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Little boys lost: The bush takes away and sometimes it gives back

For the family and friends of another boy who vanished in mountain country near Melbourne in 1974, however, there remains no end to the pain of not knowing.

Damian McKenzie, 10, from the Cobden district of western Victoria, was on a Young Australia League youth camp north-east of Melbourne when he disappeared while on a walk with a group of children and adults at Steavenson Falls, near Marysville.

Steven Walls in hospital with his father after he was found.

Steven Walls in hospital with his father after he was found.Credit:Bob Rice

The circumstances of his disappearance remain eerily similar to the moment William Callaghan went missing: on a mountainside bush track, he reportedly ran ahead of the group and was lost from sight.

But unlike William Callaghan, Damian McKenzie was never seen again, despite a huge search across more than 30 square kilometres of heavy bushland.

More than 300 police, divers, search and rescue squad members, the Federation of Victorian Walking Clubs, the Forestry Commission, St Johns Ambulance and volunteers scoured the area.

Near impenetrable bush, plummeting temperatures and even snow flurries hampered the effort.

William Callaghan after he was reunited with his mother and stepfather this week.

William Callaghan after he was reunited with his mother and stepfather this week.Credit:Justin McManus

The case of Damian McKenzie’s disappearance on September 4, 1974, has never been closed.

Continuing investigations by police and private investigators, including a cold case inquiry by former detectives only two years ago, have continued to seek answers.

Damian McKenzie in a picture taken shortly before he disappeared.

Damian McKenzie in a picture taken shortly before he disappeared.Credit:The Age/Warrnambool Standard

In a nation of “lost in the bush” stories, it remains among the more harrowing mysteries.

Damian’s mother, Mrs Marcia McKenzie, said this week had been “tough” on her as she followed news reports of the search for William.

“I knew exactly how his family felt,” she said.

Expressing happiness that the search had been successful, she said the loss of her own son, without ever knowing what happened to him, followed her every day.

“You never forget,” she said. “But you learn to live with. You just have to pick up the pieces and get on with life.”

The most acclaimed successful search for a lost Australian child, by contrast, remains the discovery of Steven Walls in rough and remote New England high country, more than 500 kilometres north of Sydney, in February, 1960.

Steven Walls was missing for 77 hourse before he was found.

Steven Walls was missing for 77 hourse before he was found.Credit:Bob Rice

More than 3000 people, some on horseback, searched bushland around the farming area of Tubbamurra near the town of Guyra for the boy who had become separated from his father while they were herding sheep on the family property. Seven aeroplanes and an Indigenous tracker, William Stanley, joined the effort.

Media organisations around Australia flashed updates on the search, which became world news.

When Steven was found alive on February 8, 1960, after four hot days and three cold nights, searchers reportedly burst into tears and there was national rejoicing.

Johnny Ashcroft’s Little Boy Lost, an emotional musical recounting of the search, became the hit song of 1960.

Steven Walls with a gold record of the song 'Little Boy Lost' at his farm near Guyra in 1981.

Steven Walls with a gold record of the song ‘Little Boy Lost’ at his farm near Guyra in 1981.Credit:Frederick Thomas Murray

The song used the first words Steven was reported to have said when he was found: “Where’s my Daddy”.

Later that year Ashcroft asked that the song be removed from radio playlists to alleviate the pain of those three words being heard by the parents of another lost little boy, Graeme Thorne. The eight-year-old Sydney child had been kidnapped for the £100,000 his parents had won in the Sydney Opera House Lottery: a crime at the time all but unimaginable in Australia.

Following a massive search and detective work, Graeme Thorne was found murdered. His killer, Stephen Bradley, was sentenced to life in prison. He died of a heart attack in Goulburn Gaol in 1968.

Australia, however, couldn’t let go of the uplifting Steven Walls story. In 1978, hundreds of district residents were bused to Armidale for the premiere of the movie Little Boy Lost, in which Walls, by then aged 22, played one of the searchers.

SES searching in dense scrub for William Callaghan on Tuesday morning.

SES searching in dense scrub for William Callaghan on Tuesday morning.Credit:Chris Hopkins

A four-year-old from Rockhampton, Nathan Dawes, was chosen to play the lost boy after The Australian Women’s Weekly invited readers to send in photographs of boys who looked like Walls.

But the real Steven Walls died without any final blaze of publicity.

His death, on the family property at Tubbamurra on April 14 this year, occurred during the nationwide fixation with the coronavirus pandemic. His family asked for privacy.

Mr Walls’ mother, Dorothy, told The Age on Thursday she did not wish to go over the old story of her “little boy lost”.

Nor did she wish to draw comparisons with William Callaghan’s extraordinary survival story, because every time any search was under way anywhere in Australia, she had been asked to recall the events of 1960.

“It’s in the past,” she said.

Damian McKenzie’s father Peter died 19 years ago, but his remaining family – his mother and three brothers – were permitted several years ago to place a small plaque in memory of the long-lost boy on a bench overlooking Steavenson Falls, near where he vanished into the bush 46 years ago.

“We have no body, but I felt finally we had this one little thing,” Mrs McKenzie said. “At least we knew our boy was somewhere around there.”

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