Real Life

Real life: Before I was on Australian Survivor, I survived the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami

As water rushed around me, I thought I was a goner.
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Sarah Ayles, 46, from Adelaide, SA, shares her true life story;

The salty breeze cooled my sunburnt skin as I walked towards the beach with my friend Sujeewa.

We’d come to his home-country of Sri Lanka for a friend’s wedding but we also saw it as a good opportunity for a relaxing getaway.

It was Boxing Day and we were keen to snorkel amongst the fish at Unawatuna Beach.

I’d first met Sujeewa through a friend when I was 17 years old.

He was an exchange student studying in Adelaide and had quickly made it clear he liked me romantically.

I wasn’t looking for love, so I declined his advances at first. But his persistence paid off and we soon became an item.

Sujeewa was kind, caring and we always had fun together.

While I was studying Arabic at uni, we worked as cleaners.

One day, Sujeewa suggested we start our own cleaning business.

“No point slugging it out to put money in someone else’s pocket,” he said.

We saved up to buy equipment and launched our own gig. Eventually, we had over 300 employees.

It was a chance to meet my friend’s family at last.

(Image exclusive to Take 5)

Sujeewa and I got engaged a few years later, but as time went on, we realised that we weren’t cut out to be together.

He was a party boy, whereas I liked a far quieter life.

We remained best friends and business partners.

When the opportunity came to go to Sujeewa’s friend’s wedding in Sri Lanka, I happily agreed.

It would finally give me the opportunity to meet my ex-fiance’s family.

“They’ve heard so much about you,” he grinned.

After arriving, we did some sightseeing for two weeks before celebrating Christmas.

On Boxing Day, we headed towards Unawatuna Beach, plonking our stuff in front of a diving store about 10 metres from the shore line.

I put my snorkel on and turned to him.

“Ready?” I grinned. He grimaced, looking out to sea.

“I don’t think I can,” he said. He wasn’t a strong swimmer but the beach seemed tame.

When I turned to look at the ocean, I gasped.

The water was suddenly swelling towards us, pooling around our feet.

Confused, Sujeewa and I started helping staff shift tables and chairs from out front of the shop until the waves passed, but it showed no signs of stopping. It was above my ankles within seconds.

I instinctively yelped and hopped up the mud brick stairs at the side of the shop.

On my trip with Sujeewa.

(Image exclusive to Take 5)

With each step, water lapped at my feet until I made it inside the top floor of the building.

This is weird, I thought, perplexed.

I figured Sujeewa was behind me, but he wasn’t.

Where’s he gone?

Suddenly, the floor vibrated under my feet.

The place is going to collapse, I panicked.

Dashing to the balcony, I saw the sea surging towards me, tearing down the buildings in its path and making cars drift, as though they were rubber duckies in a dirty mud bath.

Terrified, I clambered up onto the balustrade, staring into the murky water metres below.

It was littered with debris and people swimming for their lives.

If I didn’t jump now, I’d be swallowed by the crumbling building.

Inhaling deeply, I leapt into the terrifying torrent, but as I did, my foot got caught in the balcony railing.

As water rushed past me, I fought its current, desperately trying to tug myself free.

Even when I did, panic rose within me.

The destruction was devastating.


I was terrified of drowning or slamming into submerged objects, like palm trees, buildings or other debris.

I was pulled underwater for what felt like an eternity and whenever I broke the surface for a fleeting gasp of air, I’d be dragged under again.

I’m going to die, I thought.

Within minutes, I’d been dragged 800 metres.

The next time I came up for air, two men called out to me from a roof top, holding a rainwater tank lid for me to grab onto. I desperately latched onto it and they pulled me to safety on the rooftop.

I looked around, mystified. Water had taken over the village, rising above buildings and trees. Boats, chairs and debris floated by in the water.

“Does this happen often?” I asked the men who’d rescued me. It was a flippant remark, but I was in shock.

They shook their heads.

I thought of Sujeewa and started desperately screaming his name, but there was no answer.

The men saved an English bloke named Ron, and by then the water had tapered off to knee-deep level.

Life felt unnatural without Sujeewa.

(Image exclusive to Take 5)

Ron and I clambered off the rooftop to find higher land.

In the corner of my eye, I spotted a group of villagers pushing a white surfboard with a lifeless body on it.

“Sujeewa!” I screamed, splashing towards them.

I couldn’t believe it.

My dear friend was gone. Minutes ago he’d been so full of life and now…

“Don’t worry,” Ron said, softly placing a hand on my shoulder. “I’ll look after you.”

We waded up a steep hill to safety.

In a dazed state of grief, I used someone’s phone to call my parents.

“Mum, something’s happened and Sujeewa’s dead,” I said, emotionless, asking her to contact the Department of Foreign Affairs for me.

I was the first Australian to notify the government.

But I couldn’t leave without finding Sujeewa’s body again.

Corpses were lined up all through the streets and I walked forever until I found Sujeewa.

“This is my partner,” I told authorities. “His family will come for him.”

Despite what I’d been through, I was still too shocked to shed a tear for my dearest friend.

Holly, me, Ryan and Jacob.

(Image exclusive to Take 5)

The rescue flight back to Australia was scheduled for New Year’s Eve.

Back home, life just felt unnatural without Sujeewa.

But I buried myself in our business, trying to overcome the nightmares and trauma that haunted me.

A psychiatrist eventually helped me to move on.

The tsunami had taught me life was too short to focus solely on work, so I sold my stake in the company.

Soon after, I met a wonderful man named Ryan. He was active, intelligent and down to earth.

We got married and had two brilliant kids, Holly, 11, and Jacob, nine.

Me in a Survivor rewards challenge.

(Image: Nigel Wright)

Recently, I applied to be on Australian Survivor to test myself in a safe environment.

Incredibly, I was accepted as a contestant!

I spent 18 days on the Survivor island, participating in physical challenges and getting to know my team mates.

The water tasks shook me to my core, but I’m proud of how far I’ve come.

No matter how awful a situation is, I want others to know that you can come out the other side.

I’m a survivor in more ways than one.

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