'We always hoped we'd find them alive'
JOANNE Ward always knew there was something special about her son.
And this week Stephen proved her right in the most spectacular of ways.
On Thursday the 13-year-old and his father, John Ward, 42, were plucked from a looming tragedy after three nights in the harsh and freezing south-west Tasmanian wilderness.
Their chances of survival were rated at just 5 per cent when rescuers, who believed they were looking for at least one body, found the two alive near Nine Mile Creek.
They have credited Stephen with keeping his father alive.
"I'm very proud," Mrs Ward told the Mercury at her Moonah home.
"I always knew what his capabilities were.
"I guess you just never know whether they're going to use that at a moment when it's needed. And he did. He was quite calm. He said, 'I couldn't cry, Mum. That wasn't going to change it. I just had to be switched on and be calm'."
As their chances of survival were scaled down to almost zero by nightfall Wednesday, hope began fading for the pair with every hour that passed.
So, when Mrs Ward, who had travelled to the area, received word they had been found alive and well she "cried all the way back to Strathgordon".
"What did I say when I'd seen them? There was not much I could say. I think I just cried. My husband cried and said, 'I knew you'd come, I knew you'd send somebody,'" she said.
Constable Michael Preshaw was a member of the search and rescue team that found the Wards' makeshift campsite at Nine Mile Creek about 15km from where they had set out near the southern shores of Lake Pedder.
He described it as a "Bear Grylls-like humpie" that the duo had knocked up in the creek bed. "You could have knocked me down with a feather when we came across their campsite," he said.
"We always hoped we'd find them alive but because it had been so long we were weren't all that hopeful."
Rescuers continued along the nearby track shouting until Stephen stumbled out from the bush. "Everyone was ecstatic. It was an unexpected result because we'd been looking for them for so long," Constable Preshaw said.
"They were very happy [to see us]. It was a bit of a hugfest for a while, as you would be if you'd been out in the bush for three days and a helicopter was nearby."
What had meant to be a one-day hike turned into a 72-hour nightmare when the Wards became lost on the Arthur Plains trail en route to the daunting Western Arthurs mountain range.
The improvised shelter, along with another hiker's food-drop, serendipitously discovered by the Wards, was critical to their survival.
But there was little doubt among rescuers that if it wasn't for Stephen his "dad probably wouldn't be here". "He snuggled up to him, kept him warm, kept him in good spirits and got him to the spot where they were found," Constable Preshaw said.
"He did a brilliant job. They went out unprepared, never been walking before, but once they'd realised they'd made a mistake they did everything right."
Mr Ward, who suffered mild hypothermia, was expected to be discharged from the Royal Hobart Hospital late yesterday or today. Stephen was discharged yesterday.
Mrs Ward said she was shielding her son from intense media interest while he processed the "rollercoaster" of an ordeal.