It’s a mystery that has baffled his family and police…an incident in which a man steps from a taxi to walk up the driveway to his home in the Australian Blue Mountains, but fails to go indoors. And has vanished.
Kim Mackell, a 64-year-old talented artist, has been missing since December 18 after travelling by train from Sydney to the mountain-top village of Blackheath, the closest community to his home on a sprawling bushland property, some 5km from the railway station.
The property was once owned by the late author Kylie Tennant, who wrote The Battlers, an epic work which won her international acclaim as the ‘Australian John Steinbeck’. So Kim lived on – and vanished from – a beautiful environment that inspired those with an artistic mind.
‘It’s a complete mystery,’ his nephew, Austin Mackell, 33, told me as we drove to the clifftop house where Kim has lived for many years, having purchased it with a legacy from his late mother.
It is there he has spent many happy days painting the scenes that surrounded him – one of his works, portraying a flock of flying foxes, has been hanging for a long time in a food outlet in Sydney.
‘The police, volunteers, State Emergency Services personnel and searchers in a helicopter have scoured every bit of land but there’s no sign of Kim anywhere. There were concerns he might have fallen over a cliff, but as best they can tell that didn’t happen. They just can’t find him.’
Hours after we had chatted in depth about his uncle’s disappearance, Austin spoke to three people in the town of Lithgow, 26km from Blackheath – and they all said they were convinced they had seen a man answering Kim’s description walking along the main street in the week before Christmas, the time period after he had vanished from Blackheath.
’They were 100 per cent sure it was him because there was a photo in the paper which they were able to compare the man with. They said they’d told the police about their sighting but it seems the police haven’t taken it seriously. They still seem to think he’s around the area where his property is in Blackheath.’
How could Kim, who has never married and who enjoyed his secluded lifestyle, have travelled to Lithgow? He had lost his driving licence following an accident so his van remains idle at the property and there is no sign of him having used his Opal Card to take the train from Blackheath to Lithgow.
‘The only possibility is that somebody gave him a lift, but so far no-one has come forward to say that,’ says Austin.
Kim needs medication for his bipolar condition and for a heart problem but that doesn’t explain why he should vanish literally after stepping from a taxi at around 10pm on December 18 and heading up the bushy driveway in the dark towards his home. Police have spoken to the female taxi driver who can’t help any more than telling them that she was the driver who dropped him off.
Here are Kim’s known movements, as described to me by Austin:
Family members picked him up on December 18 to drive him to Sydney where friends were preparing a barbecue. As they headed away from Blackheath Kim asked where they were going, because he’d been under the impression that the barbecue was being held locally.
‘It’s OK – we’re just kidnapping you,’ his niece’s husband said jokingly.
Is this a lighthearted comment that caused some kind of panic in Kim’s mind?
Kim had a cider and a beer at the Sydney barbecue gathering with Austin before the event got under way, but his nephew is convinced that Kim wasn’t affected by alcohol when he was later driven to the central railway station to travel back to Blackheath. ‘He was lucid…just normal,’ says Austin.
He had been driven to the central station in a vehicle that wasn’t familiar to him – so did that cause added confusion following on from the jokey kidnapping comment?
It’s a thought that has been among many scenarios considered by Austin.
Arriving back in Blackheath, carrying a hessian bag containing a kilo of sugar that he’d purchased earlier in the day, Kim was not able to phone for a taxi because he’d left his phone behind at the house when he’d been picked up earlier that day. So he’d walked across the road from the station to a pub and ordered a beer while the staff arranged for a taxi to pick him up.
The driveway of his house in Shipley Road was pitch black, so even if she was watching him walk away the taxi driver would have quickly lost sight of him.
Kim’s family is convinced he never entered the house because the packet of sugar was nowhere to be found and there’s a report that a man answering his description – carrying a hessian bag – had been seen in Lithgow’s main street.
Another ‘sighting’ claimed he had been seen on a main road leading out of Lithgow, but whether Kim was ever there cannot be proved at this stage.
