Mr Cruel is the moniker for a serial rapist, and most probably murderer, who terrorised Melbourne in the late 80s and early 90s. He was never caught and punished for his crimes. There continues to be some debate as to exactly which crimes were his, but it seems that most detectives who worked on the Mr Cruel case agree that he was responsible for at least four attacks in the eastern suburbs on girls aged between 10 and 13 between 1987 and 1991. The first attack involved a rape of an 11 or 12 year old girl, while the second and third attacks involved abductions and assaults. The last attack ended in the infamous murder of Karmein Chan.
However, more attacks have been attributed to him during investigations over the years, with a total of ten attacks having been attributed to him by journalists who have interviewed detectives about the case. These ten attacks stretch back to 1985 and involve home invasions and rapes of adults and children from the age of 14 and up.
This overview will first look at the 4 cases that are considered the canonical Mr Cruel attacks, which, it seems, most detectives agree were the work of Mr Cruel, before then looking at the lesser known attacks that have at some point been attributed to Mr Cruel in the media.
The Canonical Attacks
The first case of the canonical Mr Cruel attacks was that which occurred on 22 August 1987 in Lower Plenty. In this case the perpetrator wearing an open-faced balaclava and armed with a handgun, a knife and carrying a rape kit, broke into a house at an unknown address and tied up the parents in the household and their 6 or 7 year old son (sources differ on the ages here), before raping the 11 or 12 year old daughter over a period of 2 hours. The location of this house has never been revealed publicly, nor has the identity of the family in question. (1) (2)
The second canonical attack occurred in the early hours of 27 December 1988. This time the attack occurred in the home of the Wills family at 11 Hillcrest Avenue, Ringwood. The perpetrator broke into the house and tied up the parents before abducting a 10-year-old girl – Sharon Wills – from her bedroom and taking her to a waiting vehicle. He drove Sharon to his lair at an unidentified location where she was assaulted. He then dumped her 18 hours later at Bayswater High School, Bayswater.
The third of the canonical attacks occurred on 3 July 1990, when Mr Cruel broke into the expensive rented home of the Lynas family, at 10 Monomeath Avenue, Canterbury. This time the parents were not home, but Nicola Lynas (13) and her sister Fiona (15) were sleeping in their bedrooms. Mr Cruel woke them up before tying Fiona to her bed and abducting Nicola. He took the family’s rented car keys and stole their car before driving Nicola to Chaucer Avenue, just a few streets away. From here he bundled Nicola into his own car and drove her back to his lair. Here he assaulted her, and held her captive for a period of 50 hours, before dumping her in the early hours of her 14th birthday at an electricity substation in Kew.
Lastly, the fourth of the canonical attacks. This time the attack occurred on 13 April 1991 in the wealthy suburb of Templestowe at 111 Serpells Road where Karmein Chan (13) and her two sisters, Karly (9) and Karen (7) were at home alone watching television. A masked man broke into the house before bundling Karly and Karen into a wardrobe and pushing a bed up against it to block their exit. He then abducted Karmein and she was never seen alive again.
Almost one year to the day later, a man was walking his dogs along Edgars Creek in Thomastown when his dogs were attracted to something protruding from the earth in a landfill site at that location. It was a human skull, that of a young female. Police were confident it was Karmein’s and lab tests later confirmed that it was indeed hers.
The Karmein Chan murder was the last crime that has been attributed to Mr Cruel. However, some people believe there is not enough evidence to link the Karmein Chan case to the first three canonical attacks because, unlike in the first three canonical attacks, police could not interview her about her attacker. Adding to this confusion, police maintain that Mr Cruel was almost certainly responsible for a number of other attacks besides the four canonical ones, but have kept their lips tight about these cases. Nevertheless, a scouring of the contemporary newspaper articles reveals a number of other attacks which were attributed to Mr Cruel in the late 1980s. On top of this, research by other journalists has revealed information about some of the other attacks some detectives believe to be the work of Mr Cruel.
Other attacks attributed to Mr Cruel
The first of these occurred on an unknown date in February 1985, when, at 9pm at night, a man abducted a 14 year old girl from her Hampton home at an unknown address. He then drove the girl to a vacant building site and sexually assaulted her, before dumping her at Moorabbin Bowl, a ten-pin bowling business on Nepean Highway.
Then, on an unknown date in July 1985, a 14 year old boy was abducted from his Hampton home at an unknown address at 8:25pm. He was taken to an unknown residence and imprisoned for just over 3 hours and was sexually assaulted. He was then released in Caulfield South at 11:45pm.
Both of these Hampton attacks were revealed by Keith Moor in an article (3) he wrote for the Herald Sun in 2016 to mark the 25th anniversary of the Karmein Chan abduction. It is not clear why detectives believe these attacks may be the work of Mr Cruel other than that they seem to have borne many of the same hallmarks that the canonical attacks featured.
Other attacks that have been attributed to Mr Cruel are three attacks that occurred in December of 1985. The first of these occurred on 4 December, when a 30 year old woman was raped in her home in Warrandyte at an unknown address by a man wearing a balaclava and armed with a sawn off shotgun. Then, on 6 December, a 30 or 35 year old woman (depending on source) was raped in her home in Donvale at an unknown address by a man armed with a rusty revolver or a long-barrelled handgun (depending on source). Finally, on 7 December, a 34 year old woman was asleep in bed with her 6 year old daughter at her Bulleen home at an unknown address when she was awoken by a man at about 11:30pm and raped. (4) He was armed with a silver pistol or sawn off shotgun. In all three of these cases the attacker wore a balaclava or hood, and blindfolded, bound and gagged his victims, (2) which is a very similar modus operandi to the later attacks.
The last attack that has been attributed to Mr Cruel in the media is the Moonee Ponds rape of a 48 year-old woman which occurred on 11 November 1988. The attacker entered the woman’s home before binding, gagging raping her. He then left her bound up, stole the woman’s ATM card and drove to a bank before stealing $300 from her bank account. He then returned to her house and raped her again. (2) (I discovered in June 2021 that the Ascot Vale Rapist Christopher Clarence Hall was found to have been responsible for the Moonee Ponds attack in 1994. That same year he was jailed for 29 years for this and other attacks).
In November 1987, the Warrandyte-Donvale-Bulleen attacks of December 1985 were linked with the Lower Plenty attack and the Moonee Ponds attack. A taskforce was then set up to try to establish any connection between them. By May 1988 the taskforce were convinced the Donvale, Lower Plenty and Moonee Ponds attacks were linked whereas at least 17 other attacks were deemed to be possibly linked, but it is unknown which attacks were being referred to here. It is unknown if the Warrandyte, Donvale and Bulleen attacks were ever ruled out as being the work of Mr Cruel. (5)
So, this has been an overview of the case. In the future I will be giving an in-depth analysis of each of the canonical cases and then I will write some posts about some possible theories I have in this case.
In the meantime here is a detailed map I made of the case which helps you navigate the important locations. Zoom in on the eastern suburbs of Melbourne to see the tagged areas where the important events in this case occurred. Each tag is clickable and contains more information on each event.
Here is a Youtube video that explains how to use the map.
On 21st of October, 1978, 20 year old Frederick Valentich is flying a Cessna 182 light aeroplane from Moorabbin Airport to King Island. Not long after commencing the over water section of the flight, between Cape Otway and King Island, at 7:06 in the evening, just before sunset, Valentich contacts Air Services at Tullamarine Airport with an unexpected request. “Melbourne, this is Delta Sierra Juliet, is there any known traffic below 5,000 feet?” Working that evening for Air Services is Steve Robey, whose job it is to control air traffic outside of restricted airspace. Robey quickly confirms in the negative that there should be no traffic before Valentich continues: “There seems to be a large aircraft below 5,000.” Robey asks Valentich what type of aircraft it is before the young pilot replies: “I cannot affirm, it is 4 bright, it seems to me like landing lights”. Here he pauses for a few seconds before adding: “The aircraft has just passed over me at least a thousand feet above”. Robey asks Valentich if it is a large aircraft and the young man replies: “er unknown due to the speed it’s travelling, is there any airforce aircraft in the vicinity?” Robey replies in the negative and a few seconds later Valentich says: “it’s approaching now from due east towards me”. About 30 seconds pass as Valentich observes the mysterious craft, before he adds: “It seems to me that he’s playing some sort of game, he’s flying over me, 2, 3 times at a time, at speeds I could not identify”. Robey asks Valentich what his altitude is and the 20 year old replies that he is at four and a half thousand feet. The flight services officer then asks the young pilot to confirm that he cannot identify the aircraft. “Affirmative”, Valentich replies. Some seconds pass before Valentich says: “It’s not an aircraft, it’s (…2 seconds…). Robey then asks Valentich if he can describe the aircraft. Valentich answers with: “as it’s flying past, it’s a long shape(…3 seconds…) cannot identify more than that (that it has such speed) (…3 seconds…) before me right now Melbourne…”. Robey interrupts the pilot here, as he says “roger, and how large would the er object be.” A few moments pass before Valentich gives his response: “it seems like it’s stationary. What I’m doing right now is orbiting and the thing is just orbiting on top of me. Also, it’s got a green light and sort of metallic like. It’s all shiny on the outside. Twenty seconds later Valentich holds down the microphone for 5 seconds before adding “it’s just vanished”. A few seconds later he asks Robey if he would know what type of aircraft he’s got, is it a military aircraft? Robey asks Valentich to confirm that the aircraft has just vanished, but Valentich doesn’t hear this message and asks Robey to repeat it which Robey does. Valentich must see the craft again at this point though as he says: “now approaching from the southwest”. Distressingly, about 30 seconds later Valentich reports “the engine is rough idling. I’ve got it set at 23, 24 and the thing is coughing”. Robey responds “Roger, what are your intentions?“ The next reply Valentich speaks down the microphone is the last thing Valentich is known to have spoken to another human being: “my intentions are ah to go to King Island. Ah Melbourne, that strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again(…2 seconds…) it is hovering and it’s not an aircraft.” The audio tape of this conversation has never been released to the public, as it is classified by the Department of Defence. The Department of Transport did however release the final 17 seconds of Valentich’s call before he and his light aircraft disappeared and were never heard from again. The following is those final 17 seconds.
