Into the bush

Layton Keddy got on his bicycle and disappeared into the Australian wilderness, assuming he wouldn’t be missed. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

Layton Keddy broke his toothbrush in half. He cut the tags off his clothes. He removed the buckles from his backpack. He planned to carry as little weight as possible for this biking adventure: a 330-km stretch of Australian wilderness between the towns of Marysville and Omeo, in the southeastern state of Victoria.

The Prince Albert, Sask., native had heard this was the hardest part along the country’s Bicentennial National Trail, which spans more than 5,300 km of Australia’s eastern coastline. And he wasn’t interested in avoiding areas deemed impassable by bike, remaining steadfast in his resolve to travel the original path—the one meant for horseback—from the bone-dry highlands to the valleys strewn with deadfall. Firefighters from the region told him his route would be impossible to traverse alone. Local ranchers said he’d need three pack horses to carry supplies. Keddy didn’t have any pack horses.

This was notoriously difficult terrain, devoid in many parts of cell service to call someone in an emergency, and days by bike from the nearest community. To Keddy, it all sounded perfect. The 32-year-old didn’t want it to be easy. He didn’t even give himself the luxury of a GPS tracker, or a flare gun to send up distress signals.

He took along a tent, one set of clothes, a single pair of socks—there would be no laundry on this trip. For sustenance, he crammed as much dry food as he could fit into his backpack: mostly oats, powdered milk and peanut butter. Then he packed his camera gear to film the trip. Finally, just before shutting off his phone and setting out from Marysville, he wrote a lengthy note and posted it on Instagram.

Dear Mom,

I’ve been thinking about how you say I always push myself too hard. I have tried to accept this, but I can’t. I feel like I need the challenge and the rush I get when I face the unknown. As I grow wiser I realize that the harder I push myself, the more alive I feel.

He went on to tell his mother, Betty Keddy, that he wanted to cross the “Australian Divide,” referring to the Great Dividing Range, a complex of mountains and hills that separates the country’s east coast from its interior outback. That this wasn’t about getting away, but rather getting away from where other cyclists would go.

He said he wanted to feel like Neil Armstrong did when he first stepped on the moon. “Nobody here thinks one man on a bicycle is capable of the mountain crossing between Marysville and Omeo without veering off the trail,” he continued, adding locals told him the most experienced riders pack enough provisions to last 25 days. He’d never done anything that extreme. He finished by writing:

I won’t say goodbye because I know I can do it but I’m warning you now that I will be gone for a while. I have to find my limit.

Love you Mom,

Layton

Keddy’s 330-km route (in red) (iStock)

Keddy’s 330-km route (in red) (iStock)

Back in Prince Albert, Betty read her son’s Instagram post and experienced what felt like a panic attack. She immediately tried phoning him, but the call went straight to voice mail. She tried to message, but her texts went unanswered.

Layton never wrote long-winded messages to her, especially not with such a valedictory tone. For a moment, she worried about his mental health. She wondered what he meant by his words.

“It felt final to me,” Betty Keddy tells Maclean’s. “It was almost like a goodbye.”

It took some time to compose her thoughts. She told herself there was no reason to worry: her son was a seasoned traveller who once ran a bike touring company in Costa Rica. If he wanted to challenge himself, all she could do from half a world away was be supportive.

A week later, she learned police were looking for her son. A friend of Layton’s had reported him as a missing person.

Birregun Road, Victoria, Australia (Layton Keddy)

A scenic outlook along the trail at Birregun Road, Victoria, Australia (Layton Keddy)

***

Layton had moved Down Under as part of a long-term plan to bike around the world, piece by piece. He would save up money plying his trade as a diesel mechanic, then spend his free time on two wheels and turn those adventures into films. He arrived not long before the pandemic, spending his off-days covering miles on the Australian mainland, in Tasmania and in Papua New Guinea.

He uploaded clips of his adventures to his YouTube channel, “My Travel Forever Machine,” editing many of his videos to the song Hard Sun, Eddie Vedder’s single from Into the Wild, the movie based on the true story of a young solo adventurer who ultimately died in the Alaskan wilderness.

Keddy preferred to travel alone. After seven months of work, he had two months off—plenty of time to ride the most difficult stretch of the Bicentennial trail. The only person who would have a sense of his intended path would be a friend in Norway, Carl Fossum, who helped Keddy with his films.

But on Feb. 8, six days after Keddy departed, Fossum began to worry. He’d not received a word from the Canadian, nor had anyone they knew. His message to Betty Keddy pinged one night as she was about to fall asleep; she thought it might be a message from Layton. Instead, the Norwegian’s question sent via Facebook made her stomach flip. Had she heard recently from her son?

She woke up Layton’s father, Darren, but they came to the obvious conclusion: there was nothing they could do at midnight in Prince Albert to reach their son in the Australian wilderness. Later, at 2 a.m. in Saskatchewan, Fossum sent a final message saying he’d phoned police in Marysville to set up a missing person file.

