Victim had just prayed too hard

AUSTRALIA: Sweat lodge victim Rowan Cooke was a devoted environmentalist to his last breath – praying to bring "healing to the planet".

Fading in and out of consciousness following his collapse inside a sweat lodge in the State's Far North on Wednesday, Mr Cooke's final words were: "I have done a lot to damage the earth."

"If there is a case of praying too hard, this is it," fellow group member David – who would not reveal his last name – said yesterday.

"He just over-exerted himself."

Despite having done hundreds of similar ceremonies, Mr Cooke, 37, succumbed to the effects of the intense heat and steam inside a dome tent built from sticks and blankets, and died later on the way to hospital.

Fellow participant Adrian Asfar, 30, was released from Port Augusta Hospital yesterday. He was visited by the rest of the 11-member group on their way home to Melbourne and was being interviewed by police.

Youth worker Maureen Collier was inside the sweat lodge with the two men when they began to lose consciousness.

"How many people have been injured or died during sporting events? But because this was a spiritual thing people think it is bizarre when actually all we were doing was praying, like people do in a church or mosque," she said.

She said things began to go wrong when Mr Cooke – who she said was leading the ceremony – poured what was believed to be bore water on heated rocks inside the lodge.

Mr Cooke's family deny Rowan was the one who planned the ill-fated trip.

"Rowan's being blamed as a bad leader, who put inadequate thought into looking after his group," said his father, Douglas, yesterday.

"I didn't even know he had gone away on this one until I heard he wasn't coming home," his brother, Miles, who has joined in the purification ceremonies in the past, said.

Both said it was unlike Rowan not to ask permission from the farmer whose land they were camping on.

"It's not Rowan's nature," Douglas said.

Rowan's partner, Theara, has been devastated by the news. The couple had a one-year-old son, Seth.

"She is keeping up a strong front but she's a very shattered person," Miles said.

He said his brother and the other members of the group – all from Melbourne – were normal people.

"These are just your normal, everyday, run-of-the-mill people," he said.

"Granted, they are all searching for that little bit extra – using crystals and things like that to try and seek enlightenment," he said.

Douglas said the group was not a sect. "It was a bit like a club, a special car club or something like that. I don't think you could call it a cult or a sect," he said.

Meanwhile, the family of a sweat lodge victim has called for the ritual to be outlawed in Australia. Kylie Watts was 30 when she died on July 1, 2003, after taking part in the traditional Native American ritual at a retreat in New South Wales.

She was in a coma on a life support machine for 10 days before she died.

Doctors told her father Keith, 55, that her "blood was boiling" during the ceremony.

Mr Cooke's death on Wednesday brings to six the number of people world-wide who have died as a result of sweat-lodging in the past 11 years.

"It has to be stopped – one person dying is bad enough but it's been quite a few now," Kylie Watts' step-mother, Kathleen, said.