Did Max Castor disappear deliberately?
On October 19, 2004, Swedish-born Max Castor arrived in Australia. The 19-year-old saw Australia as the “land of the future”, and the holiday was an attempt to briefly escape the life of education and full-time work waiting for him back home.
Max arrived with two friends, travelling on a one-year working holiday visa. In Sydney they bought an old car and drove up to Byron Bay, before continuing on to Brisbane. Along the way, the trio picked fruit and enjoyed swimming and diving.
After reaching Brisbane, Max parted ways with his friends and flew to Melbourne. He purchased some walking equipment and began a trek down the Great Ocean Road, something he had discussed with his sister back home.
He made it all the way to Warrnambool, where he emailed his sister and told her he was waiting for the trek to continue following bad weather.
On March 31, 2005, Max sent four packages from Warrnambool to his home in Sweden, filled with his personal belongings – books, gifts and photos – along with his return plane ticket and some money that his father had lent him. The postmaster that helped him later described him as “a little tense”.
About that time, he also withdrew all his money from his Australian bank account and cancelled it.
Included in the package was an ominous letter, written in English. “Something strange has happened to me and I don’t know how to cope with it,” the letter read. “I am tired of myself but there is still so much beauty in the world. Now
I am vanishing… no tears.”
That is the last time the Castor family heard from Max. Since then, the only information has been a growing list of hazy and unconfirmed sightings along the east coast of Australia, with police finding no evidence of his whereabouts and left unable to prove that he is still alive.
For Max’s father, Rolf, the letter was not a suicide note. “Max was tired of Western society and he wanted a free life in Australia,” Rolf Castor tells The Saturday Paper. “I personally believe he is alive, living outside your society somewhere without papers, doing decent work.”
Max Castor was 20 years old when he disappeared. A member of the Scouts since he was nine, he was always very practical and good with his hands. But issues stemming from dyslexia meant he often struggled at school, and he eventually became tired of the idea of studying and working full-time.
“He’s quite bright but a little dyslexic,” Rolf says. “His results at school were not too good. He was extremely clever and handy, he could solve practical problems but had problems with writing and reading.”
As he became increasingly disillusioned with school and the conventional nine-to-five jobs of his parents, Max became obsessed with the idea of freedom and escape in Australia. This idea was nurtured through Australian television – The Flying Doctors, Prisoner and nature documentaries – which Max would frequently stay up all night watching.
After finishing school, Max planned his trip. “I believe that he already had decided that he wanted to stay when he left,” his father says.
Rolf believes his son embraced an “alternative lifestyle” in Australia, returning most of his earthly possessions to Sweden and going “off-grid” in a remote coastal town.
“He probably has a girlfriend and a child because he was very fond of children,” Rolf says. “He’ll be doing some work without taxes because he has no permit to stay in your country. That’s my personal guess.”
Max has blue eyes and is about 188 centimetres tall. When he disappeared, he had shoulder-length blond hair.
For the first few years following his son’s disappearance, Rolf led the search efforts from Sweden, regularly communicating with police and speaking to Swedes travelling in Australia.
The last confirmed sighting of Max was in Warrnambool, but since then about 100 unconfirmed reports have emerged, everywhere from Lorne to Indonesia. Rolf says he believes about 20 of these to be genuine.
The Victoria Police investigation into Max’s disappearance is still open but, pending further information, Sergeant Danielle O’Keefe, who has been involved with the investigation since the beginning, says: “All the avenues have been exhausted at this point but we might get information from the public that enables us to undertake some further inquiries to find Max.”
The first reported sighting was on April 5, 2005 in Wye River, more than 170 kilometres from Warrnambool. Just days after sending the final letter to his family, a shopkeeper said Max told her he was planning to head north up the coast. A few days later, though, he was reportedly seen in Apollo Bay, 30 kilometres to the south.
The sightings have poured in constantly since, mainly centred along the Great Ocean Road, with Rolf Castor, his family and the police sifting through them to find any credible information or signs of life.
The most recent possible sighting was in October 2015, with a woman saying she saw a Scandinavian man resembling Max selling fish on a ferry travelling between Stockton and Newcastle in New South Wales. Police have uncovered no evidence to suggest Max isn’t alive, with helicopters scouring known suicide spots around where Max disappeared and finding nothing.
“We don’t have any evidence to suggest he has passed – we have everything set up in preparation for that reality, but I don’t have any evidence to suggest that he is not alive,” O’Keefe says.
“The information given to us was he was quite adept at being able to survive in the bush for extended periods of time.”
His family in Sweden are split in their opinions.
“His brother and sister knew him quite well,” Rolf says. “One of them believes he is alive and the other thinks he has left us.”
Rolf is left with a difficult truth, stemming from his own strong belief that Max is alive. He has accepted that, for this to be true, his son has deliberately cut ties with his family for the past 12 years and does not wish to contact them.
Rolf and his family have now decided to end actively searching.
“It is hard being the father, but we have decided now as a family that we don’t follow it anymore,” Rolf says. “I’m 75, my years are running out, and I have to look forward.”
But that is easier said than done. Max’s birthday passed recently – if alive, he just turned 32.
“Now and then, and now especially with his birthday, I think, ‘What happened to my son?’ ” Rolf says. “But now we don’t waste Australian taxpayers’ money anymore. If you do find him, tell him to contact home, or if he doesn’t want to contact home, please just tell me that he is alive.”
It’s a strange and uniquely difficult case for the police. If Max did vanish entirely by choice, the only crime he has committed is overstaying his visa. For the local police, the only aim is to find Max and tell his family he is okay, while immigration would deal with the other issues.
Rolf Castor finds some peace in the idea that his son is living the free-spirited life he dreamt of while staying up in the middle of the night to watch Australian TV shows. And this is something that he can accept, if he can only know that his son is alive and happy.
“That would be very helpful to know that he is alive,” he says.
“It’s hard, but now I have decided – if he wants to stay down there, that’s okay.”
Lifeline 13 11 14; Crime Stoppers 1800 333 000
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 13, 2017 as "Without a trace". Subscribe here.