As hikers disappear, these mountains cling to their mysteries
MERRIJIG, Australia – A blanket of fog hanging in front of him, Lachlan Culican saddled his horse one autumn morning and traveled to the remote highlands of South Australia to find two missing campers.
Arrived in the grassy plain where they had pitched their tent, Culican was surprised by what he saw. The campsite was reduced to ashes, the charred belongings of the campers piled up in heaps. Deer carcasses littered the valley. Campers were nowhere to be found.
“There was nothing natural about it,” said Culican, a 26-year-old shepherd.
More than a year later, the disappearance of campers Russell Hill and Carol Clay, both aged 70, remains unresolved. Speculation swirled. Was it a fatal clash with illegal deer hunters? A ruse so that the campers, who were not married to each other, can escape together?
Around the campfires, great stories flourished in the absence of answers. Often times, they revolve around a local recluse, known as Button Man, who lives in the woods near the campsite and spends his time carving buttons in woods.
There is no evidence that the man with the button had anything to do with the disappearances or that he ever saw Hill and Clay at their campsite. Nonetheless, its mere presence on this hostile ground has captured the national imagination – the embodiment, in a vast land, of the eerie lure and constant fear of places so far away they can engulf people without a sound.
Rumors and stories, both about the man on the button and the missing campers, reflect an innate desire to find explanations for the inexplicable. But for a century and beyond, these mountains, more than most places, have kept their secrets well.
A chain of doom
Herders who once roamed the rugged country stretching hundreds of miles northeast of Melbourne say it’s an easy place to disappear if you’re not careful, or want to.
Dingoes roam the land, howling in the dark of the night. A clear sky can turn to snow in the blink of an eye, even in summer. Most of the landscape is only accessible by horse or four-wheel drive during the warmer months and not at all in winter.
“It’s remote, beautiful and unpredictable,” said Graeme Stoney, 81, a local breeder. “He creates his own legends and his own mysteries.
In this wilderness, a series of hikers and campers have suffered a fate similar to that of Hill’s and Clay’s in recent years.
In 2008, Warren Meyer, 57, an experienced hiker, embarked on a relatively easy 10km walk in a national park on a warm fall day and was never seen again.
Potential clues have piled up. An escapee from a psychiatric ward who had homicidal tendencies was spotted in the area where Meyer had disappeared. Some people in the area said they heard gunshots during the same period. During a search, a marijuana plantation was discovered. But Meyer’s disappearance has never been resolved.
Three years later, the head of a Melbourne prison, David Prideaux, 50, went missing while hunting deer in the mountains. Some have speculated that his disappearance could be linked to the murder in prison of a gang leader under his supervision. For years thereafter, supposed sightings of Prideaux were reported across the country.
In July 2019, Conrad Whitlock, 72, inexplicably left his home at 3 a.m. and traveled to the high country. When police later found his abandoned car on the side of the road, his jacket, phone and wallet were all present. But he wasn’t.
Three months later, Niels Becker, an avid bush walker, disappeared in the middle of a five-day hike. He had been training for months for the outing, which was scheduled for his 39th birthday.
And then, in March 2020, Hill and Clay set off for what they had told their families would be a weeklong camping trip – although they didn’t mention they would be going together.
Upon arriving at their camp, in a wide valley nestled between snow-capped mountains, Hill, an avid amateur radio enthusiast, called to let his fellow amateurs know where he was.
It was the last time anyone had heard of one of them.
“The bush is very ruthless, the Australian bush,” Greg Paul, a senior police officer, said at a press conference last year after Hill and Clay went missing.
Police do not believe any of the cases are related. But that hasn’t stopped people from wondering.
“It’s an amazing coincidence that so many people are gone,” said Stoney, the breeder, “but you hope they were all wrong and nothing else is involved.”
The original case
One mystery in this land of secrets has outlived all others and still haunts local residents, many of whom are descendants of the main protagonists.
This is a double murder that took place 103 years ago.
