On the trail of a real-life ‘Tarzan’

By James Vyver for Earshot

Michael Fomenko peers through sugarcane on a farm in Queensland, Australia. Picture: supplied

Decades living in a rugged Australian rainforest made Michael Fomenko a local legend, but few understood his motivations.

“I probably should have told you to wear long pants … it’s a bit wild down there,” warns Greg Reghenzani as we climb into his four-wheel drive.

I’m on his family’s sugar cane farm at Gordonvale, in north Queensland, on a steamy Friday morning, on the trail of local legend Michael “Tarzan” Fomenko.

The Michael Fomenko story is pretty well known in north Queensland. Or rather, he is recognisable to many. The facts of his personal story and what drove him are known by one or two people at best.

Michael was wondered at, and about, for decades in this part of the world. He made the tropical rainforests his home for 50 years, living off the land, detached from society. Part adventurer, part bushman, part vagrant — he was a hero or an oddity, depending on who you asked.

In 1960 he wrote:

“I have renounced what you call civilisation. I want the life I have been living, otherwise I will be only half alive.”

He described his home among nature as “my paradise of peace and personal endeavour”.

It is this “paradise” that I have come to experience. After a short drive we come to the far end of the Reghenzanis’ property, where the bright green cane fields meet wine-bottle coloured bush crowded along the banks of the Mulgrave River.

“Crocs?” I ask.

“My brother used to come fishing down here at night,” Greg begins with a sly smile. “He’d shine the torch and there’d be red eyes everywhere.”

Armed with that mental image and wearing my short pants, we enter the bush. We climb down a slippery bank onto an old riverbed and into a mass of vines, palms and giant trees. Mosquitoes are everywhere. It’s dark, humid and the air is thick with the musty smell of wet mud.

Why did Michael come to call this place — a crocodile-infested jungle ripe with all the dangers of the tropics — paradise?

“It’s in his blood,” says his sister Inessa.

“It’s his heredity. He’s a blue blood, you know.”

Michael Fomenko in 1960, after returning from an epic canoe to Dutch New Guinea. Picture: supplied

Michael and Inessa were born in Russia in the 1920s, and are indeed from aristocratic stock. Their mother was Princess Elizabeth Matchabelli, from a long line of Georgian nobility. Daniel Fomenko, their father, was a Cossack. It was this social status that caused problems for the family.

By the time Michael was born, the Bolshevik revolution was a decade old. The full impact had taken time to filter through to Georgia, then part of Russia, but by the late 1920s things had taken a frightening turn.

“There were killing their own people, a kind of cultural genocide. Father was worried that mother would be killed as well,” says Inessa.

“Plus, we were starving. Michael’s ribs stuck out and I used to faint from lack of food. Father would hold me up by the ankles so the blood would go back to my head.”

“Father wanted to escape, somewhere or other. He was just so worried.”

Escape they did. Using forged identification papers and in disguise, the family fled across the continent to Vladivostok in the east. Inessa was around five, Michael was just two.

Using what remaining valuables they had — jewellery smuggled on the Trans-Siberian Railway sewed inside Inessa’s toy dog — they hired Chinese bandits to smuggle them across the border into Manchuria.

The family travelled on foot for a month, through the vast Siberian Taiga pine forest. They walked at night, hid during the day and lived on the meekest of provisions.

“We didn’t know where we were going. The Taiga is huge — snow tiger country, you know. We relied totally on these bandits. I don’t know how we made it, but we did,” remembers Inessa.

After a few years in China the family moved to Japan and relative safety. They lived in the countryside around Kobe and Michael and Inessa found themselves immersed in nature once again, though this time by choice.

“We used to throw ourselves on beds of violets in spring. It was a magical place,” Inessa says.

Michael Fomenko walks past canefields in the 1990s. Picture: supplied

By the late 1930s, Daniel could see that war was on the horizon. He moved the family once again, this time to Sydney, and the Fomenkos did their best to reset their lives once again.

Daniel took a job at the prestigious Sydney Church of England Grammar School and Michael attended. He was a natural athlete and excelled in the decathlon, even being tipped for the 1956 Olympics.

But Michael struggled socially and Inessa says he found it hard to fit in.

“Because we couldn’t communicate our experiences as children, we were very much alone. The experiences we’ve had, nobody in Australia could begin to understand if we told them.

“There was danger, oh God, what we went through. Even though you might think he was too young, the past and all that drama really did have an effect on Michael.

“I think that’s what got Michael into the forest, the background of our life.”

Michael had always loved the outdoors, as if those early experiences set kind of a blueprint for the rest of his life; to be amongst nature, living alone, testing himself against the elements.

The tree Michael lived under before he set out to walk from Cairns to Sydney at the age of 86. He made it as far as Gympie. Picture: ABC/James Vyver

After he left school in the mid-1950s he took a job cutting cane near Cairns. This is when he fell in love with the rainforest. He had found the place and the mode of living he felt most comfortable with. And there, by and large, he stayed until 2013.

During this time Michael’s adventures caught many an eye: his epic 700 kilometre, two-year journey in a dugout canoe from Cooktown to Dutch New Guinea; the three-day chase in the bush to track him down and throw him in a mental hospital; the camps he made up and down the tropical coast, just like the one on the Reghenzani cane farm.

“They send the SAS out bush to get hard, but this is just how he lived,” says Greg as we stand at the foot of a giant fig tree that Michael slept in.

“He was an incredible guy.”

While many knew of him, few knew him properly. Michael didn’t really share himself or his story with anyone except Inessa, and even they were estranged for decades.

“I never knew where the hell he was,” she says. “But he had a lovely life, he lived in paradise.”

It was fascinating for me to sit across from her and hear the real stories behind the legend of Australia’s Tarzan. Inessa has a kind face, keen wit and a memory that belies her nearly 90 years. Her eyes dance when she recalls a particular habit Michael had when they were children.

“He was petrified of thunder and lightning, but he would go out in it, or open the window and stick his head out.”

“Embrace the fear?” I ask.

“Totally, consciously.”

Michael Fomenko in Cairns during the 1990s. Picture: Harold Jung

Michael is now in his late 80s and lives in an aged care facility. He and Inessa have reconnected, but it’s taken time. The ice was broken with a painting — Inessa is an artist — entitled “Corina, Corina”, after one of Michael’s favourite songs from the 1950s.

“I painted it to cheer him up, I thought it would remind him of those days in Sydney when we used to have sing-songs around the piano.”

Michael is basically a recluse. It makes things tricky when you’re making a documentary about someone, though it has added to the mystery. It also means, painting or not, that Michael and Inessa have not spoken with one another in decades.

I ask Inessa what she would say if she were reunited with her little brother.

“Mike, it’s me,” she says. “We made it, baby! We made it!”

HEAR THE STORY ON EARSHOT: Listen as James Vyver takes us on the trail of the elusive North Queensland Tarzan

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