Six weeks have now passed since elderly Betty O’Pray vanished after setting out from her home in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales for a stroll along a bushland track. She’d been along it numerous times, a trail that would take her over a mostly hard surface, with a busy road on one side and thick undergrowth on the other.
The walk would also have taken her along a quieter suburban road with views across farmland where horses graze. Although hilly, it’s an easy route – and Betty would have had no reason to divert from it. At least no reason that we know of.
But she’s gone. Vanished. And police tell me that her disappearance is a mystery. They haven’t given up, though. Although there appears little hope of finding her alive if she did indeed stray into the bush, she has to be found for the sake of her distressed family, some of whom live in the same small community of Medlow Bath, west of Katoomba, that Betty was from.
I’m told that police are keeping an open mind into every possibility, including her making it all the way to Katoomba – some 7km from her home – and getting on a train. That’s remote, but she is reported to have suffered from mild dementia and gave one resident who met her on the path one day weeks earlier the impression that she was slightly confused.
The possibility that Betty came off the bush path and wandered into a suburban street has been considered, evidence of that being the teams of police who knocked on doors in and around Katoomba asking residents to keep their eyes open for the elderly lady. That added hundreds more eyes to the search, but her whereabouts remained a mystery.
Police are now reasonably certain that she did not come to grief in the bushland between her home and Katoomba because, as I was told, scores of searchers scoured every possible place she could be, a hunt that saw experienced personnel abseiling down cliff faces in case she had stumbled through the bush and fallen over. ‘It was a very, very, thorough search,’ I was told. It went on for three weeks, when the expected life span of staying alive without food would have expired.
A team of State Emergency Service volunteers I met on one of the tracks as a helicopter flew overhead admitted they were stumped as to how a 77-year-old lady could become so lost that no-one could find her. It is possible, of course, that she didn’t set out to walk towards Katoomba, but instead headed towards another bushland area to the north of her home – but again, that was searched thorough.
The sad reality is that today we are no closer to knowing what happened to Scots-born Betty or where she ended up. But mention her name in a hotel or a cafe in Katoomba and people will immediately ask if there has been any news. I’ve heard numerous scenarios, all kinds of guesswork, any of which could be right or wrong.
One day we might learn.
Eight other orang-utans have died there in the last seven years from ill-health – mostly tuberculosis – according to conservationists, leaving Bujang to live in misery against the shrieks of laughter from tourists enjoying the surrounding theme park.
His diet and the stress of looking out at the surrounding forest where he should be playing is so bad that he is now losing the hair on his back – and animal lovers fear he too could die unless he is rehabilitated.
But Bujang is not the only animal in the zoo at the Sinka Island Park in West Kalimantan, the Indonesian side of Borneo island – a visiting team of conservationists were moved to tears at the plight of Cika the elephant, chained up for 24 hours, seven days a week.
And there are horses, their rib cages showing through lack of food and nourishment.
‘This cruelty to the orang-utan, the elephant, the horses and many other animals such as a lonely baby sun bear in a tiny cage must end immediately,’ Mr Gunning Gea, director of Scorpion Wildlife Trade Monitoring Group, insists.
‘Quite simply, either these poor suffering animals have to receive immediate treatment, improved living conditions – or they have to be removed from there. This cannot go on.
‘This zoo should be ordered to stop the cruelty that we have seen.
‘The option is to move the orang-utan to a better place, to a rescue centre, and be given the chance to live in a wild habitat.’
Mr Upreshpal Singh, director of the Malaysian-based Friends of the Orangu-tans, who visited the zoo recently, admitted he was moved to tears at the plight of Bujang and Cika the elephant.
‘These are nightmarish conditions. It’s a daily hell for them. This zoo needs to be shut down and all animals relocated,’ he tells me.
‘I have to say that the treatment of Cika, who is about 12 years old, and nine-year-old Bujang is eye-watering.
‘I took photos of her chained up. She can hardly move. She is suffering severe stress and urgently needs to be saved.’
The zoo, part of the Sinka Island Park located some five miles from the regional capital of Singkawang, is privately owned and while Chinese-Indonesian proprietor was not available for comment a keeper told the visiting conservationists: ‘What’s the problem? They (the animals) are all OK. No problem.’
But animal lovers insist there is a major problem.
‘In 2009 there were at least nine orang-untans at the zoo,’ said Mr Singh. ‘Another conservationist recently informed Nature Alert UK that all but one – Bujang – died from tuberculosis and poor care.’