and Jake walked up the bush track, they saw smouldering branches and logs, but didn’t think much of it.

“I just thought it had been from backburning,” she said.

“We’d just seen a lot of backburning in the NT, so we thought it was normal.

“We sat at Palm Creek and watched a heap of cars go through and then started to walk back.

“By then, it had gotten really smoky so we started to run because we didn’t want to inhale the smoke.

“At that stage, there was no fire we could see.”

Sam and Jake had ventured up this track to watch new-found friends tackle the Palm Creek section of the Old Telegraph Track.

However, the wind picked up and flames quickly emerged.

“We went from running to avoid the smoke to running for our lives,” Sam explained.

“I thought we were going to die.

“In my mind, I had accepted that we would die there.

“All I could hear was Jake yelling at me to keep running.

“I couldn’t see him because of the smoke.

“I don’t know how long we were running through the fire but all of a sudden there was a break in the flames and we got out.

Sam said she didn’t realise the true extent of the injuries to her or Jake until they got closer to the roadhouse.

“Our bodies were red but the pain hadn’t kicked in from all of the adrenaline,” she said.

“We still had a couple of kilometres to get back to the roadhouse so we put all of our energy into getting there.

“No one knew we were there.”

The severity of their burns was immediate once at the roadhouse.

“I’ve got burns to my upper arms, both thighs and the left side of my face and ear,” Sam said.

“Jake has burns on the left side of his face, as well as his legs.”

They praised the quick-thinking of Mel and Mark from Bramwell Roadhouse, who helped with their injuries and promptly called for the Flying Doctors.

“Mel is a nurse and she sprang into action and got us into the showers under running water,” Sam said.

“She gave us morphine and she was constantly speaking to me, distracting me from the pain.

“Mark had organised the RFDS to fly into Bramwell Station and for the ambulance to come from Weipa.”

The Royal Flying Doctor Service arrived at Bramwell Station quickly. The medical team was then ushered up the PDR to the roadhouse. Picture: RFDS File Image.

And while the ambulance didn’t make it – suffering a breakdown along the way – the RFDS didn’t take long to arrive from Cairns.

Once the plane landed, the on-board medical team was put into a car and taken to Sam and Jake at the roadhouse.

“The chef from the station drove the doctors out,” Sam said.

“We were given incredible support from everyone at the roadhouse and the RFDS.

“Mel and Mark even packed up our campsite and took care of what was in our fridge and freezer.”

The generosity didn’t end there, however.

“I can’t praise the Cairns Hospital staff enough. They were so good to us,” Sam said.

“They got us into the ward quickly and gave us a room together, which they don’t normally do.

“The first day we had physios and dieticians come in and provide their services. And a social worker brought us clothes.”

And while the clothes weren’t a great fit for Sam, she was blown away by the gesture.

Again, the Far North Queensland hospitality came to the fore.

“We were going to get discharged on Friday and because we were going to fly straight home to Victoria, I wanted some clothes that fitted because I have all these bandages and didn’t want people staring at me,” Sam said.

“I put up a post on a local Facebook group for women and someone went to Kmart for me and bought clothes and dropped them at the hospital, along with a box of chocolates.

“I don’t even know anything about this woman, except that her name is Amie. Her kindness made me start crying.”

And while there have been plenty of tears since their ordeal, Sam and Jake are moving forward with optimism.

“We’re doing all right. It’s been a traumatic event and while we’re not ready to go camping yet because the smell of smoke is quite triggering, but I definitely want to get back out there and do it again,” Sam said.

Sam and Jake made it to the Tip of the Cape before getting stuck in the fire near the Bramwell Roadhouse.

“I feel lucky and we’re going to do a fundraiser for the RFDS to show our support to them.”

As for their vehicle and boat, that’s also been taken care of.

“The RACV called us (on Saturday) and we’re completely covered to get it brought back home. It had a mechanical issue before the fire so we’re feeling very blessed.”

The young couple said they wanted to thank everyone involved, as well as all those who sent messages.

“Cape York was so good to us and we won’t forget it,” Sam said.

“We rang Mark and Mel to thank them and our parents from Victoria have also rung them to thank them, too.”

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