It would be a remarkable tale of survival at the best of times, but mid-winter in the rugged Blue Mountains west of Sydney is the worst of times, with icy temperatures, rain and thick fog. Yesterday, police could scarcely believe that Jamie Neale had been found alive after being lost for 12 days in forbidding terrain. Nor could his father, who had given up the 19-year-old Londoner for dead.
Richard Cass had spent a week in Australia, every day willing rescuers to find his son. Finally, he accepted what appeared to be the inevitable. "I had my little closure ceremony in the [Blue Mountains] park," he said. "I carved his name, lit a candle, buried a red rose for England." Then yesterday, as he waited to board a flight home at Sydney airport, he received a text message from a senior police officer, telling him: "Phone me, I've got good news."
A police helicopter flew Mr Cass to the town of Katoomba, where Mr Neale left his youth hostel on 3 July and set off on what was supposed to be a day-long hike. There, in the hospital, he was reunited with the teenager, who looked gaunt, exhausted and dehydrated but otherwise unscathed. Mr Neale told his father that, after waving in vain at rescue helicopters flying overhead, he had expected to die. "He has come back from the dead," Mr Cass said.
Hikers frequently go missing in the Blue Mountains, a beautiful but inhospitable world heritage site of thick forests, steep cliffs and sometimes poorly signposted trails. Too often their stories end in tragedy. Mr Neale was unfamiliar with the area and poorly equipped, carrying little food and water, no maps and nothing to protect him from the elements. He had also left his mobile phone behind.
On Monday, police had said there was little hope of finding him alive. Yesterday, they were on the verge of calling off their search when two walkers stumbled across the young man near a fire trail called Narrow Neck, about 10 miles from Katoomba.
John Hughes, of the New South Wales state emergency service, said: "In winter, we have had people lost for three days [who survived] but never more than a week. This is extraordinary."
Steve Dunn, director of a survivor and disaster consultancy company, Dynamiq, told ABC radio: "For someone to get in that environment, with the conditions we've had over the last few days, it could very easily have been fatal. Sleeping on the ground is like sleeping in a refrigerator, it just sucks the heat out of the body."
But the frigid temperatures were the least of Mr Cass's concerns, he said yesterday, hinting that the English were accustomed to such privations. Describing his son as "a physically tough boy at the peak of his fitness", he added: "My mother likes it cold. I like it cold. [Jamie] likes it cold, and that saved him. I knew the one thing that wasn't going to kill him was the cold."
Mr Neale, who recently completed his A-levels at Alexandra Park School in Muswell Hill, north London, told his father he "huddled up in his jacket" at night, and on one occasion slept beneath a log. He drank rainwater and ate seeds, leaves and lettuce-like plants, including one that resembled rocket. He kept climbing to high ground in an effort to get his bearings but got lost again each time he descended below the tree line.
After being rescued, he telephoned his mother, Jean Neale. It was 3am in London. "Almost the first thing I asked him is would he be coming home, because he had plans to go on to Vietnam, Laos, and Russia," Ms Neale told The Independent. "He said he was still going to Moscow next week but then paused before shouting 'Only joking!'."
Ms Neale, 49, said her religious faith had strengthened during nine days of uncertainty in which she "never stopped praying or lighting candles". "You never give up hope on your children. I was a little anxious before he left but that's natural. I'm not angry with him for getting lost. I think he has shown amazing guts and I am incredibly proud of him. Sure, we'll talk about this but only when he's ready."
She added, jokingly: "I've decided we are not going to let him out of the country unless he's got one of those watches with satellite navigation."
Mr Neale's brother Gary, 27, an electrician, said: "Of the four of us [siblings], he is definitely the most sensible, the most clever and logical. He is a loving brother and he thinks things through – well, usually."
For their father, relief was tinged with irritation. Mr Cass said Jamie was "the only teenager in the world who goes on a 10-mile hike and leaves his mobile phone behind", adding that he was mortified at the trouble his son caused for the 100 rescuers who went out every day. "When I hear about all the mistakes he made, like not signing the [youth hostel] register and not taking an emergency beacon, I can't say I'll kill him, that would defeat the purpose, but I will kick his arse."
Mr Neale, who will begin his studies in government and politics at Exeter University in September, has had to find his way home from unfamiliar territory before. A few years ago, while completing a Duke of Edinburgh award, he had to find his way back to base after being left stranded in Epping Forest. He did so in one of the fastest times ever recorded by his school.
Yet this time, however, his orienteering skills seem to have failed him. As the days went by, Mr Cass said, he lost hope and believed that his son had "got lost in the dark and fallen off a cliff". Out in the forest, meanwhile, Mr Neale was also starting giving up.
"He was kind of losing faith in the idea that there was a God, every time that helicopter flew over and he waved and shouted and nothing happened," said Mr Cass. The teenager's fate was apparently sealed, but then the news of his rescue came through. Mr Cass recalled his elation when he received the text message from police. "It was absolutely stunning. I'm at the airport, I'm surrounded by strangers and I'm like a lunatic, [shouting]: 'My boy's been found, my boy's been found'."
In 2006, an Australian, David Iredale, 17, died of dehydration in the area where Mr Neale went missing. Andrew Cox, chief executive of the National Parks Association of New South Wales, said: "It is untracked and virtually no walkers walk in, because you really need to have very good bush skills. So for a walker to negotiate that cliff line, to get up on to Narrow Neck, is quite extraordinary if he didn't have any map."
Blue Mountains Bush tucker
With no bottled water and no food left, Jamie Neale was forced to improvise. He told his father he survived by eating leaves, seeds, and a "lettuce-like plant" that tasted like rocket – which may well have been Warrigal greens, a wild herb used in pasta dishes.
Neale was fortunate, of course, not to eat anything poisonous. In this part of New South Wales plants unsuitable for human consumption are common, from the butterfly flag, which can lead to severe diarrhoea, to the zamia palm, which causes vomiting – neither ideal for someone already dehydrated.
In the end, though, water is far more important in the short term than any foodstuff: Neale's greatest good luck was to get lost in a rainy spell.