The Rev William Murray was a determined, independent-minded man - so much so that after summiting Mt Taranaki nearly 96 years ago, he refused to descend by the agreed route.

He was never seen again.

The 60-year-old Presbyterian minister at Normanby in Taranaki had been a pioneer of the condensed milk industry in New Zealand.

"... [he] was manager of the initial attempt at the manufacture of 'Highlander Condensed Milk' in the South Island," the Stratford Evening Post recalled.

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He was also a keen cyclist, having pedalled 170km around Mt Taranaki on his 60th birthday. And he claimed a man could endure severe physical tests for seven days without food. He was writing a pamphlet about this and was thought to be conducting experiments to gain evidence while on the fateful Taranaki climb.


Herald report of February 10, 1923 on the search for William Murray on Mt Taranaki

On Tuesday, January 30, 1923, Murray and three other men climbed 2518m-high Taranaki/Mt Egmont from an accommodation house Dawson Falls on the southeastern side of the mountain.

They had intended to descend to North Egmont, but a disagreement blew up when Murray insisted on taking a different route, down a dangerous gorge. Two of the party eventually followed Murray, keeping in touch with him by shouting, while the fourth returned to Dawson Falls for help.

"After a short time Mr Murray refused to reply, and eventually his followers lost touch and could not follow the tracks," according to a Press Association report in the Herald.

"They unsuccessfully attempted to return up the steep cliffs, but eventually cut a stairway back to the summit, returning to Dawson House late in the evening."

Searchers tracked evidence of William Murray's travels as far as Stony River and Bells Falls but didn't find his body. Map / topomap.co.nz
Searchers tracked evidence of William Murray's travels as far as Stony River and Bells Falls but didn't find his body. Map / topomap.co.nz

In the following days, a number of search parties, at times amounting to more than 100 people, hunted widely for Murray. Some had to struggle through stormy conditions. Among them was the prominent mountaineer Samuel Turner.

They tracked evidence of his meanderings. He went low and high and low again on the mountain's northwestern slopes. He went to the wetland between the peak and the Pouakai Range and within 100m of a hut. But his body eluded the searchers.

From the gorge to the west of the summit where he was last seen, Murray's searchers found he had travelled "in a west by northerly direction for a little over a mile [1.6km]", a Herald correspondent wrote.

Footprints showed he followed a track in the vicinity of the Stony River and Bells Falls and camped for his first night out.

"Searchers who tracked him down this far found the remains of a huge fire and also a bed of tussocks bearing the impression of a man having rested there.

"Next day, January 31, Mr Murray apparently retraced his steps almost three-quarters of a mile [1.2km] along the track, and then struck off again toward the summit, holding more or less closely to a direct line until he came under the Turtle …"

The Turtle is a prominent cliff-edged feature northwest of the summit between the 2100m and 2300m contours.

He went one way, then the other. "This last turn was a fatal one. Had he proceeded 30 yards in an easterly direction he would have passed round a bluff. From this point he would have seen the North Egmont hostel.

"Proceeding in a northeasterly direction, Mr Murray apparently found himself between two small streams, and, at a point where these joined, he made his second camp.

"It was here that the heel of a boot was discovered, on which were scratched his initials - W. M. - and the date, 31/1/23."

From there, the tracks were followed downstream to Bells Falls. They entered the river and were not found to have come out.

"Stony River, above and below the falls, has been thoroughly search in case the unfortunate man may have been washed down the river … Below the falls is a deep pool, and this has been sounded for traces of the body."

The Otago Daily Times carried a near-identical account and noted that gelignite explosive had been fired in the pool "to dislodge the body should it have been caught there".

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Human remains were later found in Stony River but they didn't provide answers.

"It has been definitely established," the Levin Daily Chronicle said in 1924, "that the human clothing and remains found on Mount Egmont are not those of the missing clergyman, Rev W T Murray, who was lost on January 30, 1923.

"Mystery still surrounds Mr Murray's fate and it is not known to whom the other pitiful relics belong as no-one else has been reported missing."