'I'm so happy to be out,' says Briton lost in the rainforest

After wandering around in circles for three days, chewing sugar-free gum for sustenance and covering herself with leaves to keep warm at night, Louise Saunders reappeared yesterday, three miles from where she went missing in north Queensland.

The 19-year-old English backpacker disappeared on a thickly wooded mountain near the sugar-cane town of Tully on Tuesday, prompting a big air and land search. She heard a rescue helicopter buzzing over, but she could not be seen through the dense bush. Eventually she found her way down, following a stream until she reached a municipal rubbish dump, suffering only sore feet and minor scratches.

Ms Saunders' family, who had been waiting anxiously by the telephone in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, were elated to hear she was safe and well. Her mother, Elizabeth, said: "It's amazing. I've spoken to her several times during the night and I'll give her the biggest hug of my life when I see her. I always believed she was alive."

Mrs Saunders said the family planned to fly to Australia to be with Louise. "The rescue people pulled all the stops out, we can't thank them enough."

Australian police were happy with the result, but hoped it was warning to others. "It was probably not a good idea to go up the mountain by herself, but I am sure she has learnt from her experience," Sergeant Kim McComb told BBC radio.

Fears mounted for Ms Saunders' safety after she failed to return to Tully. She had set out alone to scale 2,165ft Mount Tyson. She used her mobile phone that day to call a fellow English backpacker, Joanne Woodward, and sent her a text message telling her she was lost.

Ms Saunders told a press conference in Tully: "I followed a creek, but seemed to be going around in circles. I knew if I had not got out, I might never have made it. I thought I would never speak to anyone again. I'm just so happy to be out of there."

She said that after realising she was lost, at first she remained in one spot, hoping to be found. Then she walked to the top of a waterfall, where the terrain was clearer. "I thought if they were going to see me, they would see me there."

Eventually, she made her way into a gully, went down the mountain and was met by startled workers at the rubbish dump at 9.30am yesterday.

Ms Saunders, a trainee beauty therapist who was travelling around Australia with Ms Woodward, said she ate a banana during the first hour of her walk but after that was left only with chewing-gum. "I'm always going to thank chewing-gum for my survival," she said.

She said she had been scared, especially at night, when she imagined she could see the eyes of animals in the dense foliage. "I didn't really sleep," she said. "I kept waking. It seemed like I slept for 10 minutes at a time. It was just so cold. I had to cover myself with leaves to keep warm."

Police believe she could have walked in circles for 30 miles. She was wearing only shorts, a T-shirt and trainers. Although she is short-sighted she had left her glasses behind. More than 70 police officers and rescue workers, aided by military helicopters with heat-seeking equipment, had been searching for Ms Saunders.

Her banana skin was found on the hillside by Aboriginal trackers, with a fresh footprint and a message she had scrawled on a tree trunk with a red felt-tip pen. The message, in a reference to her Australian boyfriend, Stephen Wong, said: "Louise S loves Steven W for eva", illustrated with a heart.

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