Daily Mail, 27 November 2010.
By Gavin Madeley
He travelled thousands of miles to the foothills of mount Ararat in a quest to unearth a fabled ark.
Each summer for four years, this self-styled Scots missionary would set off alone to the same hazardous region on the fringes of Iran to track down the final resting place of Noah’s mythical vessel. Each autumn, he would beat a reluctant retreat, just before the first heavy snowfalls of winter announced a halt to his efforts to prove the truth of one of the great stories of the Bible.
But this year, after the irresistible allure of Ararat drew him back, Donald Mackenzie did not return home. Like the object of his obsession, he has simply vanished into the heavy mists that swirl around the summit of Turkey’s most famous peak. The only tangible evidence that he had even been in the area was his white Vauxhall Combi van, parked in a village at the bottom of the mountain.
But there was no sign of its owner, whose last telephone call to one of his three brothers in late September betrayed no hint of imminent disaster. Since then, both his mobile phones have failed to respond, leaving nothing but an eerie silence.
Almost two months on, there are several theories as to what may have caused his sudden and mysterious disappearance, none of them particularly cheering to his despairing family. Murder, kidnap or some dreadful climbing accident are among the unpleasant choices.
There is even an unsettling suggestion that villagers befriended by Mr Mackenzie on his travels may know more about his whereabouts than they are prepared to admit.
His younger brother Derick Says: ‘As a family, we just want to know what has happened to Donald. It is the not knowing that is so hard, especially for our mother.
‘Donald has always been very much his own man and is a born survivor. If there is a chance he is still alive, I have no doubt he will be able to look after himself. But as time goes on…yeah, we are worried.’
The mystery of what has befallen the 47-year-old born-again Christian raises another equally intriguing question – what sort of man would want to return, year after year, on such a dangerous pilgrimage to this politically unstable corner of the world?
It seems religion looms large in this story, in more ways than one. Derick freely acknowledges Donald’s contrary nature, which no doubt encouraged him along the path to danger.
Although brought up in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis – the cradle of Free Presbyterianism – Mr Mackenzie had resisted any real interest in religion until he found God much later in life. Once converted, however, he seized his new faith with alacrity.
Before then, things were very different. His mother, Maggie Jean, a noted Gaelic singer, had moved back to her native Western Isles with her young family following the break-up of her marriage to former Fleet Street Journalist Ken Mackenzie.
Single-handedly raising four pre-school age sons – Ross, now 49, Donald, Derick and Kenneth, now 44 – was always going to be hard work. Derick, a year younger than Donald, said: ‘Donald and I were closer to each other than the other two. We were pretty wild growing up. We were always getting into trouble.
‘Donald was never one to back down, and we were well-known in the area for getting involved in fights and riding motorcycles too fast. We both suffered serious accidents on bikes within a year of each other in our late teens.
Donald was 19 when he was riding on the back of a friend’s bike which crashed at 100mph. He spent months in hospital recovering and was hobbling around on crutches with a broken arm and leg for some time after that.’
After the accident which almost cost him his life, Donald studied to be a draughtsman, but drifted between jobs, frequently returning to live with his mother. He was fascinated by machinery and would often take engines and other appliances apart to see what made them tick, before assembling them perfectly. He had also joined the Territorial Army, where he proved a crack shot and learned the survival skills he would later rely on during his trips to Ararat. Then, in his late twenties, Donald found God. It gave his life a purpose it had hitherto lacked.
‘It was through me that Donald was converted,’ says Derick, a father-of-four who now works for the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Scripture Readers Association, a befriending service offering spiritual guidance to military personnel.
‘Two months after I was converted in 1991, I was preaching to him in the kitchen. I told him he could go to the pub and see women that night as usual, or come to the hall and hear the Gospel with me.
Donald was always very curious about things and with religion he always wanted proof, so he agreed to come. After the service, I felt there was a change in him.
I felt he was running away from the Lord and warned him to be careful. That night he was badly beaten up in a fight with two friends. I visited him in hospital with a Bible and he has never looked back since.
There was a gigantic change in both our lives. After that, when people asked what Donald did, he’d [Derick would] say he was a self-employed missionary. His role was to spread the word of God. He moved to London and would take part in street evangelism events.
In case there was any doubt about his commitment, Mr Mackenzie named his entry on the Facebook website ‘Donald Proddy’. His brother recalls: ‘He started going abroad to the Middle East, visiting Israel and Egypt to see these places for himself.
