Hopes fade for James McLean, missing in south-west Tasmanian wilderness
The start of the Huon Track, in southern Tasmania, where James McLean is thought to be trekking. (WordPress/Imahiker)
When 76-year-old James Hugh McLean took off to explore Tasmania’s remote south-west, it was not out of character.
- Missing man James McLean was last seen on November 12, when he began a month-long walk in Tasmania’s south-west region
- The 76-year-old signed in at the Huon Track registration hut on November 13 and was planning on heading to Melaleuca and returning mid December
- Police now say “given the length of time he has been missing, the lack of food supplies and the difficulty of the terrain, the hopes of finding Mr McLean alive are fading”
The experienced bushwalker has been known to go on long treks with minimal supplies.
This time, it is feared he may not return, like many others who are lured into the Tasmanian wilderness but are never seen again.
A resident of Flinders Island, Mr McLean was last seen around mid November before setting off on what was to be a month-long trek in the state’s far south-west, intending to return by December 13.
On Boxing Day, police said they held “grave fears” for him, having found no trace despite intensive searches of over 100 kilometres of walking tracks leading in and out of the area he is believed to have been walking through.
Flinders Island resident Lois Ireland, who knows Mr McLean, told the ABC he was currently the talk of the island.
“Some people are saying ‘well that’s it. He’s done. He’s gone,'” she said. “Others are hopeful that he’ll just pop up and wonder what all the fuss was about.”
That would be truly remarkable — the bush in Tasmanian rarely releases those lost within it.
Geoff O’Hara says moving through the scrub is very hard and slow-going. (Supplied: Geoff O’Hara)
‘Sometimes you won’t see anybody for days’
People can and have survived extended periods in the Tasmanian wilderness — but they are the exception.
Flinders Island man James McLean has not returned from a long bushwalk in Tasmania’s south-west wilderness. (Supplied)
Those searching for lost people have remarked on how the bush can be so thick it means looking down from rescue aircraft can be made useless.
Those rescued have told how the forest can be so dense it forces the shedding of a backpack or other gear, with walking tracks disappearing in the scrub.
While stunningly beautiful, the Tasmanian wilderness of the south-west could be punishing, Hobart Walking Club president Geoff O’Hara said.
You’re under your own power, you’re carrying all your gear. You can stop and just admire the views. Sometimes you won’t see anybody for days.”
“It’s a beautiful area, there’s no other word for it. It’s absolutely fabulous out there.”
But the beauty came at a price, he said.
“The really intense [scrub] is very difficult to get through … it’s very wearing on your body, you get very, very tired,” Mr O’Hara said.
Ben Maloney, who in 2001 aged 27 went trekking in south-west Tasmania, told rescuers of how the foliage became so impenetrable as he was trying to find the track he had strayed from that he resorted to sitting down, unable to continue.
Frail, bearded and almost 20 kilograms lighter, Mr Maloney eventually stumbled out of the bush and into the campsite of shocked fellow bushwalkers, telling them he had been lost for about two weeks.
It had actually been 37 days.
The official search had been called off long before, with authorities saying it was unlikely Mr Maloney would be found.
Even his family and friends had already said their goodbyes at a memorial service to him.
Mr Maloney’s mother Margaret described his survival as “a miracle” — and it would be hard to disagree.
Survival is possible
In April 2017, the hopes of finding Hobart man John Ward, 41, and his son Stephen, 13, alive were fast dimming, the pair were missing for three nights in Tasmania’s south-west in near-freezing temperatures and rain.
To make matters worse, they had ventured into an area with what police described as “punishing terrain”, leaving their wet weather gear at the campsite, in “atrocious conditions”.
Incredibly, they survived, telling the world how they huddled under a shelter made of sticks, something they had seen put together by television survivalist Bear Grylls.
One of the rescuers told media that even after search teams spotted the dwelling made of sticks and ferns, they expected to find bodies.
“I was amazed they’d made it that far,” Constable Michael Preshaw said at the time. “When I saw their shelter, I still wasn’t convinced they were going to be OK.”
Others have not been so lucky, claimed by Tasmania’s south-west forever.
