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Sarah Ayles survived the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that took thousands; including her closest friend.

Sarah Ayles is a survivor in the truest sense of the word, and not just because she’s a contestant on Australian Survivor: Champions vs Contenders.

Long before being on a national reality show, Ayles survived the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which was caused by an earthquake in the Indian Ocean. According to experts, it had the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs.

The magnitude was unprecedented in living memory, as was the loss of life; 227,898 people died across Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.

But Ayles survived.

Speaking to Mia Freedman on No Filter, Ayles described how her life irrevocably changed in a matter of minutes.

Listen to Mia Freedman’s interview with Sarah Ayles. Post continues after audio. 

Before her fateful holiday to Sri Lanka, Ayles was “fairly busy”, running a cleaning company with business partner Sujeewa Kamalasuriya, whom she had previously been in a relationship with for 11 years, and known for 14.

‘Sujee’, as Ayles affectionately called him, had lived in Australia since 1990, and “was a converted Aussie.”

They pair had amicably separated from their romantic relationship years earlier, but remained close. Explaining why they had holidayed together, Ayles said, “He always felt regret at not taking me to meet his family and to see his country.”

And so, that Christmas, they decided to go on an adventure. The friends arrived in Colombo, saw family, and planned to attend a friend’s wedding.

On the morning of Boxing Day, they experienced a ‘sliding doors’ moment.

“We were in a big, solid hotel, and had we remained there, we would have been fine,” Ayles said. But because they’d had “such a great time” the day before snorkelling, they decided to venture to the beach again.

They went, as Ayles said, “early in the morning, before the sun and tourists came out.”

It would prove to be a matter of being at the wrong place, at the wrong time.

“We’d literally just driven on to this beach, stripped off, and were ready to go snorkelling. But in looking out at the ocean, the horizon was gone. The water was higher than it should have been.

“It didn’t look like a wave.”

Ayles said that in retrospect, she was obviously in danger – but didn’t recognise it at the time. She did, however, notice the water “dribbling in” at their feet at the dive shop where they were obtaining snorkelling gear.

“It was completely silent, except for this swirling sound of water,” Ayles recalled.

Realising she needed to get to higher ground, Ayles climbed the stairs of the shop to the next floor. Soon after that, she realised she was in real trouble.


“I felt the vibration of this building giving way under my feet. That was the moment I knew I was in trouble, and I had to leap.”

With her survival instinct at full roar, Ayles jumped into the water.

“To this day, if I feel vibrations in my feet – like, when a plane takes off – I feel like running.”

As Ayles swam for her life, Sujee was nowhere to be seen.

“There was a strong current in the water – and I just thought, ‘Sujee’s dead.’ There was no way he could survive this. He couldn’t swim.”

But Ayles heartbreak for her friend would have to wait; in that moment, she concentrated all efforts into not panicking.

“My brain went into this zone of making decisions, grabbing on to palm trees. I knew I was going to go under.”

Ayles described the once pristine ocean water as a “brown, dirty river” filled with debris such as motorbikes.

“It was basically a junkyard in a surge of water.”

She was rescued by villagers on a rooftop, and recalled the first thing she said to them was, “Does this happen often?”

The answer was, of course, no.

Survivor Sarah Ayles
Sarah Ayles is now a contestant on 'Australian Survivor: Champions vs Contenders'. Image: Channel 10.

“Then we just stood there, and all I could think of was Sujee was dead. I started shouting out his name. All I could see was water.”

Very soon after, the group needed to find higher ground. As they did so, one thing caught Ayles’ attention.


“I’ve seen two men in the water, pulling along a surfboard. And on top of the surfboard was Sujeewa’s body.”

Ayles estimated it had been only 10 to 15 minutes since the tsunami had hit.

“I actually said his name twice, hoping that he would open his eyes, and he didn’t. I regretted for a long time not feeling his pulse, because maybe he needed help, and I didn’t double-check.”

At that stage, other members of the group encouraged Ayles to keep moving to find safety for herself.

“I left him. That was really hard.”

Eventually, the group found a house that was not underwater, and asked other Australian travellers if they had a phone. They did – and so Ayles did what most of us would do; she called her mum.

“I borrowed the phone, and said, 'Hi mum, we’ve been hit by a tidal wave and Sujeewa is dead, can you please let DFAT know'.”

Ayles’ mum, far away in Adelaide, put her dad on the phone.

“He said to me, ‘my precious child’,” Ayles recalled fondly. “I’ll never forget it, because we never tell each other we love each other much. But at that moment, he saw me as his little girl.”

Ayles eventually made it to safety, climbing further uphill. She had survived, almost physically unscathed. But her spirit was devastated by the loss of her friend.

She went searching for him, because, as she described, “I felt absolute horror that he was going to be put into a mass grave.”

She was not the only one in the city looking for lost loved ones.

“There were people walking around with children that had died the day before,” Ayles recalled.

“The wailing – the women that had lost kids – that sound is something you don’t forget.”

Sujeewa was buried in a Buddhist ceremony. He was not the only member of his family to die in the Tsunami; his mother, sister and brother had, too.

Upon returning to Australia, a stoic Ayles was determined to not let her experience hinder her future – as much as she was able to.

“You’ve got no choice but to carry on. I couldn’t fall apart,” she said. “It was really rough because it was so public. I couldn’t afford not to be competent.

“But then privately, the nightmares…”

A decade and a half later, Ayles is now married with two children. And she has a different survival challenge ahead of her. This time, it’s one she’s chosen; but, as with her last challenge, it’s one she will no doubt conquer.

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