Wadi Rum

When I was a young kid, I guess I would have been around ten years old, I saw Peter O’Toole for the first time.

Piercing blue eyes under a shock of angelic golden hair. He was clad in white robes and was involved in some extremely adventurous escapades in the desert.

Lawrence of Arabia, of course.

The other memorable thing about that first encounter with the marvellous O’Toole, was the impact that desert had upon me.

The vast, wholly inhospitable expanse of sand and sky. It held me spellbound as much as O’Toole’s glinting blue eyes.

At that time, sitting in a living room in Glasgow, the desert of Jordan seemed an improbable place. Cinematic, and not quite real. A place that existed on screen, or within the imagination. My childhood self never imagined for an instant that I would one day stand there, among the dunes and cliffs of the Wadi Rum and gaze upwards at that endless, unforgiving sky.

And yet, here I am, walking into a Bedouin camp, ready to spend the night under the stars, deep in the heart of what is, after all, a very real, very powerful, place.

The camp itself sits on the edge of the desert, a camel ride away from the camp that Lawrence himself once used.

It is everything a comfort loving westerner would imagine, I suppose. Great overhanging swaths of canvas, piles of colourful rugs, wood fires, and courtyards open to the immense sky.

There are added luxuries provided, of course. Flushing toilets and warm showers. Soft comfortable beds. And, most comforting of all, an impressive buffet laid out with with a fine selection of local dishes and specialities.

The ubiquitous mansaf (a lamb dish marinated and cooked in fermented yoghurt) takes pride of place on the table, surrounded by a wealth of mezze – hummus, flatbreads, pickled vegetables, lovely little stuffed pickled aubergines, marinated olives and the wonderfully named upside down chicken. The table practically buckles under the weight of the feast laid before us.

I had been worried, as a vegetarian, that I would be spending the next few days surviving solely on hummus and flatbread and yoghurt, but I see that I need not have worried. For the next few days I will remain pleasantly stuffed.

The only concession to the extreme surroundings is a notice informing us that the electricity shuts down at ten o’clock. That’s when the generator is turned off and the darkness descends.

“There are torches in every tent” our hosts inform us “Be sure to keep it with you after ten. It gets very dark.”

A few of the guests giggle nervously at this. The idea of that all blackness, stretching out into an unknown expanse. The coldness of it. It encourages an instinctive fear that we have long forgotten now that we live in the permanent glow of electric light.

I lean back into the pile of coloured cushions that are spread on the ground to form a seating area, remembering another night, years ago, when I last encountered complete darkness.

We were hiking the Mare a Mare Nord route in Corsica. At some point along the way a dog had joined us for the ride.

It’s a common occurrence in the summer in Corsica. The dogs, actually working dogs from local farms, are short of things to do in the summer months and often tag along with hikers just to have something to do.

Our companion had been trotting alongside us for a couple of days, catching the odd lizard for nourishment and generally having a great time.

One evening though, I heard him whimpering as he lay on the grass outside our tent. He was probably dreaming, but the noise disturbed me enough to go outside and check everything was okay.

The sight that greeted me when I stepped out of the tent is something I will never forget.

In the darkness, high in the Corsican hills, the sky above me was bright and alive with stars. Millions upon millions of them, sparkling against the blue back night sky.

It’s the kind of moment that strikes you dumb with awe. I inhaled sharply when I saw that night sky. The sheer power of the sight almost winding me.

When you live in a city, the night sky and all its beauty is not something you get to behold. So to see those stars was something truly wonderful and magical. As if the world was revealing itself, in its true glory.

I had imagined that the sight of such a thing would leave me feeling small and insignificant. Our time here is so brief after all, and the thought of it can often be quite melancholy. Those stars had exploded into existence thousands of years earlier and there I was only now seeing them. It should have left me feeling powerless and lost. But the truth of it was altogether different.

The sheer wonder of being able to witness such a spectacular sight. To know what it was I was seeing there as I stood on that Corsican mountain and look upwards through the universe back to a time I had not known, made everything converge somehow. For a tiny moment all things made sense and everything was okay.

I have never felt such a thing since, that calm certainty and wonder. But perhaps there is no need to. To experience it once is enough.

I remembered this as I turned to my fellow travellers in the Bedouin tent and told them of those awe inspiring stars. That the opportunity to be thrown into complete darkness was something to embrace and treasure.

One of the Bedouin hosts is smiling at us, listening to my rambling romantic babble. I ask him about the night sky here, if it is spectacular.

“If you go far enough out. Yes.” is the only reply he gives.

I wonder at that. The idea of any of us here, so comfortable and unaccustomed to open spaces, would dare venture out deep into the night time desert seems absurd. I smile and our host nods, seeming to read my mind.

