"Hello, my name is Dennis and I am very thirsty."
These were the first words that teenager Dennis Dear, stripped to his underwear and covered in dirt, uttered to his rescuers when they found him wandering on a track in rugged bush yesterday morning.
It had been more than 28 hours since the 14-year-old autistic boy went missing in bush off the Brookton Highway at Flint, about 80km south-east of Perth, without a ready source of water in temperatures that reached 42C.
Dennis' ordeal, and the herculean around-the-clock effort of rescuers, began early on Sunday. His survival, secured by a pair of keen eyes and a footprint in the sand, surprised even his rescuers.
Wagin State Emergency Service volunteer Cindy Pearce spotted the print just before 11am yesterday and the team decided to cover another 4km before heading back to base.
"Probably about 500m (down the track) and then Dennis came wandering out from the side of the road," Ms Pearce said.
Fellow volunteer Tammy Gath was the first to speak to him.
"He came up and hugged me and he said, 'My name is Dennis and I am very thirsty', so I said come with me and I helped him back to the car," Ms Gath said.
Dennis wandered 8km from where his quad bike was found with a broken chain on Sunday night.
Dennis and his father Peter were riding their quad bikes about 7.20am on Sunday when Mr Dear worried he was kicking up too much dust around the camp site. Pausing to adjust his bike, he told Dennis to ride a bit further, and that he would catch up.
But by the time Mr Dear followed, Dennis was nowhere to be seen.
By 9am, after a fruitless search by Mr Dear and other quad bikers who had answered his call for help, police were called.
By noon Sunday, more than 50 SES volunteers and police were combing the bush in the heat, driving down dirt tracks before searching the scrub on foot.
With Dennis' quad bike estimated to have enough fuel to travel 200km, the grid for searchers to cover was daunting in its scope. The police helicopter and mounted squad were brought in to help.
It was believed that Dennis had not had water since 4.30am Sunday and police were concerned that he would succumb to dehydration. Despite the odds against him, his family didn't lose faith in the big blond boy's ability to survive the harsh environment.
His mother Kaye Dear said she was confident her son would return alive from his ordeal.
"He's done a lot of Aboriginal learning, what's good food and what's bad food, how to get a drink out of native plants," she said.
"He wouldn't have a problem, I'm sure of it."
A 6pm changeover brought a new set of eyes and legs to the search and about 8.45pm SES crews were rewarded with their first clue.
Dennis' bike, its chain broken, was found 8km north-east of the campsite on a track described by Mr Dear as "pure rock".
The news brought cries of emotion from the family and they prepared themselves for a long night but with visibility low, the search was called off about 10.30pm.
With additional resources called up, crews began trickling back into the camp site as the sun peaked above the tall gum trees yesterday morning.
However, as the search hit the 24-hour mark, the reality of the situation finally hit the family and an outpouring of emotion was heard across the camp site.
But the teenager had managed to drink small sips of water from plants while snacking on lollies that had been left by SES volunteers to let Dennis know they were searching for him.
He had also covered himself in dirt to help shield his skin. Police said these tactics potentially saved the teenager.
As Dennis arrived back at the camp site by SES four-wheel-drive vehicle, a dust storm created by the RAC Rescue helicopter landing swallowed everything in sight.
As the dust finally settled, like a phoenix from the ashes, a dirty, dehydrated but relieved young man walked towards his overjoyed mother, who gave him an emotional hug. The crowd of SES volunteers and police applauded.
Mr Dear beamed with pride when asked about how well his son had coped.
"It proves what people can and can't do when they put their mind to things," he said. "I suppose it's what scouts managed to teach him at the time, it's just an amazing effort.
"You can go from being a humble backyard kid to someone who survives out in the bush, it's like wow, can we all learn that, please."Last night, Dennis was in a stable condition in Princess Margaret Hospital.
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