Mystery Of The Wonnangatta Valley
The Australian state of Victoria has been the scene of multiple strange disappearances over the last decade. What is happening to the people who vanish into these strange regions of isolated rural areas? And could a mysterious figure possibly hold the key to uncovering their fates? In this post, we explore the mystery of the Wonnangatta valley .
A Photographer's experience of the Wonnangatta valley
For six days now, the photographer had been cautiously circling the area identified to him by local residents as the place where he would find the mysterious individual he was looking for. In all that time, despite having captured some of the park's most attractive wildlife on camera, there was still no trace of the so-called "Button Man". For years, he had heard tales of this ageing wanderer, who haunted the trails and pathways of Victoria's Alpine National Park. Some described him as quiet and benign. Others reported that he was a somewhat difficult and confrontational character. All the witnesses were in agreement, however, that this enigmatic bushman's tracking skills were far in advance of anyone else they had ever encountered. He reportedly moved with a speed and agility far greater than any man of his advancing years, emerging from thick scrubland, which no other hunter would even consider attempting to penetrate, before disappearing back the way he had come.
Despite not having managed to locate this nomadic figure, the photographer had managed to uncover signs of his movements. On occasion, he had taken pictures of small piles of pebbles, which had been placed alongside tracks to show if anyone had passed. Other times, he had encountered snares, and the remnants of deer antlers that have been sliced down into buttons or small items of jewelry.
Having ultimately failed in his quest, the photographer settled down for one last night in the park, packing away his equipment in readiness for an early departure the following morning. When he rose the next day, it was only as he began to collect his belongings, that he noticed someone else had apparently trespassed inside the boundaries of his camp during the previous evening. Several items of food had been removed from the bags and containers they had been stored in, with the remnants carefully rearranged to hide the thefts.
In addition to this, half his water supplies were also missing, but it was only when he got home later that day and downloaded the images from his camera onto a computer that the magnitude of the previous evening's events became apparent. The last three images stored on the SD card taken at some point during the middle of the night, were of his own sleeping face. Paralyzed by a rising wave of nausea, the photographer realized that someone had entered his tent, unpacked the camera and took photos of him while he slept, before replacing everything and leaving little trace of their passing.
Happening of Notorious Incidents
The Wonnangatta valley is one of the most isolated regions of the Victorian Alps and is accessible only by the hardiest of motor vehicles. During the late 18-hundreds, a network of temporary roads and homesteads were constructed to support a short-lived gold rush. Now, only the skeletons of these forgotten constructions and passageways remain, crisscrossing the landscape. The lack of habitation in this area means it has remained one of great beauty, but also one of extreme danger. For centuries, those who have visited or settled within traveling distance of the iconic mountain range have either lost their lives under mysterious circumstances or disappear completely.
Perhaps the most notorious of these incidents was the brutal slaying of two farm hands in 1917, their murders remaining unsolved to this day. It is a phenomenon which has not diminished with the passage of time, and in recent years, the number of disappearances in the region only seems to have increased. During the last decade, state police have investigated the inexplicable disappearances of six people, with the most recent case having occurred as recently as May 2020.
In March of 2008, a local businessman named Warren Meyer was reported missing by his wife. The 57 year old had failed to return home following a morning bush walk he had been planning. Authorities eventually located his car parked up near the base of Mount Dom Dom, locked and undamaged, but with no sign of its owner. The search of the vehicle showed that Meyer had apparently been in possession of sufficient food and water, as well as carrying his mobile phone and an additional GPS tracker.
He was an experienced hiker, familiar with all the local trails, none of which were considered to be overly arduous or dangerous. Despite a extensive police search, no trace of Meyer was ever found. The subsequent investigation into the incident uncovered witnesses who believed they had heard what sounded like automatic gunfire in the area on the morning of the disappearance. When an extensive marijuana crop was later located whilst officers were carrying out searches, one theory was that the missing man had fallen prey to a local drug gang.