“Today though we will go out and watch the sun set. High on the rocks, half an hour from here is a good place.”

He pours us more tea and gestures for us to drink.

“The camels are ready. When you finish your tea we can go.”

I turn to Helena. Her four year old brain is still processing what has just been said. Camels. Huh?

I explain to her that, we are going to ride on the camels out into the desert and say goodnight to the sun.

But I can barely finish the sentence. She had spotted the camels in the corral outside the camp and had wanted to go and see them immediately. Now the idea that we would get to ride them, was simply too much.

“Come on! Come on!”

So off we go, leaving the tea to go cold.

In the corral, the camels are already grunting their complaints as the seats are adjusted and tightened to their backs.

The sound they make is comical and loud. Very loud. I watch Helena approaching with trepidation. Getting closer until that sound sends her scurrying back to the safety of Paolo’s arms.

But their curmudgeonly vocalisations eventually desist and we all mount our camels – the lunging heave forwards as they rise sending out a collective “woah!” from everyone, followed by giggles and laughter.

And then we are off, heading out of the corral and into the Wadi Rum.

At this time of the evening, the red of the sand takes on a soft, deep pink hue, that lends a serenity to everything. A beautiful relief and contrast following the noisy begin to this excursion. The lolling gait of the camels as they stroll across the sand creates a dreamy momentum in keeping with the surroundings. We seem to move across the sand with a rhythm that slows things down and allows you to take it all in.

Ahead of us the sand ripples and folds in wonderful ribs and whorls, the shapes closer to flowing water than grains of blown sand. Around us, the red rocks glow in the light of the setting sun, the red turning to pink then to purple. There is no sound save for the soft plod of the camels as they walk. No-one speaks. Sometimes words have no place in the world, and each of us knows that this is such a moment.

At the foot of a large rocky projection we stop and the guide points upwards, indicating we need to ascend and take in the setting sun from this viewpoint.

It’s quite a hearty climb and I marvel at Helena as she scrambles upwards, unafraid of the height or the sharpness of some of the rock. There is an instinct to her movements that I watch closely and try to replicate. She is going up faster than I am, so her technique must be worth studying.

And once at the top the view silences us all once again. The sun is fading fast, sinking down under the horizon, and being absorbed into the vast sea of illuminated sand that stretches out all around us.

I am momentarily mesmerised by it.

That seeming otherworldliness that I had sensed as a child sitting in a cold Scottish living room watching T.E. Lawrence was not some manufactured, cinematic trick. It was real. This place truly is dreamlike and awe inspiring.

That Freddie Young (the cinematographer for the film) captured that quality so beautifully and accurately is only something I can appreciate truly, now that I am standing here and I find my self whispering a little “thank you” to him despite myself.

All to soon it is time to head back, before it gets too dark to travel. I want to stay longer and feel a little sad that the moment is now over. Just a memory already as we head down the rock to the camels.

Over dinner the talk is subdued as if we are all slightly stunned by what we have experienced. No one seems to want to spoil it all by talking too much. So we sit, quietly by the fireside and enjoy the sounds as it cracks and spits.

Already a few stars have started to glint in the deep blue of the night sky and I take comfort in the fact that the night is not yet over. One more thing remains to be done.

Later that evening, when the generator is powered down, I sit in a stool outside my tent and watch, as one by one the other guests come out of their tents, the light of their torches forming a train as they zig-zag their way across the camp and outside into the desert. They stay huddled together for a moment in a pool of torchlight, before extinguishing their tiny beacons. And in the darkness I know they are looking upwards, the collective “woah!” alerting me to their actions.

I take my torch and walk out towards them. We are only a hundred meters or so from the camp, none of us daring to walk out further into the night.

“Do you think there are scorpions?” I hear one person ask.

“Snakes too I shouldn’t wonder.” comes the disconcerting reply.

The thought of which forces heads down in a vain attempt to scrutinise the sand. But in the darkness it is impossible to see much and we all give up and turn our heads up towards the sky.

And there again, above me, was a heaven full of stars, bright and hopeful in the cold desert night. The deep blue of the sky like velvet. Thick and deep and comforting.

Once, T.E. Lawrence would have gazed up at these self same stars, from his desert camp close by. Their light not having dimmed in any meaningful of measurable way, since then.

I try to hold that thought as I gaze upwards. To contemplate that I am seeing the same things he once did, but the sheer human scale of it makes it impossible.

I head back to the tent, to the heavy warmth of canvas and woollen blankets. Tomorrow we head out into the Wadi Rum, to the Lawrence camp. A thought that makes me as giddy as the stars.

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