Lost in the bush:
Seven-year-olds Marley Aplin and Rhianna Ryan survived a bitterly cold winter night lost in rugged bushland. Samantha Trenoweth meets the young explorers, who have been nominated for bravery awards, and their equally courageous families.
two little girls who went missing
Mardi Aplin is not a panicker, but at four o’clock, as the first chill of evening descended, she was struck by that fierce black hole that opens in a mother’s belly when her child is missing. “My heart sank, I began to panic and all hell broke loose. I’m a pretty positive person, but this pushed me to my brink.”
Mardi’s daughter, Marley, and her school friend, Rhianna, had walked into bushland in Australia’s NSW central-west and, as the sun began to dip behind rugged hills, Mardi knew that the girls were lost. The area is honeycombed with old mining shafts and even though they’ve been largely covered over, it’s steep, rocky terrain – no place for two seven-year-olds to be wandering about in after dark.
At 38, Mardi is a personal trainer and seasoned camper. Her husband, Mick, is 41, a landscaper and keen outdoorsman. This particular
Saturday was unseasonably warm for the time of year. Mardi and Mick were camping overnight at the Ophir Reserve with their children, Marley and Carter, 10, who had each brought a friend. They’d spent the early afternoon exploring. Back at camp, Mardi had set out afternoon tea, while the boys swung on a rope over the river and the girls climbed a hill opposite the campsite.
“The girls had been climbing that hill earlier to collect rocks and bones,” Mardi explains. “We could see them from the campsite. They were calling themselves ‘nature queens’.”
Mardi watched the girls climb the hill, but when they reached the top and began to head further afield, she gathered the boys and walked around >>
“Rhianna slipped and I tried to grab her, but I fell after her. ”
the hill to meet them. “That was the only time we took our eyes off them,” she says. “There were a few minutes, while we walked around the hill, when they were out of our sight.”
Yet when Mardi and the boys arrived at the point where the girls should have been, they had vanished.
“Mick got in the car and took off across the river,” Mardi recalls. “I ran up the hill, yelling out for them. Now we know they could hear me, but I couldn’t hear them shouting back, and they’d completely lost their bearings.”
The girls heard Mardi calling and hurried to find her. The Aplins had often taken a two-kilometre walk that circled the bush and back to camp, so Marley reasoned if she and Rhianna kept following the path, it would do the same. It didn’t – and then they were frightened off the path altogether.
Cliff top tumble
Today, the girls are sitting in a patch of pale sunshine in a bushland park not far from their home. Neither of them is keen to revisit Ophir, but they’re happy to recount every detail of their 20-hour adventure.
The girls came upon a mob of kangaroos. “There was one really big, brown one,” Rhianna remembers, “hopping towards us.”
“We were scared,” says Marley, now eight, “so we ran and that’s when we got lost. There was a big cliff and a rock. Rhianna slipped and I tried to grab her, but I fell after her.”
Rhianna’s fall was broken by a log. “That’s when I hit my head and it started bleeding,” she says. When she was found, her tights and sloppy joe were blood-soaked. Marley lost a shoe in the fall, scraped her face, bruised her hip and, when she dusted herself off at the bottom, her hands were raw and bleeding because she’d used them to slow her descent. She lost her other shoe in a blackberry bush, “so I had no shoes, my socks got wet, I was really cold and, in the dark, I was stepping in lots of weird things.”
The desperate search
Back at camp, Mardi had driven beyond the reserve to find mobile coverage and dial the emergency services number. She had also called a police officer friend and asked him to contact Rhianna’s family. “That was awful, too,” she says, “because I was responsible for their little girl.”
By the time Rachael and Stephen Ryan arrived at Ophir, State Emergency Service and Rural Fire Service volunteers and the police were on the ground. Then friends arrived, and local townspeople – in all, 200 people joined the search that night.
Mardi tried to remain calm. “Rachael and I were confident that the girls were smart enough to stay safe overnight,” she says. “We knew they wouldn’t go near the water and they wouldn’t leave each other. I’ve instilled that in my kids: stick with your friend and look after them, no matter what. I was sure that, at first light, we’d find them.”
Yet at dawn, the girls were still
“I said, ‘Is that you, Rhianna?’ and she said, ‘Yes.’ ”
missing and by mid-morning, police divers had arrived to search the river.
“I never want to experience that again,” Mardi says, grimly. “Police divers in the water in front of you and the morning ticking on. The last couple of hours were horrific.”
Meanwhile, Marley and Rhianna (who both sleep with a nightlight) had weathered a cold, dark night in the bush. The girls were dressed in light pants and jumpers suitable for a sunny afternoon, not a night where the thermometer dipped nearly to zero.
They stopped walking after sunset and, Marley says, “moved away from the water”. With the common sense of seasoned explorers, they “found smooth sand and made pillows, and pulled our jumpers down over our knees and cuddled up to keep warm… Mum said we were like Bear Grylls, except when we fell, when we were like [Australian mocumentary adventurer] Russell Coight.”
Rhianna asked whether Marley knew how to make a fire. “I didn’t,” she says, “and I didn’t want to burn the bush. I kept thinking about what would happen if we had a genie and we could ask for three wishes. Mine would be blankets and home and…”
“… and the caravan,” adds Rhianna. “Marley was talking about how warm and nice the caravan would be. There’d be a heater and sparklers, and we’d be able to watch movies.”
“I woke up in the night,” Marley remembers, giggling, “and there was something on top of me. I thought it was an animal and I saw it had brown hair, so I thought it might be a wombat. I went to push it off, but then I said, ‘Is that you, Rhianna?’ and she said, ‘Yes,’ and I was like…” Marley breathes a sigh of relief and the girls fall about laughing.
At daybreak, Marley was still sleeping when Rhianna heard a helicopter. They tried to signal to it, but they were too sore and hungry to move far. By now, they’d been without food and water for almost 20 hours.
Then, at around 11am, they saw four local lads walking by the river. “We asked if we could borrow their phone,” Marley says, grinning, “and they said, ‘We don’t have reception.’” The girls laugh like this is the best joke in the world. “Then we said, ‘We need to go to Ophir Camp,’ and they said, ‘We know. We’ve been looking for you.’”
The boys carried them out of the bush and a helicopter collected them from a nearby paddock. There was an ecstatic family reunion and an exciting ambulance transfer to hospital, where Marley was treated for mild hypothermia (the best medicine was two trays of hospital food). Rhianna stayed overnight and was given a general anaesthetic to stitch a wound on her back. Today, both girls are fighting fit and the NSW Ambulance Service is to nominate them for a
NSW Ambulance Star Award to recognise their bravery.
Their mums report there have been “a few rough nights”.
Rhianna screamed in her sleep at the hospital and Marley has had nightmares. She’s been sleeping with her parents or in the second bunk in her brother’s room.
“No more bushwalking,” Marley says. “It’s my worst nightmare.”
“You’ll be out there again one day,” her mum says, soothingly.
“In a thousand years,” Marley insists, but adds she’s been given a dream-catcher for her birthday. She’s hoping it will put paid to any lingering nightmares soon.
Marley Aplin (left) and Rhianna Ryan’s friendship got them through their ordeal.
The air and river search involved 200 people. ABOVE, CENTRE: The girls with a relieved helicopter rescue crew.
FROM FAR LEFT: Stephen and Rachael Ryan with daughters Phoebe, two, Lali, six, and Rhianna. Mardi and Mick Aplin with Marley and her 10-year-old brother, Carter.