Australian news outlets picked up on the story of the missing Canadian. Those who scanned his social media feeds read his ominous-sounding final Instagram post, and many thought he was perhaps mentally or emotionally unwell. Strangers, hundreds of them, reached out telling him he didn’t have to hurt himself, saying if he just needed someone to talk to, they could help.

But a handful of people, those more familiar with the area, began leaving messages imploring Keddy to get the hell out of there. Hadn’t he heard about the campers who in recent years had gone missing in that exact area, never to be found? Didn’t he know he might be in danger?

Hadn’t he heard of the Button Man?

***

In March 2020, a couple in their 70s, Russell Hill and Carol Clay, disappeared while out camping in Wonnangatta, Victoria; their campsite was later discovered burned to the ground, but neither they nor their remains have been found. They were the latest in a disturbing roll. The previous October, Niels Becker, an experienced bushman in his late 30s, went missing while out on a five-day hike near Mount Stirling. Three months before that, Conrad Whitlock, a businessman from Melbourne, stopped his BMW not far from Mount Buller, a favourite destination of his during ski season. Police found the car on the side of the road at a spot called Unnamed Corner. Inside were his phone and wallet, but not Whitlock.

Neither Becker nor Whitlock has been found, bringing the number of missing to four. All vanished within a 60-km radius, located roughly at the halfway point between Marysville and Omeo—exactly where Layton Keddy was heading. There were at least three more disappearances from this area of Victoria’s High Country dating back to 2008.

It’s also a region where seasoned hikers tell stories of chance encounters with the “Button Man,” a mysterious recluse who lives in the wilderness, and whose sobriquet reportedly comes from his habit of shaving deer antlers into buttons, which he wears as large plug ear piercings.

Local news outlets have been unable to determine his real name but have talked to those who’ve crossed the Button Man’s path. They describe him as someone who sneaks up on hikers and quickly becomes agitated if people set up camp in areas he doesn’t want them to. Campers have described their firewood supplies going missing, as if someone were watching and waiting for the chance. The Age, a daily newspaper in Melbourne, reported that he builds rock pyramids in seemingly random places, and piles pebbles on roads; if flattened, they tell him that a car has passed.

“They say no one knows he is near until he decides to make himself known,” the paper’s story goes on. “A wildlife photographer spent days taking shots in the area near the Button Man’s camp. When he returned home and downloaded his photos to his computer, there was one unexplained shot of the photographer asleep inside his tent. No one knows who took the shot.”

Police had reportedly spoken to the Button Man in the aftermath of the previous year’s mysterious disappearances and found nothing to suggest he had anything to do with them. “Being creepy is not illegal,” a police source told Daily Mail Australia. He did provide the last confirmed sighting of Niels Becker. But in such wide-open country, what were the odds the Button Man would come across Keddy?

***

At the Lake Alpine Mountain Resort outside Marysville, Sue Hendy rents out bikes from the visitor’s centre. Keddy strolled in one day, and they immediately got to talking about his pending trip. She bought him lunch and the two chatted. She knew it’d be tough for anyone biking alone on that remote, rough terrain, but Keddy seemed well-prepared. “Every spare part of his bike had a water bottle on it,” she says.

A few days later, the rains came—100 mm overnight, as Hendy recalls. “It was heavy. We had flood warnings.” Notwithstanding Keddy’s preparedness, the rain put doubt into her mind. She knew it would be pretty slippery out there.

Hendy is also a member of the Missing Persons Advocacy Network, an organization that spreads awareness about missing people and helps support their families. She was in the middle of a board meeting with the group when she got word of the Canadian reported missing who was last seen in Marysville. “I’m thinking this is really, very weird,” she says.

Local media outlets wrote stories. Community Facebook groups put out messages in case someone had seen him. Police were on the lookout, showing his picture to locals and asking if they’d seen the adventurer with shoulder-length hair, often tied up in a bun.

Reports poured in, says Diane Bloom, leading senior constable of the Omeo police station: “Every second person that you saw on a bike was Layton Keddy.” She didn’t think he’d make it all the way to Omeo in a week, but knew how hard it would be to find him in the wilderness. No one had a sense of where he might be, or what detours he might take on account of weather or local knowledge. “It was trying to find a needle in a stack of needles.”

Kenneth Dwight of the Woods Point police station, located about 70 km east of Marysville, was making inquiries of his own around town—on a day that happened to be a busy one for cyclists. Someone reported seeing a rider who fit Keddy’s description going through the town of Jamieson, about 60 km north, and heading east toward Mount Skene. Dwight got in his car, driving around for more than three hours, and found the cyclist who fit the description. “It was a different bloke,” he says. Locals in town started to dub Keddy the “Ghost Man.”

Layton Keddy on Birregun Road, Vic., Australia, near the end of his journey (Layton Keddy)

Layton Keddy on Birregun Road, Vic., Australia, near the end of his journey (Layton Keddy)

***

After a couple of days in the bush, Keddy arrived at a locked gate. Behind it was a steep decline over 750 m of unmaintained trails, an expanse of fallen trees and wild blackberry bushes impossible to cross by bike without puncturing a tire. Keddy dismounted, trying to push through on foot while burdened by his bike and equipment. He decided to set the bike and camera gear down, removing the branches and bushes as he went. Every so often, like a modern-day Hansel or Gretel, he’d place water bottles on the path, pointing each bottle back toward his gear. Once he ran out of bottles, he’d go back to gather up his supplies and his bike and move them ahead.

