Australia’s vanishing bushwalkers
"NOT all those who wander are lost."
It's a popular line - written by JRR Tolkien for his fantasy trilogy The Lord Of The Rings - that frequently appears in memes posted by philosophical adventure-seekers on social media. But for those who venture into the unknown to explore the natural wonders of the world, and are unable to find their way out, it can quickly lose its shine.
The Land Down Under might be best known for its pristine beaches and spectacular coastline, but its expansive outback desert plains, wildflower-dotted mountains, lush rainforests and untamed bushland also attract their fair share of visitors.
Far from the sounds of cars screeching through city streets and the constant banality of general chatter, the great outdoors is often a welcome escape for those in search of solitude. The country's beguiling bushland is particularly difficult to navigate and subsequently attracts others who come to challenge themselves. It's those very things that can also work against hikers - and in favour of drug lords and killers who operate within the dense and rugged terrain.
A news.com.au investigation has revealed that bushwalkers go missing in Australia almost every day. Most are eventually found safe following a bout of misadventure. But in the worst cases, some vanish without a trace - never to be seen again.
Last year, the dead bodies of several bushwalkers were found in national parks throughout NSW and Victoria, following extensive searches. Among them was that of Melbourne man David Occhipinti, a 35-year-old hiker who had embarked on a 10km walk around the gorge's circuit track on December 10. During the hike, Mr Occhipinti posted images of himself on his Facebook page at the scenic western lookout and Blackwood Pool, and Picnic Point at the park. He failed to return home as planned and his body was found the next day at the base of the gorge.
But for those still seeking answers about what happened to their missing loved ones, the search continues long after the official one is called off, with many carrying on private investigations. It's a gruelling and heartwrenching process, but one that allows them to hold onto the sliver of hope that their loved one may someday been found. Sasoon Simonian, whose brother Sevak vanished in the Blue Mountains after setting out on a trek in 2014, told news.com.au his greatest wish was for "everything to go back to normal".
"My dad always says: 'If you lose hope, you lose everything,'" Sasoon said. "We do hold hope that Sevak could be alive, even though nothing seems to make sense right now.
"But after over three years and no evidence, I am prepared for the possibility of continued uncertainty."
Sydney man Sevak Simonian, 21, left his Belrose home to go bushwalking in the Blue Mountains on October 20, 2014. But almost four years later, he's yet to walk back through his front door, and remains a registered missing person.
Alarm bells first went off when Mr Simonian failed to show for work at Bunnings the next day and his family soon reported him missing. His car was found in the Kanangra Walls Rd carpark at Kanangra-Boyd National Park, near Oberon, four days after he vanished.
Family and friends said at the time they believed he could survive in the park for some time because he was a skilled bushwalker. "If anyone could come out of this alive it would be him - he was that adventurous survivor type," his brother Sasoon this week told news.com.au.
Police, SES, the Rural Fire Service, paramedics and other specialist volunteers scoured the national park without success for weeks following Mr Simonian's disappearance. Despite several extensive searches, there was no trace of him.
"The lead volunteer was baffled as to how the biggest search in the region's history did not uncover any leads," Sasoon told news.com.au. Police said it was out of character for Mr Simonian to not contact his family or friends, especially for such a length of time.
"He lived life to the fullest and had so many unique experiences, especially out exploring nature," Sasoon said. "But he had so much more to offer the world, and so much left to achieve. I always think about these possibilities."
Northern Beaches Police crime manager Inspector Craig Wonders last year said detectives had discovered that Mr Simonian had not accessed any bank accounts or made any phone calls since he was last seen in 2014.
"While Mr Simonian's disappearance is not being treated as suspicious at this stage, police and family hold serious concerns for his welfare," Insp Wonders said.
Mr Simonian is of Eastern European descent, 170cm, slim build, curly black hair and brown eyes. He would now be 24 years old.
It was a beautiful spring day when avid hiker Bruce Fairfax, 66, and his wife Louise went on a walk with their dog Tessa at Duckhole Lake Track in Tasmania's south, on October 14 last year.
The couple became separated after Ms Fairfax walked ahead of her husband and Tessa. But as she waited for them at the couple's rendezvous point, only the dog showed up.
Mr Fairfax was never seen again despite an extensive search by specialist divers of Duckhole Lake which failed to find any trace of the former high school teacher.
Past students and Mr Fairfax's daughters flew from interstate to form a search crew of more than 60 people. Their efforts were also unsuccessful.
Police soon declared the window of survival had closed and formally suspended the search for Mr Fairfax on October 23, 2017.
It is believed Mr Fairfax, who required daily medication for Parkinson's disease, became disorientated on the walking track.
In a lengthy blog post, Louise described her husband as a "gentle, patient, generous giant".
Survival expert and instructor Bob Cooper told news.com.au it was "easy to get lost in the bush" but that the first few hours after becoming lost were the most crucial for survival.
"What you think governs your action and knowledge dispels fears," Mr Cooper, who is also the author of Outback Survival, said.
"If you get emotional - and most people do - that will block off any common sense and then the person will start making decisions that aren't based on reality."
Melbourne journalist and editor Rachel Funari was waiting to hear back about a job when she decided to go on a holiday to Tasmania in 2011. It was a decision that would seal her fate.
