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.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY NICK SCOTT

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.

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