While Kristie Bennett and Lee Carseldine pulled focus as the two remaining contests of this season's Australian Survivor, it was the last jury member to enter the final tribal council arena who caught Carseldine's eye.
"Looks pretty, doesn't she," Carseldine told Bennett as he saw a radiant El Rowland take her spot on the bench.
It was a moment that Rowland, 33, an Army corporal form Brisbane, now looks back on with fondness. "It was gorgeous," she tells WHO. "He saw me at my worst on the island, and I don't think he realised I was actually a girl underneath my scruffy hair and my overalls, so it was nice for him to see me as a normal person."
Spending almost 55 days together as alliance mates, spooning companions and trusted confidants, Rowland and Carseldine, 40, an ex-cricketer and aerial photographer from Brisbane, are now seeing each other as real-world partners.
"We can't put our finger on how there was so much trust in someone we had never met before," Carseldine tells WHO of the instant attraction both had to each other on Day 1 on the Aganoa tribe. "And then spending time with El, obviously we have similar backgrounds. Although she's in the Army, I played sport, so it's sort of similar in terms of the way we played the game. We wanted to stick to our word and form strong bonds without flipping and let our actions do the talking."
Reaffirming what he said during tribal council when pressed if they were romantic on the island, Carseldine says, "We had a very professional bond and nothing happened, but obviously we felt something for each other."
Fifth-place finisher Matt Tarrant says the bond between the couple "became apparent when they came to Saanapu, probably Day 22. It was pretty clear those two were really tight. They would always keep together pretty much all the time, always cuddling at night and such, so it was pretty obvious."
Rowland would agree. "I always knew," she says of her and Carseldine as a couple. "Obviously on the island, I knew that we had a connection and that we were very compatible as people, as Lee said, friends at the least."
As a single mum to son Darcy, 4, Rowland was also moved when Carseldine's sons Jake, 10, and Sam, 8, ran towards him during a final tribal council reunion.
"Oh my God, melt my heart," Rowland recalls. "My heart couldn't actually deal with that. It was so emotional and beautiful and just to see him as a dad, that was something that attracted me to him in the first place, so to see it all unfold and see him be so happy to have them there was amazing."
Island bonds are one thing, Rowland says, but what happens away from Samoa? "We didn't know how we were going to work on the outside with our own busy lives," she says.
So Rowland set about reaching out to Carseldine, who needed some time before testing the waters. " I wanted to make sure I was right mentally before I caught up with her," he says. "I didn't want her to say, 'Who's this basketcase?' She's taught me a lot as well, to open up again and prepare to risk it and get out there to see if it's worth a shot, and it definitely is. I'm glad she gave me that nudge I needed."
Adds Rowland, "I knew there was something special there that I wanted to pursue, so I gave it all I got and we got to know each other, and it's all history from there."
Now the two are content to try our life in a real-world alliance. "Little Darce is a bit younger than my boys," Carseldine says, "but my boys play with little kids younger than them all the time and they've caught up with each other a few times and they have fun together."
Rowland says, "Darcy gets along with Lee's boys immensely. They are just so great together and just everything is just really great at the moment."
While it's early days, Carseldine is hopeful for the couple's future. "Put it this way," he says, "it's a good starting point to a healthy, long relationship when you spend pretty much 55 days with someone and you see the person laid bare."
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