The Desert with it’s wide open space that’s subtly but constantly changing, every gust of wind transforming, grains of sand shifting incessantly, had gotten deep beneath my skin and firmly had a grip on my soul from time spent on the fringes of the Great Sandy Desert in Australia, and now it was calling me back. I’ve always been intrigued by the romanticism of a nomadic life, moving from place to place, following the ebb and flow of life and nature, free as the wind dancing through the air. Perhaps it’s something inherent in my genetic code, our origins as Hunters and Gatherers still dominantly coursing through my veins or perhaps it’s my gypsy heart and its constant need to wander and discover the secrets of this world, either way I’ve always believed if we were meant to remain in one place we would possess roots instead of feet. In ancient times most people settled by water sources such as rivers, setting up roots and formulating communities and towns……..but not the Bedouin, they preferred to live in the open spaces of the Desert, nomads wandering through the sands, conjuring up images of romance and mystique as they caravanned through a landscape as arid and dangerous as it is majestic and alluring.
The small village of Rum was a welcome sight after a dry and dusty drive along the Desert Highway, a smattering of concrete houses, shops and a guest house situated on the edges of the “Valley of the Moon” would be the last traces of civilisation as we knew it for the next six days. I along with my six fellow riders were eager to get out of the steel confines of the mini bus and into the saddle, to experience Wadi Rum from the back of a noble Arab, to lose oneself in the enigmatic Desert.
The inhabitants of Rum village come from a few different tribes, the Zalabia tribe govern most of the activities and excursions in the Desert and thus the phrase “here’s my cousin” would be something we would hear quite frequently over the next few days. Dressed in a traditional djellabaya and smagg, Falah our guide met us at the entrance to the stables smiling brightly, a living embodiment of the Bedouins kind hospitality. Joining us would be his brother Hammad and cousin Awad with Christophé the chef and Wadi the dog……….although dogs are not held in very high esteem amongst the Muslim faith, the Bedouin believe that dogs keep the evil spirits of the wolves at bay and would thus protect our travelling camp.
The dainty, beautiful faces of the Arabian horses peeked curiously over the stable doors, their wide eyed stares drinking us in and I could not wait to get started. The Bedouin, like a lot of other Arab cultures, do not believe in castrating their horses……..stallions remain stallions and are ridden and used in trail rides as such. They are allowed fight to establish their pecking order and once dominance is asserted it is respected and left unquestioned within the stallion population. Of course one must always be careful when riding with a mixture of stallions and mares……..stallions should be kept distant from one another, horses living in the wild naturally would have one stallion to a harem group of mares, it’s a very unusual situation to have a group of mares with two or more stallions. We were riding with two stallions and six mares, we would definitely be kept on our toes!
I was teamed with a beautiful, dainty little grey mare called Zerga, I’ve always held a deep love for the Arab horse, one of the oldest breeds of this world and for me I find them to be extremely intelligent with hearts full of passion willing to please and eager to form a great connection with humans. Life in the Desert is hard, the Bedouins selectively bred for traits including an ability to form a cooperative relationship with humans. It is often said that Bedouins in the Arabian desert took their most prized horses into their tents with them at night to provide them with shelter and protect them from theft. It’s this historical co-existence between human and horse that really spoke to me about this particular ride and I was ready to explore the Wadi Rum from the pedestal of Zerga’s back.
“And Allah took a handful of southerly wind,
blew His breath over it, and created the horse.
He said to the magnificent creature,
‘I have made thee as no other.
All the treasures of the earth lie between thy eyes.
Thou shall carry my friends upon thy back.
Thy saddle shall be the seat of prayers to me.
Thou shall fly without wings,
and conquer without any sword. Oh, horse.'”
Soon the crude gravel road gave way to the deep, plunging sands of Wadi Rum, horses stepping high, heads and tails poised, a vision of regal beauty as we dotted the vast arid landscape, Zerga grasping at the bit, impatient to return deep into her Desert Kingdom.
Our days were spent criss- crossing the open emptiness of the desert, meandering around the many dramatic sandstone mountains, snaking through rocky caverns and steep chasms and marvelling at the many natural arches and windows to the soul of this dramatic moon landscape such as the Burdah Rock Bridge, following in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia. The heat was extreme, the sun violent and moody, glaring heavily upon us, its golden fingers stretching through chiselled siqs, vengeful as we tried to find shade. We enjoyed leisurely lunches by cool rocky crevices, replenishing our thirst with sweet cardamom tea. It was unnaturally hot for the time of year Falah explained, and water was in extremely short supply. It had been ten years since the last proper rainfall that covered the mountains in a light dusting of green vegetation, and two years since any meaningful rain fell. The wells were empty, barren and bone dry. The remaining Bedouin who still lived a nomadic existence in the Wadi Rum were suffering, but they remained silent and stoic in their hardships, offering tea and food to us as we passed. In the Desert hospitality is survival, food and water is always offered to revellers whom pass by your door in the hope than when you yourself are in need, help will be at hand. For the most part we were alone; the traditional black Goat Hair Tents of the Nomadic families infrequently interrupted the dramatic landscape of the Wadi Rum, the only other sign of life. Occasionally some local Bedouin would lope by on camel back, the splendid white of their djellabaya and aymemma contrasting beautifully with the rich reds and yellows of the grains of sand, the Ships of the Desert floating seamlessly.
At dusk, as the sun melted beneath the horizon we sat cross legged by the fire enjoying traditional Bedouin barbeque, eating from a central platter, cutlery optional all washed down with the infamous Bedouin sweet tea………on occasion the elixir from the desert, fresh camel milk was produced. Sometimes another cousin, Awad, would join us and play the lute, its delicate notes dancing through the still air, a haunting sound punctuating the deep silence of the desert, singing songs and reciting poetry, offering us a brief glimpse into the oral traditions of the Bedouin. Often we would play cards, the stakes always the same as Falah declared……”If I win, you prepare my horse, if I lose……you prepare my horse!” And every night I would rest my head upon my pillow, and marvel at the skies above, millions and millions of stars burned brightly overhead, far away from any light pollution the inky night sky was ablaze, the moon casting a ghostly glow upon our horses as the sound of the crackling fire lulled me to sleep.
Six days passed by too quickly in a place where time seems to stand still, the final gallop towards Rum and civilisation, sand spraying from beneath our horses hooves was poignant but also triumphant…….my soul had been stripped back to basics in the Desert, I’d immersed myself completely and wholeheartedly into another culture, I had become the nomadic traveller of old, combing the sands of the Desert with my trusty steed by my side.
Wadi Rum Ride November 2009.
Author: Janine Whyte (Indiananeeners Globetrotting Cowgirl.)