Frederick Valentich went missing that day and despite protracted air, land and sea search, neither he nor his cessna 182 L have ever been found.
Frederick Valentich was born in Melbourne on June 9th 1958 to Italian immigrant parents Guido and Alberta Valentich who hailed from the multicultural city of Trieste in the north east of the country. Fred was the eldest of four children, who included his younger brother Ricky and his younger twin sisters Olivia and Lara. The family lived in the Melbourne suburb of Avondale Heights, where they enjoyed a happy, suburban life like many other European immigrant families who lived in the same area.
In 1974, Fred left school after completing year 10 at Keilor Heights High school. While he was noted as being an excellent athlete by his P.E. teacher, his results in his other subjects were all average or below average, and he failed both of the maths subjects he took that year. However, he did not want to let this stop him from fulfilling his dream of joining the Royal Australian Airforce. Unfortunately for Fred, his poor academic results from school and his performance in the entrance examination he took for entry into the RAAF in 1976, meant that he failed in his application. An examiner noted about Fred’s test results: “very low scores, indicative low I.Q. fit for unskilled work only”.
While disappointed with failing in his application to the RAAF, Fred was determined to prove that he could still become a civilian pilot, and so in February of 1977 he gained his student’s pilot licence, with a view to later gaining his commercial pilot’s licence. Throughout 1977, Fred took and failed many of the testing components that are prerequisites for gaining one’s commercial pilot’s licence. While he passed many of these components at subsequent attempts, he failed all 5 of his CPL theory exams, in both October 1977 and April 1978. Despite failing in his attempts to become a commercial pilot, throughout 1978, Fred possessed the legal documentation required to pilot single-engine cessna aircraft by himself and carry passengers. While he continued to study for another attempt at the CPL examinations throughout 1978, Fred built up his flying hours by flying light aeroplanes out of Moorabbin Airport on weekends. Meanwhile, after Fred had failed all his CPL examinations in April of ‘78 he requested assistance from one Edwin Robert Barnes, a Squadron Leader attached to the Air Training Corps that Fred was studying in. Fred had begun volunteering for no pay at the Air Training Corps in order to gain more experience. Barnes saw his enthusiasm for his work and after Fred requested the squadron leader become his private tutor, Barnes agreed to help him in navigation and aircraft performance. Thus Fred would regularly visit Barnes at his home on Sundays for his lessons, where Barnes was impressed with Fred’s enthusiasm and politeness. Barnes noted that, while Fred was particularly bad at spelling, he felt that the young man had the capability and responsibility required to pass his next examinations in July of that year. Barnes further noted that Fred was “of sober habits” and never partook in the consumption of more than one alcoholic beverage on the evenings in question.
In July of 1978 Fred took 2 of his 5 CPL examinations for the 3rd time and the following Sunday, he turned up to Barnes’ home with his girlfriend Rhonda Rushton and two bottles of wine saying he wished to celebrate as he believed he had passed his two examinations. Barnes declined a drink because he was on “reserve”, and told Fred that they would drink them when he was told that he had passed all of his exams. In September of ‘78, Barnes returned from a holiday and received a telephone call from Fred in which the trainee pilot informed him that he had passed all 5 of his CPL examinations. Fred had in fact failed 3 examinations for the third time and not taken the final 2, a fact Barnes only discovered after Fred’s disappearance when the Air Safety Investigation Branch of the Department of Transport wrote to him to request his assistance in providing a character reference for Fred. In his letter to the ASIB, Barnes expressed extreme disappointment at Fred’s dishonesty and wondered whether Fred’s failure had something to do with his disappearance.
Throughout 1978, Fred was dating the formerly mentioned 16 year old girl, Rhonda Rushton. On a number of occasions she had flown with Fred, and she considered her boyfriend to be a diligent and responsible pilot who understood the importance of being disciplined while flying. About two months before his disappearance they had flown together to Newcastle. On the return flight Fred had accidentally strayed into restricted airspace in the Sydney suburb of Bankstown. Rhonda later recalled that Fred had become extremely agitated during this incident and remembered using a handkerchief to dab the sweat off his forehead. Fred received a letter reprimanding him for this incident for his poor navigation skills.
When Rhonda was interviewed by the Department of Transport 3 days after Fred’s disappearance, investigators were keen to understand Fred’s mental state in the days leading up to the 21st. While Rhonda told the interviewers that Fred was a very sober young man, rarely drinking more than two beers on nights out, she also mentioned a couple of things which stood out to the investigators as unusual. Firstly, about one week before the incident, she and Fred had driven out to the Dandenong Ranges where they had discussed the topic of UFOs and Fred had said “If a UFO landed in front of me now, I would go in it, but never without you”. When pressed as to whether UFOs were a topic he often discussed or was heavily interested in, she said that they had talked about them only occasionally, and never in any depth and denied that he was any more interested in them than the average person. The interviewer also claimed that Rhonda said she had seen newspaper clippings of UFOs that Fred kept as a hobby, something she denied 40 years later when questioned about this at an anniversary event held by the Victorian UFO Action group.
Furthermore, according to Rhonda, Fred had lied to her previously about passing his meteorology subject. According to her he had told her this false information when he first met her, but that 4 months later he had admitted to his lie. But, perhaps the most significant piece of information that Rhonda later revealed was that, the weekend prior to his disappearance, 2 days before the trip to the Dandenong Ranges mentioned previously, Fred had asked Rhonda to marry him. According to her he had proposed to her and given her ‘a friendship ring’, which was to be replaced at a later date by a more expensive ring which he had placed on layby. He told her she could keep the friendship ring until he had enough money to pay the amount owing on the more expensive ring on layby at a jewellers near where he worked in Moonee Ponds. He also told Rhonda to keep the engagement secret because he didn’t want to announce it until he had enough money to pay out the remainder of the layby which he was planning to do that Christmas. Furthermore, he had planned to be engaged to her for 1 year because Rhonda was to turn 17 in the December and then after 1 year she would be 18 and she would have reached the legal age for marriage. On the one hand, Fred’s plans to marry Rhonda may well be seen by some to be a sign of a young man who was looking forward to the future. On the other hand, his tutor Edwin Robert Barnes, in his letter to the Department of Transport, saw his actions in proposing to Rhonda and giving her a temporary friendship ring as the behaviour of someone who was acting very strangely indeed and wondered whether he did it because he had planned to commit suicide on the 21st October.
Years later at the 40th anniversary event of the incident held by the Victorian UFO Action group at Moorabbin Airport in 2018, Rhonda told a live audience that the Department of Transport had asked her some extremely inappropriate personal questions, the nature of which she was not willing to disclose. Needless to say, this would be very unprofessional behaviour by a Government Department when questioning the grieving girlfriend of a missing man, especially since she was just 16 years old at the time and not accompanied by her parents. In addition,, while she was being interviewed she felt intimidated because a bright spotlight was shone in her face throughout so that she could not see who was interviewing her.
On the evening prior to Fred’s disappearance, Fred visited Rhonda at her home in Preston at about 9:15pm. Rhonda told the DoT in her interview that Fred wasn’t his usual-cheerful-self that evening and appeared as though something was bothering him. According to the DoT interview report of Rhonda’s interview he had agreed to take her out on the Saturday night after he returned from his flight. “In their conversation it became evident to her that he had forgotten he had agreed to take her out on Saturday night. The forthcoming flight to King Island was discussed and together they evolved the schedule of departure: Moorabbin 4 o’clock; land King Island 5:30pm; pick up crayfish, leave 6 o’clock; land Moorabbin 7:30. As it was a 20 minute drive from the airport to Preston she suggested Valentich put his good clothes in which to take her out, in his car when he left home early on Saturday. Since the aircraft went missing, she had seen the car at Moorabbin, and was aware that no clothes were in it.”
There are a couple of strange things about this information. Firstly, it is at least a 40 minute drive from Moorabbin Airport in Cheltenham to Preston. But, more significantly, Rhonda now denies that she ever told the investigators that she told Fred to put his good clothes in his car. She denies that she ever told them that they had agreed for him to pick her up at her house in Preston to go out that night. In fact, at the 40 year anniversary event, Rhonda Rushton spoke publicly about how she and Fred had agreed to fly to King Island together. That later they were going to go out for dinner to celebrate their 6 months anniversary together.
In fact, in its final report summary written on 24th of August 1981, almost two years after the incident, investigator Barry Mahony also made a slanderous accusation about Rhonda with the following comment: “Frederick’s girlfriend seemed to enjoy the publicity limelight surrounding the disappearance. She did not appear to be unduly concerned and gave the impression that she expected to see him again.”
Fred’s father, Guido Valentich, was interviewed by the Department of Transport on October 25th 1978, the day after Rhonda Rushton’s interview. Among other things he told them that Fred was a firm believer in UFOs and had read the book Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past, by Swiss author Elrich Von Danniken. Published in 1968, the central tenet of the book was that many of the technological advances made by ancient civilisations were introduced to them by extraterrestrial beings. Furthermore, Guido told the investigators that Fred’s beliefs in UFOs had not long ago been strengthened during a recent camping trip he had made to Gippsland with the Air Training Corps, when he had been allowed to view the RAAF’s secret files on UFOs. However, Fred had refused to reveal the contents of those files to his family as they were classified and he took his duty not to reveal its contents very seriously. Guido also told the investigators that Fred’s mother Alberta had recently seen a UFO and had called Fred and he had seen it too. They described it as a large light, its size about ten times that of the largest star. The object had remained stationary for some time before shooting off at a high speed. While Guido had not been present during this incident himself, his wife and son’s explanation of it convinced him that UFOs were real, and that the planet was regularly being visited by some sort of extraterrestrial intelligence. Lastly, Guido revealed that Fred had worried about attack by UFOs, so his father had attempted to assuage his fears by telling him that if aliens did attack there was nothing they could do, so there would be no point in worrying about it.
According to Guido, Fred had gone to bed at about 10:30 on the night of the 20th of October 1978. In the morning he had a light breakfast of coffee, orange juice and cereal with his family. He then drove to Puckle Street in Moonee Ponds where he worked as the Assistant Manager of an Army Disposals shop, a store which specialises in camping and outdoor equipment. He started his shift here at 9am before finishing at noon, when he immediately drove from Moonee Ponds to Moorabbin Airport, where he had his first lecture at 1pm. This meant that he would not have had time to get lunch before the start of his classes.
