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Adventure and pain: The tragic life and death of Joanne Ingham

Joanne Ingham, one of the Ingham twins who captivated public attention in the late 90's, was found dead at a Wellington Motel. Video / Mark Mitchell

Joanne Ingham, one of the Ingham twins who captivated public attention in the late 90's, was found dead at a Wellington Motel. Video / Mark Mitchell

They were the twin sisters of few words whose high seas stowaway adventure captivated the world's imagination 25 years ago. The lovestruck teenagers snuck away with Malaysian sailors and jumped overboard off the coast of Australia, surviving shark and crocodile-infested waters to later reveal all in one of New Zealand's most memorable television interviews. Tragedy and infamy plagued their lives and now Joanne Ingham has been found dead in a Wellington hotel room, aged just 43. Kurt Bayer reports on a short life of adventure, and pain.

In many ways, it begins as a classic adventure story. Inseparable teenage twins chasing thrills think, Why not? and accept a cheeky offer of a few drinks aboard a visiting ship.

It seemed like harmless fun in exotic company. They never planned on stowing away or leaving New Zealand. Just a few drinks.

Reports vary at just what port the 18-year-old sisters clambered aboard the 178m Malaysian container ship Bunga Terasek - whether it was Nelson, where they had been flatting, Tauranga, or Lyttelton, over the Port Hills from Christchurch, and near their family home in Kaiapoi.

The whole caper was simply a "misunderstanding", they would later tell Paul Holmes in one of the most famous Kiwi TV interviews of all time.

They ended up staying for more than just a few drinks. A 27-year-old sailor, Ja'afar bin Mohamed Zan, took a shine to Sarah and, after prevailing in an argument with one of his crewmates, he hid them in adjoining cabins. As the ship upped anchor and set sail across the Tasman, the antics took on a sudden level of seriousness. And there was no turning back.

During the journey, Ja'afar smuggled them food and water. At night, they would sneak outside for some fresh sea air.

And over that time, Sarah and Ja'afar fell in love. They composed a "letter of promise", cutting themselves and co-signing it with bloody fingerprints. She would later convert to Islam and marry him.

At some point during the 4000km crossing, the tearaway teens were rumbled. A spot check by the ship's captain found the fugitives inside their cabins. He was unimpressed.

The Inghams were locked inside the cook's quarters and told they would be handed over to Customs and Immigration as soon as they landed on Australian soil.

But the Inghams, and Ja'afar, had a plan. As soon as they came close to land, they would jump ship.

Between them, the sisters had one backpack, with several knives, clothes, food, and insect repellent, lifejackets, and four lifebuoys.

They weren't scared.

They only started "chickening out" when Ja'afar knocked on their window on the night of April 20 and said it was time to go.

He warned them to hold their lifejackets at their sides when they plunged over the side so they didn't break their necks, and also to avoid slipping under the ship and getting sliced up by the propeller.

Six days after being sprung by the ship captain, they made their move.

On the count of three, while still digesting their evening meal and holding each close, they ran and jumped into the darkness.

"All I can remember is hitting the water, then being under the water for, I dunno, 30 seconds or something like that, and then coming up and the ship was way gone," Sarah would later say.

It was raining, dark, and the shark-infested water slowly got colder.

Ja'afar thought they would have around two hours of swimming. But they were a long way from where he thought they were, and were drifting past Princess Charlotte Bay, well north of Cairns.

When the ship's crew discovered their disappearance a full search of the vessel was carried out.

After finding no trace, the captain contacted Australian authorities and a search involving six planes and a helicopter was launched.

They scoured the seas of Far North Queensland with no luck, and the search was soon called off. Police weren't ruling out foul play.

A Brisbane police inspector told reporters at the time that there appeared to be some "romantic attachment" between the stowaways and "at least two of the crew".

The Inghams kept paddling. They knew that there might've been sharks but they didn't consider the possibility of crocodiles.

Ja'afar spotted a shark at one point but didn't tell them until dry land for fear that Joanne would "start screaming again".

Things took a dark twist during the treacherous voyage.

Sarah and Ja'afar had been paddling hard for a few hours but were making little progress. Every time Sarah looked around, she saw her sister making faces – laughing, crying, screaming.

It appears that the lovers either felt they had a better chance of surviving on their own – or else they needed to give Joanne a wake-up call.

Ja'afar untied the rope that kept the trio together with the life buoys and left Joanne behind.

Joanne started drifting further out to sea.

"I was screaming," she said.

Ja'afar went back for her and they tried to stay together.

Meanwhile, fears for the missing girls were ramping up.

Their parents, Bernard and Jeanette Ingham, were distraught at the sudden disappearance but were keeping up their hopes that their "independent, strong-willed" daughters would be found alive.

"Imagine the relief of knowing the answers to all these things, but I don't," panelbeater Bernard said from the family home in Kaiapoi.

The worried dad said a wrong impression had been given of the pair. They had been wanted by police after failing to show up at Nelson District Court on theft and assault charges.

"They did some silly things and had some funny ideas on things, but they were not bad people and weren't criminals," Bernard said.

The twins were incredibly close. They did everything together.

They grew up in nearby Rangiora and went to Ashgrove Primary School before attending Rangiora High School.

