After we realised that we had lost Aisha in the bush — albeit with an adult companion — Christmas Eve was the longest night of the year for us. The reunion of our family is a wonderful Christmas present — the best that money can’t buy!

It’s a good thing that I felt at peace as I sat at our camp-site and waited for David to return back from his 4WD adventure with three of our daughters and 20yo Luke. Elijah was sleeping peacefully, Calista was playing on the computer and I was downing multiple cups of chai as I watched the sunset and then experimented with photographing the satellites that passed overhead.

Even though it became very dark and all the stars came out, I wasn’t concerned by my family’s late return. I imagined them to be having such a good time somewhere else that they weren’t in a hurry to get back to our camp.

Headlights over the horizon at night, December 2011
Headlights show over the crest of the hill, and I know that my family is coming back to me.

The car that came over the hill wasn’t the Landcruiser that went out. It was Tom’s car — our neighbour had collected David, Delaney and Brioni and brought them to our camp site because the kids were too tired to walk further.

David explained that their party had split up. Aisha and Luke had headed up the mountain in a hurry because they wanted to see the sunset, and David had followed at a slower pace with Brioni and Dell. At some point, David realised that he didn’t know where Aisha and Luke were, but it was getting dark and he needed to return to the car.

Meanwhile, Luke had scrambled up to the crest of the mountain with Aisha on his back so they could watch the sunset. It was very colourful — definitely worth the climb — but once it was over, it got dark very quickly.

Aisha and Luke's view on Christmas Eve, December 2011
Climbing up the thickly forested mountain, Luke could catch glimpses of the view across the valleys.

Aisha examining a caterpillar, December 2011
This monarch butterfly's caterpillar deserves close attention.

The sunset on Christmas Eve, December 2011
This lovely sunset rewards Aisha and Luke for their scramble to the top of the mountain.

In the dusk, David found it was difficult to follow his earlier footsteps, and with Brioni and Delaney under his care, he started to realise that he didn’t know where the car was!

Opting to get the kids back to our camp as quickly as possible, David headed down the mountain with Delaney on his back and Brioni in tow. There wasn’t a danger of getting lost — all roads lead to our camp-site, but David needed to find a road to follow before all the sunlight was gone.

Brioni initially needed a lot of encouragement to keep walking the several kilometres back to our camp. David later explained to me that this took a lot of his energy and that lack later contributed to his concern about Aisha.

Meanwhile, after the sunset, Luke put Aisha on his back and started heading down to the car. After a while, both he and Aisha realised that although they should have long reached the car, it wasn’t where they thought it was, and they were lost. Luke says that at this point, Aisha began to cry, wishing that she had never come on the walk and just wanting to be reunited with her dad! Luke says that she told him, “I just love my dad so much.”

Gently, Luke was able to pull her out of her sadness. He explained how he was feeling about the situation, and he says their spirits rose in unison.

Focusing, Luke and Aisha decided on a plan. All torches and water were still sitting in the car, but Luke was carrying a lighter so making a fire was possible. In the remaining light, Luke again carried Aisha to the top of the hill, believing it to be the most visible spot in the terrain. He intended to light a fire so David would be able to locate them.

At the top, Luke sat Aisha down next to a large, flat granite rock and started to gather sticks. Aisha became upset, not wanting Luke to leave her alone in the dark, so he scrabbled around on the ground to collect some twigs and get the fire going. Luke says his first few attempts to light the fire failed but then he found some stray paper in his utility belt, and the fire stayed lit.

Once the fire was going, Aisha became content to let Luke move further away from her as he collected more firewood. “I then sat down and helped calm Aisha, we talked about how of all the ways we could be lost in the bush, this was quite easy because we had each other, and a fire,” Luke says. “Then Aisha started telling me the lessons she has learnt from this experience.

“We decided we learnt to always carry water! Also always carry a lighter, and when exploring the forest, always take the time to plan how you will know the way back to the car!”

At about 9.30pm, David finally reached Tom’s car and deposited Delaney and Brioni in it before crossing the creek to find Tom. Tom drove the girls around to me at our camp-site before taking David back up the mountain. David says that they drove as far up the 4WD track as they could, but the gradient became too steep for Tom’s Subaru, and they eventually turned back after first beeping the horn and calling out for Luke and Aisha.

On the mountain-top, as they settled in the warmth of the fire, Luke and Aisha slowly became conscious of the beauty of their environment. “The sky was huge and went on in all direction, the stars were so bright and the sky so dark and beautiful,” Luke remembers. “We then decided that other than the lessons we had learnt, to opportunity to spend this moment looking at the stars was worth being lost in the bush!”

