In a new appeal for information on Wednesday, police said the case was baffling, but believe it is unlikely the pair staged their disappearance. A search for the campers will resume in the “treacherous” bushland in coming weeks.
Ms Clay, a mother of three who separated from her partner several years ago, had for several months been living by herself in a new Pakenham home when she left with Mr Hill to go camping.
The property, built in the past year and close to Pakenham shops and train station, settled on March 12, seven days before the pair left.
Those close to Ms Clay say she was happy and content in her new home.
On Wednesday, head of Victoria’s Missing Persons Squad Detective Inspector Andrew Stamper said Mr Hill and Ms Clay had previously been camping together several times.
Their families have known each other for a number of years.
Inspector Stamper said he would not speculate on the nature of the relationship between the pair as it was a “delicate” situation for the families.
“It was a bit of a surprise to [Mr Hill’s wife] Robyn that Russell and Carol had been camping together but … I don’t want to speculate on what that relationship was, whether it was two people who enjoyed each other’s company and camping in the Australian wilderness.”
Police have looked into the pair’s finances, including recent purchases, but Inspector Stamper said nothing indicated they had disappeared on purpose.
“The eloping theory, in my mind, is not credible,” he said.
March 19: Russell Hill leaves his home in Drouin with plans to visit various campsites along the Dargo River. He is seen by neighbours picking up Carol Clay from her home in Pakenham at 7.30am. Phone tracking shows the pair travelled through Heyfield and Licola to get to Wonnangatta Valley.
March 20: Mr Hill was last heard from via HF radio where he told a friend in the amateur radio community he was at Wonnangatta Station in the Victorian Alps setting up camp before dark.
March 21: Campers find Mr Hill’s white Toyota landcruiser with signs of minor fire damage, and their tent and some belongings torched near the Dry River Creek Track in the Wonnangatta Valley. A search begins.
March 30: Police appeal for public help in finding the pair. Air surveillance and the dog squad are out searching, helped by members of the State Emergency Service, Parks Victoria and the Mountain Cattlemen’s Association of Victoria.
April 6: The search is called off. Police make another appeal for information and reveal the Wellington Crime Investigation Unit will help investigate.
April 14 and 15: Search resumes again, focusing on more rugged terrain in the region. It is called off after no results.
Search and Rescue Squad Senior Sergeant Greg Paul said there were “plenty of places to potentially get hurt and be immobile” in the treacherous terrain of the high country.
“The bush is very unforgiving, the Australian bush can swallow people up so it’s very, very difficult once they do come to grief in the middle of nowhere to find people sometimes,” he said.
In a statement, Mr Hill’s family said: “It is devastating for our family that we don’t know what has happened to them both.”
Ms Clay’s family said they had been dealing with continual stress and loss during the “absolute mystery”.
“This is a very difficult time for our family. We are living with uncertainty, loss and the continual stress of not knowing where they are and what has happened.”
Dorothy Coombe, who met Ms Clay when they worked together at the Country Women’s Association, said her friend was”thoughtful, sincere and kind” and extremely close to her family.
“I’ve known her for 20 years. She helped anybody. Someone needed something, she would do the utmost to assist them. Something simple like watering a garden, cooking a cake or a meal, she would be the person,” she said.
“A friend saw her the day before she travelled. They were just having a normal conversation where she said to the friend, ‘Do you remember that baby blanket you made for my grandsons? That grandson is now 12’. Those last conversations you have, they become haunting conversations.
“She loved her family immensely … she was a very strong woman and always quick with a smile.”
Mr Hill was seen by neighbours loading Ms Clay’s bags into his car as he picked her up from her home in Pakenham on March 19.
Using data from the pair’s mobile phones, police have been able to track the route they took to the Wonnangatta Valley, however, once they reached the campsite the phone reception cut out.
Mr Hill, an amateur radio enthusiast, contacted one of his friends on March 20, telling him he was setting up camp, but could not talk for long as it was getting dark.
Mr Hill promised to call back the next day but never did. His call sign was VK3 VZP and anyone who heard this signal is being urged to contact police. He was also learning to use a drone, which has not been found.
Inspector Stamper said Mr Hill was “fastidious in his camping habits”, but said neither he nor Ms Clay were experienced bushwalkers and were unlikely to have ventured far from camp.
Inspector Stamper also asked for friends to come forward with any information that could help the search.
Police have not found either of their mobile phones.
Arson specialists have been unable to determine how the fire at the campsite started. It has not been ruled out as suspicious, however, no accelerant was found at the site.
Search efforts have also been hampered by the remoteness of the terrain, the weather, and lack of phone reception in the valley.
Anyone who sees the pair should call triple zero immediately.
Anyone with information should call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or anonymously online at www.crimestoppersvic.com.au.
Simone is a crime reporter for The Age. Most recently she covered breaking news for The Age, and before that for The Australian in Melbourne.
Rachel is a breaking news reporter for The Age.