Two friends gone without a trace, a scorched campsite, and a wife left in the dark. Russell Hill and Carol Clay's disappearance is shrouded in mystery.
Two friends gone without a trace, a scorched campsite, and a wife left in the dark. Russell Hill and Carol Clay's disappearance is shrouded in mystery.

Inside pair’s mysterious High Country disappearance

Two elderly friends gone without a trace in the High Country, a scorched campsite left behind and a wife left in the dark.

It's fair to say the mystery of Russell Hill and Carol Clay's disappearance might have been occupying a lot more media attention in a normal news cycle.

Because, 20 days after they last made radio contact, there are plenty of potential scenarios but no answers about what has happened to Mr Hill and Ms Clay.

The Wonnangatta Valley, 250km northeast of Melbourne, regarded as one of the state's premier four-wheel-driving areas, is a pristine, remote part of the world.

Mr Hill knew the area well and his wife, Robyn, had no cause for concern when he left - she thought alone - on March 19.

The 74-year-old had previously worked there in the logging industry and is an experienced and well-equipped bushman.

Ms Clay, a former state head of the Country Women's Association, had told friends she would be back at home by the 29th.

Publicly at least, police say they have no idea what has happened and have wound up their searching.

"Anything's on the table" one source said.

What makes the situation doubly puzzling is the fierce fire that had swept through their camp some time before it was found on March 26.

Carol Clay has been missing for almost three weeks.
Carol Clay has been missing for almost three weeks.

It wrecked camp chairs, a table and a tent but, had they needed to get out in a hurry, there was nothing to stop them doing so.

Although photos show it bore scorch marks from the fire, Mr Hill's late-model Toyota four-wheel-drive was able to be operated.

Mrs Clay's belongings were in the Toyota and the keys were in the ignition.

Her vehicle was later found back at her Pakenham home, leading police to believe the pair could only have left the camp site on foot.

The cause of the fire has not been publicly revealed but it is not believed to have been deliberately lit.

Adding to the mystery is the fact Robyn did not know her husband and Ms Clay, who have been friends for decades, were together.

She told the Herald Sun this week she knew something was wrong when the high-frequency radio enthusiast stopped calling in the day after leaving.

"It is not a good place to be when the weather gets bad," Mrs Russell said.

A close friend of Ms Clay said she was "very popular" within the Victorian branch of the Country Women's Association.

She rose through the ranks, being voted in as state president, and has since attained the prestigious Member of Honour status.

"She was very knowledgeable and smart," the friend of more than a decade said.

"She would always help you if she could."

CWA members are said to be shocked over the mysterious disappearance but are holding out hope.

"It is a tragedy," the friend said.

Russell Hill and Carol Clay's burnout campsite photographed by a camper near Dry River track at Billabong in the Wonnangatta Valley. Pic credit: ABC
Russell Hill and Carol Clay's burnout campsite photographed by a camper near Dry River track at Billabong in the Wonnangatta Valley. Pic credit: ABC

"It is a shock, we all want to know what has happened."

Ms Clay, who currently heads the CWA Pakenham branch, is said to be a "great cook" who loved baking sponge cakes.

Another CWA volunteer said Ms Clay was always "dressed beautifully" and was a "very elegant" woman.

"She brought a breath of fresh air to the association," the colleague said.

"She had a phrase, 'don't forget your lippy girls.'

"This is unbelievable, where can she be?

"There are too many unanswered questions. We are hoping and praying for a safe return."

The Pakenham CWA branch issued a statement saying: "All Pakenham members are shocked and wish to send Carol's family and friends our love at this difficult time."

Hopes of finding Ms Clay and Mr Hill alive were all-but extinguished this week when a major search - aided by helicopters and drones - was called off.

Inhospitable terrain and dense bush make it notoriously difficult to find missing people in the High Country.

Experienced hiker Niels Becker, 39, went missing in October last year in the Alpine National Park.

Experienced hiker Niels Becker, 39, went missing in October last year in the Alpine National Park. Picture: Supplied
Experienced hiker Niels Becker, 39, went missing in October last year in the Alpine National Park. Picture: Supplied

He left the Upper Jamieson Hut on October 24 last year and sent a message to his family that he was heading back to his car on October 29.

He was described as a "strong, fit and resilient" hiker who had prepared for months for the five-day solo hike.

At the time his mother Johanna Becker said Niels had been planning the hike for at least six months.

Wealthy Melbourne businessman Conrad Whitlock also went missing in the high country in July last year.

The 72-year-old Sandhurst man was last seen at his White Water Court home on July 29.

His white BMW was found about 20km from Mansfield on the road toward Mount Buller but he has also not been found, more than eight months later.

Detectives from Wellington CIU are investigating the Hill-Clay mystery.

Anyone with information can contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or visit the website crimestoppersvic.com.au.

mark.buttler@news.com.au

 

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