Meanwhile, at Moorabbin Airport that morning, Vince Alfonso carried out the daily inspection of the Cessna 182, DH-VSJ, Fred would later that day fly to King Island. The inspection was begun before 6am when Alfonso flew the aircraft to French Island as part of the routine examination that was to check the performance of the aeroplane. Alfonso noted the plane performed “ok”. There was a smell emanating from the heater, which soon dissipated, but this was not considered unusual. More alarmingly, on the return flight to Moorabbin Airport a passenger noticed fuel emanating from the fuel tank on the right hand side of the aircraft. After landing it was discovered that the cap was out of the tank and hanging from the chain, so Alfonso reported this anomaly to Southern Air Services. The next morning when discussing the disappearance of Fred at S.A.S. he discovered that the cap had been repaired before Fred’s flight.
Fred’s classes finished at 5pm, after which he headed to the briefing office to submit his flight plan. Fred lodged the flight plan at 5:23pm, and it stated a take off time of 5:45pm. However, he did not actually take off until later as he was so hungry, having not eaten anything since morning. Later, both Rhonda and Guido told investigators as it was his normal practice to do so, he would have driven to the local McDonalds restaurant on the Nepean Highway near the Southland Shopping Centre and eaten a large meal that usually consisted of “2 Big Macs, 2 Cheeseburgers, a fillet-o-fish and some chips and most likely would have drunk a carton of coca-cola”. Rhonda later said she believed Fred would have gotten take away and would have driven his car to the beach where he would have eaten his large meal while looking out to sea.
It is believed Fred took the Cessna for refuelling at 6:10pm and waited in the cessna as it was being refuelled by mechanic Ronald Tyson. Once done he was given the ok for take off. Crucially, Fred did not actually take off from Moorabbin Airport until 6:19pm, a full 34 minutes after he had indicated he would in the flight plan. This meant that by the time his cessna was to arrive at King Island the sun would have set and it would be almost completely dark. Despite this, Fred made no phone call to the airport on the island requesting them to turn on the runway landing lights, as was standard procedure at the time. In fact, there were a number of contradictions in what Fred told to different people in regards to his intentions for this flight. In the days after the incident the Department of Transport was told by Bob Hope, an instructor with Southern Air Services, that Fred had told him on the day that he had planned to pick people up on King Island. He also told Darcy Hogan his briefing officer that he was going to pick up passengers on the Island, but no such passengers existed. Yet, according to the Department of Transport he had told Guido and his friend Greg Reaburn that he was picking up crayfish on the island. This was also strange, as the crayfisherman on the island, Cliff Day, said he had no contact with Fred regarding procuring any crayfish, and that they had sold out of cray fish early in the afternoon anyway.
It is not clear why he told different people different things about the purpose of his flight. His girlfriend Rhonda Rushton, now believes he had no intention of landing at all and was just building up flight hours.
It is believed Fred flew towards Frankston before heading out over Port Phillip Bay towards Point Lonsdale. From here Fred flew along the coastline towards Cape Otway which he reached at 7pm. Here he contacted Steve Robey at Air Services in Tullamarine Airport by radio to inform him he was commencing the over water section of his flight.
Fred had been flying for 6 minutes over the open water before his first contact with Steve Robey, in which he enquired about whether there was “any known traffic below 5,000 feet”. The 17 seconds of indecipherable static that is heard at the end of the tape occurred at 7:12pm. It is not known what happened to Fred’s plane, but if he did crash into the ocean at this point, and assuming he was flying in largely a straight line from Cape Otway, the crash site would have been located about 40 km south south east of Cape Otway, not quite halfway to King Island. This however, is disputed as we shall see later.
After the transmission of the 17 seconds at the end of the call from Fred’s plane, Steve Robey made numerous attempts to communicate with Fred, but received no reply. He therefore initiated a safety measure known as an Alert Phase that would require a King Island Flight Service officer to duty, as the last employee had gone home for the day at 5 o’clock. This alert phase also involved the activation of the island’s emergency procedures, one of which included turning on the landing lights at the runway. When Fred’s cessna failed to arrive at King Island at 7:33pm, the Distress Phase was declared, and an immediate ground, sea and air search was commenced.
Brian Jones, the officer in charge at King Island Airport was called back to duty at 7:15pm after the Alert Phase was initiated. He arrived at the airport, and put the landing lights on at 7:35pm. At the same time that he arrived, his assistant Graeme Smyth also arrived to put the landing lights on for a cessna that was flying out of the airport, but had been delayed while waiting for passengers. This other cessna was then used to fly around the island to search for Fred’s plane. Despite the fact that there was excellent visibility, and they could see all the way to the Cape Otway lighthouse, they did not sight Fred’s plane. That night a ship in the area was notified of the missing aircraft and conducted a search for Fred’s plane, but did not see anything. Planes were also sent along the route Fred’s aircraft took, but as it was night it was difficult to spot anything in the darkness.
With daylight, the search was given renewed impetus. One aircraft conducted a land search of the island and another a coastal search, but found nothing. 3 vessels searched off the west coast and islands off King Island and the RAAF Orion searched off the north coast. An oil slick was found here, but no wreckage could be located. The next day the vessel ‘Nomad’ was sent to the area and a sample of the oil slick was taken for testing, to determine whether it could be from Fred’s cessna. However, later it was determined that the oil was not of the type that would come from an aircraft. Debris consisting of fruit and vegetable boxes was also located near this site, but this was determined not to be from Fred’s Cessna 182.
A light aircraft also located some more debris to the north west of King Island, but as this plane was not fixed with integral navigation systems it needed to rise in altitude in order to sight land before fixing its position, and in doing so it lost sight of the debris and could not locate it again.
After 3 full days of searching, the search and rescue operation by sea vessels was called off on the 25th of October. Nevertheless, volunteers and friends of Fred’s continued to search by air and land. Many of Fred’s friends felt that since no wreckage had been found in the ocean search, he must have turned the aeroplane around and crash landed somewhere on the heavily forested Cape Otway Peninsula. Therefore, on the 26th a group of his flying buddies travelled down to the region and spent a number of days performing flyovers and searching the area by foot, which was also to prove fruitless.
The media became aware of the unusual nature of Fred’s disappearance as soon as the search and rescue operation was put in place on the night of the 21st, and the general public was able to eavesdrop on the radio transmissions. This prompted the DoT to publicly release the transcript of the radio conversation between Fred and Air Services controller Steve Robey on the 22nd. The fact that Fred had witnessed an unidentified aerial phenomenon right before he and his plane went missing became a huge story, and newspaper and radio journalists scrambled to interview all those who were close to Fred.
On the 23rd of October, an article appeared in the Bendigo Advertiser titled ‘UFO Took Our Boy – Pilot’s Parents’ detailing Guido and Alberta Valentich’s belief that Fred may have been abducted by the UFO. The interview, which had been conducted on the evening of the 22nd, after the first full day’s search had ended in failure, also explained that Guido and Alberta did not believe a proposed explanation that Fred may have turned the plane upside down or entered into an uncontrolled spiral after becoming disoriented. Fred’s parents also expressed the view that the Department of Transport was attempting to cover up what really happened to their son.
In the days after Fred’s disappearance, it became evident that one month earlier, a woman had written a letter to the editor, published in the King Island News on September 20 concerning recent accounts of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena. It stated: “We saw our first sighting two months ago. We were driving into Currie and a slow moving light followed us down the North Road, and finally disappeared toward the lighthouse. There were other sightings in Currie on the same night. Some people further up north also saw a strange light passing over their house. Then another (told) of seeing beautiful strange lights outside. On going out to investigate the lights suddenly disappeared. Then last night…the strange light appeared again just up from Camp Creek. On each of these occasions, the light has been very large and bright, and seems to light up the area as if it were daylight.”
Soon other stories of sightings of unexplained aerial phenomena emerged. A man by the name of John Snow contacted the Department of Transport investigators on the 23rd of October to inform them that, at about 11:45pm on the night of Fred’s disappearance, his 11 year old son had witnessed a long streak of greenish white light flash across the sky to the south of the Barwon Heads area, about 120km from Cape Otway. A Mr P. Farr of Burwood, an officer in the RAAF reserve, contacted investigators to inform them that on the night in question he had witnessed what he described as “a shower of very bright metallic scintillations, to the south, high in the sky..about 30 bright centres.” The Australian published an article describing a sighting by a technician who worked with the CSIRO named Wayne Bellew who witnessed a UAP whilst camping with his wife at Bateman’s Bay NSW on the night in question. He described seeing a “bright white object performing wild stunts over the ocean…the thing was performing such incredible manoeuvers that any conventional pilot who tried it would have been guts over kneecaps”.
Perhaps the most startling UAP sighting made on the night of Fred’s disappearance came from a man named Don Cox and his wife from Valley View, South Australia, in a detailed letter to the RAAF. Describing a bright shining object he and his wife witnessed from the garden of their home he wrote in his letter: “Having got my binoculars from within the house I focussed (on) this object…What I saw was a large triangular, yellow white light, laying on it’s (sic) side, with one side of the triangle in a vertical position. Within this triangle were iridescent lights. I can only positively remember three of the colours, which were blue, blue green and orange, but feel sure there were also others. My wife watched it for near enough ten minutes, and myself for a total of roughly forty-five minutes before losing sight of it behind a large gum tree two gardens away. During the last stage of viewing this assortment of colours it transformed into a V shape, still on it’s (sic) side with the top half appearing to be the reflection of the lower portion, as one might view a boat sitting on the surface of the water. I reported this matter to Edinburgh Airport at 5:45pm Monday the 23rd of October, and was told by a girl that this information would be passed onto the UFO investigations officer in the morning. By now I was aware I had seen word for word exactly as the missing Melbourne pilot (meaning Fred) had described. I rang again Edinburgh Airport the following day October 24th and spoke to an officer who told me he would try either to see me at my place of work or at my home in the evening. As by the following day, the 25th, he had not made the effort to interview me, I again phoned and told him of my concern, pleading with him to heed this information which I felt so vital in the case of the missing pilot. After confirming my statement with my wife over the phone, this officer subsequently visited my home and took a signed statement from me along with a diagram of the three stages that this moving light had taken. I have no doubt in my mind that whatsoever I witnessed was exactly as the young pilot described who has gone missing…I am prepared to swear an oath or submit myself to any lie detector test to substantiate this my statement.”