By the end of the day, his gloves were ripped apart by blackberry thorns, his hands bloodied underneath. After a full day’s work, he had progressed less than a kilometre, and collapsed to get some rest. Then he woke up. Onwards.

Keddy had his camera gear set up on the side of a path a couple days later when two men who’d been driving local back roads approached. They struck up a conversation, Keddy telling them about his plans to bike to Omeo. “We were a little bit alarmed with what he had in mind,” recalls Steve Hibbert, one of the men. “If you get injured—especially snake bites—and you’re on your own and have no way of making contact, you’re probably doomed.”

They spoke for about an hour, until the clouds darkened and started to switch direction: sure signs of coming rain. “In the High Country, storms are amplified and can be quite wild,” Hibbert says. Fortunately, Keddy was en route to an empty alpine cabin built for trekkers as the downpour came. He took photos of himself nestled next to a fireplace in the area known as Keppel Hut.

Keddy resting in Keppel Hut, Vic, at the beginning of his journey (Layton Keddy)

Keddy resting in Keppel Hut, Vic, at the beginning of his journey (Layton Keddy)

Keddy woke the following morning ready to leave, but the rain hadn’t let up. He spent the day collecting rainwater to stay hydrated, and stocking firewood, in case his stay was extended. That night, as he was getting ready to go to bed, he heard a yell.

Keddy waited a minute. Silence. Then another yell.

He stepped out the cabin door. Amid the darkness and heavy fog, he could barely make out the contours of a tall man. Keddy stepped closer.

The man was directing someone who was trying to park a 4×4 amid the haze. Keddy introduced himself, and met an Australian couple searching for a place to sleep. Keddy invited them to stay in his cabin, where he already had a fire going, and the couple accepted.

He slept the night under the same roof as two strangers and left in the morning.

He’d been back on the trail for just two days—biking Mount Terrible, a climb worthy of its name—when he ran out of water. It was morning, and he spent the day following his map into valleys where he figured he’d find streams, not knowing that many were dry that time of year. In other instances, his map would suggest he was next to a small river, but the water would be down a steep embankment. Clambering down was not worth the risk. He pressed on and slowly descended to a valley bottom, and it was nearly sundown when he finally came upon a stream. In a moment of euphoria, he dunked his head.

Keddy bicycled day and night, sometimes until 11 p.m. When his headlamp ran out of batteries, he used the lights from his film gear until those batteries, too, ran low. He considered working his way back toward a community, a detour that could take days, where he might be able to recharge his equipment. He pondered if stopping in a place with food and drink would be a form of cheating on his original goal. He made a concession: he’d bike to the nearest town and charge his gear without asking for a meal or water. Then he’d get back on the trail.

On Feb. 10, Keddy had been gone eight days and was nearing Woods Point (pop. 37). He was walking his bike up a hill called Frenchmans Gap—the steep, gravel surface made riding difficult—when a voice called out: “Mr. Keddy?” It was a police officer. But how did he know Layton’s name?

“Hey! Everyone’s looking for you, mate,” called out Kenneth Dwight, the leading senior constable in Woods Point.

Keddy laughed, not understanding the magnitude of the situation until Dwight told him about the missing person’s report. Keddy turned on his phone and immediately called his mom. “I told her I was perfectly safe the whole time,” Layton remembers. “I could hear her welling up, and then she broke down crying.”

A wave of relief washed over Betty Keddy, then a touch of exasperation. She told her son: “Don’t ever write a post like that again.”

Layton went to the village pub, where a handful of residents were hanging out. Everyone knew who he was. They wouldn’t let him leave town without some food and water—and without him telling a few stories about his travels. Keddy sat down and scrolled through all the social media messages. Like Tom Sawyer watching his own funeral, he was both touched and distressed by the countless friends and strangers who feared the worst yet reached out to help.

He stayed in town that night. The cops wondered if he might be at risk if he was allowed to simply keep going, he says: “Mandatory check-ins were mentioned, but they didn’t follow up on that.”

Months later, having completed his journey to Omeo—at which point Keddy continued onwards by bike another 600-plus km of less difficult trails until he reached Sydney—he would reflect on the concern others expressed for him. “It’s not nice to know others went through an emotional time, and they were genuinely concerned,” he says. “I wondered if my trip was worth it.”

But the morning after his stay in Woods Point, with his batteries charged and the trail beckoning once again, he saw no reason to abandon the field. Keddy dashed off an Instagram post apologizing to those who misinterpreted his “Dear Mom” note, profusely thanked those who tried to find him and ended with a declaration: “I haven’t found my limit yet.”

With that, he packed his gear, checked his map and headed back into the bush.


This article appears in print in the June 2021 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Into the bush.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.