Camels, canyon floor, Wadi Rum: Sands of Time part 8

The soft pad of the camel’s feet on sand, water sloshing in my saddlebags and the tap of my stick are the only sounds that impose upon the silence. The air clings like wool blankets. My blood turns to red wine; it throbs in my veins and lightens my head.

We ride through bizarre rock formations that look like cutaway models of an anthill or of an antediluvian beast—they’re shorn off smooth and the cavities and bubbles of strange inner organs are clearly visible. Other formations are jagged and mountainous and radiate impassive strength. Still others are Dali-esque, as though God had squeezed an enormous hunk of wax and plunked it down roughly to melt and runnel under the relentless Arabian sun.  I expect to stumble across an oracle that speaks in ragged whispers.

It’s that kind of place.

By day’s end a broad loop has taken us back to Wadi Rum, where Mbarak awaits us at our camp near the southern tip of Burdah Mountain. The evening is silent and pensive. It feels like we’ve ridden back from the land of the dead.

The next day’s route takes us into Wadi Rum's rocky gorges, through a winding path that drops steep to the canyon floor. We have to dismount and lead our camels gingerly down a path of sliding stones with a sheer drop on our right inorder to reach the canyon floor. Camels fear heights and can’t be led through such places by force. They simply dig in their heels and snap the rope. I take hold of Azaran’s lead close beneath his chin, place a comforting hand on the back of his strong neck and guide him patiently as he slips and slides on the edge of panic, using kind words of encouragement in place of the stick. Raad acknowledges my increasing skill with the animals by continuing on ahead to the canyon floor, leaving me to deal with the problem at hand.

When I reach the canyon floor I find him sitting beside a green bush on which Sainan is munching with evident satisfaction. I sit down beside him and couch Azaran by voice alone, tapping my stick on the ground and uttering the low verbal command. It’s the first time Raad looks impressed.

We make camp that night in the steep-sided canyon floor.

We’re at the point of highest elevation in the Wadi Rum area and the evening is cold. We huddle near the stick fire, gathering over the communal plate, tearing off hunks of pita bread and digging in with our fingers. If I cover one eye and block out the Land Rover, the scene could very well be taking place 50 or 100 years in the past. We’ve somehow managed to tap into cyclical time, to enter into that Bedouin worldview. For days I’ve been amusing myself with the ridiculous idea of taking it to extremes, of going fully native—but in the style of the past. It’s the only thing we haven’t done yet. I choke back a grin and propose my idea to the others. “Listen, Mbarak,” I say. “Now that we’ve been out here for a while and we’re getting pretty good with the camels, I want to go raiding.”

He looks confused.

“You know, old-school Bedouin style. Cut some telegraph wires. Tear up the tracks of the Hejaz Railway. Maybe raid a camp or two.” He smiles and shakes his head. “And then onward to Aqaba? That doesn’t happen anymore, Lawrence.” “What’s that, then?” I point to a water catchment basin that had been built to collect precious runoff from the rock formation across the way. Two narrow gauge rails have been cemented into its base. “Someone must have bought those,” he mumbles, but he doesn’t sound entirely convinced.

From Burdah we ride back into the areas of Wadi Rum that are frequented by tourists. As we enter Burrah Canyon our return to Wadi Rum is announced by the unfortunate voice of a donkey, whose hee-haws echo off of flutes and columns and reverberate down the siq. The morning is cool and gusts of wind chill my bare feet to the bone. I tuck them in close against the camel’s dusty fur and wrap the kouffieh tighter around my neck. Up ahead Raad does the same. We ride past a herd of goats and climb to the base of an enormous red dune that towers over the surrounding desert. We hobble the camels at the bottom and force our way up the dune on sand that’s as fine as powdered bone, thighs burning and lungs dredging up long-forgotten sludge. At the top I walk off to a distant slope while Jason photographs Raad in all his Bedouin glory.