How would you cope if your daughter or your sister disappeared, and no trace of her was ever found? Georgia Moodie retraces the last steps of a woman who went missing in Tasmania more than five years ago.
It’s 7:00am, and I’m sitting in front of a phone, mustering the courage to make the most uncomfortable call I’ve ever made.
I’m calling America — Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to be precise — to speak to the parents of Rachel Funari, a young woman who went missing in Tasmania more than five years ago.
I want to speak to Rachel’s parents, David and Phyllis Funari, to see how they would feel if I made a radio documentary about their daughter’s disappearance. I take a deep breath, pick up the receiver and dial.
The sheer drop at the cliff face of Bruny Island. Photo: Georgia Moodie
In March 2011, Rachel Funari disappeared from Bruny Island, Tasmania.
It was one of the highest-profile missing persons cases in recent Tasmanian history, and it prompted an extensive land, sea and air search. No trace of her has ever been found.
Rachel was a vivacious, bookish American who had been living in Australia since 2001.
She was a 35-year-old writer, working as a media monitor at the Victorian Premier’s Department.
She had founded Lip, a young women’s magazine with a feminist bent, in 2002, and worked as its editor for more than five years. She was a seasoned traveller, and was into couchsurfing, a website that puts travellers in touch with like-minded locals with a spare room or spare couch.
In 2011, Rachel booked an eight-day trip to Tasmania and flew from Melbourne to Hobart on March 1.
The first indication that something was wrong came on March 9.
Her friends reported Rachel as missing to the Victorian Police, and after a few days, the search for Rachel was narrowed to Bruny Island in Tasmania.
The police carried out routine enquiries on Bruny Island, but had no luck until an article about Rachel’s disappearance was published in the local Tasmanian paper, The Mercury.
A witness came forward, confirming that Rachel had travelled to Bruny Island, and told police that he had lent Rachel his holiday shack.
When police searched the shack, they found Rachel’s backpack and all of her belongings. Rachel hadn’t packed up and moved on to some other part of Tasmania, like everyone had been hoping.
The bed in the shack hadn’t even been slept in.
Everything was pointing towards something happening on the day Rachel went to Bruny Island.
The Fluted Cape, on South Bruny. Photo: Georgia Moodie
It’s 7:00am again, and I’m standing on a windy street in Hobart’s CBD.
I’m waiting to meet Gordon Young, a local nurse, and his 19-year-old daughter Sarah.
They’re the witnesses who came forward — the last people to see Rachel before she disappeared.
I feel stupid standing with my big backpack full of recording gear, not sure what the day ahead will hold, but as soon as Gordon and Sarah pull up in a blue three-seater ute, they make me feel completely comfortable.
We’re retracing the path that Gordon and Sarah took with Rachel more than five years ago, from Hobart South to Bruny Island.
Rachel struck up a conversation with Gordon in a Hobart cafe, asking him where to catch the bus to Bruny Island.
Gordon and his daughter Sarah happened to be going on a day trip to Bruny Island the next day, and offered her a lift.
On March 3, the day they drove down to Bruny Island, the weather was particularly bad.
In fact, that day and the next were the coldest and wettest days of autumn for the year. Rachel had planned to camp, but when it started to rain, Gordon and Sarah suggested she stay in their shack in Adventure Bay on South Bruny.
They had lunch together in Adventure Bay, and soon after, Gordon and Sarah returned to Hobart.
“We left at about 3:30pm to catch the ferry home,” says Gordon.
“We went back home, back to routine. And that’s sadly the last we saw of Rachel.”
No-one knows exactly what happened to Rachel after Gordon and Sarah left that afternoon, but the police focused their search for Rachel on the nearby Fluted Cape Track.
According to Inspector Doug Rossiter from Tasmanian Police, Rachel had talked about doing the bushwalk and left the shack in clothing consistent with going on a short walk.
The Fluted Cape Track takes about two and a half hours to do, and you get to see some of the most spectacular cliffs and scenery in southern Tasmania.
It begins on the beach at Adventure Bay, a stone’s throw from the Young’s shack. Then the path splits.