One week after Fred’s disappearance, Air Services controller Steve Robey was involved in another UAP sighting incident. In the vicinity of Sale, Gippsland a pilot reported seeing an extremely bright light heading from west to east. A few minutes later the same pilot reported the same phenomenon and told Robey that if it happened again he would land the aircraft. It happened again, an extremely bright light, travelling quickly from west to east, this time it was travelling below him. As a result, the pilot landed the aircraft out of fear of being impacted by any similar objects. At the time there was a military phone number that was provided to all Air Services personnel to report such incidents. Robey contacted the number and soon afterwards he was interviewed by a man from the military about the incident.
Meanwhile, the Department of Transport set about investigating the cause of Fred’s disappearance, an investigation that would not be completed for 2 and a half years. It was this process that led to the interviewing of Fred’s girlfriend Rhonda Rushtion on the 24th of October, Fred’s father Guido on the 25th of October and many of Fred’s friends and peers. As time went on and Fred and his plane were nowhere to be found, speculation mounted in the media as to whether the six minute transcript of the radio contact between Fred and Steve Robey was a full account of the conversation that transpired between the pair. Despite the fact a number of UAP research organisations based in both Australia and the United States wrote to the Department of Transport urging them to release the full audio tape recording of the conversation. The DoT responded by declaring it had never been its policy to release audio tapes related to accident investigations.
In January 1979, Fred’s father, Guido Valentich, wrote a letter to the Director of the Department of Transport for the Victoria and Tasmania region, G.Hughes, requesting a copy of the audio tape of Fred’s radio transmission with Steve Robey. The department privately expressed reluctance to release the tape, expressing the view that it went against their normal procedures to release audio tapes from accident investigations, particularly ongoing investigations which had not yet concluded. Guido was suspicious that the Department was trying to hide something, and believing that Fred had been abducted by alien spacecraft, he requested the help of veteran American UFO researcher Paul Norman. Norman and Australian UFO researcher John Auchettl established a dialogue with the Department on Guido’s behalf and arranged a meeting with the DoT in which they requested a full, unedited copy of the tape. The Department however, agreed only to supply an edited version which only included only the parts of the tape between 7:06 and 7:12pm – from when Fred had first reported the unusual aerial sighting until the final indiscernible 17 seconds. Furthermore, the edited tape would not include any of the parts of the tape in which Steve Robey was speaking, nor the part of the tape that was recorded prior to 7:06pm. While, Guido and UFO researchers Auchettl and Norman tried to insist on the full tape the DoT insisted that this would not be possible as those other parts of the tape were deemed confidential and it was only releasing the 6 minutes of Fred’s voice out of sympathy to Guido and his family. Furthermore, they asked Guido to sign a document stating that he would not release the audio tape to the media and that he was to play it for family members only. After much back and forth, in March 1979 the DoT finally released this edited version of the tape to Guido and the Valentich family.
Paul Norman and John Auchettl were both members of VUFORS or Victorian Unidentified Flying Object Research Society, a research group which professed an agnostic stance towards UFOs, but considered the phenomenon deserved closer scientific scrutiny than was offered by mainstream science or sceptical explanations for UFOs. While VUFORS was simply seeking all available evidence in order to find out the truth of what had happened to Fred, the story was also ripe for charlatans and shysters to make a quick buck with pseudo-scientific explanations and false narratives of what had become of the 20 year old.
On 23rd April 1979 an article by reporter David Elias appeared in the Australian which detailed the claims of a New Zealand confidence trickster by the name of Colin Amery who falsely claimed to be a clairvoyant. According to the article, Amery claimed that he had conducted a seance the previous Saturday in which he had communed with Fred. Amery further claimed that Fred had told him during this seance that he had been “taken by a community in space and that the reason his aircraft had not been found is that it disappeared from any physical existence”. Amery also reported that Fred had told him that sixty seconds of the radio transcript of his conversation with Steve Robey had been “edited out and suppressed” and that Fred was “safe, but no longer (has) a physical body, I am in light, but can move to wherever I want to be”.
Despite Amery’s claims, others suggested that he was simply trying to publicise his book New Atlantis: The Secret of the Sphinx a book that “looks forward to a new and golden age of Aquarius that will succeed the present cycle of chaos and destruction”.
In October 1979 Michael Fields, writing for the American magazine “Ideal UFO Quarterly” made the false claim that the Department of Transport had released only an edited version of the true transcript and published a story that they claimed was the true version of Fred’s radio conversation with Steve Robey. Strangely the narrative of this article was written like a long comic book story, but interspersed with some of the real dialogue from the transcript the Department of Transport had released one year previously. Furthermore, there were extra details included that were not in the original transcript, most notably the parts in which Fred describes the unidentified aerial phenomenon as being a 100 feet long tube, with green gas emanating from it, windows showing lights on in the interior and that just before the call ends in indecipherable noise, Fred reports suffering from a scorching pain.
Local Melbourne based charlatans also attempted to profit from Fred’s story by giving credence to Ideal UFO Quarterly’s bogus story. That same month, author John Pinkney, who has made a career out of writing books about ghosts, the supernatural and conspiracy theories, wrote an article published in Rupert Murdoch owned Melbourne Tabloid, Truth. Now disbanded, Truth was a British style weekly tabloid newspaper that contained photos of bare-breasted page 3 models and usually published sensational scoops on personal scandals. Pinkney’s article was included in a section of the newspaper titled “The Outer Limits” next to a photograph of him which was captioned “John Pinkney: Australia’s Leading UFO and Supernatural Investigator”. The article reported on the publication of the story in Ideal UFO Quarterly, and Pinkney mysteriously concludes his article with the line “Some of the pilot’s comments in the American magazine tally with notes I was given last October”.
Despite the publication of these two articles, Ideal UFO Quarterly’s completely fictitious account was quickly dismissed by the one person who had first-hand knowledge of the nature of the conversation with Fred. Steve Robey himself has always maintained that the transcript released by the Department of Transport is exactly how the call played out.
In 1980, a book named the The Devil’s Meridian, which included a section on the Valentich disappearance, was written by authors Kevin Killey and Gary Lester. The central thesis of the book was the idea that there was an area of the Bass Strait, the so-called Bass Strait Triangle, in which a number of unexplained disappearances of both ships and aircraft had occurred. It provided a historical analysis of other ships and aircraft that had gone missing without a trace in the previous 150 years.
On the 28th February 1981 Melbourne tabloid newspaper, Truth, published an article in which they claimed that a filmmaker by the name of Brian Morris intended to make an expensive documentary about Fred’s disappearance. The article, by Brian Blackwell stated that Morris intended to import the same type of cessna 182 L aircraft from the United States before hiring a helicopter to tow the plane over the Bass Strait and ditch it into the sea. This would be done to see what happened to the wreckage of the plane. The film was to be largely based on the previously mentioned book by Kevin Killey and Gary Lester, The Devil’s Meridian. Morris stated that it was his intention to include an interview with former President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, who claimed to have seen a UFO. He also expressed his belief that the documentary would cost in the region of $600,000 to produce. It is not known what happened to Morris’ film project, but it was never made.
The Department of Transport finally released their accident investigation report summary of the Valentich Disappearance in August 1981. It stated that it could not be determined what happened to Frederick Valentich and his aircraft, but it did offer 5 possible hypotheses.
1. That Fred experienced disorientation which caused him to crash the plane into the sea. However, it noted that if this had been the case that it was unusual that there had been no wreckage discovered.
2. That Fred intentionally landed the cessna on the sea, before attempting to escape, either successfully or unsuccessfully. It implied that if this had been the case the aircraft may have sunk to the bottom of the sea completely intact, either with or without Fred’s body inside.
3. A controlled landing elsewhere. It suggested the possibility that Fred was not where he said he was and that he may have intentionally deceived the public by intentionally landing elsewhere.
4. Crashing on land while attempting a controlled landing. It suggested this as a possibility, and that if this was the case, the wreckage simply had not been found yet.
5. UFO intervention. The DoT then falsely added to this item, in a comment that is uncharacteristically speculative of a goverment department, that there were: “no sighting observations of a brightly illuminated craft large enough to take on board a cessna 182”. In fact there were at least 15 sightings of unidentified aerial phenomena reported to either the Department of Transport investigators, news media or to the RAAF, on the night in question.
The summary report was delivered by hand to the Valentich family on 12th May 1982. A copy was also sent to the owner of the aircraft Dr. C.Day, Southern Air Service, and the Victorian Coroner that month.
In 1982 the Air Safety Investigation Bureau (ASIB), which had been a branch of the Department of Transport, had its name changed to the Bureau of Air Safety Investigation (BASI), an operationally independent unit, no longer of the Department of Transport (DoT), but now a branch of the Department of Aviation (DoA).
In December 1982, Fred’s father Guido Valentich received a telephone call from a filmmaker by the name of Ron Cameron. In the phone call, Cameron claimed that two divers contacted him to inform him that they had located 3 or 4 aircraft wrecks off Cape Otway, and that they had identified one as Fred’s Cessna 182 L, DSJ. Cameron claimed that the divers had requested $10,000 in return for revealing the location of Fred’s plane. A story in the ‘Herald’ evening newspaper on the 15th of December then elaborated on this story. Cameron claimed to have seen photographs taken of the underwater aircraft and believed one of them bore the same markings as Fred’s plane. He further claimed that the photograph revealed the cockpit of the cessna, but that Fred was not inside. Cameron told the newspaper that he intended to make a documentary film about the disappearance, and conduct a salvage operation in recovering the aircraft.
