12 hours of terror
THE paw paw juice burnt like acid on Karen Gilfillan's lacerated hands.
It was the sting of salvation.
Exhausted, scratched all over and carrying her eldest daughter Ashlea, Karen staggered out of a 12-hour nightmare in the bush to find the fruit that signalled their survival.
Their inspirational struggle began early on Sunday morning when they left for a 42km run from their home at The Channon up to Mount Nardi.
Prolific runners in the area and experienced bush people, the Gilfillans planned their route and placed water along the track.
But a fallen tree concealed their path along the Historic Nightcap Track and three-and-a-half hours into the run, they were lost somewhere in the Nightcap National Park.
“When we realised we'd taken the wrong path we turned around but we'd lost the track,” Karen said.
At this stage they'd run the equivalent distance of a marathon, but up a mountain. It would be eight hours before they emerged at a farm at Doon Doon, about half-way to Murwillumbah.
“We hadn't had a drink for four hours and I knew we were in trouble,” Karen said
“We started looking for water. We were already exhausted.
“We drank out of a muddy puddle first because we thought that might be all we get.”
From a hilltop, Karen spotted a farm in the distance and headed straight for it.
Trudging down the treacherous slope, they almost fell off a cliff and got caught in a thick mass of lantana.
“We could hardly move. We were sliding under rocks and crawling through gullies,” Karen said.
“There was lantana all around us. I couldn't see out for hours. I knew we had to get out of it or die. No one would've found us.
“I just smashed at it with my feet and arms. Just like you would with a knife, but I did it with my body.
Spurring them on was the memory of their deceased daughter and sister Brittany.
“I lost my baby daughter on the 1st of December 13 years ago. That was very much in my mind.
“I said to Ashlea 'we're not going to have another two deaths in the family'.
“That's the reason I kept beating the lantana; you are driven by strength you don't know you have.”
Her running shorts and crop top provided no protection and Karen suffered thousands of scratches all over her body.
“I had been looking for food. I found a yabby I was trying to catch,” she said.
If she had caught it, they would've eaten it raw, claws and all.
“We hadn't eaten since the night before, we were both hyperglycaemic. Ashlea didn't know how much danger we were in. She just wanted to stop and sleep. I kept slapping myself to stay awake.”
Eventually they came upon the farm but no one was home.
“I found a paw paw and smashed it. It stung like hell. It was a bit green but still had sweet meat,” Karen said.
Karen took a handful, left the rest with Ashlea, and ate it as she ran 2km to get help.
She came back with the son of the house owner.
“Ashlea was sprawled out on the driveway,” Karen said. “He thought she was dead.
“He said that cliff we were hanging off, that people had died up there.”
The man gave Ashlea ginger ale and lollies to get her sugar levels up and Karen called her family to let them know they were okay.
Ashlea is now recovering at her grandmother's house while Karen is recuperating at home.
The family had been searching the bush for the pair for eight hours.
“ I knew we had to get out of it or die”
“ Ashlea was sprawled out on the driveway. He thought she was dead.”