A further possible explanation came to light when officers detained an escaped psychiatric patient, who had been found roaming the trails in the days after Meyer had vanished. This line of inquiry was ruled out by the coroner presiding over the inquest who stated it was unlikely the two men would have encountered one another. Without any firm evidence to the contrary, the final verdict surrounding the disappearance was stated as "Unknown Causes".
David Prideaux's disappearance
Three years later, the local police were again scouring the bush for another missing man, 50 year old David Prideaux. And if the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Warren Meyer could be considered suspicious, they faded into obscurity when compared to the conspiracy theories that would be borne out of this incident.
At the time of his disappearance, Prideaux was the governor of Barton prison and had gone missing whilst on a deer hunting trip with his brother-in-law in the Alpine National Park. The two men had parted ways at a building named the Tomahawk Hut just before 8 a.m. and had planned to travel in opposite directions on a white circular trail and then meet up again for lunch. Prideaux was well equipped, decked out in camouflage overalls and carrying a new rifle. He possessed a UHF radio and compass as well as a sleeping bag, in the event he could not make it back to safety before darkness fell. The one thing he did not take with him was his mobile phone, due to a lack of signal in the area. When the hunter did not show up for the agreed rendezvous, his relative was immediately concerned.
The police were called and a large search effort was undertaken, including helicopters equipped with thermal cameras. Nothing was found, either in the early days of this endeavor or subsequent searches during the following months. And whilst trying to cope with the pain and anguish of a loved one going missing, Prideaux's family were suddenly thrown into a myriad of conspiracy theories.
Several months before, a prisoner who had agreed to turn informant on his underworld associates had been murdered when the story of his betrayal had leaked out into the press. Rumors swirled that a hitman had killed the governor for his role in the operation or the crooked cops had followed and murdered Prideaux in order to hide their involvement in the case.
There were also suggestions that the missing hunter had faked his own death, starting a new life elsewhere to avoid the fallout of the scandal. All of these theories were dismissed by the coroner, who again recorded a verdict of "Unknown Causes". Officers investigating the case believed Prideaux had suffered some kind of mishap, with his remains later consumed by wild animals, but this would not explain how his equipment and rifle had also vanished without a trace.
Other Peculiar disappearances in the Wonnangatta valley
The events surrounding the disappearance of Conrad Whitlock in the summer of 2019 are equally shrouded in mystery. The 72 year old had apparently pulled over to the side of the road and then vanished from inside his motor vehicle without explanation. On the morning of July the 29th, he had risen in the early hours whilst his wife laid sleeping and then set off in his car. By using the GPS signal from Whitlock's phone, police were eventually able to find his white BMW parked up in a lay-by beside Mount Butler Road.
The vehicle was unlocked with the phone still inside, along with the missing man's keys and jacket. In the days that followed, the investigating officers were able to build up a timeline of the car's movements using various sources of camera footage. Traffic cameras showed that for some reason, Conrad had left the estate where he lived at 3 a.m. He had been driven for roughly three and a half hours before pulling over in the isolated spot where the car was found.
Footage obtained from the dash cams of passing vehicles later identified a 15-minute window, where he somehow disappeared from inside the car. Searches of the surrounding area were unsuccessful in locating Conrad. His wife states that he had been complaining of headaches in the days leading up to the vanishing and that he may have suffered a medical episode. But that does not explain how he came to be at such an isolated location or how his personal possessions were found still inside his vehicle.
Just three months later, another disappearance was reported, this time in relation to a hiker by the name of Niels Becker. The 39 year old had utilized the previous six months preparing for a 5-day solo hike through the one Wonnangatta Valley. He was familiar with the area, well provisioned and had spent the first two days of his trip, sending text to his family, updating them with his progress. But on the third day of the hike, these messages abruptly ceased. Investigators found Becker's car parked at the base of Mount Stirling, but despite searches of all the local tracks and trails, the missing hiker was nowhere to be found. Now with four missing persons cases at various stages of investigation, little did the police know that the most frustrating disappearance of all the current cases was about to take place.
