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June 18, 2021

Ollie McAfee: a wanderer consumed by the desert?

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A pilgrim to the Holy Land is missing after having a mystical experience.

Ollie McAfee, a 29-year-old Irish bicycle traveller, was last seen near the town of Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev Desert in southern Israel on November 21 last year. A few days later his belongings – including camping gear, bicycle, computer, wallet, keys, diaries – were found scattered in the desert about sixty kilometres from where he was last sighted.

His passport, phone and sleeping bag have not been found. McAfee was due to fly home to the UK on December 1 but has seemingly vanished.

In January, our landlord on Vancouver Island told me about a bulletin on the BBC that I’d be interested in. Upon finding the story online I was struck by the accompanying photo of McAfee the day before he disappeared. At first blush I thought it was me. So did Vix. The photograph, taken in the harsh desert light, shows a fit, dusty traveller straddling a bicycle loaded with faded gear bags. Tangled hair protrudes from McAfee’s helmet as he engages the camera with a wry grin; or grimace. What happened subsequently remains a mystery.

Journey of discovery

McAfee, a devout Christian and member of an evangelical congregation, had left the UK in early 2017 on what is described as a journey of discovery.

He had suffered with depression and was hoping to find himself, to reconnect to God. In the process he had ridden 14,000km across Europe, flown to Mexico and then onto Israel, which he reached in late October.

The ride through the Holy Land was apparently going well. His abundant photos and diary entries suggest little cause for concern. According to his brother, it was a normal trip and everything was ‘making sense’ until November 19. Investigators on the ground, however, suggest that once he reached Jerusalem his photos took an unusual turn; images that had hitherto been quite conventional became abstract.

Immediately before his disappearance, McAfee’s diary suddenly became animated with confused references to God and Jesus. The final plaintive entry summarises a plan of action: by throwing away all his worldly possessions, he hopes for relief from his pain. ‘By destroying a little’ he wrote, ‘it stops from destroying my whole self’.

A search party came across a strange scene in the desert. McAfee’s belongings were found strewn about a barren sun-bleached ridge where he appears to have camped. A ring of stones surrounded an area smoothed over with his bike tool. Within this, a miniature chapel had been constructed out of sticks and a plastic water bottle. Pages torn from the Bible and paper containing his own writings referring to Jesus fasting in the desert had been weighed carefully down with stones. A tangle of twine encircled the place. Additional pieces of his kit had been dropped in a line meandering off into the desert.

Jerusalem Syndrome

Newspaper reports claim he may have suffered Jerusalem Syndrome, a condition afflicting pilgrims to the Holy Land who experience delusions of spiritual grandeur. Some believe they are biblical figures. Dr Moshe Kalian, an expert on Jerusalem Syndrome, believes McAfee had ‘some kind of religious experience in the desert’ resembling the syndrome; which is less a discrete ailment than an aggravation of chronic mental illness catalysed by biblical surroundings. Those afflicted are often found preaching in the streets of Jerusalem. But not McAfee.

A short documentary about his disappearance aired on Israeli television in January. It compared his vanishing to that of Christopher McCandless, the young pilgrim who was found dead in a bus in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992.

Another – though still tenuous – parallel might be Everett Ruess, a twenty-year-old who disappeared in the southern Utah desert in 1934. The last confirmed sighting of Ruess was on November 21 that year. He was never found. The talented artist and aspiring writer had been undertaking epic solo journeys through the wild American southwest for the best part of five years. His disappearance haunted his parents and brother to their graves, but spawned a cult following. As Hugh Lacy wrote in 1938: ‘Wherever poets, adventurers and wanderers of the Southwest gather, the story of Everett Ruess’s will be told. His name, like woodsmoke, conjures far horizons’. Speculation about Ruess’ fate continues to this day.

Oliver McAfee’s brother Matt travelled to Israel in late February to liaise with search teams and police. He ended a press conference at the British Embassy in Tel Aviv hinting at the anguish of not knowing: ‘Best case scenario for us now is obviously that he’s found alive: or he’s found. Worst case scenario is we never know’.

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