After this article was published the Coroner’s Court of Victoria contacted BASI expressing concern that these private individuals were publicly declaring a desire to interfere with possible evidence in determining the cause of a deceased person. Therefore, in January 1983, the J.Sandercock, the director of BASI, contacted Ron Cameron to explain to him the sensitivity of the issue at hand and to arrange a meeting where he hoped to explain to him that any salvage operation could only be carried out in the presence of both someone from the Coroner’s Court and a member of BASI.
Then, on 11th January 1983, on the day Sandercock was to meet Ron Cameron to discuss the salvage operation, another article appeared in the press, this time in the Sun titled: ‘UFO Plane Photos Upset Father’. In the article written by John Beveridge, Guido expressed his dismay that the divers were attempting to profit from the salvage operation of Fred’s plane. Filmmaker Ron Cameron was also interviewed again where he stated: “The plane was a little bit twisted, but in one piece. Once we get a line down to it we will be able to bring it to the surface in half a day.”
BASI director J.Sandercock immediately cancelled his meeting with Ron Cameron on seeing the article, expressing dismay that there had been so much media attention around the planned salvage operation. Then, according to Ron Cameron, the two divers in question pulled out of the deal to show him the location of the wreck, as they were unhappy that he seemed to suggest that he did not fully trust them in a radio interview on the topic.
BASI memos imply scepticism about Ron Cameron’s claims, and they expressed the opinion that he was simply trying to drum up publicity about the affair in order to attract funding for his film. Regardless, like Brian Morris’, the film was never produced and there were to be no more newspaper articles about the supposed wrecks.
The Valentich disappearance was back in the news for different reasons however, in May of 1983, when BASI received a package from Arthur Withers the Airport Manager of Flinders Island, a similarly sized island to King Island, but lying 350km to its east. The package contained some debris, an engine cowl flap from a Cessna aircraft that had washed up on the beach on Flinders Island, very close to that island’s airport runway. The debris had been found by Withers’ son Robert, and it was accompanied by a letter that stated that they believed it to be from Fred’s cessna 182 L – DSJ. The debris was in 3 pieces and heavily eroded, but BASI immediately set about attempting to determine whether it was in fact from Fred’s plane.
The partial serial number visible on the debris, indicated that it came from a range within which DSJ’s serial number fell, meaning it was definitely possible that it was DSJ, but not certain. The debris however, was not buoyant and so Sandercock wrote to the Royal Australian Navy Research Laboratory to try to understand if it was possible for a piece of debris which could not float to be transported over such a long distance and end up at Flinders Island.
In October of 1983, Ian Jones of the Ocean Sciences Division of the RAN Research Laboratory replied that indeed it would be possible for the debris in question to have travelled across the bottom of the sea particularly during days when the ocean currents were strong. Since almost 5 years had passed since Fred went missing it would have been entirely possible that this debris could have been carried to Flinders Island in that time.
While some are convinced that this cowl flap is almost certainly from Fred’s plane, others are not. There had been two other known events when cessna aircraft taking off from Flinders Island airport had lost the same piece of engine cowl flap. Given that this piece was found so close to the runway, it is believed to be more likely to have come from one of these planes. Modern scientific analysis would be capable of determining whether the piece had been in salt water for 5 years, but unfortunately the debris in question has been lost by the Department of Aviation and so unavailable for testing.
In October 1988 Guido received a telephone call from celebrated Australian journalist and television personality, Ray Martin. On the phone call, Martin urged Guido to release his copy of the audio tape of Fred’s last radio transmission. Guido, unsure as to the legality of such an action contacted BASI to enquire as to whether he was still bound by having signed the agreement six years previously not to release the audio tape beyond his own immediate family. Sandercock told Guido that the agreement still stood, and as result the latter had to disappoint Ray Martin.
In 1998, VUFORS researcher Paul Norman interviewed an anonymous man who claimed to be witness to a startling sighting on the night of Fred’s disappearance 20 years previously, which he had. The sighting, which the man had not reported at the time, took place on the Great Ocean Road, at Barham River, about a kilometre south of Apollo Bay. The anonymous man stated that just beyond the bridge here, he pulled over his car where he and his two nieces, looking in an easterly direction towards the sea, observed a cessna aeroplane slowly descending in a diagonal direction. While light was fading, as it was dusk, he could clearly make out the cessna and its distinctive white navigation light and red wingtip light. But, more astonishingly, the cessna was being pursued by a much larger craft, illuminated by a green, circular light travelling on top of and slightly to the rear of the cessna. He and his nieces stood watching this event for half a minute until both aircraft disappeared from view to the northeast It was clear that if the cessna had continued on its diagonally downward trajectory it would have splashed down in the sea just off the coast near Apollo Bay.
Researchers Paul Norman and Richard Haines then wrote a paper about this sighting in which they suggested that, based on this witness description, it was highly probable that Fred had changed course when he encountered the UAP. They hypothesised that Fred become somewhat disoriented when he first saw it, and turned away from King Island and back towards the coast of Victoria. Then, at 7:10pm on the transcript Fred states: “what I’m doing right now is orbiting and thing is just orbiting on top of me”. Normans and Haines suggested at this point Fred was facing towards the Victorian coast before doing a complete 360 degree orbit and continuing towards the coast.
It was soon after this that Fred reported his engine coughing, at which time Norman and Haines suggested, Fred began to lose altitude. The 17 seconds of indecipherable sounds, they suggested, was possibly caused by Fred’s plane dropping to an altitude when ground to air radio transmission was made impossible due to the curvature of the earth preventing a direct line of sight between the radio tower and the aircraft. It is believed Fred continued towards the Victorian coast for several more minutes, all the time losing altitude and then turned to the right at 7:16pm heading towards the northeast about 1 to 2 kilometres from the Victorian coast. It was soon after this, they believe, Fred and the UAP were brseen by the anonymous man and his nieces while continuing a gradual diagonal descent, before disappearing beyond their line of sight and splashing down about 6km out from Apollo Bay at roughly 7:21pm.
The Norman and Haines paper concluded by recommending an underwater search be conducted at this location, but as of July 2020, this has not occurred.
Sadly, in the year 2000, Fred’s father Guido passed away, without ever having found an answer as to what happened to his son on that day in 1978. His mother Alberta and his brother Ricky and sisters Lara and Olivia, still travel to Cape Otway each year to remember Fred and are still looking for answers as to what happened to him.
In researching this episode I was contacted by a source who informed me that, while it has never been released publicly by what is now called the Air Safety Transport Bureau (formely BASI), there are in fact multiple copies of the original 13 minutes Valentich/Robey audio tape. This source made the claim that an anonymous person who had previously worked for the Department of Transport at Tullamarine Airport had taken recording equipment into their place of work and made a recording of the original, non-edited tape. This tape has since fallen into the hands of certain anonymous private UAP researchers. Despite this, these individuals have never released the tape publicly, as technically, the tape is the property of the Department of Transport.
As of July 2020, Frederick Valentich is still officially listed as a missing person, and as far as we know, nobody knows what happened to him. His family members still hold out hope that one day some evidence will come to light revealing what his fate was.
My name is Eamonn and you’re listening to Melbourne Marvels, a podcast about interesting events that have happened in the Melbourne area throughout history. I am releasing this podcast in recognition of national missing person’s week in order to highlight the plight of families who suffer from not knowing what happened to their missing loved one, as is very much the case with Frederick Valentich. I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to the podcast.
If you would like to reach out to me to ask me about anything in the podcast, please feel free to do so. You can contact me by email on email@example.com or you can follow me, on Facebook at Melbourne Marvels, on Instagram at melbinmarvels, or on Twitter on @melbinmarvels. If you would like to support this show, please do so by either leaving a 5 star review for the podcast on itunes, or writing a positive review on the Facebook Page. Leaving these positive reviews will mean that the show is exposed to more people online. You can also support the show financially by seeking out the podcast on Patreon and donating as little as $1 per episode. This really helps with the expenses of the upkeep of the show. For example, I must pay an annual fee for the webpage, I have also paid for equipment I’m using to record the show and I also pay for monthly subscriptions to newspapers.com. I really appreciate any support you can manage, but don’t feel like you have to donate, especially in these difficult financial times, as I wouldn’t want anybody to pay who is not able to afford it.
I would also like to thank independent researcher Paul Dean for being a valuable source of information on this incident. Thank you also to George Simpson of VUFOA for giving his time to discuss this case. I would also like to thank Rhonda Rushton for answering the questions I put to her about Fred. I would like to thank the following musicians from freesound.org for allowing their productions to be used as part of the soundtrack to the podcast: Erokia; Ispeakwaves; samplingsamthemarylandman; josefpres; erh.
Eamonn Gunning 4/8/2020
Update: In December 2021 I was contacted by researcher Jack Frost who had recently managed to source a copy of a recording by legendary UFO researcher Richard Haines. The recording is of a presentation Haines did in which he plays the recording to an audience. The recording of the presentation can be found here.
Valentich 40, a video record of an event marking the 40th anniversary of the Valentich disappearance
NB: After completing this podcast and blogpost I learnt that researcher Keith Basterfield was largely responsible for the digitisation of the above files. While I didn’t rely on his blog in my research for this work, he is probably the most important researcher on this topic and you can view what he has to say on it by visiting his blog here.
Newspapers: The Australian; Melbourne Truth; The Herald; The Sun; Bendigo Advertiser; Courier (Ballarat)
The Bunurong aboriginal people, a tribe of the Kulin nation, have for thousands of years inhabited the land south-east of the modern city of Melbourne. Their country, covering about 8000 square kilometres, stretches from Werribee at its westernmost point, to Wilson’s Promontory in the south east and all the land in between including the Mornington Peninsula and the land south of the Yarra River, including the Dandenong Ranges. Although this land was only sparsely populated with between 300 and 500 Bunurong by the time of British settlement in the 1830s, they had a rich culture with an oral tradition that had managed to pass down stories of significant environmental events that had occurred in the region. The Bunurong had been in the area so long they had witnessed the formation of Port Phillip Bay 8000 years previously caused by rising sea levels which were occurring globally due to the demise of the last glacial period. The Bunurong oral traditions tell stories of their ancestors hunting kangaroo and emu in the valley where this body of water now lies.
