Most of the ancient peoples of the world tell stories of a great flood, a time when the known world was inundated in what seemed a great act of cleansing by God (or the gods, depending on which civilisation is telling the story). And many of these stories further contain reference to a select group of human beings whose patriarch is tipped off by the god/gods just before the yanking of the celestial chain, and who manage to preserve themselves and breeding pairs of the more desirable animals in order to re-stock creation once the waters have receded.
Dutch writer Frank Westerman grew up with the biblical story of Noah and the flood, brought up under the strict doctrines of the Dutch Reformed Church. And he nearly had first-hand experience of death by water when, as a child, he was swept away by the portentously named Ill River while crossing the riverbed, just as the control gates of a dam upstream were opened.
Later in life, he lived for a time in sight of Mt Ararat (the supposed resting-place of Noah's Ark), and conceived a desire to climb it. The precise reason for his quest was unclear, even to himself. Ararat is a potent symbol of the Christian religion, the site of a covenant between God and the elect that he will save them, and the place from which Christianity supposes all humanity to have arisen, following the delivery of Noah's family from the Deluge. Westerman has, he tells us, fallen away from religion since childhood. His faith in reason has eclipsed his religious faith, although there is a sense, as this superb travel memoir progresses, that he is still susceptible to religion - to the answer it supplies to the nagging question as to why he was spared from the waters of the Ill.
At the foot of Ararat, he meets a pair of Russian Ark-seekers, devout believers in the Bible and its stories who are seeking traces of the vessel on the mountain's inhospitable slopes.
Initially inclined to be disparaging, Westerman recognises in this mildly pitiable pair the same impulse that has brought him hither. He may not be seeking the Ark, but he is conscious that, like them, he is a seeker.
This book interweaves the many, many threads of Westerman's monumental research with the narrative of his attempt on the mountain's summit. He has collected some gems along the way - the story of the 19th century amateur archaeologist who was convinced he had found the fossil skeleton of a human sinner drowned in the Deluge; the curious imprecision of biblical exegesis that gives rise to the conviction that Ararat is the Ark's resting place anyway (the Bible actually refers to "the mountains of Ararat", and Ararat is derived from the Assyrian word for Armenia, which covered far more territory than it does today); the dispute among geologists over whether the volcanic Ararat is actually extinct or whether it last erupted in 1840; the curious Dutch adventure sport of "mudwalking".
And Westerman's own experiences in preparing to climb the mountain have resonances in the mountain's place in history and mythology: it lies near the borders of Turkey, Iran and Armenia, and is of strategic significance in a troubled part of the world. It is dear to the hearts of Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Christians and Muslims alike. It is bound to be a lightning rod for political trouble. And Westerman's difficulties with Turkish bureaucracy in obtaining a sport visa to climb the mountain echo the various superstitious sanctions that have forbidden summit assaults for much of its history.
This is a beautiful, extended essay. It is a writer of rare ability indeed who can show you a portrait of man in the picture of a mountain.
By Frank Westerman (Harvill Secker $49.99)
* John McCrystal is a Wellington reviewer.