Austin, along with Kim’s family and friends, has put posters up all around the Blue Mountains towns but the alleged sightings are few and far between.
‘We live each day in hope,’ says Austin. ‘We live each day hoping that he’ll just turn up and we’ll be able to sit down and listen to his adventures.’
UPDATE: Austin has now shown ‘new’ CCTV footage of an elderly man walking along the main street of Lithgow to two people who were certain they had seen Kim. When shown the footage, the couple confirmed that was the man they had seen.
‘Unfortunately, he’s not my uncle,’ says Austin. ‘The man in the footage has a beard and Kim didn’t have a beard. So it’s back to square one.’
Throughout my working life my public profile has been that of a writer – a journalist and an author. But it’s time the truth is out: I’ve been harbouring a secret double life. As a photographer.
I’ve never made a big noise about it, despite having a couple of exhibitions of photos I took years ago in India and Papua New Guinea along with publications in the news media. From my early teens, when I spent my school holidays working in a photo-processing lab, grabbing small, square prints as they tumbled off huge stainless steel drying drums, I’ve been snapping away with generations of cameras.
I’ve owned Russian Feds (a copy of a Leica rangefinder) and Zenits, a Rolleicord, before moving on to SLRs of just about every brand and more lenses than I care to think of. There have been magazine spreads, double page spreads in the Daily Mail, and book covers.
Now with a snippet of my secret life revealed it’s time to talk about a passion that has grown on me – street photography. How easy it would have to be, I believed, to just go out into the streets and fire away because there were subjects everywhere. Easy? Not at all. The moment has to be perfect, the light and shadows have to dance together and, more often than not, you have to ensure you’re not spotted (although sometimes a face staring straight at your camera can add strength to the image). Good composition helps, but it’s not always possible. But most of all the picture has to be interesting. You want the viewer to look into it, to feel what you felt when you took it. Street photography has been a progression, just as, years ago, I was able to confidently put away my light meters in the days of manual film cameras and estimate the settings required for my favourite Tri-X black and white film, which I would later develop using D76 developer before exposing the image onto contrasty Kodak or Ilford paper under my Durst enlarger. Later I needed only to develop film in some hotel bathroom and slide the negatives into a film scanner before adjusting the image on a 180C Mac laptop.
How the world of photography has moved forward since those days of the 1960s and ‘70s. With a top-rating phone your camera, darkroom and transmission device are in your pocket. Good cameras with wi-fi also allow for instant transmission to a phone, iPad or laptop for further editing.
But what attracted me to street photography? I don’t think I realised it at the time, but I owe it all to the man whose name (among others) is synonymous with the art – Henri Cartier-Bresson. Inspired by his work in Japan in the mid-1960s, I packed my bags 10 years later and followed his footsteps hitch-hiking around the country to the places where he’d taken his famous pictures. Sadly, my negatives have vanished, but I still have a few prints, one of my favourites being at the top of Mt Aso (which he’d also visited), where I found another photographer, covered in volcanic ash, waiting with his huge box camera on a tripod to take photos of non-existent tourists.
Street photography is a fun world, without the pressures of having to rush a news picture off to a newspaper or magazine. And what do I use? I had loved my small back-up film camera – a Ricoh GR – and when digital cameras found their feet I bought the digital version. Sadly, it was stolen from my bag as I flew to Nepal to cover a tour there of the actress Joanna Lumley.
Today I shoot ‘small’. I carry almost exclusively a Panasonic LX100 which has superb quality but if I need something longer I still have a Canon SLR and a dust-covered 100-400mm lens. And then there’s my smartphone – the LG G5, which produces incredible images, its wide-angle camera ensuring a virtual ’no miss’ when shooting from the hip.
How do I edit my images? Principally it’s Lightroom or Photoshop – but if I’ve transferred pictures to my iPad it will be mainly in VSCO, Snapseed, or Photogene. Too many? Maybe. But I do enjoy jumping around a bit as I’ve found that one app might do a better job with a particular image than another. Although that’s not always the case. I do also edit on the phone, but there’s no doubt that a larger screen is preferable.