On the morning of the 19th of March 2020, Russell Hill said goodbye to his wife and headed off for a hike in the Wonnangatta Valley. She believed that her 74 year-old husband would be making the trip on his own and was unaware that he had, in fact, picked up a companion after he left home, Carol Clay. The true nature of this relationship remains a matter of speculation. But what is known is that the pair made camp later that day having driven into the valley by the Zeka Spur Track, which Russell had helped clear many years before. The retiree was passionate about gadgets and in addition to an expensive drone which he had taken with him, he also had a radio set, which he used to call various people on the first two nights of the trip.
When Hill failed to transmit his usual six pm radio message on the evening of the 21st, his friends did not initially believe that anything was amiss, but as the days progressed, they decided to alert the authorities. A week later, Russell's Toyota Land Cruiser was found parked up next to the burned-out remains of his camp, his tent and everything inside had been totally destroyed by the Blaze which had also scorched the exterior of the nearby vehicle.
Both of the camp's occupants were missing, along with Hill's drone, but the bulk of their possessions were otherwise accounted for. The subsequent police investigation identified the likely source of the fire as a phone charger left switched on in the tent, although investigators conceded that an unknown perpetrator could also have started the blaze deliberately. Initial theories behind the disappearance were that the couple had come to harm whilst heading somewhere remote to fly their drone, or that they had been attacked by either criminals or wild animals. But a string of alleged sightings of the two pensioners has also created speculation that they faked their own deaths and have moved to another part of the country to start a new life.
'The Button Man'
In all of the presented cases, at the time of writing, there remains no conclusive evidence as to where the missing people or their remains may be located. But there is one potential source of information in relation to these incidents. One who is admitted to having witnessed the final hours of at least three of the parties involved. A secretive and elusive figure, known to the valley's inhabitants as the Button Man.
This enigmatic character's name is derived from the buttons and trinkets that he creates by carving the antlers of dead deer. No one can say with certainty where he heralds from, only that he lives a nomadic existence within the confines of the National Park. He is a skilled bushmen, believed to be aged in his late 70s, who has shunned society and instead chooses to live off the land. At least 8 visitors to the Wonnangatta valley in recent years have reported that the Button Man has suddenly materialized within the confines of their encampments, before disappearing just as quickly.
On occasion he has being caught pilfering food and equipment from those he has encountered, with his most mysterious action being to take photos of a wildlife photographer, using the man's own camera as he laid sleeping. Sometimes, campers have even awoken to find him sleeping alongside them in their own camp. The Button Man is believed to have set up home in the vicinity of an isolated weather station named the crossroads. It was here that he later told detectives he had seen Niels Becker in the hours before the younger man's disappearance. It is also not far from the King Billy track, where Russell Hill told friends he had become involved in an altercation with the infamous bushman, in the summer of 2019.
Some have fallen back on the Button Man's more disturbing mannerisms to blame him for the disappearances and accusation which the local police strongly refute. He has been questioned by officers on a number of occasions who state that despite his eccentricity, they have found him honest and engaging. And yet, his vicinity to the incidents remains one of several commonalities between the cases.
The undergrowth and mountainous regions of the Victorian Alps are beset with perils, in terms of both their topography and the creatures which reside there. With ever-changing weather systems and numerous uncharted areas, it is likely that many of the people who have vanished there throughout the decades came to harm due to simple misadventure. But as people who frequent the region have become better armed and equipped to endure its hardships, they have continued to disappear. Is there something sinister and unknown hiding within the Alpine National Park, be it human or otherwise? And just what role does the mysterious Button Man play in these proceedings? That of a participant or merely a witness?
Whatever the case, our hearts go out to the friends and families of all those involved. It is our sincerest hope that by raising the profile of these disappearances, we further raise awareness, perhaps encouraging authorities to revisit these cases and bring closure to the families who still await the safe return home of their loved ones.