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.
Where is Betty O’Pray?
How can an elderly lady, 77 years old, vanish into thin air as she strolled along a fairly well-worn track in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales??
Elizabeth – Betty to her friends – is believed to have set off for a walk along the track that leads from her home in Medlow Bath to the main Blue Mountains town of Katoomba, some 6km away, on Monday March 7.
A family member spoke to her on her mobile phone at about 11am that day but by 11pm she hadn’t returned home – so the police were alerted. They managed to contact Betty by phone but then lost the connection. In that brief conversation, she was not able to tell police exactly where she was, but said she was all right, although she was running out of water. She was in a clearing, she said.
In following days, helicopters flew over the area where she might have been, based on calculating the signal from her phone to its the connection with a mobile transmission tower. Teams of searchers grew, but there was no sign of the elderly lady, who had been born in Scotland but had lived in Medlow Bath for a number of years.
By Monday, March 21, Betty will have been missing for two weeks – and that’s a long time for an elderly person to be lost in the bush. She might be able to find water, particularly as it has been raining occasionally, but she certainly doesn’t have any food.
So where is she? Searchers have combed virtually every inch of the bushland alongside the track she regularly walked along. It wends up and down, but it’s virtually impossible for anyone to lose their way because it’s wide and runs beside a fenced-off railway line, which in turn follows the Great Western Highway. The sound of large trucks is always within earshot of the track.
For Betty to become lost after setting out that day she would have had to step off the main path and head into the bush. And while there are minor tracks she could have followed, search teams have been through them and also broken away into the thick undergrowth. They’ve called her name, they’ve shouted ‘Coo-eeee!’ – then listened in the hope of hearing a reply from the missing woman. But nothing.
There were reports of a resident living on a plateau hearing cries for help from the bushland below, but another thorough search failed to find any sign of Betty and there is the possibility that the cry had a reasonable explanation – such as searchers shouting to one another.
But how far could Betty have got, had she indeed struck off into the bush for an unknown reason (perhaps because she had become disoriented, as she is reported to have suffered from mild dementia)? She is unlikely to have been able to travel far into the undergrowth, which grabs at the face, entangles itself in legs, snares feet and has steep slopes that can easily provoke a fall.
Experts have rappelled down cliff faces on the off chance that Betty was down there but the result has been the same – no sign of her.
Teams of police, firemen, State Emergency Service volunteers and civilians have all contributed tirelessly, knocking on doors in a wide radius in the hope that someone might have seen Betty somewhere – perhaps as she walked into a built up area. Police have also asked for anyone who was in the Medlow Bath vicinity to provide them with photos they might have taken in the days before, during and after Betty first went missing in the hope that they might glean something from the direction she was walking.
A resident who lives beside the path told me that she spoke to Betty recently on one of her walks and the elderly lady seemed a little confused. The resident asked Betty if she was all right and she assured the resident she was fine, thank you, and carried on her way.
Perhaps there’s a clue there – that on the day she set out she ended up becoming disoriented. But it doesn’t explain why she can’t be found.
The search appears to be winding down. But it is to be hoped that everyone in the region remains vigilant. It would be wonderful to run a headline along the lines of ‘Miracle in the Mountains’.