As youngsters, they enjoyed horse riding, music lessons, and playing netball, with Joanne even representing North Canterbury at the sport.

In their early teens, they headed off by themselves to live in Christchurch before moving to Nelson about a year before their disappearance "to live their own lives".

Their parents had regular contact with them until just before Christmas 1996.

"They were independent, strong-willed and wanted to do their own thing," Bernard said on April 30, 1997.

He was right. After around 20 hours, paddling some 19km, the sisters and the Malaysian sailor washed up on a beach.

They made a shelter to sleep under and lit fires, catching fish, crabs and oysters.

While figuring out what to do next, they bickered. Joanne wanted to attract the attention of passing planes by waving for help from the beach. She wouldn't "nark". She told them, but would go with Ja'afar's story, that they had separated at sea, and she hadn't seen them again.

They eventually started walking south. After three days on the road, they came across an aboriginal outpost at Stoney Creek, 25km south of Night Island. The locals were originally frightened after seeing the seaman with a machete, but the Inghams found them friendly.

The sisters said the aborigines had promised not to dob them in. They were fed and driven eight hours over rough roads to the small town of Coen, 500km north of Cairns, where the intrepid trio was left on the outskirts of town.

Despite what had allegedly been promised, the locals tipped the police off about the Inghams. The next morning, May 7, officers found them, sunburnt and bedraggled, in thick bush with the help of aboriginal trackers.

Coen Regional Aboriginal Corporation project manager Annelies Vorthus said at the time that she could not believe the twins had survived for two weeks in the hostile environment.

"There are no roads, no houses – it's totally deserted," she said.

"There's croc-infested rivers and sharks, box jellyfish which are deadly, there's sandflies, mosquitoes – it's revolting to be out there if you're a city person.

"To survive in that country is just amazing."

Even the local cop was stunned at their survival.

"It's a shock," said Coen senior constable Brett Jenkins.

"We didn't think we'd ever hear from them again."

The twins were taken into police custody facing immigration and burglary charges. It was alleged that they had broken into a general store in Coen and stolen food and footwear.

They were soon deported back to New Zealand.

A transtasman media scrum awaited them when they touched down at Auckland Airport two days later. They were whisked off to appear at Otahuhu District Court for their old Nelson charges, which a judge had transferred north.

Alcohol had played a part in their offending, a court later heard, and they were warned that further indiscretions could land them in jail.

Pressed by Holmes later on if they would now start settling down, they were non-committal.

Their mum Jeanette went on camera and said her daughters' actions had broken her heart but she knew that young people would always make their own decisions.

"At the end of it all, they've got to decide for themselves which way they want their lives to go," she said.

Before being split up, Sarah assured Ja'afar that they would follow him to Malaysia once their troubles were sorted out in New Zealand.

And within weeks, they were caught trying it all again. They reportedly got between $15,000 to $20,000 for a tell-all interview with a women's magazine and another sizeable sum - $7500 according to one media source – to appear on the Holmes television show.

They were seen spending extravagantly in a Lyttelton restaurant and several taverns on June 7 – and in the early hours were spotted trying to sneak aboard the same container ship – the Bunga Terasek.

Days later, Sarah was found slumped outside Lyttelton's British Hotel and Joanne was charged with assaulting her and a police officer. The charges were later withdrawn.

By 1999, the sisters had moved to Malaysia. They both converted to Islam, with Sarah marrying Ja'afar in the southern village of Muar while Joanne Ingham tied the knot with local fisherman Hanafi Bin Salleh, and had two sons together.

But in 2004, when Joanne took the kids to New Zealand for a holiday, she stayed and never returned.

The sisters both returned home and tried to settle down to quiet lives.

The stowaway story, however, followed them everywhere they went – as did run-ins with authorities.

In 2016, Sarah failed to show up at Hutt Valley District Court where she faced a number of charges, including disorderly behaviour, resisting arrest, driving while disqualified, breaching community work, and giving false details of her identity.

Joanne was also in trouble with the law, for relatively minor offences, having struggled with alcohol addiction throughout her life.

Speaking from his home in Johor, Malaysia, this week, Salleh said the last he heard his ex-wife was in a "bad condition", with no permanent home.

Police were called to the Harbour City Motor Inn in Wellington's Webb St about 2.40am on Tuesday where Joanne was found dead.

Ingham's death has been described by police as "unexplained".

"A scene examination will occur this morning and inquiries are ongoing. Further information will be provided when it is available," a police spokeswoman said.

Her death has been referred to the coroner and her body is scheduled to undergo a post mortem.

Sarah was seen outside the Wellington motel in tears yesterday.

Joanne Ingham's Facebook page has images of her around Wellington along with photos of a tabby cat.

One post she shared reads: "I have been broken, I know hardships, I have lost myself. But here I stand still moving forward, growing stronger each day. I will never forget the harsh lessons I've learned, I will never regret because the hell I endured made me stronger."

Salleh said he was in "complete shock" to hear the woman he shared two children with was gone.

"As soon as I found out, I jumped onto Google to read all the articles and then I told my parents and my family. We will be holding a blessing and prayer tonight and over the next three days," he said.

"I hope she left in peace, I will be praying for her."

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