Ms Funari, originally from the US, had talked about walking the The Fluted Cape Track on Bruny Island, which boasts some of the most spectacular cliffs and scenery in southern Tasmania. She rented a shack on the island, where she dropped off her belongings, and set off in clothing consistent with going on a short walk, according to police. She was never seen again.
Friends became concerned when Ms Funari didn't board her plane home several days later. Police later discovered the bed in the shack had not been slept in.
Tasmania Coroner Christopher Webster investigated Ms Funari's presumed death and found she "probably died at an unknown location in bushland or in the waters surrounding Bruny Island on or about 3 March 2011".
"According to the evidence of her family and friends, it is likely Ms Funari would probably have wanted to explore the Fluted Cape walking track near to the shack, although they believe she may have had difficulty with the parts of the walk, particularly that which leads up to the Cape, and also in coming back down to the track," Mr Webster said.
"They further indicated that Ms Funari was not known to them to be overly fit or to enjoy strenuous activity.
"They consider that she was not confident in the bush and may not have had a very good sense of direction."
According to the coroner, the evidence also suggested that it was "out of character for Ms Funari to have no contact with her friends, to not turn up to work, and not to have updated her profile or blog to let her friends and family know where she is".
JOAO (JOHN) DE ORNELAS
While there might be something to the old adage that "safety is greater in numbers" it's certainly not a guarantee.
Sydney man Joao De Ornelas, was with his wife and a family friend on a bus tour when he vanished on March 3, 2010.
Mr De Ornelas, then aged 76, was last seen wandering off from the tour group at Tahunie Airwalk, Geeveston, Tasmania early that afternoon.
A ground, water and air search of the Tahune Airwalk area on the Huon River was conducted followed by routine patrols but he has not been seen since.
Police said at the time that Mr De Ornelas was in good physical condition and was not believed to be suffering from any medical problems. But their optimism soon faded.
"Based on expert medical opinion, police now consider that it is unlikely that Mr de Ornelas would be alive if he has remained in the area," Acting Inspector Marcus Pearce said when calling off the search days later.
Mr De Ornelas was wearing navy blue shorts, blue shirt, blue vest and blue peaked cap at the time of his disappearance.
He is described as 165cm tall with a heavy build, grey hair, olive complexion and wears reading glasses.
Warren Meyer is at the centre of one of the country's most perplexing missing bushwalker cases. It's been a decade since Mr Meyer vanished while walking in the Yarra Ranges near Dom Dom Saddle in Victoria. It's believed Mr Meyer may have met with foul play after stumbling onto a marijuana plantation.
A fit and healthy experienced bushwalker, Mr Meyer, then 57, was well prepared for his 10km walk on Easter Sunday in 2008.
He was carrying a backpack containing a map of the area, a bright yellow GPS, fully charged mobile phone, water and food. He parked his white Subaru Forester at the Dom Dom Saddle car park just before 8am on March 23 and started his walk along the Monda Track.
He was to meet up with his wife Zee and friends for lunch at the RACV club in Healesville, Victoria, but never arrived. Mr Meyer, who was wearing shorts, a light top and his walking boots, has not been seen since.
His wife Zee this week told news.com.au that Mr Meyer "was the only person missing in a bush setting in Victoria in 2008 and not found".
"This speaks volumes as he was healthy, experienced, well prepared, a morning's walk only on easily navigated wide open tracks, and the weather idyllic in the mid 20s," she said. "I have followed missing cases in bush settings for many years and understand our case is very rare."
At the time of Mr Meyer's disappearance, there were reports of out-of-control shooting from rapid-fire weapons over a 40-minute period that morning. The noise was heard along Monda Track around the time Mr Meyer would have been walking in that area.
When police searched the bush, they discovered an illegal marijuana plantation and the Meyer family later discovered the remains of another abandoned marijuana operation in the area. Mr Meyer is described as 180cm tall with an athletic build, grey hair, brown eyes and a fair complexion. He has a moustache and wears prescription glasses. He would now be 67 years old.
THE LUCKY ONES
Search and rescue crews are more often successful than not when it comes to locating missing bushwalkers.
An official search and rescue operation can be initiated within moments of the person being reported missing, following a risk assessment, NSW Police Rescue operations co-ordinator Senior Sergeant Michael Smith told news.com.au.
Richard Churchill, 54, from Kurrajong Heights, this week became one of those success stories. Mr Churchill and a friend had set off walking from Wheeny Creek but the pair soon became separated at the foot of the mountains in Wollemi National Park, NSW. Mr Churchill became lost and reportedly used his mobile phone to call for help that night. Police were unable to search at nightfall so Mr Churchill was forced to spend the night alone in the bush.
Mr Churchill was spotted by police when he emerged from the bushes unharmed the following morning. In 2015, Reg Foggerdy, was found alive in remote bush in WA's northern Goldfields after surviving six days without water.
The 62-year-old shooter managed to survive in the state's unforgiving outback by eating black ants after going missing when he attempted to chase a feral camel through the bush.
If you have information that may assist police to locate a missing person please call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.
If you or someone you know needs help, contact Lifeline on 131114.