The scream escaped my throat, filling my car, as I hurtled along the highway.
On hands-free, the shocking news my sister, Ellen, had just delivered hung in the air.
Spending the day on her grandpa’s farm, my three- year-old granddaughter had vanished into thin air. My ex-husband Gordon’s mountain-fringed property, just outside of Warwick, Queensland, was stunning.
But for an inquisitive toddler like Aurora, dangers lurked around every corner. Snakes, scorpions, wild pigs, I thought, frantically. Not to mention, the 12 dams and various uncovered wells.
She’d been missing since 3pm. Four hours on, the sun had well and truly set. What if a predator had taken our sweet girl?
Forcing the horrific image out of my mind, I wiped my eyes and went into super- gran mode.
Racing home to my fiancé, Kelly, and my son, Joey, 13, we all piled into the car for the 150km journey inland. With Kelly behind the wheel, I called my daughter, Letitia, 24 – Aurora’s mum. My girl was beside herself. Having left the farm to take her Grandma Margaret to Brisbane, she was on her way back, too.
‘Mum, don’t come – you’ll be just as emotional as me,’ she said. ‘The professionals are searching.’
Like hell, I thought. Turning our car into a command centre, I furiously pulled together a search party. I even organised for
a dear family friend, Uncle Ronald, who is an Aboriginal tracker, to meet us. Pulling up at 10pm, I saw the SES and police were there. But I didn’t want to leave a single stone unturned. Terrifyingly, they hadn’t found a trace of Aurora. Letitia was shell-shocked and catching sight of her dad, my heart went out to him.
It could’ve happened to anyone, I thought.
After badgering her grandpa to go yabbying, Aurora insisted that Max – his 17-year-old partially blind and deaf blue heeler – had to come along for the adventure. When they were ready to go, the phone rang and Gordon went to answer it quickly. When he returned, Aurora and Max were nowhere to be seen...
‘He was only gone for a minute,’ Letitia sobbed.
Without a second thought, I walked into the scrub and down into a gully.
‘Rora!’ I called.
Pitch black, I couldn’t see the ground in front of me.
I’m going to break my neck, I fretted.
Heading back, I found Uncle Ronald and we headed into the hills together. Letitia stayed at the house, in case Aurora returned.
Scouring the terrain for any clues, such as footprints or broken trees, and sweeping through eerie abandoned stables, we found nothing. Hours passed, and when we got back at 1am, the rescuers were packing up.
‘We’re blind out there – the choppers can’t see anything. We’ll start again first thing,’ a police officer said, gently.
‘Go and get some sleep,’ he added. But that night, I couldn’t even cover myself in a blanket, let alone close my eyes.
Aurora’s out there cold, how can I be warm? I thought.
As soon as daylight broke, I was back out in the bush.
Yelling for hours until I was hoarse, I tried to put myself in Aurora’s shoes.
Where would I have gone? I mused. Then it came to me! Fed up with waiting for her grandpa, our headstrong girl would have gone yabbying on her own.
Heading down to the gully again, which led to the creek, I reached a clearing. Just ahead, there was a steep mountain.
Would she climb that? I wondered.
‘Rora!’ I screamed. A faint whimper echoed back.
Was that a bird? I thought.
‘Rora!’ I called again, walking towards the sound. ‘Yeah?’ a faint voice travelled back.
My legs went to jelly as I sprinted towards the sound. ‘Aurora, where are you darling?’ I called out.
A furry face popped his head out from behind a big tree – Max! Then, I saw my little angel. Covered in burrs, her hair was a nest of leaves and sticks.
No wonder – she’d trekked a whopping 2km and scaled a 500m incline on her tiny legs! Her hair was a nest of leaves and sticks
And by now it was 8am – she’d roughed it outside for 17 hours. Wrapping Aurora in a blankie, I cradled her and sank to my knees.
‘Why are you crying, Gramby?’ she asked.
‘They’re happy tears, darling – I found you,’ I explained.
‘Max lay on top of me and kept me warm – he was my blanket,’ she told me.
Letitia was emotional beyond belief.
'Of course it would be you who found her, after I told you you’d be useless,’ she laughed through tears. Later, Aurora told us she’d got lost after deciding to walk to Brisbane to find her mummy.
‘I saw the lights from a very big monster,’ she said. The poor little thing was talking about the search and rescue helicopter! But she bounced back quickly.
‘I’m going to go on another holiday in the bush, but next time I’m going to have a tent,’ I overheard her saying the next day.
Oh no you won’t! I thought.
Now four months on, Letitia doesn’t let Aurora out of her sight.
And Max has been made an honorary police dog.
It was a rough night, but the protective pup kept our girl safe.
He’s one paw-some pooch!
To hear more about Leisa's emotional journey, listen to our gripping new podcast How I Survived below. Nearly a year on, she shares how little Aurora is doing now.