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I finally got around to watching the original Planet of the Apes and the first thing Heston and his team do, after deciding there is no life, is to march into the desert away from water. Why do that? Isn't the first rule of survival to follow the water? Do any commentaries ever touch on this?

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Frank Herbert's Fremen would agree religiously. –  livresque Feb 27 '13 at 5:13
    
@livresque Pfff... real Fremen don't need water. Water is for weaklings. –  Mr Lister Feb 27 '13 at 8:24
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I know the rule you're talking about, yes - follow water. It flows down and eventually reaches the ocean, where there'll be some settlement...eventually. But it's also possible this could have been some landlocked lake. Since it was in the desert, maybe they crashed during the end of the rainy season and the lake would normally evaporate over the coming weeks. –  Tango Feb 27 '13 at 9:46
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The short canon answer is that the lake was salt water and undrinkable. Though it's not stated in the movie, this would help to explain why they left what appeared to be a valuable water source. It takes water to survive so they had to find fresh water quickly in that hostile alien environment.

The longer version answer:

They came down into what appears to be a large high desert lake with another lake at about the 11:00 position as viewed through the pilot's window. The earth date according to the ship's monitor was reading Nov. 25, 3978.

As they scramble out of the sinking spaceship, the camera shows a partial panoramic view of what looks like a very large lake with no apparent outlet. The canyon they paddled their raft through was actually just a connecting channel between adjoining lake sections.

Later in the movie a still bandaged Taylor is trying to communicate with Zera and Cornelious about where he came from. They produce a map that shows the supposed 'lake' in the forbidden zone where his ship sank. As he traces his overland route for them you can clearly see that the lower western end of the lake narrows, twists and turns through a gorge until it eventually drain into the ocean.

If they would have taken that water route through to the ocean, they would have discovered no civilization and likely died of thirst. Luckily for them, the route they took was actually the shortest possible route to food, water and civilization.

I just found this production background data:

The opening scenes of the original Planet of the Apes (1968) use landscape to disorient the main characters, as well as the movie-watching audience, by showing the humans' spaceship landing in an unnatural-looking deep lake surrounded by red desert sandstone, leading everyone to believe the planet is an alien one.

Filming the opening of the movie in Lake Powell near Glen Canyon, Arizona, a paradoxical deep lake in a desert, unsettles those taking in the scene because it appears natural and yet exists only through artificial involvement (in actuality, the human intervention of damming the Colorado River).

The dry, tree-free and plant-free red rock environment of Lake Powell and the apes' planet is something unfamiliar to the majority of the Earth's population that dwells on the coasts. Having a desert environment suggests a habitat challenging to primate habitation. In retrospect, the desert represents the plant-free wasteland that the Earth has become. http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/blevins_12_11/

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As astronauts Col. George Taylor, *Lt. John Landon and Lt. Thomas Dodge trudge away from the 'lake', you can see from the sun cast shadows that they move in a generally western direction which is consistent with the story line and the map reference sequence. –  Morgan Mar 17 '13 at 21:11
    
Cannon reveals that the lake was actually salt water which would make it undrinkable. Though it's not stated in the movie, this would help to explain why they left a supposed water source. It takes water to survive so they had to find fresh water quickly in that environment. planetoftheapes.wikia.com/wiki/Landon –  Morgan Mar 17 '13 at 22:21
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