Traveling the route of Lawrence of Arabia
Troy Media – by Mike Robinson
After awakening in the sleeping tent to the sound of muted talking in the camp, I realize from the light leaking through the door flap that the sun is about to rise. I look at my watch: 7:18 A.M. – exactly 12 hours since we saw yesterday’s sunset.
Peaking out of the tent, I see that a visitor has camped close by overnight. A large Persian rug has been unfurled upon the red sand just outside the courtyard, next to a new Nissan 4 by 4. Omar and a friend are now sitting cross-legged on the carpet drinking black Bedouin tea. Seeing me walking across to the wash- house, Omar calls out, “Breakfast will be ready soon. There is tea on the fire.” I nod in acknowledgement and head into the toilettes.
We breakfast together on labneh (a white swirl of yoghurt and cream cheese with olive oil and spices), hot naan bread, Nile-brand oranges from Egypt, sprigs of mint, fresh tomatoes and the ever-present small green zuccini. Today’s plan is a circumnavigation in Oscara (a 27-year old Toyota Land Cruiser) of the east end of Wadi Rum Protected Area.
We are all in the vehicle for a 9 a.m. start, slathered in 70-power sunscreen and wearing our Panama hats. Omar has been observed carefully checking fluid coolant levels in the Toyota, and loading insulated picnic chests into the cab. We each clutch a large plastic bottle of Jordan water as we motor on out of the camp.
We press on to a fork in the ruts, and a left turn which takes us north to a natural sandstone bridge, rising perhaps 50 feet above us. “We’ll stop here so you can climb it if you want. Or you can have tea . . .” Gazing around I notice yet another Bedouin communal tent in front of us, set in the shade of a rocky outcrop.
My daughter and I scramble out of Oscara for a try at the bridge. I chicken out about halfway up. It is just too steep, even with the age-old handholds that have been cut out of the sandstone cliff face. Up above, my daughter smiles down at me. “Dad, it’s really wide up here . . .” I smile back, but make my way down to the tea tent to join my wife.
Another young Bedouin man is talking with Omar over black tea. As soon as I sit cross-legged on the carpets, I am offered one too. “Welcome to my camp!” is smilingly spoken my way.
- After a brief visit we are on the trek again, this time heading for a large panel of petroglyphs (rock carvings) made by the old camel caravans as they passed through Wadi Rum. As we drive along the rut-track, I wonder what would happen if Oscara broke down in this outback. Reassuringly, I see Omar through the cab’s rear window, happily talking on his cell phone. Shortly after, we see the dust plume of another Bedouin Toyota curling up the road ahead. We are not alone.
Omar slowly pulls over beside a striking sheet of sandstone in a smallish canyon flanked by a huge dune of red sand. First, we all gather by a panel of magnificent carvings. I count 15 camels walking right to left, about five feet above our heads. Two mother camels are suckling youngsters; several have boxy burdens on their backs; two have riders; and one may be towing a cart. A group of stick figure men are apparently fighting behind a large camel at the head of the caravan.
“These are all signs,” says Omar. “They explain how far we are from water, what lies ahead, and some battles over territory are also described.” We carefully photograph the panel, and are pondering its significance in the 38-degree heat as two new truckloads of cultural tourists pull up. I can’t help thinking they are intruding in ‘our’ space.
The big red dune is looming opposite us and, despite the heat, I head over to climb it. I proceed in segments up its flank, slowly reaching the top where an unobstructed view leads the eye to even more distant sandstone peaks. At my feet are the sand-stubbed butts of countless tourist cigarettes.
Another group has arrived below, and they are beginning their dune ascent as I lope down to the canyon floor. We mount up under Oscara’s sun canopy, and head off now for “Lawrence’s house.”
Omar is careful to point out upon our arrival in yet another parched valley system, that the stone structure in front of us was built by Nabataean stonesmiths 2,000 years ago – not by T.E. Lawrence. Its closely fitted and perfectly level stone courses are a work of art. “He merely camped here to be present on the main caravan route north to Damascus and south to Aqaba.” From this viewpoint he could intercept and meet with all of the travelers through these passes as he built Arab allegiances with the British cause against the Ottoman Empire from 1916 to 1918.
“Walk about and see if you can connect with his spirit. Soon we must find shade to cook our lunch.”
Troy Media columnist Mike Robinson has lived half of his life in Alberta and half in BC. In Calgary he worked for eight years in the oil patch, 14 in academia, and eight years as a cultural CEO. Now back In Vancouver, he is still a cultural CEO, but also has business interests in a resource company and mutual funds.