Patrick (Paddy) HILDEBRAND
The Age, July 6th 1987
The Age - July 3rd, 1987
It's a peaceful place in Victoria's Wilsons Promontory, ideal for family walks, a back-before-lunch kind of stroll. I walked this path earlier this year with my family. Not far into the walk I came across a rock which bears a simple, bronze inscription. It was a memorial to a nine-year-old boy named Patrick (Paddy) Hildebrand, who on this spot in 1987 left the track and walked into the woods.
Young Paddy had gone on ahead of his family about 10 minutes into the walk. The scene: a mother, calling out for her son to wait. No reply. Louder calls. Running, shouting, rising panic, retracing steps to the car park, and finally a sprint to the nearby ranger station for help. A massive search was assembled. A hat believed to belong to Paddy was found, as well as a bed of ferns, but after a week of combing the area Christine Hildebrand drove away without her son. No trace of Paddy was ever found. He had vanished into the woods.
"He must be there," says Shane Cunningham,* a senior volunteer searcher with more than 25 years' experience. "We searched so hard and for so long. People put so much effort into it. We were loaded into helicopters, winched down onto the top of the ridge, marched down and then winched back up into the helicopter to do it all again. The vegetation was incredibly thick, but by the fifth day the entire area was completely trampled. We didn't know what more we could do."
Some couldn't accept that the search was unsuccessful. "One of the senior sergeants at the time had a son about the same age as Paddy, and used to go down there for years after the search finished and just tramp around in his own time. He had a bit of a breakdown because he couldn't believe that with all those resources Paddy couldn't be found." A mother broken, searchers disbelieving, and a scenario played out all too often in the Australian bush. People who go for a walk or a hike and get lost. Some will never return.
Searches fall under the jurisdiction of the state police, supported by volunteer-dependent organisations such as the SES and in some states specialist volunteer squads, such as Victoria's Bush Search and Rescue (BSAR) and NSW's Bushwalkers Wilderness Rescue Squad. BSAR's records show that, in the group's 64-year history, they've returned empty-handed 15 times out of 104 searches. Some searchers are particularly unlucky. Cunningham says, "I can't remember being on any searches where we've actually found anyone."
So how is it that people can so frequently vanish? Sergeant James Bate is a senior member of Victoria Police's Search and Rescue Squad, whose experience dates back to the Hildebrand case. A key problem, he says, is figuring out how much search area to cover. "The best-case scenario is they'll leave their intentions with someone and we'll know exactly what track they were walking or where exactly they were intending to go in the bush." The biggest challenge is conducting what Bate refers to as "rest of the world" searches. A case in point is the 2011 mystery of David Prideaux, the boss of maximum security Barwon Prison who went missing while hunting near Tomahawk Hut in Victoria's High Country. "There's no clue of what direction he may have gone," Bate says. "We know where he started from, but we don't know his direction of travel. We thoroughly searched the area, working outwards, and we found absolutely nothing: no footprints, no dropped equipment, no clothing." In the early stage of a search, Bate says, it's hoped the person is conscious and responsive; the main technique used by search parties is to walk along and call out, hoping the lost person will respond. "In the Prideaux case we were searching up to 15km out with helicopters and teams on ridges, but if he's unresponsive the probability of detection is extremely low."
Cunningham agrees. "There are just so many areas you can miss, and unfortunately bodies give no feedback. A lot of the time it's impossible to say, hand on heart, that you've searched every square inch, because you just can't." Searchers, though, still face failure-related anxieties. "We dread turning on the news and hearing that the person has been found in an area we've already searched. It's our worst nightmare."
How, then, do they decide when to call off a search, to admit defeat? "We take into account what the person was wearing, any medical conditions, what the weather's been like, what equipment they have and make a decision whether or not to continue the search," Bate says. How do the families feel when a search is called off? "We keep the families constantly updated. We make it plain as the case goes on if we think they haven't survived. There comes a point where you're well past the likely time-frame for survival according to the medical experts and there's no intelligence to indicate we're in the right area. They [the families] would be well informed that we're getting to the end." Bate says it's always a difficult time. "Even if in their own mind they've accepted that their loved one is dead, we're only human and we like to have something to bury."
Still with no body to bury, at the time of going to press, is the family of 23-year-old Gary Tweddle, who vanished into the bush in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney one night in July this year, after a work conference. A huge search involving police and hundreds of volunteers was launched, but after 10 days the decision was made to scale it back. Gary's father, David, tearfully acknowledged that his son wasn't coming home and praised the searchers for their efforts. "They could do no more," he said.
Sometimes, though, families believe the police and searchers could do a lot more.
In June this year NSW police called off their search after weeks of scouring the freezing, bleak Snowy Mountains for 25-year-old Prabhdeep Srawn, who'd gone missing on May 13. Srawn, a Canadian who was studying at Bond University on the Gold Coast, left his rental car in Charlotte Pass Village and set off to hike to Mount Kosciuszko. Whether he made it or not we may never know. Srawn was only noticed missing a week later, when his car wasn't returned. On hearing the news from police his family immediately flew out from Canada.
