|" O thou that
dwellest in the clefts of the rock, that holdest the height of the
hill: though thou shouldst make thy nest as high as the eagle, I
will bring thee down from thence, saith the LORD. Also Edom
shall be a desolation: every one that goeth by it shall be
astonished, and shall hiss at all the plagues thereof...no man shall
abide there, neither shall a son of man dwell in it."
"There is nowhere in the world where the moon hangs so close and so bright as in the desert, and there is such silence that the very sound of it seems to enter the soul."
Mary S. Lovell, A Scandalous Life
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5th August to 6th
‘Welcome to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan’ said the sign, the one just after the giant, smiling King Abdullah. You have to feel sorry for Sealeah Myranda. Through much diligent research she’s become a bona fide expert on the grasses of Europe and the Middle East. In Syria she’d learned that the Arabic word for grass – even though there wasn’t any - is ‘hashish’, so perhaps it’s understandable that when she saw the welcome sign she misread it as ‘Hashishemite Kingdom’; her ears pricked up, her pace quickened, her hopes soared. But from the top of the ridge, looking far to the south, these youthful hopes were dashed: there wasn’t a blade of green to be seen, just the same old yellows and browns as Syria.
It was while she was still trying to come to terms with this bitter disappointment that a man in uniform with a machine gun started touching her up, poking her legs and pointing to various bits of her anatomy. “Arabi aseel (purebred Arab),” he proudly informed us, “this horse is arabi aseel!” As dumb tourists from a faraway land, there’s no way we could have known this. We thanked him for his advice, made our excuses and left. There’s something about people who work at border posts.
About a week later, somewhere in the maze of hills and valleys west of Amman, Lisa was struck by a sudden realisation: “Do you know, I think this is the first day in Jordan that we haven’t been stoned.” And this had nothing to with grass. Very occasionally in Turkey or Syria the odd child had decided to try and impress his mates by lobbing a small rock in our direction. But here we’d had trouble everyday and it was more malicious, sometimes just one boy on his own rushing out from a house, finding a stone and lobbing it at the horses.
Unfortunately the regular stonings were just one of a number of elements that combined to leave us with a poor first impression of Jordan. On a blistering hot day we were twice refused water for the horses; a roadside fruit seller tried to charge me ten times the going rate for a kilo of apples; finding places to stop for a night became a struggle again. We were surprised because a trip to the south of Jordan a decade ago had left us with only fond memories of the hospitality.
To be fair, it was extremely bad luck for Jordan to have to follow Syria; we must have become spoiled. In Syria, how could we worry about somewhere to stay when all day people would beg us to come to ‘al beit (the house)’? In Syria, people just offered us everything they thought we might need: food, water, a wash for us, a wash for our clothes. In Syria, our biggest problem was persuading our hosts that they’d done more than enough for us, that we actually wanted to sleep out by the horses rather than on a comfortable mattress in the house. Yes, come to think of it, Syria had well and truly spoiled us. If we’d come straight to Jordan from Britain, we’d probably be raving about the friendly greetings, the gifts of grapes and apples, the constant interest in our journey.
At Jarash, known for its well preserved Roman city, we were looking for a base to rest for a few days. We found it but then had to go searching for horse food. I set off in a taxi and kept being directed to “the Gazza Camp, many horses there in the Gazza Camp”. I couldn’t understand why the famous Geordie footballer had chosen Jarash for a summer coaching camp and, even more perplexing, what was he doing with the horses? When I got there, all was revealed. It was, in fact, the ‘Gaza Camp’, home to thousands of 1967 Palestinian refugees. At another camp across town the refugees have been there since 1948 and have only recently been allowed to put a second floor on their houses. The taxi driver told me of a six year old boy here who’d told him “this isn’t my home,” then pointed to a key hanging on the wall, “that’s the key to my real home, in Gaza.”
Moving on from Jarash, we decided to give Amman and its traffic a wide berth. I’d had enough of roads and even Lisa must have had the highway blues, you can tell by the way she smiles. So we risked a direct, cross-country route and were immediately punished for our impudence.
The river (Nahr az-zarqa) looked innocent enough on our free (and contour-free) tourist map but the reality was what we had to ride across and the reality was a river at the bottom of a deep gorge. As often happens, blind faith and optimism got the better of common sense so, instead of backtracking and taking the long way round, we plunged headlong into the gorge. But everything that looked possible from above proved impossible when we came up close. In the blazing heat of the afternoon we sweated up and down the steep rocky hillside, searching for a safe way down between cliffs. Tired and thirsty – and helped by some bemused looking goat boys - we eventually found one as darkness fell, only to find that the river was black and stinking, nothing but raw sewage. Where are the water engineers when you need them? We had no choice but to carry on upstream to the King Talal dam where the water was at least clean and we could bivouac. We had nothing but a bag of straw for the horses. After twelve hours of effort, we’d ended up thirteen kilometres from where we’d started that morning. Here endeth the first hard lesson on the terrain of Jordan.
Another day, another wadi (valley). But this time we had it easy because we were following it down, not trying to cross it. Wadi Shu-ayb took us down, a long way down, past the ‘Sea Level’ marker and down into the forty degree heat and forty million flies of the Jordan Valley, just north of the Dead Sea. We spent the night at an altitude of -220m, a low point to be sure, looking across to the west bank and the lights of Jerusalem and Ramallah.