One wonders therefore what significance the Bunurong gave to an incredible event that occurred in their country sometime in the late 1700s some 50 years before the devastation of their culture that British settlement was to bring. Roughly around the same time that Captain James Cook was sailing the Endeavour up the east coast of Australia an iron bolide from space, about the size of a truck, pierced the earth’s atmosphere in Bunurong country, coming from the North East and breaking up over a wide area between modern day Pakenham and Pearcedale. The event would have been spectacular visually, even if it had occurred in daytime the larger pieces of the breakup would have appeared brighter than the sun. Had it occurred during the night, the event would have turned night into day creating a magnificent spectacle for Bunurong witnesses. This would have been followed by incredible sonic booms and shock waves that could have knocked people to the ground for kilometres around. Indeed, there is no doubt the local Bunurong people would have attached a large amount of significance to the event.
From what is known about other cases of impact events being witnessed by Australian aboriginal groups, they tend to be accompanied by myths which portent catastrophe. Indeed, the aboriginal tribe who border the Bunurong to the north, the Wurundjeri have a myth about a separate impact site at Lilydale, known in the Wurundjeri language as Bukkertillibe. The story goes that Bunjil, the creator deity was displeased by the people’s behaviour and so became angry and punished them by causing a star to fall from the sky and strike the earth resulting in an explosion that killed many people. What is more, across Australia there are many other such accounts of impact events being explained by stories of deities punishing humans by flinging fiery rocks at them in what were no doubt meteor impact events.
Unfortunately, it seems that any myth surrounding the later impact event to occur in Bunurong land was lost by the almost complete devastation of Bunurong culture that was to occur upon British settlement in their lands. Bunurong alive today descend from a handful of aboriginal women who were abducted as sex slaves by Westernport Bay sealers who invaded the area in the early 1800s and any oral tradition about the event has been lost. So, one can only wonder how this incredible incident was viewed by the Bunurong in the late 1700s.
What is clear is that it was to prove to be an extremely inauspicious occurrence, as Bunurong culture, which had continued in a consistent manner for thousands of years, was to be laid waste in the form of British vices, murder and diseases within 100 years.
One surviving account of what the Bunurong thought of the large iron meteorites in their country seems to suggest a more positive perspective of the incident. The area of the strewnfield where the meteorites fell, between Pakenham and Pearcedale, while today a mixture of farmland and residential land, at the time of the impact in the late 1700s was largely swamp. Once Melbourne was settled by entrepreneurs from Launceston in 1835 squatters immediately set about transforming the surrounding swamplands into pasture land for cattle grazing, including at what was later to be known as Cranbourne about 40km to the south east of Melbourne. Here, protruding from some land owned by a Mr McKay there was a large body of iron and, years before it was identified as a meteorite, contemporary colonial reports state the local Bunurong people would:
“dance around it, beating their serpentine tomahawks against it, and apparently much pleased with the metallic sound thus produced”.
Other unsubstantiated reports suggest the iron meteorite was revered as a symbol of fertility, and that the Bunurong performed fertility rituals around it. This was apparently because, though the main mass was mostly buried, at the top of it there was a large protruding spur of nickel iron that, it is claimed, was in the shape of a phallus. This, the largest of more than a dozen meteorites that would eventually be discovered, would later be referred to as the Bruce meteorite or Cranbourne no.1.
When the impact event occurred the main mass, due to the extremely high temperatures generated and the extreme air pressure it was subjected to on entering the earth’s atmosphere at such a high speed, broke up into a number of smaller pieces which were strewn in more or less a straight line stretching about 25km from modern day Pakenham to Pearcedale.
In 1853 a settler who was travelling by horseback through McKay’s land attempted to tether his horse to what he thought was a tree stump sticking out of the ground. It was then that he realised that it was a mass of iron. Later that year a second iron mass about half the size of the first was also discovered about 6km to the north east on the land of James Lineham in what is today the suburb of Clyde. This mass would later be referred to as the Abel Meteorite or Cranbourne no. 2.
In 1854, the phallus-shaped spur on Cranbourne number 1 was cut off and 2 horseshoes were forged out of it. These were then exhibited at the Melbourne Exhibition by a farrier named James Scott. It is not known what the Bunurong thought of this emasculating action, but the deed would certainly be viewed unfavourably by everybody concerned when it was established later that a priceless meteorite had in fact been defaced to make some horseshoes.
In about 1857, a farmhand discovered a much smaller iron near the location of Cranbourne number 1. Even though the iron could fit in the palm of his hand it weighed 7kg because of its extremely dense composition of iron and nickel and was later to be known as Cranbourne no. 3. Not realising its significance, it was used as andiron on a fire where it was exposed to extreme temperatures that caused it to split in two. The owner at this point threw away one half of the meteorite.
It wasn’t until 1860 that the iron masses were, finally, correctly identified as meteorites. This occurred when a Cranbourne councillor by the name of Alex Cameron visited Melbourne in order to petition the government to build a railway line through the Cranbourne area. In order to entice interest in his idea he suggested that it would benefit the colony to build the railway through the Cranbourne area because of what he claimed was the huge seem of iron that existed just beneath the surface of the land there. The Melbourne town clerk at the time, Irishman Edmund Fitzgibbon, was an amateur geologist, and on hearing this bit of trivia knew that the councillor must have been mistaken, as there was no way such a huge seem of iron could have existed on what had been swampy territory. He decided to inspect the iron for himself. He was shown both Cranbourne numbers 1 and 2 where he made trenches in order to determine their size. Both McKay and Lineham, the owners of the land on which the meteorites rested, offered Fitzgibbon the meteorites for free if he agreed to pay for the cost to deliver them to Melbourne. He declined both offers, saying he simply wanted to generate interest in them as scientific curiosities and said it was now the government’s responsibility to arrange for their relocation.
In February 1861 the famous German meteorologist Georg von Neumayer, who had, a handful of years earlier, established the first weather observatory in Melbourne at Flagstaff Gardens read a paper about the meteorites by the town clerk Fitzgibbon. Both he and a German mineralogist named August Theodore Abel, who was based in Ballarat, and some other scientists were fascinated with the account and decided to set out to Cranbourne to visit the meteorites. The men camped the night at the sight of Cranbourne no. 1 on McKay’s farm, performing some magnetic experiments and taking some samples before McKay informed them that he had already sold it to a neighbour of his named James Bruce. For the next fifty years this meteorite, known now as Cranbourne no. 1, would be known as the Bruce meteorite.
Von Neumayer and his party continued on the next day and eventually located Cranbourne no.2 on James Lineham’s farm. Lineham viewed the meteorite as a nuisance and was happy to sell it on, so it was purchased by Abel who made arrangements to have it delivered to Melbourne. For the next fifty years this mass would be known as the Abel Meteorite.
Abel had it excavated and it weighed in at over 1 and a half metric tonnes, which in 1860 was the second largest meteorite in the world, only after Cranbourne no.1, which was to weigh in at 3 and half metric tonnes. Cranbourne no.2 generated great excitement on delivery to Melbourne where it was exhibited before being quickly shipped to London for the International Exhibition. Before having it shipped to London, Abel had offered the National Museum, in Melbourne a chance to purchase it from him for 300 pounds, but they declined the offer saying it was too expensive. Instead he agreed to sell it to the British Museum for 300 pounds, which meant he made a profit of 250 pounds having purchased it from Lineham and transported it to Melbourne for fifty pounds.
Meanwhile Fitzgibbon had obtained the remaining 3.5 kg of Cranbourne no.3 from McKay, exhibited it to the Royal Society, a Melbourne community of scientists and wrote a paper on it. The publication of this paper gave rise to great interest in the meteorites in Europe. Even the Emperor of Austria at the time, Franz Joseph the first, wrote a letter to Henry Barkly, the Governor of Victoria at the time, asking for more information. Barkly had a sample of no.1 sent to the Emperor through the German-Austrian botanist Ferdinand Von Mueller, who was the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, and he also sent a larger fist sized piece of no.1 to the K.K. Hofmuseums in Vienna.
When it became clear just how important the meteorites were, many in the Royal Society decided it was of utmost importance that the main masses should be kept in the colony. One member was Irishman Frederick McCoy who was also Director of the the National Museum in Melbourne. Knowing that Abel had already sent his mass to London, McCoy wrote to Mr Bruce as to whether he would be interested in donating Cranbourne no. 1 to his museum. Bruce, being a proud citizen of the British Empire first and an Antipodean second informed McCoy that his request would be impossible, as he was determined to donate it to the British Museum. However, he told McCoy that he would be willing to have the meteorite cut in two, giving one half to the museum in Melbourne and one to the museum in London.
He wrote his letter to McCoy in early January 1862, but it seems that McCoy did not reply immediately to this letter, and Bruce, taking this to mean a rejection of his proposal, on January 31st, gave Cranbourne no.1 to Von Mueller in order for him to present it to the British Museum. Cranbourne no.1 was then moved to the University of Melbourne quadrangel, where it waited to be transported to London. When the Royal Society discovered that Bruce had arranged to send it to the British Museum, debate ensued in public throughout 1862 and many petitioned to have Cranbourne no.1 retained in Melbourne. Many members became outraged and publicly criticised Bruce’s actions in letters that were published in The Argus newspaper. One in particular, a Dr. MacAdam, criticised Bruce for his lack of “scientific attainments”. Bruce however, wrote his own letter in December of 1862, in which he bitterly defended himself. In it he explained how he informed McCoy that time was of the utmost importance in replying to Bruce’s agreement to split the meteorite in two, but as McCoy hadn’t replied in almost a month, he was well within his right to send the meteorite abroad. He also included a stinging rebuke of MacAdam with the following words:
“As for Dr. MacAdam’s insidious sneer with respect to my scientific attainments, they may or may not be empirical; at all events, I have not thrust myself before the public. If the great doctor’s last lecture is a fair specimen of his scientific attainments, I scarcely think he is free from the taint. But, this is beside the question, I have yet to learn that, unless I am possessed of great scientific attainments, I cannot deal with any property I may have possessing a scientific interest, as I see fit, without consulting even the Royal Society. Let the doctor commence to weed nearer home; there is plenty of room for the knife. I have lived long enough to know that they are not the men of greatest scientific attainments who are continually thrusting themselves before the public. I have spent many a pleasant day in the British Museum, and gained some information, why should I be prevented from making some return? By what right do the Royal Society attempt to deal with my property against my wish? Would it not be more creditable to them to throw all selfishness aside, take a more cosmopolitan view of the the matter, and lend their aid, instead of throwing obstacles in the way.”