Straight away the searchers faced two very real problems: they had no clear idea of which part of the range Srawn may be on; and it was likely he was already dead. A blizzard hit not long after Srawn set out, and night-time temperatures plunged. Vague clues in the first few days of the search gave some hope. A hiker said he saw footprints in the snow; a drink bottle was found; there were reports of a voice. Police searching Srawn's rental car initially missed finding his laptop, which upon later inspection was found to contain maps of the area. Srawn's family would never forgive the police for this mistake. After searching for a little over a week, police began to scale back the effort and delivered the news to Srawn's family that they believed he was dead. Superintendent Shane Box said, "We have conducted extensive searches over some of the hardest and most remote and unforgiving terrain, in freezing temperatures. Sadly, there has not been any sign of Prabhdeep."
Srawn's family refused to believe he was dead. His military survival training - he was a Canadian Army reservist - would keep him alive, they claimed. He would eat caterpillars, ants, anything it took. The word "impossible", they said, was not in his vocabulary. They lashed out at the decision by the NSW Police to call off the search and launched a social media campaign to get it resumed. Emails were sent to the Australian High Commission requesting intervention. More emails ricocheted around government departments, here and in Canada, going all the way to the office of the Canadian Prime Minister. Srawn's sister, Mandeep, and other family members wrote impassioned pleas to various authorities, going over the search in minute detail, accusing NSW Police of incompetence at best, heartless apathy at worst.
When the lobbying failed to rouse a second official search, the family took matters into their own hands. They assembled their own private search team and flew in volunteers from the Canadian army. Another week of searching failed to find any trace. Things were looking drastic, so the family tried a different tack. Prabhdeep would get a price on his head.
A reward was posted: $50,000 to anyone who found him, dead or alive - a figure that was doubled days later. Box feared it would lead untrained people to put themselves at risk, but he wasn't in a position to prevent it. "This is an emotional time for people," he told a news conference, with heavy understatement.
The deeply religious Srawn family and supporters from the Sikh community maintained that a miracle was not out of the question. Supporters and well-wishers instructed the family, via a Facebook page, not to give up searching, and that God would keep Prabhdeep safe. "We believe he's OK," his sister Mandeep told ABC news on June 18, more than a month after he was last seen.
The family perhaps drew hope from the survival story of Jamie Neale, the British backpacker who was lost in the Blue Mountains south of Katoomba for 12 days in the winter of 2009, before he stumbled upon a couple of bushwalkers on a fire trail. Neale did everything wrong before going on his hike, including leaving his phone behind and not telling anyone of his intentions, but he had enough bush-nous and plain good luck to get out of the situation alive. Post-rescue, Neale's relationship with searchers and his family also went off the track. He sold his story to 60 Minutes for a reported $200,000 and then squabbled with his father over the proceeds. Some people raised questions about the authenticity of his tale, and how much money he should donate towards those involved in the rescue attempt. The 12 days he spent lost almost became an afterthought: whilst Neale's survival was remarkable, the public relations fallout was a nightmare.
Srawn's family have their own PR problems, but that's of little of concern to them as they continue to battle the authorities and pray for a miracle. On July 29, two and a half months after he disappeared, they announced they were leaving and would return to search in November.
Snow hides everything. It's a blanket that brings cold, hypothermia and death; a blanket that can't be tossed off. It's nature's temporary eraser, wiping out all evidence until the time is right to reveal a landscape's true form. It washes away footprints as thoroughly as any ocean wave on the sand, and paints everything it touches in a harsh, disorienting, deathly white. In summer, the Kosciuszko area is full of defined landmarks, deep valleys and peaks, vegetation, rocks, well-worn tracks, roads and boardwalks to guide a weary hiker home. In winter, it may as well be a different planet.
"One mound looks the same as another," says Shane Cunningham. "The valleys fill up with snow; you just find yourself going over little dips where a giant gully should be. All you can see is white. We checked the GPS one day and found we were several kilometres from where we thought we were. And we were the searchers, in beautiful, sunny conditions." Cunningham is referring to the 1999 search for four young snowboarders, whose tale bears sad similarities to Srawn's. Tim Friend, Dean Pincini, and brothers Scott and Paul Beardsmore, all in their mid-20s, set off from Thredbo one afternoon in August for a three-day back-country snowboarding adventure. When they failed to return, their families reported them missing.
Cunningham got the call in Melbourne at 6pm and by midnight was boarding a police bus with a Victorian search and rescue team, heading for Jindabyne. Despite a huge search, no sign of the men was found. Two weeks after they were last seen, the search was called off. The family of Dean Pincini accepted his fate and sent a note, with a photo of Dean, to those who'd helped in the search. "Your care, dedication and professionalism will never be forgotten," it said. "Thank you."