‘He wanted to find the resting place of Noah’s Ark because he felt it would prove to everyone that the Bible was true. He would take on labouring jobs on building sites to fund the trips and ensure he had the right equipment.
‘He always said he would not take unnecessary risks. I was with him when he bought a new, four-seasons tent for this trip [actually, I never said that he told me he would not take unnecessary risks, and it was a sleeping bag, not a tent, that he bought. And it wasn’t for this trip]. He took a job as a night watchman so he wouldn’t have to pay for accommodation. He lived frugally and would often sleep in his van. He could really stretch a pound.
‘Then, he would disappear off to Turkey for two or three months at a time but only spend about a week searching for Noah’s Ark. The rest of the time, he would pass between the mountain villages, distributing Bibles and talking about God. He would never ram it down people’s throats but was happy to discuss religion if the subject was brought up.’
The great story of how Noah was given divine instruction to build an ark to save himself, his family and a selection of animals from a great flood that would engulf the earth hit the headlines again in April when a group of Chinese and Turkish evangelical Christians claimed to have uncovered remnants of the ark 13,000ft above sea level.
Hebrew scholars believe the ark would have been at least 450ft long, 75ft wide and 45ft high and identified its resting place as the ‘mountains of Ararat’.
Mr Mackenzie, who never married, immediately wanted to return to Turkey to see the evidence for himself, convinced it was a fake.
He loaded up his Combi van and drove across France and Germany to the town of Dogubayazit [doh-u-bay-a-zit] at the foot of Mount Ararat, which is four times the height of Ben Nevis. His last contact with his family was a call to his brother Ross, an IT analyst living in Luxembourg.
Derick, who lives in Edinburgh, reveals: ‘Donald was trying to make food at 12,000ft while a thunder and lightning storm went on outside his tent. Ross asked if he was going to spend the night there, and Donald said: “Yes, as the storm is dying down and I should get some sleep.” That was it…’
Mr Mackenzie was reported overdue from an expedition by a friend on October 14, and his family fear that his staunch Christianity may have placed him in danger in a politically unstable region that was a militarised zone for decades and only opened up to tourism in 2001. Armed militants from the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, roam the rubble-strewn landscape of 16,945ft Mount Ararat, drawing support from the residents of the impoverished hamlets which cling to the inhospitable slopes of this dormant volcano.
Derick points out that, only three years ago, three Christians were tortured and killed in Turkey by Muslim radicals. He adds: ‘Donald had made many friends there over the years and even set up businesses with the locals hiring bikes and so on, but everything he did was high-profile.
‘It would not surprise me if some undesirable types, such as Muslim fanatics, deliberately targeted him. We do know that some locals suspect foul play. The motive may have been religion or robbery. None of Donald’s equipment has been found. We know he may have been murdered or kidnapped, although it has been a while now and no one has come forward with a ransom demand. Of course, Donald may simply have had an accident…’
Mount Ararat is one of the most difficult climbs in Turkey, and the first recorded ascent was in 1829. Climbers must have a permit and be accompanied by an official guide, but Derick revealed that his brother had previously been caught by Turkish police high up the mountain without either: ‘He often goes off without telling anyone where he is going, or leaving any contact details. It’s just his way. There didn’t seem to be any danger, because he always came back.’
But such a carefree approach has not aided the task of finding him, a problem compounded by a strong sense that Turkish officials are not taking the case seriously. In fact, the first searches of the mountain by local guides were funded by the Mackenzie family, who are in the process of setting up a fund.
Derick said: ‘We have the distinct impression that the Turkish authorities do not seem to care about this. There was a long delay before any search was initiated. By then, there was thick snow on the ground and they found nothing.’
As news broke that Mr Mackenzie had disappeared, his 76-year-old mother made an emotional appeal for his safe return, saying: ‘This is just an awful nightmare. I am praying he has managed to keep himself alive. I just want him back home safe. I haven’t given up hope. He’s a strong guy and is intrepid and resourceful.
‘He’s got good camping equipment and all the right gear. He could survive up the mountain for a while – if only they would send out a rescue team for him.
‘As a mother, I would appeal to the Turkish government to mobilise a team to go up the mountain and look for Donald. Too much time has been wasted already.’
Mrs Mackenzie said that her MSP, Alasdair Allan, had written to foreign secretary William Hague and that Interpol and the local police had now been spurred into action.
A foreign office spokesman said: ‘Local authorities are investigating reports and we are providing consular assistance to the Mackenzie family.’
But as the heavy snows of winter close in around Ararat, the fear is that Donald Mackenzie may have joined his beloved ark – another secret buried on that sacred mount.