Bush trackers are on the trail of missing prospector Michael Graham after a Goldfields station owner stumbled on makeshift camps and SOS notes left by the 46-year-old who has been missing, feared dead, for 12 days.
Police were about to scale down the search for the NSW tourist when they were contacted by Riverina station owner Don North, who found an SOS hacked in the dirt. He made the find outside a trough shed at the Five Mile windmill, 15km from where Mr Graham was last seen, 140km north of Menzies.
Search volunteers yesterday dropped 20 survival packs containing water, matches, food and vitamins at strategic sites in the hope that Mr Graham would find one and light a fire to alert them.
Police said the trail left by Mr Graham suggested he was still alive on Monday. Four elite trackers have been airlifted to join the search.
The items found on Tuesday afternoon included a small magnifying glass on a lanyard hung in a tree and a pair of underpants.
In the shadow of the remote windmill, SOS had been scraped in the dirt. Police found more messages in the dirt 5km down a road to the east. They read "walking" and "very weak". Another 5km east, police found a line drawn across the road, a second SOS message and an arrow pointing west.
Acting Insp. Ricky Chadwick said police believed Mr Graham was at the mill in recent days. "He walked 10km east and then began walking back," he said.
When police visited the mill the previous Thursday, there had been no sign of the missing man.
Mr North and his nephew had been making a mill-run when they noticed wire mesh had been pulled across the shed doorway.
"We presumed this was to keep the animals out," he said. "The trough was very clean and there was evidence he had been lying there. We immediately took photos and brought them to the police."
At an abandoned sandalwooders' camp 500m north, the cattlemen found a shelter made from an old swing-set and empty cement bags.
Five Mile is about 15km south-east of where Mr Graham and a friend, Peter Hollaway, had been camping and panning for gold when Mr Graham was last seen on January 13.
Acting Insp. Chadwick said Mr Graham may have sought respite in the trough shed during 40C heat. If he had heard the search helicopter, he may have been unable to get out in time to alert the pilot.
Police had been using dozens of SES volunteers and a stock-mustering helicopter to search 640 sqkm.
But the search is now being carried out by the tactical response group, the helicopter and a spotter plane from the police air wing.
A downpour on Wednesday night obliterated ground markings, but may help trackers find fresh prints, one tracker said.