Track to oblivion:the final movements of backpacker Theo Hayez

What possessed Theo Hayez to wander down a dark and lonely track towards Tallow Beach in the hour before midnight? It is the question from which all others flow,since the 18-year-old Belgian backpacker went missing on the last night of autumn in 2019.

There was speculation that he wandered off to find a doof party after he was kicked out of a Byron Bay nightclub on the night he went missing. Several unconfirmed sightings after the date of his disappearance gave rise to suspicions that he had staged his disappearance.

The working theory of police is that he fell into the water while trying to climb up to the Cape Byron Lighthouse and his body was swept out to sea.

But an inquest into the disappearance of Mr Hayez,attended by his family who flew out from Belgium to observe the proceedings at Byron Bay,heard on its opening day that there was little proof for the first two scenarios and conflicting evidence to support the police theory.

Mr Hayez was last captured on CCTV wandering down the street in the opposite direction from his hostel after he was ejected from Cheeky Monkey’s nightclub at 11.03pm.

At one point he turned off the geolocation data on his phone,presumably to save batteries,but he continued to send cheerful messages to family and friends,and he left a digital footprint that has allowed police to track his whereabouts until the next morning. It shows that he wound through the town past the cricket nets,before electing to take an erratic shortcut through the bush down to Tallow Beach,on the eastern side of Cape Byron.

Theo Hayez’s grandmother,Jacqueline Jourquin,mother Vinciane Delforge,brother Lucas and cousin Lisa Hayez,outside the inquest at Byron Bay on Monday.

Theo Hayez’s grandmother,Jacqueline Jourquin,mother Vinciane Delforge,brother Lucas and cousin Lisa Hayez,outside the inquest at Byron Bay on Monday.Natalie Grono

Counsel assisting the inquest,Kirsten Edwards,said the crucial question facing the inquest was why Mr Hayez went down to Tallow,which was nowhere near his hostel,when all other evidence indicated that he was an experienced and competent navigator.

“There’s almost no moonlight,there’s very little light from the houses,there’s a beam from the lighthouse that goes past every 15 seconds but that doesn’t provide any illumination,” Ms Edwards told the coroner.

“It’s very hard to understand why anyone would take that path alone or at night.”

One theory went that he could hear the sound of the ocean and was moving towards it,another that he had somebody to guide him and a third that he was trying to avoid someone or something. But if he was frightened,he did not communicate that to anybody in the messages he sent,Ms Edwards said.

“Was Theo alone and lost and trying to get back to the hostel and did he somehow die by accident?” she said. “Or did he go to Tallow Beach for a reason,whether it was alone or with someone? Or did he come across someone while he was there,and what happened?”

Google data shows Mr Hayez made it to the beach and then walked north along the soft sand towards Cosy Corner,which is tucked under Cape Byron,arriving at 12.05am on June 1. The phone mysteriously stopped transmitting data between 1.02am and 6.17am,then remained on with a very weak signal until just after 1.47pm. It has never been located.

Police believe he may have dropped his phone while scaling the cliffs up to the lighthouse and lost his footing while trying to retrieve it,falling into currents that are notorious for claiming bodies never to be seen again.

But Ms Edwards said his family were insistent that it would be out of character for him to climb the cliffs,which were treacherous even by day,and he was a naturally cautious person.

The inquest continues.

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Harriet Alexander is a reporter for the Herald.

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