Aisha fell asleep before too long, using Luke as a pillow and blanket. When she woke up, she was more brave. “Rather than being scared to be left by the fire as I collected wood, she was happy to sit and wait for me to gather more fuel for our warmth,” Luke recalls.

“Then we started singing songs together. I sung In the jungle and Akuna matata from The Lion King and Under the sea from The Little Mermaid.“ Aisha would fall asleep and then wake periodically. “We started having fun, and Aisha would tell me: ‘The first thing I’m going to do when I get back to Daddy is make sure he knows that we have been alright the whole time!’” Luke says he was amazed at how she got braver and braver as the night wore on.

David and Tom returned to our camp, and we discussed our further options. At this point David was wracked with fears for Aisha’s emotional state. We believed that Luke and Aisha would be sitting in the car waiting for David’s return with the girls, and David thought that Aisha would be worried on their behalf. If Luke had returned to the car, we just needed him to make the decision to drive down the mountain and bring Aisha back to me at our camp-site. I wryly remarked that Luke may be trying to get the courage to return to our camp with just one child and admit to me that he’d lost my husband and two other small children along the way. “Come on, Luke and Aisha,” David would mutter. “Come back to us.”

At this point in the night, I didn’t feel overly concerned for Luke and Aisha. I knew that they would be safe, and the evening was mild so even if they couldn’t make a fire, they wouldn’t get too cold. Somehow I could rest in the knowledge that this event had been designed as a learning experience — especially for Luke and Aisha, but also for David and me as the parents of a missing child.

Our last experience with losing Brioni and Aisha in the bush in Carnarvon Gorge was an emotional train-wreck. Although we found the girls within several hours and they were unharmed, during our separation from them, David and I spent the whole time arguing about how we would discipline them when they came back to us! Upon reflection, we’ve definitely progressed since then, and during most of the ordeal, I found myself at peace about everything. Instead of creating imaginary scenarios in my mind, I kept telling myself that everything was fine. Perfect love casts out fear, and I believe in a perfect Love ruling the universe.

After resting a bit, David decided to start walking back up the mountain to find the car — still believing that Aisha and Luke would be in it. During his absence, I couldn’t sleep much, and simply focused on keeping my thoughts positive. When he returned with the Landcruiser — and no Aisha, we both felt flattened again.

We’re still waiting on the landowner’s return, and so now that we had the car, David decided to drive to Lloyd’s house to see if he was back and could assist in the search. When he returned back to me, he reported that Lloyd still wasn’t back, but David had left a note in case Lloyd turned up in the next couple of hours.

David decided that he would take the Landcruiser up the mountain as far as he could — it’s a hairy 4WD track that is not tackled lightly in daylight, much less on a moonless night! However, David wanted to camp at the truck and take his big boombox stereo to blast music for Luke and Aisha to hear. He believed that a continuous noise would be easier to follow through the bush rather the intermittent sound of a car’s horn. So David started to pack up the truck with the supplies that he would need. One further peculiarity about the Landcruiser — apart from it not having a starter motor nor a handbrake — is that we’ve lost the radiator cap and so need to keep topping it up with water. David took our 25-litre jerry can of water so that he could continue driving as long as he needed to.

It was 2.30 when David left me for the last time. I encouraged him by telling him the time — we both knew that it would be light in a couple of hours and then it would be easy for Luke and Aisha to find their way out of the bush.

Soon after 4 in the morning, Luke and Aisha thought they heard the car’s engine. The bush around them lit up from the Landcruiser’s headlights, and they could hear David honking the car’s horn. Luke recalls: “I told Aisha to wait here as I ran down to get Dave’s attention. Dave hopped out of the car and the first words I heard him say is ‘I love you, Luke! Do you have my baby?’ I gave him two thumbs up, and he said ‘Thank God!’”

When Aisha, Luke and David finally returned to our camp, they were all in good spirits. Aisha was reflecting positively on her experience and told me how brave she had been. Of course, Luke was singing her praises, too, and we think Luke is an extraordinary young man to connect with Aisha in such a special way during the ordeal! We’re thankful that he was with Aisha the whole time, and together they keep each others’ spirits up.

Throughout the night, we kept reminding ourselves that there was no personal fault in the situation, and it was a good thing that was happening, planned by God since before time began. It’s times like this that our faith in Divine goodness is tested. Do we and can we really believe that losing our 6yo daughter in the bush is a good thing, and can we be thankful while we’re still uncertain of the future? Yes, we do and yes we can!

Aisha and Luke, December 2011
It's 4.30 when everyone is finally back at our camp, and we celebrate Aisha and Luke's return with Turkish delight.

Happy Christmas, indeed!