THEY were the golden couple who dared to live everyone’s dream of a holiday that lasts for ever.
Bright and bubbly Esther Dingley and her soulmate Dan Colegate quit their jobs, bought a camper van and set off on a year-long scenic tour of Europe.
Six years on and they were still touring, hooked on the independent life and fuelled by savings, rental income from a UK home and money earned from odd jobs.
But their great adventure, which took in France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Slovenia and Liechtenstein, now appears doomed to end in heartbreak after Esther vanished on a solo trek on the French-Spanish border two weeks ago today.
The 37-year-old was at the centre of a deepening mystery last night amid fears she died on a Pyrenean peak, was abducted by a mystery mountain man — or was even devoured by a bear.
And today The Sun reveals how the missing action girl’s happy photo diary is now feared to have become a timeline to tragedy.
Dan had been staying at the couple’s camper van home more than 100 miles away in the French province of Gascony.
Mountain rescue teams have found nothing and are now said to be probing non-accidental “other options” in their search for Esther.
Police are using experts to examine her Instagram photos to unravel the 24 hours before she disappeared.
The last picture Esther is thought to have taken shows her at the summit, with a solar panel and a telecommunications mast on the peak reflected in her sunglasses.
It is slightly different from the one she posted the previous day, in that she is wearing an open-necked top and carrying a rucksack with the water tube clearly visible.
A source said: “The last photo is taken later in the day, as the shadow is higher on the slope. That would suggest she went up to the Pic de Sauvegarde twice — which leads to the question, why go up to the same spot twice in 24 hours?”
The couple, from Durham, made the decision to start a new “van life” in Europe in 2014 after Dan, a business development manager, nearly died from a post-surgical infection.
He and Esther, a training firm boss, have also spoken openly about battles with depression which clinched their decision to swap conventional life for the great outdoors. But in posts in March, both admitted to feeling the strain of being pressed together in a van for months on end.
In a blog post called Lockdown Lessons From The Van, the couple offered ideas for “staying sane” in a confined space during the Covid crisis. And they revealed they had taken online relationship courses to keep their love alive.
They said: “It wasn’t until winter started to bite and we found ourselves spending 23 hours a day (or more) in a 5 x 2 metres plastic box together that we really started to experience the downsides of motorhome life.
“To put it bluntly, living in a motorhome together almost broke us up. It wasn’t until we made the conscious choice to ‘work on our relationship’ that we found a way back to loving feelings.”
The Oxford-educated couple spoke of the emotional strain of van life in another article on the website of their old university college in April.
It said: “I suppose the biggest challenges have been emotional. Removing many of the conventional life stresses allowed a lot of suppressed issues to creep up over time.
“It’s been a very cathartic experience at times, especially when sharing a tiny living space with a long-term life partner!”
The couple decided to take time apart, and in October experienced hiker Esther began her daring lone trek across the Pyrenees from Spain to France.
Dan opted to stay home in the van in Gascony with the couple’s adopted stray dog Leela and her four puppies.
Lithe and athletic Esther, who calls herself The Snail when carrying her tented home on her back on hikes, carefully planned her routes for the month-long odyssey.
The couple stayed in touch through WhatsApp messages in the days that followed as she documented her travels with a series of pictures.
But last night the day-to-day diary on their shared “Esther and Dan” Facebook page was being probed by both French and Spanish police.
The first hint of possible danger came on November 17, when Esther spotted what appeared to be a huge paw print in the snow.
Beaten back by deep drifts on the slopes of a 9,350ft peak, she attempted to follow animal tracks to safety — then realised she may be following a bear.
She wrote: “There weren’t footprints in the snow to follow only that of chamois and one other . . . bear emoji) Can anyone let me know if this might have been bear prints??” Hiking in the area had been banned during the summer after a string of brown bear attacks on livestock.
Luckily Esther did not meet the bear and the following night slept alone under the stars at a remote refuge shack, Cabana Santa Ana.
She wrote: “It’s still not easy for me to sleep out on my own but each time I get more experience.
“I’m trusting and listening to my intuition to tell me if it’s the right place for me. The stars are really beautiful.” November 19’s Facebook post, three days before Dan reported Esther missing, may hold vital clues, as she appeared to meet a mystery man on the mountain.
Describing her battle to reach the summit of 8,983ft Pic de Sauvegarde she said: “I reached the top! So of course required celebration. I’d overcome the doubts telling me to turn round.
“I could hear @dancolegate saying ‘you got this! as I was approaching the final 300m exposed steep ridge ascent, so the wind was really strong and bitter.
“It was the first time I’d seen anyone else for almost 2 days and as this kind fellow hiker took some photos the weather blew in and it was time for a sharp descent.”
Esther does not identify the stranger but reveals he joined her on the descent, which must have taken several hours. She then made a potentially fateful decision to accept a lift from the man.
It remains unclear exactly when Esther climbed the peak and when she was able to send the pictures for Dan to put on the website.
She wrote: “I had the option of staying at a great caban, even had a mattress, but it was only 2pm, or going down with my fellow hiker and getting a lift. He’d take me up the valley so I could continue my planned tour to another refuge or back to the camper.
“‘There will be more days in the hills!’ I said to the little part of me that didn’t want to go back just yet.
“It would be warm and sunny back at the camper and here was someone willing to take me . . . And then as we drove off this magnificent rainbow appeared . . .
“Yoga, good food and sunshine and warmth awaited me back at the camper . . . Tomorrow is another day . . . ”
Esther appears to have sent pictures taken by her companion at the summit and similar selfie snaps appear on the couple’s Instagram page two days later.
But the following day only happy snaps of the couple’s dogs back home are posted, before a BBC News interview about the pair’s dream life on November 22.
Then hours later Dan posted her haunting last mountaintop selfie next to the words: “I’m broken.
“Shattered to report that my beloved Esther, the person who taught me how to feel, is missing. She was last seen six days ago when she sent me this photo. Search and rescue teams have so far found no trace of her.
“The only purpose of this post is to ask for prayers, thoughts, candles and whatever you have.”
Last night Spanish and French police were trying to trace the man on the mountain who appears to be the last person to see her.
Phone signals may also provide vital clues to her movements after her last trek from Porte de la Glere to the Port de Venasque.
Meanwhile, Dan has ceased posting updates at the request of the police.
His dad Mick posted on Facebook: “You don’t have to be strong and face this all alone . . . love you son.”
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