Just thought I’d say hello now that my secret double life has emerged.
It – or I – will be back….
Six weeks have now passed since elderly Betty O’Pray vanished after setting out from her home in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales for a stroll along a bushland track. She’d been along it numerous times, a trail that would take her over a mostly hard surface, with a busy road on one side and thick undergrowth on the other.
The walk would also have taken her along a quieter suburban road with views across farmland where horses graze. Although hilly, it’s an easy route – and Betty would have had no reason to divert from it. At least no reason that we know of.
But she’s gone. Vanished. And police tell me that her disappearance is a mystery. They haven’t given up, though. Although there appears little hope of finding her alive if she did indeed stray into the bush, she has to be found for the sake of her distressed family, some of whom live in the same small community of Medlow Bath, west of Katoomba, that Betty was from.
I’m told that police are keeping an open mind into every possibility, including her making it all the way to Katoomba – some 7km from her home – and getting on a train. That’s remote, but she is reported to have suffered from mild dementia and gave one resident who met her on the path one day weeks earlier the impression that she was slightly confused.
The possibility that Betty came off the bush path and wandered into a suburban street has been considered, evidence of that being the teams of police who knocked on doors in and around Katoomba asking residents to keep their eyes open for the elderly lady. That added hundreds more eyes to the search, but her whereabouts remained a mystery.
Police are now reasonably certain that she did not come to grief in the bushland between her home and Katoomba because, as I was told, scores of searchers scoured every possible place she could be, a hunt that saw experienced personnel abseiling down cliff faces in case she had stumbled through the bush and fallen over. ‘It was a very, very, thorough search,’ I was told. It went on for three weeks, when the expected life span of staying alive without food would have expired.
A team of State Emergency Service volunteers I met on one of the tracks as a helicopter flew overhead admitted they were stumped as to how a 77-year-old lady could become so lost that no-one could find her. It is possible, of course, that she didn’t set out to walk towards Katoomba, but instead headed towards another bushland area to the north of her home – but again, that was searched thorough.
The sad reality is that today we are no closer to knowing what happened to Scots-born Betty or where she ended up. But mention her name in a hotel or a cafe in Katoomba and people will immediately ask if there has been any news. I’ve heard numerous scenarios, all kinds of guesswork, any of which could be right or wrong.
One day we might learn.
Eight other orang-utans have died there in the last seven years from ill-health – mostly tuberculosis – according to conservationists, leaving Bujang to live in misery against the shrieks of laughter from tourists enjoying the surrounding theme park.
His diet and the stress of looking out at the surrounding forest where he should be playing is so bad that he is now losing the hair on his back – and animal lovers fear he too could die unless he is rehabilitated.
But Bujang is not the only animal in the zoo at the Sinka Island Park in West Kalimantan, the Indonesian side of Borneo island – a visiting team of conservationists were moved to tears at the plight of Cika the elephant, chained up for 24 hours, seven days a week.
And there are horses, their rib cages showing through lack of food and nourishment.
‘This cruelty to the orang-utan, the elephant, the horses and many other animals such as a lonely baby sun bear in a tiny cage must end immediately,’ Mr Gunning Gea, director of Scorpion Wildlife Trade Monitoring Group, insists.
‘Quite simply, either these poor suffering animals have to receive immediate treatment, improved living conditions – or they have to be removed from there. This cannot go on.
‘This zoo should be ordered to stop the cruelty that we have seen.
‘The option is to move the orang-utan to a better place, to a rescue centre, and be given the chance to live in a wild habitat.’
Mr Upreshpal Singh, director of the Malaysian-based Friends of the Orangu-tans, who visited the zoo recently, admitted he was moved to tears at the plight of Bujang and Cika the elephant.
‘These are nightmarish conditions. It’s a daily hell for them. This zoo needs to be shut down and all animals relocated,’ he tells me.
