I'm a botanist, get me out of here: Mobile phone call to wife ends Briton's six-day jungle ordeal

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The Independent Online

As a botanist who liked to lose himself in his work, John Gillatt took a dim view of his mobile phone, considering it one of the tyrannies of modern life. But as he prepared last night to fly back to Britain after almost a week lost in the Malaysian jungle, that contempt had turned into a heartfelt appreciation of the life-saving properties of satellite technology.

As a botanist who liked to lose himself in his work, John Gillatt took a dim view of his mobile phone, considering it one of the tyrannies of modern life. But as he prepared last night to fly back to Britain after almost a week lost in the Malaysian jungle, that contempt had turned into a heartfelt appreciation of the life-saving properties of satellite technology.

Last Saturday Mr Gillatt, 55, who frequently wanders off the beaten track in pursuit of rare flora and fauna, set out on foot unaccompanied from a hill station in the jungle of the eastern Pahang region but quickly became lost after taking a wrong turn. Fearing he had strayed perilously far from civilisation he switched on his phone, climbed to high ground for a signal and put out an SOS call to his wife - 6,000 miles away at the family home in Bolton.

It is the latest in a series of mobile-related rescues where those in distress - whether up mountains or in the middle of the ocean - have proved that texts, camera phones and e-mails are threatening to put St Bernard rescue dogs out of work.

"Dad didn't like mobile phones at all and he even used to curse them" said one of his two daughters, Claire, 29, yesterday. "Like a lot of people of that generation, he didn't like the knowledge that because of the phone he could be found wherever he was. That's all changed now," she added.

The initial call was made on Saturday morning and was received by his wife, Noelene, as she was doing housework. In a conversation lasting several minutes, Mr Gillatt calmly explained his predicament - at the time neither of them could imagine how long he would he lost - and asked his wife to tip-off the Smokehouse Inn where he had been staying, about 60 miles north of the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.

Mrs Gillatt, her husband's third wife, then found herself co-ordinating a search operation lasting five days and involving 70 people, including local tour guides and an entire police division using helicopters and sniffer dogs. As the phone battery began to run down, Mr Gillatt resorted to texting with the frequency of a lovestruck teenager, describing his whereabouts to his wife so she could relay the message to searchers.

He also sent a second text message to a guide at Fraser's Hill, a colonial-era hill station named after its Scots founder, who himself perished after wandering into the dense forest. The message read: "Gone for H2O. Will return here or another place where fone works. Saw red flashing light on hill some km maybe to my E (east). Pls tell rescuers. Also tell Brit High Comm in KL. I love u. XXX"

An experienced trekker, Mr Gillatt fell back on his survival skills. After eating the apple, orange and biscuits he set out with he fed himself on plants he knew to be edible. He avoided severe dehydration by never straying far from the stream from which he was drinking.

The ordeal ended on Wednesday afternoon when a local found Mr Gillatt exhausted and with bruises to his legs and arms. He was a mere six miles from where he set out. Such was the density of the jungle that a helicopter was unable to pick him up and locals carried him to a waterfall, from where was taken to hospital by ambulance. It is the area in which Jim Thompson, the "Silk King" of Thailand and former American agent, went missing in 1967. No trace of him was ever found.

Last night Mr Gillatt was in a hotel in the Malaysian capital, preparing to fly home. Describing his ordeal, he said: "I found God. I never prayed before, but I was certainly praying these past five days and my prayers were answered. I was shouting every half hour or so, hoping that someone would hear me.

"Finally someone answered my shouts with a 'hello' and I knew I was saved."

Mrs Gillatt said: "It's an experience I never, ever want to go through again ... John's a very quirky man, and though he's never got badly lost before, he loves to take off on his own."

Although the mobile saved Mr Gillatt's life, some rescue services complain that people are too hasty in hitting the panic button. After a steady rise in call-outs in the past three years, mountain rescue teams in the Lake District have complained mobiles are causing people to treat them as a "wet nurse".

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