One track follows the coast through a thick she-oak forest, and the other passes through dense bushland.
The two paths meet on top of huge, sheer cliffs known as the Fluted Cape, which rise 272 metres above the ocean.
The Fluted Cape Track goes right along the top of the cliffs, and there aren’t any barriers to stop you from going close to the edge.
You’re within a metre from an almost 300-metre drop, which is about the same height as the tallest skyscrapers in Australia.
The path is covered in a mat of slippery she-oak pine needles, and it was rainy on the day Rachel is thought to have done the walk.
Gordon Young looking out from the top of the Fluted Cape. Photo: Georgia Moodie
The police conducted an extensive land, sea and air search for Rachel on the Fluted Cape.
At night, helicopters used infrared to scan the bushland for body heat. Volunteers comprehensively searched the bushland along the Flute Cape, and climbers scaled inaccessible parts of the cliffs.
Police divers searched the water underneath the cliffs, and areas of the ocean where Rachel might have drifted if she’d fallen to the bottom of the Fluted Cape.
The NSW Police Cadaver Dog Unit was even brought in.
But they never found any trace of Rachel — not her bag, her shoes, her camera, or her body.
According to Inspector Doug Rossiter, there were never any signs that Rachel’s disappearance was a crime.
“There was simply no evidence of foul play ever found,” he says.
“We did a full forensic examination of the shack, including all of Rachel’s belongings. We made enquiries with all the neighbours, and any person that had any contact with Rachel. At no stage was there any evidence found of anything other than the most likely scenario — which is that she went bushwalking and fell foul of some accident.”
For Rossiter, the fact that no trace of Rachel was ever found strongly suggests she slipped from the cliffs of the Fluted Cape, or somehow ended up in the water.
The coroner’s report, released a little over a year after Rachel went missing, found that Rachel “probably died at an unknown location in bushland or in the waters surrounding Bruny Island on or about 3 March 2011”.
So how do you get your head around the fact that your sister is gone if her body is never found?
How do you grieve for your daughter when you will never know exactly what happened to her?
Rachel’s sister Nicole came to Australia a few days after it was discovered Rachel was missing.
Seeing the sheer cliffs of the Fluted Cape helped her begin to make sense of Rachel’s disappearance.
“I thought it was so beautiful, and I thought: ‘They are never going to find her,'” Nicole says.
“It just seemed to be an impossible feat to find someone in all that vegetation.
“I don’t like to think too much about what might have happened to my sister, I just immediately shut down that line of thinking. But I was comforted to think her last sight of Bruny Island was of a place of great natural beauty.”
Nicole joined a support group for people who have lost a sibling, which she says saved her life.
But the passing of time hasn’t dulled her grief. “You grieve every day. It’s been over five years, and I think about Rachel every single day.”
Rachel’s parents, Phyllis and David Funari, decided not to travel to Australia after it was discovered that their daughter was missing.
As soon as the police called them from Australia, they had to believe that their daughter was gone.
“The minute they called us, I knew Rachel was dead,” says Phyllis.
“I couldn’t think anything else, I immediately accepted it. It was easier than hoping.
“I don’t need to see Bruny Island. I think it would hurt me a lot.”
David and Phyllis are both retired clinical psychologists, but they say that this didn’t help them come to terms with their loss.
David says he suffered from a profound heartbreak and depression after his eldest daughter disappeared.
“I think I was numb. I don’t remember telling people about it — I couldn’t, because I start hyperventilating,” he says.
“Other than a best friend in the family, I don’t think I really talked about Rachel. I can never talk about it — I just can’t do it.”
Although David struggles with the mystery surrounding Rachel’s disappearance, it’s not that important for Phyllis. What matters is she’s lost her daughter.
“It wouldn’t have made any difference if we had more answers to what happened to Rachel. She’s gone,” Phyllis says between tears.
It’s similar for Rachel’s sister Nicole.
“As you move through grief, the ‘how’ you lost someone matters less than the fact that you lost them,” she says.
“In the beginning, it really mattered. But it’s closure or nothing — I don’t think there’s an in-between.”