Just when it seemed as if the impasse could not be overcome, Henry Barkly came to the rescue by writing to the British Museum and arranging for them to return Cranbourne no.2 in exchange for Cranbourne no.1. This agreement seemed to appease all parties involved and also saved the larger meteorite from being desecrated by being split into two.
Cranbourne no.1 was sent to London in 1865, where it is still on display in the Natural History Museum. Cranbourne no.2 was returned to Melbourne and put on display in the National Museum. It can still be seen in the Melbourne Museum in Carlton to this day.
In 1876 what came to be known as Cranbourne no.9 was found in a railway cutting, roughly 3km east of Beaconsfield Railway Station, when they were building the train line to Gippsland. It weighed 75 kg and had apparently been exposed above the ground for many years, unburied, unlike the two main masses. It apparently fell into the possession of a German mineral dealer who destroyed it by greedily cutting it up into many pieces and selling each piece for a profit.
In 1886 Cranbourne no.10 was discovered on the property of a Mr Padley, about 7km south east of the old Langwarrin Railway Station, by an employee who was ploughing an orchard. Padley saw the rock as a nuisance and simply moved it out of his way, not realising its significance. It was only when a Government geologist by the name of Murray visited the locality that it was Identified as a meteorite. It was quite a large fragment, weighing in at 914kg. Murray encouraged Padley to donate it to the Melbourne Technological Museum and today it is located at the Melbourne Museum, Carlton.
In 1903 the Pearcedale iron, or what became known as Cranbourne no.11 was found. It was quite large, weighing in at 760kg. This piece was to prove to be the most westerly fragment discovered as of February 2020.
1923 was a busy year for Cranbourne meteorites as another four were found this year all, nearby the largest fragment Cranbourne no.1. Cranbourne no. 4 weighed in at almost 1300kg, no.5 356kg, no.7 153kg, and no.8 24kg. All 4 fragments were found in the same paddock, by farmers ploughing the land.
5 years later in 1928, Cranbourne no.6 was discovered, further to the north east, at Pakenham and was a smaller rock at just 40kg. It was discovered during construction work involved in the widening of the Princes Highway, and like many of the others was buried at a shallow depth. This piece is the most easterly of the the 13 pieces discovered as of February 2020.
Cranbourne no. 12, a small fragment of some 23 kg was only identified in 1982. It had actually been found in 1927, but was not identified scientifically until the later date.
The last piece to be found, Cranbourne no.13, was identified as recently as 2008. A market gardener in Clyde, not far from the location of the Abel fragment, Cranbourne no.2, dug up a rock that had been annoying him for years. He had intended to dispose of the 85kg piece at the local tip until a friend suspected there was something special about it and urged him to keep it. Coincidentally, the man’s son was studying about the Cranbourne Meteorites at Clyde Primary School, and informed his teacher that his father was in possession of an unusual, heavy rock. When the assistant principal of the school, Maruie Richardson, made enquiries with the parent, the latter agreed to take it to the school, so that the children could study it. The school arranged for a sample to be taken and sent to the Melbourne Museum, and it was confirmed then that the fragment was indeed of meteoric origin.
It should be noted that, while 13 fragments of this meteorite have been discovered there are more out there awaiting discovery. As mentioned previously all of the pieces of the Cranbourne Meteorite were discovered in locations more or less in a straight line stretching 25km from Pakenham to Pearcedale. In total, the mass discovered thus far comes to 8,500kg. If one looks at the map of the strewnfield inlcuded in the melbinmarvels.com blogpost about this event, it can clearly be seen that the fragments are clustered together at four different main areas along the 25km flight path. These areas are at Pakenham, Clyde, Devon Meadows and Pearcedale.
Within these clusters larger bodies, because of their greater mass, travel further along the flight path. This can clearly be seen from the cluster at Devon Meadows, where Cranbourne no.1, the heaviest object, was further along the flight path to the south west than were the smaller bodies of Cranbourne numbers 4,5,7 and 8. The only exception to this theory in this location was Cranbourne no.3 which was located further to the south west than the others, but at just 7.5kg it is possible that this iron was picked up by a human and carried to the area it was found in in the late 1850s.
At both Pakenham, and Pearcedale the theory plays out as well, but with only 2 and 3 irons found thus far at these locations respectively, it is possible that searching in these locations for further irons may prove fruitful.
But, perhaps the best chances of success in attempting to find more of the fragments of the Cranbourne Meteorite would be at Clyde, where, until 2008 the only fragment to have been discovered was the massive 1.5 tonne Abel Meteorite, Cranbourne no.2. The theory predicts that upon separating from the main body, Cranbourne no.2 would have had smaller fragments detach from it, before it finally came to rest. And this theory was proven correct, when Cranbourne no.13 was found in 2008, close by, just to the north east. However, there are almost certainly more of these smaller fragments out there in the Clyde area.
Unfortunately, since 2008, much of this area has been rezoned as a residential area and a housing estate has been built on what was until about 3 years ago farmland. Therefore, an extensive search using metal detectors would be much harder to carry out today.
In 2001 the Pakenham Gazette interviewed Glenda Tait and Jean Hermon, who were granddaughters of Suzanne Lineham, who was a 9 year old child of James Lineham, on whose property Cranbourne no.2 had been taken from in 1860. Jean Hermon told the newspaper that her grandmother remembered as a child the impact the transportation of the meteorite had on local members of the Bunurong aboriginal tribe. “Grandma said the meteor was worshipped by the aborigines who came to the property. She said it was so special to them that they cried when they saw it being taken away.”
This account of the importance attached to Cranbourne no.2 by the Bunurong people, as well as the earlier one related by Mr McKay in regards to Cranbourne no.1, leads one to suspect that the impact event was the source of some profundity for the tribe. It is a terrible shame that, what that significance entailed, was lost. Indeed the Cranbourne Meteorite was to prove to be a particularly inauspicious occurrence for the Bunurong people. That this prized possession of the Bunurong was transported out of their lands to the capital city of the Empire that had so decimated their culture is perhaps symbolic of the British invasion of Bunurong land. One could view the Cranbourne Meteorite lying in the Natural History Museum in London as the Bunurong’s Elgin Marbles. Perhaps one day, the British government will return this culturally significant artefact to the Bunurong people as a gesture of goodwill.
Thank you for listening to this episode of Melbourne Marvels on the Cranbourne Meteorite. My name is Eamonn, the creator of Melbourne Marvels. You can help me out by subscribing to the podcast on itunes, spotify or your Android podcasting app. You can also help support me on Patreon from as little as $1 US an episode. If you can’t afford that you can support me by giving me a 5 star rating on Itunes, this helps the discoverability of the show.
I would like to personally thank Peter Skilton of the Mornington Peninsula Astronomical Society for answering enquiries I had about this topic.
Also, the Transactions of the Royal Society by Royal Society of Victoria, published in 1860, contained the information regarding the display of the horseshoes at the Melbourne Exhibition of 1854, the information regarding the Cranbourne councillor Alex Cameron petitioning the construction of the railway in 1860 and also the information regarding Fitzgibbon’s own visit to sites of the two main masses near Cranbourne.
The other main source I used was Australian Gem and Treasure Hunter, Year Book, 1982, by William Cappadonna. This contains much of the information regarding the predictions for where future finds of meteorites in the Cranbourne area are likely to be.
Credits: Narration and research by Eamonn Gunning
Music By: James Longley; Klankbeeld; Frankum; Andrewkn
The tale of an escaped convict who lived in the bush for 32 years with the Wathuroung aboriginal people before the settlement of Melbourne.
In 1803, when the transportation of British convicts to Australia is at its height. An attempt is made to start a settlement in Port Phillip Bay at modern day Sorrento. The mission is doomed to failure because of a lack of an adequate water supply, but before it relocates to Van Diemen’s Land and starts the settlement of Hobart Town, a handful of convicts escape their captivity by fleeing into the bush. Among them is a 6ft 5, 23 year old, former soldier named William Buckley. With the nearest sign of civilization at the time being the convict colony at Sydney, more than 850 kilometres away and with no maps or supplies the men are given up for dead.
Later, when the settlement of Melbourne has just begun, and a basecamp for the settlement has been set up at Indented Head on the Bellarine Peninsula to await the return of supplies from Van Diemen’s Land, a stranger walks into the campsite. Whoever it is is a giant of a man. He has long white hair and a long white beard. He’s dressed in possum furs and carries two spears. It is William Buckley. He’s been away from civilization for so long he’s forgotten how to speak English.
This is 1835, he’s been living in the wild with the Wathaurong aboriginal people for 32 years
In researching this story I’m relying largely on the 1852 biography ghost written by John Morgan called The life and adventures of William Buckley : thirty-two years a wanderer amongst the aborigines of the then unexplored country round Port Phillip, now the province of Victoria. It is the longest and considered the most authoritative source of Buckley’s life. However, it differs in some key respects to some other much shorter, contemporary accounts of the time which I we will discuss at the appropriate time.. Others criticise Morgan’s account for over embellishing certain aspects of Buckley’s story, however, historians tend to agree that Morgan’s account, as it is written in Buckley’s own voice, is the most accurate account we have.
However, I will say it is impossible to know for sure the truth of all the events that occurred as we are reliant on the veracity of Buckley’s story and the integrity of Morgan to avoid using creative licence. Ultimately, I think it is up to the reader as to how much of the story they should take for fact. The account would certainly reads as controversial to modern eyes in some respects. Particularly in its representation of the constant warfare and violence between the aboriginal ‘tribes’. There are also a number of accounts of cannibalism detailed amongst them and certainly the way this is represented by Morgan is in a extremely patronising way as he clearly looks down on what he regards as the uncivilised nature of the aboriginal savages and comes across as racist to a modern reader.