The tale of the lost snowboarders would, however, provide one final twist. November brought spring to the hills. The snow thawed, forcing the mountain range to give up its grim secrets. A passing helicopter spotted ski poles poking out of the last remaining snow drift of the season, on the Ramshead Range, in the middle of the search area. In it lay the bodies of the missing snowboarders, huddled in a snow cave they'd dug after the weather closed in. The men had suffocated, probably in their sleep, after the entrance to the snow cave was buried by one of the biggest overnight snow dumps ever recorded.
Cunningham remembers hearing the news that the bodies had been discovered. "You look at the area [where they were discovered] and it was just bare earth, and one little piece of snow, and there they were, inside it. I've still got the maps and the GPS route we took on the search, and we actually walked right over the guys, but they were under many metres of snow. There's no way we would have known they were there."
In 1985 Stephen Crean, brother of federal politician Simon, famously went missing while cross-country skiing in the same area. Intensive searching followed. His body wasn't discovered for a year and a half, accidentally, by a traveller who stumbled upon a human skull. There have been others.
Seaman's Hut is a stately stone shelter built near Mount Kosciuszko as a memorial to Laurie Seaman, who along with Evan Hayes died in a blizzard while skiing in 1928. Seaman's body was discovered a month later, near the site of the hut which bears his name, but Hayes' body lay undiscovered for 18 months.
Klaus Hueneke, renowned for his books and photographs of the Australian Alps, led a successful search in 1988 to rediscover the site where Hayes' body had been found. I ask him about the Srawn case. He explains: "Finding a cairn or a body in that landscape is like finding a contact lens on the bottom of a swimming pool. Between Mount Townsend [where Srawn's last mobile transmission came from] and the Alpine Way is one of the most rugged valleys in Australia. It's cold, wet, treacherously steep, full of fallen trees, difficult rivers to cross, almost as tough as temperate rainforest in Tasmania. His body may never be found, irrespective of the size of the reward. I don't think he wanted to vanish, but if he did it was a good place to do it."
Cunningham says that the public often read more into disappearances than they need to. Unfounded insinuations of criminal activity pop up and family members are often suspected of wrongdoing, which contributes to unwarranted grief for both the families and the searchers. Searchers are under constant scrutiny from the families of the missing, something that only intensifies as the search nears its end.
"It can be demoralising because the families are so distraught and they give you this look ... " He pauses. "It's like they're trying to look into your soul, trying to read your mind; a look you don't normally get from people, you know? In their mind while there are searchers there is still hope. But once people stop searching it's as if their loved one has been written off, like they've been declared dead."
He still remembers the expression on the face of Christine Hildebrand, the mother of little Paddy. "Every day we would go back to the search base and see these imploring eyes from his mother. Her face would search our faces, the way we searched for her son, trying to read our expressions; hoping for something, anything."
People volunteer for various reasons: some have spare time and want to learn new skills, others want to meet people and have fun, some like to get qualifications and certificates for their CVs, some have a desire to teach and share experiences. What does Cunningham believe motivates search and rescue volunteers? He looks at me like I've just asked a stupid question, shrugs his shoulders and simply replies, "The hope that one day you might find someone." For the families of those such as Prabhdeep Srawn and Gary Tweddle that day can't come soon enough.
* Name has been changed.
The 37-year-old told The Women's Weekly he had waited a long time to speak about losing his sibling, who vanished while the pair bushwalked with his mother and cousins in Victoria's Wilson's Promontory in 1987.
"It was difficult to write," Hildebrand told the mag, "but I had been waiting a long time to write it. I also knew it would be the most important thing I'd ever write."
The affable journo who is a host on Ten's morning show Studio 10 wrote in his memoir An Average Joe, that Paddy's disappearance sparked the largest manhunt in the State's history.
Despite widespread media coverage and an extensive investigation, all the searchers ever found was the little boy's yellow, plastic rain hat.
"Paddy loved nothing more than bushwalking," Hildebrand wrote in the book which hit shelves in December. "The forest ahead was calming and the way ahead was clear. And so we strolled lazily along the path, a couple of kids straggling behind and Paddy a few short metres ahead. Then he rounded a bend and we never saw him again.
"In a single tick of the clock, we were all broken. Our whole lives became instantly forlorn."
Hildebrand also spoke of how he was left "crying uncontrollably" when his father casually explained he was leaving the family while playing a game of Lego.
His mother told the Weekly: "It was a surgical cut for Joe and consequently has barely spoken to his father in the 30 years since."
Hildebrand also spoke about his tough upbringing, how he never wore a new item of clothing, had a haircut at a hairdressers and how simple routines such as a daily shower were never taught.
The Daily Telegraph columnist is now married to fellow journalist Tara Ravens and has a three month old son, Henry.
An Average Joe: my horribly abnormal life, published by Harper Collins, is out now.