This sweltering summer, the body of 48-year-old Jim Barclay was found in a shallow grave not far from the breeding station he managed. Suspicion immediately fell on the only other person living there: John Bamford, who was cooking for Barclay. But Bamford could not be questioned by the authorities; he had disappeared, only to find himself dead nine months later, a bullet lodged in his skull.
No one has ever been charged in the murders. The most common theory is that Barclay was killed by Bamford, who in turn was shot by a friend of Barclay’s for revenge. But people are also speculating on an affair Barclay allegedly had. Others say the two men could have had an altercation with cattle thieves.
Around the valley, the grandchildren of those directly or indirectly involved in the affair are now 70 and 80 years old. Each family has transmitted its own version of events, and they often contradict each other or contradict the official record.
“There have been many, many accusations from many families” and many tarnished names, said Keith Leydon, a historian who wrote a book on the murders.
The prevailing feeling is that it is better to leave the whole thing to the ghosts.
“You try to ask a mountain cattle rancher, and he’ll say, ‘We’re not talking about it here,'” Leydon said.
One of those men is Rob “Choppy” Purcell, now retired. His figure – one of the four men on horseback – is featured on the logo of the local pub in the town of Merrijig, at the foot of the mountains. It was also on the beer koozie he was holding.
“A lot of people have written books about the area, but they don’t know what they’re talking about,” Purcell said.
He spoke with the conviction of someone who knows more than the official record. But he was unwilling to divulge details – not to strangers.
Bruce McCormack, 63, whose family were among the first to settle in the area, told how his grandfather, a good friend of one of the men killed, came down to the valley to investigate shortly after the murders. He was there for three months, McCormack said, and his message on his return was, “Justice has been served, and leave her alone.”
“There are people who know more, but they’re all dying,” McCormack added, “and I’m not saying too much either.”
A legendary man
More than 100 years after the murders, as local residents once again try to figure out the loss of two people under uncertain circumstances, a new set of stories has emerged blurring the line between truth and urban legend.
These stories center on the man on the button.
Locals stress that they don’t really think the bush-dwelling recluse, whose real name is unknown, has anything to do with Hill and Clay’s disappearances. There is no indication that the police consider him to be a person of interest.
But his name was first linked to the case because he allegedly told police he had met Becker, the hiker who went missing five months before Hill and Clay.
With little else to explain the disappearances, attention has focused on the Button Man. It is almost certainly unwelcome. Locals, who say visitors now come to the mountains in hopes of meeting the man of legend, are concerned for his safety.
Campers and hikers say the Button Man appears out of the woods without a sound. Sometimes he has a pleasant conversation with them. Other times he seems restless and toast them over what they are doing.
In some of the stories told by those who have met him, he asks, “Do you want to see my collection of buttons? Or, occasionally, “Do you want to see my collection of axes?”
There are other less frequently told stories: People who know him a little better refer to him by the friendlier nickname of Buttons. He is rumored to be helping a university collect data on the high country and living in Melbourne during the winter.
Those who see Buttons driving through Mansfield, the regional hub where campers often stock up on supplies before heading further into the mountains, say he’s friendly and polite as he stops to fix his car or eat a piece.
But many also joke with hikers before heading into the valley: “Watch out for the man on the button!
“It just became a big story told around the campfires,” said local resident Ben Large behind the counter at the Mansfield bike shop.
In the light of day, the herders who know the valley best perceive its mysteries as individual cases of bad luck chained by chance.
But when in a rush, they’re reluctant to rule out completely the possibility that something else is happening. They share other mountain stories: a towering hairy creature who visits campers in the dark, hikers who find photos of themselves on their cameras, taken by an unknown hand.
It’s easy to imagine that something might be hiding in the bush when night falls, fog covers the mountains, and tree branches scraping against the rooftops sound like something alive.
“The dark is playing fun games,” said Charlie Lovick, 71, a local farmer who finds new homes for retired racehorses. “That’s why you keep the fire burning all night.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.