Survival

CONTIKI TOUR TERROR: 21-year-old Australian tourist plunged down waterfall

Tiffany's once-in-a-lifetime trip ended in disaster

Here, Tiffany Johnson, now 41, from Melbourne, Vic, tells the story in her own words. 

Or you can listen as Tiffany shares her journey on our podcast below.

Climbing into my wetsuit, I was looking forward to a day canyoning.

Aged 21, I was on a Contiki trip around Europe where I’d made some incredible friends.

They included Aussie Cassandra, then 20, who was travelling with her cousin, Kylie, 21.

Now, we were in Interlaken, Switzerland, surrounded by the Alps.

Leaving Cassandra behind at our chalet, Kylie and I were ready to slide down gushing streams and abseil over rocky edges.

For some reason though, I had a feeling something might go wrong.

It’s just nerves, I thought, dismissing it.

Kitted up, a group of 12 got on a bus to the mountain with our instructors.

Getting out, I noticed dark clouds and realised my hair had gone fluffy.

Rain was definitely in the air.

But looking around I admired the trickling crystal clear water.

It’s magical, I thought.

Our guides stepped away for a chat about the weather.

Coming back, they said they weren’t 100 per cent sure about going ahead, but as there were lots of ways out of the gorge we’d be fine.

They do this every day, I thought, trusting them.

‘Woohoo!’ a guide shouted as he slid through rocks and splashed into a water hole.

Following him, I felt an adrenaline rush as I hit the cold water.

Floating, I realised it was spitting rain.

But we continued on.

Half way down the canyon, the water had turned a murky brown and it was still drizzling.

Thunder bellowed in the sky.

Worse, the water was rising.

‘We need to move quickly,’ said a guide.

First up, I leaped from a boulder into a pool where another instructor was waiting.

But I was pulled under by rushing water.

The guide tried to grab me, but it was too late.

Suddenly, I was crushed by a huge wall of water that dragged me under.

The gorge at Interlaken rushing with water.
The gorge rushing with water. (Credit: Supplied)

Then, I remembered some advice my dad, Vic, then 52, had given me once.

‘If you get caught in water, just relax.

The water is always going to be stronger than you,’ he’d said.

So, I let it take me.

As it swept me away, it brought me up for gasps of air.

As I focused on breathing, a huge log smacked me into a boulder.

Wedged between the two, I caught my breath.

Looking around, my heart dropped through the floor.

My new friends’ lifeless bodies were floating through the rapids. How had this happened?

Only moments before we’d been having fun together. Now they were dead.

Trees crashed down as the water rose.

Swept away again, to my horror I shot down a giant waterfall.

Amazingly I landed in a small, still pool.

Suddenly, a man from the group appeared and reached out, pulling me onto the bank.

‘We need to get to safety,’ he panted.

That’s when we spotted two other survivors, who’d clambered out too.

Together, the four of us turned back up the mountain.

It was a treacherous mudslide.

After a while, I caught sight of a rescue team and burst into tears.

The rescue operation.
The rescue operation. (Credit: Supplied)

Taken to hospital, I called my parents back in Camden.

‘What’s happened?’ Dad blurted when he picked up.

‘They’re dead and I’m alive,’ I cried, pouring everything out.

When Cassandra arrived at the hospital, she searched for her cousin.

‘Where’s Kylie?’ she asked.

She wasn’t here.

Could she be at another hospital?

The next day, the terrible truth was confirmed.

Gorgeous Kylie was one of 21 people, 14 of them Aussies and two Kiwis, who’d been killed in the flood.

Just six of us survived.

In agonising pain, an X-ray showed no broken bones, so I was allowed to fly to Sydney a few days later. I cried the whole way.

Why did I survive when so many didn’t? I wondered, feeling guilt.

‘Oh darl,’ my mum, Diane, then 49, sobbed at the airport.

Overwhelmed with guilt and pain, I shut myself away.

After Mum made me see a doctor, it was revealed I actually had four broken ribs, a broken tibia and a dislocated jaw.

Physically I started to heal, but I was so down.

So Mum asked Cassandra to visit me.

‘I’m here, we’re going to get through this,’ Cassandra said, hugging me.

Jotting down my feelings, I couldn’t shake my guilt.

The following May, I met David through work.

In time, I opened up about what happened.

He insisted I see a doctor, who diagnosed me with PTSD.

With treatment and by writing in my journal, things got better.

And David was my rock.

In 2001, six Adventure World employees and managers were found guilty of negligent manslaughter, for allowing the trip to go ahead, and given suspended jail sentences.

Marrying David in 2003, we had two children, Bethany, 14, and Cameron, 11.

David, Cameron, me and Bethany.
David, Cameron, me and Bethany. (Credit: Supplied)

Now, 20 years on, I no longer feel survivor’s guilt.

And I’ve written a book Brave Enough Now to help others dealing with trauma.

Recently, Cassandra and I went back to Interlaken for a memorial service.

Cassandra and me back in Interlaken.
Cassandra and me back in Interlaken. (Credit: Supplied)

An incredibly emotional day, I finally felt at peace.

That day changed my life, but now I’m living it for me – and for those who weren’t as lucky.

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