Bruce Fairfax and pet dog Tessa, photographed near Duckhole Lake, on the day he disappeared. (Supplied)
In 1995, the son of legendary Australian adventurer Dorothy Butler, headed off for a six-day round trip to Precipitous Bluff, a mountain range in the south-west.
John De Ornelas, who separated from a tour group in 2010 and has not been seen since. (Supplied: Tasmania Police)
An account of the search for Wade Butler recorded that a team of 10 had “retraced his footsteps and found a very definite footprint at PB low camp”.
“As the official search was ending, it was thought that a voice was heard near a helipad beside Limestone Creek. Thus the private search concentrated on the immediate area of the voice and other possible ways off PB,” the report said.
But after hopes were raised, days of searching would lead to nothing, with efforts to find Wade Butler abandoned soon after.
Swiss tourist Thomas Münger and the backpack found with his remains near the Tahune Airwalk in 2017. (Supplied)
The thousands of tourists who tread along the steel gangways of the Tahune Airwalk, a popular attraction in Tasmania’s south-west, have no doubt snapped souvenir photos, with the lush forest in the background — unaware that a body lay not far from there and had done for years.
After walkers stumbled across the disintegrating backpack alongside skeletal remains in July 2017, it was hoped a digital camera card retrieved from the site would give authorities a clue as to the identity of the deceased person.
Community speculation naturally turned to the find being Joao De Ornelas, a 76-year-old New South Wales tourist last seen near the airwalk in 2010.
The remains would turn out to be those of 44-year-old Swiss traveller Thomas Munger, with police estimating he had been there for years before being found.
No trace has ever been found of Mr De Ornelas.
Information board for searchers looking for Bruce Fairfax near Duckhole Lake. (ABC News: Peta Carlyon)
Bruce Fairfax, a much-admired schoolteacher and avid walker, had waved on his wife along the trail to Duckhole Lake, a flooded sinkhole about 106 kilometres south-west of Hobart in October 2017.
His wife Louise would later tell police that her 66-year-old husband would usually be overtaken by her faster pace due to his Parkinson’s Disease, a condition he steadfastly refused to allow spoil his enjoyment of Tasmania’s wilderness trails.
Ms Fairfax told police at the time she had walked about 150 metres ahead of her husband on the path through dense bush, when she turned around to see him with “the cheekiest look on his face”.
She would wait for him at their agreed meeting point, a picnic table near the lake. He would never arrive.
Days of searching involving police and volunteers, many familiar with the couple and their standing in the bushwalking community, would reveal nothing.
The forest canopy was just too thick for spotters in the air, the terrain simply impossible to search extensively, despite the use of quad bikes and four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Later, family and friends of Mr Fairfax would gather near the lake to farewell him, his daughters calling out a final goodbye into the bush.
Bruce Fairfax went missing in dense bushland in southern Tasmania last year and has not been found. (ABC News: Peta Carlyon)
With the search for James Hugh McLean a week old, Inspector Andrew O’Dwyer said authorities were hopeful he would reappear.
“Mr Maclean has been known to deviate from his path, he’s also been known to understate the number of days he might be away. So we were prepared for this,” Inspector O’Dwyer said on December 20.
“As for preparations, he’s known to pack very lightly.”
Volunteers joined police in the search for Bruce Fairfax, to no avail. (Supplied: Tasmania Police)
However, six days later and the language about Mr McLean’s chances had changed.
“Sadly, police hold grave fears for Mr McLean. Given the length of time he has been missing, the lack of food supplies and the difficulty of the terrain, the hopes of finding Mr McLean alive are fading,” Acting Inspector O’Dwyer said on Wednesday.
“We remain in close contact with Mr McLean’s family and our thoughts continue to be with them at this difficult time.”
Louise Ireland, a fellow resident of Flinders Island, said Jim McLean was widely regarded as enigmatic person, who “goes off and has these adventures”.
It is understood Mr McLean was not carrying an emergency beacon when he headed off.
“He’s a tough old bugger. He could probably live on moths and insects and mushrooms for ages,” she said.
One thing is for sure — if Mr McLean was to emerge from the Tasmanian bush, it would be much more than the just talk of Flinders Island.
If anyone has information as to the whereabouts of Mr McLean, they are urged to contact Tasmania Police on 131 444.