Lost in Tasmania’s wilderness karst


Arthur Clarke




From 1962-1995, four young men have disappeared without a trace (never seen again) after traversing separate areas of Tasmania’s southern wilderness karst. During the latter part of this same period, a student teacher and two young high school pupils drowned in Mystery Creek Cave in the far south of Tasmania. To this day, the disappearance of the 15 year old Guy Bardenhagen near Mount Picton in late January 1962 remains a mystery. Bardenhagen was with two fellow YMCA members led by then YMCA Southern Secretary, on a bushwalk from the old Lake Pedder to Geeveston. On January 30th 1962, the party of four made a detour to climb Mt. Picton, departing from their campsite at North Lake, south of Red Rag Scarp. After lagging behind the others, Bardenhagen failed to reach the summit, but did not return to the camp site. Given the proximity of the known karstified Pre-Cambrian dolomite and nearby pseudokarst, it is possible that Bardenhagen fell into a crevice or vertical opening following his separation from the other walkers. An intense weeklong search failed to locate any sign of Bardenhagen.

In mid-October 1969, John Boyle, became lost when separated from three other cavers in the forested sub-alpine dolomite karst on the northeast ridge of Mount Anne, east of Lake Pedder. Reported in the media as a “lost Sydney caver”, the 26 year old Boyle was actually a member of the Tasmanian Caverneering Club (TCC) on a club trip lead by former flatmate Alan Keller. In the early afternoon, on Saturday October 18th 1969, Boyle became separated from the others during their search for potholes (vertical cave entrances) in the upper reaches of Camp Spur, adjoining the northeast ridge of Mt. Anne. Despite an intensive search by cavers, rockclimbers, bushwalkers, Tasmanian Police and Navy helicopters, no trace of Boyle was ever found. On October 27th newspapers reported that the search for Boyle had ended, and that he was now officially listed as a “missing person”. Interestingly, there was no TCC trip report or article in TCC’s Speleo Spiel relating John Boyle‘s disappearance and at the time of compiling this ACKMA Conference Abstract, Boyle was not listed on the Tasmania Police Missing Persons Register. Descending mist and/or low cloud cover were both relevant factors when Bardenhagen and Boyle disappeared and during the subsequent ill-fated searches.

Fifteen years later, the writer was one of several Tasmanian cavers involved in the search for another 26 year old man: Robert Ferguson a student from the University of Tasmania who disappeared in or near the Ida Bay karst during Easter, 1984. While on route to Exit Cave with a party of youth hostellers, Mick Flint, a Dover-based member of TCC, had collected Ferguson from the Lune River Youth Hostel early on Easter Sunday morning (April 22nd) 1984, depositing him at the start of the track to Mystery Creek Cave (and the Southern Highlands). Prepared only for a short day walk, Ferguson told Flint and other hostellers that he was heading to the old limestone quarry near Mystery Creek Cave, then taking the Southern Highlands track to Moonlight Flats and possibly Moonlight Ridge, returning to the hostel that same evening; he was never seen again. A number of theories were devised by search and rescue personnel regarding Ferguson’s actual walking route, all of which suggested he may have left the established track. During the weeklong search for Ferguson and subsequent forays by cavers and youth hostellers, about a dozen new vertical caves were found and explored at Ida Bay including Chicken Bone Pot and Smelly Cave, where a recently deceased wallaby was found.

On Monday July 2nd 1990, following a 5-6 day period of intense almost constant rainfall with snow in the highlands, a party of students and teachers from Taroona High School were caught by a flood surge in Mystery Creek Cave at Ida Bay. Well prepared for caving, wearing neoprene wetsuits and gumboots, the school party entered the cave in shin to knee deep water, but were caught unawares by a significantly deeper and faster flow during their exit several hours later. Two young pupils, Anita Knoop and Frances O’Neill and student teacher Joanne Cuthbert were swept off their feet, drowning in the passage that now bears the name: Walls of Sorrow. It was the same day that the writer (Arthur Clarke) guided Rolan Eberhard to IB-47 (National Gallery), inserting fluorescein into a washed-out makeshift dam (previously constructed by Ian Houshold and Andy Spate), but successfully achieving the first successful dye trace to Exit Cave from a cave in the near vicinity of the former Benders Quarry.

In mid-November 1995, Wade Butler (son of Sydney mountaineering pioneer Dot Butler) disappeared during a solo walk to Precipitous Bluff (PB) near Tasmania’s south coast. After being deposited at the start of the Southern Highlands track on Tuesday November 14th 1995, at the same spot where Robert Ferguson was last seen, Butler’s proposed six-day walk from Ida Bay to Cockle Creek via PB involved a route through at least two areas of limestone karst. It was a walking trip he had previously undertaken and it was understood that on this occasion, he wanted to explore the possibility of finding a new route from PB to the south coast. Given the vast extent of unexplored limestone on the southern and western side of PB, it is highly likely that Butler may have fallen into one of the steep-sided dolines, possibly in the polygonal karst on the upper western side of PB. In late February 1979, the writer also suffered a mis-adventure becoming “lost” in this upper level limestone area immediately west of PB High Camp, devising an “escape” route by traversing these high level deep and expansive dolines in the dense King William Pine forest on the western side of PB. Arthur subsequently survived a night on his own without a tent seemingly lost in Tasmania’s wilderness karst on the lower western slopes of PB, almost within sight of New River Lagoon.


Rolan Eberhard; Ian Houshold; Max Miller (Tasmania Police); Chris Sharples and STC (TCC) Archives.