William Buckley was born in 1780 in Macclesfield, Cheshire, England. He had two sisters and a brother and his parents were farmers. He was adopted by his mother’s father and at the age of 15 was apprenticed as a bricklayer to a Mr Robert Wyatt. Buckley clearly didn’t enjoy this lifestyle because at the age of 19 he ran away and joined the Cheshire Militia. He describes receiving a bounty of ten guineas for this and remembers thinking this amount of money would last him forever.
After a year, his money had exhausted and he volunteered in the King’s Own Regiment of Foot at Horsham in the south of England a long way from his native Cheshire. After only 6 weeks here his unit was ordered to to embark for war in Holland where the Duke of York was in battle against the French Republic. Buckley’s regiment under the command of the Earl of Chatham suffered heavy losses in this battle and Buckley’s hand was severely injured although he doesn’t detail how this injury occurred.
On returning to England Buckley received another bounty for extended service. His officers had a good opinion of him because of his height, he was six foot five, and his good conduct. But, soon afterwards he fell in with a bad crowd he had met in the regiment and was arrested for receiving false goods.
Buckley always maintained his innocence in this affair saying that a woman asked him to collect some items for her and then he was arrested by authorities for receiving stolen goods. He was found guilty in court and after this sentence he never heard from his family again.
As a prisoner he initially worked on fortifications being built at Woolwich, but as a mechanic he was identified as possibly being useful to a new penal colony that was to be set up at Port Phillip in what was then New South Wales.
Buckley saw this as an excellent opportunity to redeem his sullied name and so he embraced being sent for transportation to the other side of the world. This is noteworthy when you consider the hardships that often went hand in hand with a marine trek to the Antipodes.
A journey from England to what was called New Holland at the time took the best part of a year to complete and trips were arduous affairs that often involved the deaths of upwards of 10% of those who embarked.
This is not to mention the exceptional remoteness of the colony. The convicts were expected to build infrastructure when they arrived in a complete wilderness. This says a lot about Buckley’s character that he was willing to embrace his transportation in order to redeem himself.
On top of this, prisoners were often treated cruelly in a time when severe punishments were the rule. Lieutenant Colonel David Collins was chosen to lead the expedition and to be the governor of what was to be the first settlement in modern day Victoria. They set sail in two ships, the Calcutta and the Ocean.Buckley was treated well on the journey and spent most of the time helping out the crew.
When they arrived the ships anchored 2 miles within the heads at a place Collins named Sullivan Bay. This site was chosen as a penal settlement because it was over 600 miles from Sydney which meant escape would have been practically futile.
The marines and convicts landed and encamped and Buckley mentions how, while most of the convicts had to camp inside a line of sentinels, he and the other mechanics were permitted to camp outside it and were set to work on the first buildings of the settlement.
Life, though, was tough at the new settlement. There was no access to a reliable fresh water supply and the soil proved poor for growing crops. So, after 3 months of roughing it Buckley and 3 others decided to make an escape from their bondage. Buckley in 1852 freely admitted to the madness of this plan, as it involved walking to Sydney 600 miles to the north.
With no maps though and no idea which direction Sydney lay in, the attempt was utterly pointless and perhaps speaks of the desperation he felt at the time, especially considering the settlement was attempting to survive on brackish seawater. Buckley and his 3 companions had been entrusted with a gun to shoot kangaroo in the area they were working in.
One dark night they absconded with the gun, an iron kettle and as many supplies as they could take. They were spotted however, by a sentinel who shot at them, taking down one of Buckley’s companions. He never found out if this man survived as he never heard from him again.
In fear for their lives the 3 remaining men ran for 3 or 4 hours before stopping for a break. Not long after renewing their march they came to a river now known as Balcombe Creek in Mouth Martha.
At daylight they began to renew their trek when they encountered a party of natives. This was the first encounter Buckley had with any of the natives that we know about. He says he fired the gun in order to scare them off and they ran into the bush.
Buckley crossed first to test the depth and then helped the others across and went back for their clothes.
That night they reached to about 20 miles from the modern city of Melbourne and rested there until the morning when moved on again until they crossed the Yarra River a few hours later.
They crossed the river and continued their way up the Mornington Peninsula crossing the Yarra River the next day. After this, they headed away from the coast and travelled through vast plains until they reached the Yawang Hills (today knows as the You Yangs). Here they finished the last bit of bread and meat they had taken with them.
As they were incapable of finding any food Buckley told his friends they must return to the bay to find shellfish or they would die of starvation and they agreed so they returned to the coast after what Buckley called “a long and weary march.”
They were able to subsist off shellfish, travelling down the west coast of Port Phillip Bay through the areas of modern day Corio and Port Arlington. But, life was becoming a serious struggle. Water was hard to come by and the only thing they had to eat was shellfish and which caused the men to suffer from diarrhea.
By this stage the men had been gone for a few days. There were thirsty, tired, suffering from diarrhea and they had started seeing native huts dotted about the place.
The indigenous people who lived in the area at the time, known as the Wathaurong people, were a nomadic hunter-gatherer people much like the other Australian indigenous peoples. They would often build these temporary huts made from bark and tree branches and then they would abandon them or perhaps come back to them at a later date. So, these 3 European men were seeing these types of huts around the place, but they were not occupied.
Buckley and his companions must have felt great fear at the prospect of bumping into these tribes as they referred to them. The common early 19th century trope that was in the backs of their minds was that these were untamed savages who would eat them as soon as greet them, so it can be imagined that they were somewhat concerned about this inevitable meeting. But, apart from the meeting they had had on their second day from the settlement on the other side of the bay, in this area they were only encountering vacant huts.
The next day they reached an island the Wathaurong called Barwal, which is called Swan Island in modern parlance. Buckley mentions how they could reach the island during low tide. Even today if you look at Swan Island on Google Maps you’ll see that the island is separated from the mainland by a very narrow strait of water.
Melbourne sits on the Northern tip of a large bay, but the point of entry to the bay is a very narrow strait at the Southern end. The Calcutta had anchored just inside the Eastern head of the bay and so the 3 escapees had walked around the entire length of the bay from the eastern head to the western head a journey of well over a hundred and close to two hundred kilometres. From Swan Island which lies just inside the Western head of the bay they could actually see the Calcutta at anchor on the other side as the bay considerably narrows the closer to the Heads you get. So, these men were exhausted, dehydrated and hungry, and in their minds they were in danger of being captured and potentially eaten by roaming packs of savages.
Suddenly the prospect of returning to the settlement started to look appealing. Sure they might be punished, they might have their sentences lengthened, but at least they would have a roof over their heads and something to eat and drink, and didn’t have the threat of being cannibalised at any moment hanging over their heads.
Buckley relates what happened next:
“The perils we had already encountered damped the ardour of my companions, and it was anxiously wished by them that they could rejoin her (meaning the Calcutta), so we set about making signals, by lighting fires at night, and hoisting our shirts on trees and poles by day. At length a boat was seen to leave the ship and come in our direction, and although the dread of punishment was naturally great, yet the fear of starvation exceeded it, and they anxiously waited her arrival to deliver themselves up, indulging anticipations of being, after all the sufferings they had undergone, forgiven by the Governor. These expectations of relief were however delusive; when about half way across the bay, the boat returned, and all hope vanished. We remained in the same place, and living in the same way, six more days, signalizing all the time, but without success, so that my companions seeing no probable reply, gave themselves up to despair, and lamented bitterly their helpless situation.”
Buckley goes on to relate how at the end of the next day, his companions decided to retrace their steps round the bay and return to the settlement. He spells it out thus:
“To all their advice, and entreaties to accompany them, I turned a deaf ear, being determined to endure every kind of suffering rather than again surrender my liberty. After some time we separated, going in different directions. When I had parted from my companions, although I had preferred doing so, I was overwhelmed with the various feelings which oppressed me: it would be vain to attempt describing my sensations. I thought of the friends of my youth, the scenes of my boyhood, and early manhood, of the slavery of my punishment, of the liberty I had panted for, and which although now realized, after a fashion, made the heart sick, even at its enjoyment. I remember, I was here subjected to the most severe mental sufferings for several hours, and then pursued my solitary journey.”
Now you may be wondering at this point what Buckley was doing on the Western side of Port Phillip Bay considering he was trying to reach Sydney. The elder Buckley wonders this himself in 1853 and reflects at how futile the quest of his younger self was.
On the first day of his solitary wanderings one of Buckley’s greatest fears was realised in that he encountered a group of about 100 aborigines in and near some huts made of bark and branches and some of them made towards him. Fearing for his life, Buckley jumped into a river with his clothes on whilst carrying his firestick. Luckily the natives didn’t follow him into the river, but in quickly jumping into it all his clothes were drenched and he had no longer any means by which to start a fire to keep warm. He had to sleep on the bank of the river that night in wet clothes in early Spring, which must have been close to unbearable.
The next day he returned to the beach making sure he wasn’t seen by the natives. As it was low tide, he found lots of abalone which the natives called Kooderoo. He continued on up the coast, subsisting on what the Watharoung called Kooderoo, which we know as abalone, which was abundant in the area. He passed through the Karaaf River and the River that pass through modern day Torquay at the beginning of what is today the Great Ocean Road. Buckley was just travelling further into the wilderness.
Adding to Buckley’s suffering throughout this time was the fact that water was hard to come by. On top of this, when he ate the abalone it made him thirstier. He would have to rely on the dew that collected on the branches in order to survive. If we look at the direction Buckley was travelling in at this point we will see that he was actually going in the opposite direction of Sydney, his supposed destination. Sometimes he would spot the abandoned huts of the natives. At others he would see wild dingoes and their howlings haunted him at night.
He continued travelling along the coastline in a South-Westerly direction passing through the areas of modern day Angelsea and Airey’s Inlet. Luckily he found the natives had been burning the bush here and managed to procure a firestick for himself. At this location he also found a native well, some berries in bushes and a great supply of shellfish which he was able to cook on his new fire. Buckley talks of giving up great thanks to God for this because he had been growing weak all the time due to the conditions he had been living under.
He continued on down the coast and two days later came to Mt. Defiance which the natives called Nooraki. Here he decided to settle down for a while as his body had begun to break out in strange sores, probably as a result from suffering from scurvy from malnutrition. He created a more permanent shelter and found some edible plants nearby that could sustain him and stayed in the area for a few months.