‘I have to say that the treatment of Cika, who is about 12 years old, and nine-year-old Bujang is eye-watering.
‘I took photos of her chained up. She can hardly move. She is suffering severe stress and urgently needs to be saved.’
The zoo, part of the Sinka Island Park located some five miles from the regional capital of Singkawang, is privately owned and while Chinese-Indonesian proprietor was not available for comment a keeper told the visiting conservationists: ‘What’s the problem? They (the animals) are all OK. No problem.’
But animal lovers insist there is a major problem.
‘In 2009 there were at least nine orang-untans at the zoo,’ said Mr Singh. ‘Another conservationist recently informed Nature Alert UK that all but one – Bujang – died from tuberculosis and poor care.’
Where is Betty O’Pray?
How can an elderly lady, 77 years old, vanish into thin air as she strolled along a fairly well-worn track in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales??
Elizabeth – Betty to her friends – is believed to have set off for a walk along the track that leads from her home in Medlow Bath to the main Blue Mountains town of Katoomba, some 6km away, on Monday March 7.
A family member spoke to her on her mobile phone at about 11am that day but by 11pm she hadn’t returned home – so the police were alerted. They managed to contact Betty by phone but then lost the connection. In that brief conversation, she was not able to tell police exactly where she was, but said she was all right, although she was running out of water. She was in a clearing, she said.
In following days, helicopters flew over the area where she might have been, based on calculating the signal from her phone to its the connection with a mobile transmission tower. Teams of searchers grew, but there was no sign of the elderly lady, who had been born in Scotland but had lived in Medlow Bath for a number of years.
By Monday, March 21, Betty will have been missing for two weeks – and that’s a long time for an elderly person to be lost in the bush. She might be able to find water, particularly as it has been raining occasionally, but she certainly doesn’t have any food.
So where is she? Searchers have combed virtually every inch of the bushland alongside the track she regularly walked along. It wends up and down, but it’s virtually impossible for anyone to lose their way because it’s wide and runs beside a fenced-off railway line, which in turn follows the Great Western Highway. The sound of large trucks is always within earshot of the track.
For Betty to become lost after setting out that day she would have had to step off the main path and head into the bush. And while there are minor tracks she could have followed, search teams have been through them and also broken away into the thick undergrowth. They’ve called her name, they’ve shouted ‘Coo-eeee!’ – then listened in the hope of hearing a reply from the missing woman. But nothing.
There were reports of a resident living on a plateau hearing cries for help from the bushland below, but another thorough search failed to find any sign of Betty and there is the possibility that the cry had a reasonable explanation – such as searchers shouting to one another.
But how far could Betty have got, had she indeed struck off into the bush for an unknown reason (perhaps because she had become disoriented, as she is reported to have suffered from mild dementia)? She is unlikely to have been able to travel far into the undergrowth, which grabs at the face, entangles itself in legs, snares feet and has steep slopes that can easily provoke a fall.
Experts have rappelled down cliff faces on the off chance that Betty was down there but the result has been the same – no sign of her.
Teams of police, firemen, State Emergency Service volunteers and civilians have all contributed tirelessly, knocking on doors in a wide radius in the hope that someone might have seen Betty somewhere – perhaps as she walked into a built up area. Police have also asked for anyone who was in the Medlow Bath vicinity to provide them with photos they might have taken in the days before, during and after Betty first went missing in the hope that they might glean something from the direction she was walking.
A resident who lives beside the path told me that she spoke to Betty recently on one of her walks and the elderly lady seemed a little confused. The resident asked Betty if she was all right and she assured the resident she was fine, thank you, and carried on her way.
Perhaps there’s a clue there – that on the day she set out she ended up becoming disoriented. But it doesn’t explain why she can’t be found.
The search appears to be winding down. But it is to be hoped that everyone in the region remains vigilant. It would be wonderful to run a headline along the lines of ‘Miracle in the Mountains’.