On November 19 2019, Claire Hockridge took a wrong turn. Looking for the Maryvale Road, heading back to Alice Springs, the mother of two became lost. At sunrise the next day, the car hit the dry river bed of the Finke River.
Hockridge, her partner Tamra McBeath-Riley and their friend Phu Tran were ill-prepared, with only half a packet of biscuits and one pack of instant noodles. Hockridge and Tran left to look for help, while McBeath-Riley stayed with her dog, Raya.
The search went for two weeks. Tran, 40, and McBeath-Riley, 52, were found alive after 12 and 14 days in the desert, but Hockridge, 46, who had become separated, died on December 4.
It was initially reported as a camping trip gone awry, and a miraculous rescue from the remote outback. But a police investigation, prepared for the Northern Territory coroner, has found that Hockridge, McBeath-Riley, and Tran had ventured into the bush in a drug smuggling operation that went wrong, looking to find methamphetamine they had hidden.
Born on 1 May 1973 in Narrogin in Western Australia, Hockridge was one of five siblings, and one of three triplets. She was raised on farms in the WA wheat belt, had a degree in nursing, and moved to Alice Springs in 2005.
Her sisters Sarah and Melinda came to Alice Springs when she went missing, and through the grief, thanked the police, farmers and emergency services who helped find their sister, and rescued her friends. Claire also had two children, born in 1992 and 1997.
According to the report given to the coroner, Hockridge and McBeath-Riley used methamphetamine and heroin. In late October 2019, they drove to Adelaide with a plan to obtain methamphetamine and bring it back to Alice Springs. In Adelaide, they met their friend Tran, bought a second car, bought the drugs, and journeyed back.
After they passed the Northern Territory border, and were 130km south of home, they turned and followed a dirt track to Highbury Station, a huge cattle station off the Stuart Highway.
At sunrise on November 20, Hockridge, McBeath-Riley and Tran found themselves in the dry river bed, the car bogged down in sand
There, they dug holes and buried the drugs inside PVC canisters. They marked the place with arrows, drawn in the dirt, and left for Alice Springs. Five days later, on November 19 they told friends they “planned to go driving or camping out of town” and made preparations for their return.
Thinking it would be a short trip, the trio were woefully underprepared for what would be two weeks of 40C heat.
According to the report, they left Alice Springs at 7.50pm that night, carrying 2-4 litres of water, a 20-litre Jerry can of fuel, a GPS, a compass, lighters, shovels, binoculars, a spotting scope, a case “containing drug paraphernalia” and half a pack of biscuits and one pack of beef instant noodles. They also had stopped earlier at a Liquorland and bought pre-mix vodka in cans.
They found the drugs easily enough, dug them up and struck out back home, heading east, looking for the out-of-the-way Maryvale Road, so they could return to Alice Springs undetected. It was here they became lost.
At sunrise on November 20, Hockridge, McBeath-Riley and Tran found themselves in the dry river bed, roughly 23km east of the Stuart Highway. The car was bogged down in sand.
They tried to free the car but couldn’t. They stayed inside with the air-conditioner on, drank through all the water as well as eight cans of the vodka mix. At 9pm the next day, they walked north for a kilometre until they found a waterhole, filled their bottles and drank – perhaps not realising the water was stagnant. They continued like this for the next few days. In the day, they dug themselves under the car to escape the heat, and a night, they slept inside the car. All three become violently ill from the water.
By November 23, their friends had become concerned, and Hockridge’s daughter reported her missing. On November 24, the car ran out of fuel. They abandoned it, walked north and set up camp by a different waterhole, where they began boiling the water before drinking.
Meanwhile, in Alice Springs, police had searched Hockridge and McBeath-Riley’s apartment. They found it had been trashed, and “it appeared as though someone else had already been through the unit”. A CCTV recording box nearby had been unplugged. It is still unclear who was responsible for this.
As police searched, on November 28, the trio decided that Hockridge and Tran would leave camp and walk to look for help on the Stuart Highway. Their GPS said it was a 23km walk. McBeath-Riley would stay at the waterhole with her dog, a blue staffordshire terrier.
Hockridge and Tran left in the late afternoon, each with a bag and 3 litres of water each, and walked until night. They did the same the next day. The temperature was 39.8C. Neither of them had hats. They became severely heat-affected, and separated slightly – Hockridge could see that Tran was struggling, so she said she would go on alone up a hill to see a bit further. Tran went to find some shade, and passed out. When he woke up, he could not see Hockridge.
On November 27, police received a tip-off about where the trio had buried the drugs. Helicopters began searching the area. Tran had found a water tank at Palmer Valley Station that he said saved him. On November 29, the station manager of Henbury Station spotted the car’s tyre tracks, and police found the car from the air two days later.
McBeath-Riley and her dog Raya were found alive at the campsite nearby. Police found the footprints of Tran and Hockridge, which showed they were “confused and disoriented”. Hockridge was carrying two packages of methamphetamine, weighing 100g, and seven and a half grams of heroin. The group had used between 22-33 grams of the methamphetamine.
On December 3, Tran was discovered at the water tank by the owner of Palmer Valley Station, a man called Ted Fogarty. The next day, police found Hockridge’s body, 8.5km east of the Stuart Highway.
Days earlier, from Alice Springs hospital, McBeath-Riley had said she was “worried to death” about her partner, after finding out she had not made it to the main road. Claire’s sister Sarah, with Melinda, spoke to media after the ordeal was over.
“Even though Claire died in terrible circumstances, we are glad that Tamra and Phu have been found alive and well,” she said. “We are extremely grateful to everyone who was involved in that.
“My brothers, Melinda and I extend our gratitude to the Northern Territory police for their skilful investigation that allowed the search area to be focused correctly. We are really grateful to everyone who has supported us over what has been a truly agonising time.”