Next day we climbed all the way back up again, a 1000m haul up to the plateau at Madaba. Our route took us via Mount Nebo where, very shortly before cashing in his chips, Moses looked down and saw ‘the promised land’. We strained our eyes but couldn’t see it. Maybe it was the heat haze. Where was the Mynnydd Ddu? Where was Trichrug? Carreg Cennen on its limestone crag, normally distinctive, was nowhere to be seen. Where were the grazed-smooth tops of the Myddfai? Where was the lovely Sawdde and its wooded valley? Where were the green fields, the oak trees, the thick hedges? If Moses had only carried on another 5,528 miles, taken the A4069 Llangadog road south from Brynaman and pulled in at the carpark - the one with the ice cream van - then he would have had a really tidy view of it.
From Mount Nebo we more or less followed Moses’ route in reverse, all the way to the Red Sea. Someone had advised us not to go this way (The King’s Highway) because it was too long and too much up and down. “The Desert Highway is much quicker,” he said. But travelling by horse helps you to realise why one route has been used for thousands of years and the others haven’t: there’s water, there’s fodder and it’s cooler high up on the plateau. Hannah and Sealeah were coping remarkably well with the August heat but you can’t go far on a horse without food or water, they just don’t like it.
Our adviser had been spot on, however, about the up and downiness. Or rather the down and uppiness, because the plateau is cut by a series of big wadis that you have to descend first before slogging back up. Our route ran north to south but all the wadis, most inconveniently, drained east to west, between the desert and the Dead Sea. The most dramatic of these, the ‘Grand Canyon of Jordan’, is Wadi Mujib and very impressive it is too. We reached its northern edge at sunset to see the walls of the gorge bathed in magic-hour light. Mesmerised by the beauty, we just kept going down. The canyon is 4km across and 1km deep but the road takes 25km to hairpin its way from one rim to the other. Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a great surprise to find that the lovely evening light rapidly turned into no light at all, before we were even half way down. The only water was at the bottom; it was another long day.
After this extra effort from our chestnut companions we gave them an easy time next day, stopping at the Trajan Rest House which is perched on the southern rim. In the afternoon we watched big birds of prey circling on the thermals and gliding effortlessly across the gorge. At night an extra large moon rose and filled the whole canyon to the brim with silver, an unforgettable sight.
Most nights along the King’s Highway we camped on stubble and asked for straw and water from Bedouin families nearby. Their tents were everywhere, some made of goat hair, others of hessian or plastic sacks stitched together. Their sheep, goats and donkeys grazed the stubble down to the dust. There were almost as many children as there were goats and believe me, there were lots of goats. Our own child-free status was met with utter astonishment and incomprehension: “Why?” “What’s wrong?” “Can’t the doctor help?” We tried to explain, but a camel would have an easier time passing through the eye of a rich man (or something). Far better to just say “Ma sha’Allah (God’s will be done)” and cast a glance skywards. The Bedouin are, of course, extraordinarily hospitable: their endless glasses of sweet black tea kept our energy levels high and Sealeah’s looks always caught their eye (sorry Hannah, you’re only a ‘half’ remember).
To understand why the Bedouin like to live out in the peace of the desert you just need to go through a town. The noise is enough to get your head pounding. Tafila was similar in many ways to other Jordanian towns we’d been forced to enter. Outside a shop on the left are Mr Shouty and Mr Shoutier, shouting about something that might possibly be important but probably isn’t. In front of a café on the right Mr Shoutlouder and Mr Evenshoutierstill are doing the same only with more feeling. When we pass, the shouting becomes friendly and is directed at us: “HELLOOO! WELCOME IN JORDAN! HOW ARE YOOOOOOU!”
[It should be noted at this stage that nearly everyone we meet wants to try out their English on us. For one young man in Tafila this appeared to be limited to a single word. He approached Sealeah and me and tried it out: “horse?” he asked. The sarcastic devil inside was tempted to say “no mate, it’s a duck-billed platypus, I’m just taking her for a walk”. But luckily good defeated evil so I just nodded and smiled, remembering how bad and limited my Arabic must sound.]
Behind us trails the usual posse of screaming, singing, shouting boys. One of them picks up a stone and…. “Who threw that? Come on, own up, who threw it? Nobody, I repeat, nobody is to throw any stones until I say so!” My almost faultless John Cleese impression is wasted on them; is Life of Brian not yet available on DVD with Arabic subtitles? I must have a word with King Abdullah about that, see if he can pull a few strings. At the same time, every single scooter, moped, motorbike, car, pickup, jeep, minivan, van, microbus, minibus, bus, lorry and wagon beeps its horn as many times as it possibly can in the short period of time available to it as it passes us. The drivers smile and wave; the horses jump an extra three feet in the air with the shock of an even louder multi-tonal musical horn than the ones they’ve already become used to. The really huge wagons like to blast a deafening hiss from their air brakes so they can slow down and thereby acquire more horn beeping time while they overtake us.
Yes, Tafila was a noisy experience. After stocking up with barley, again requiring a deviation into the charming back streets of the Palestinian quarter, we somehow managed to pick up a three vehicle, eight man police escort. They kept overtaking us and then pulling in, forcing us to pull out into the traffic to get past again. We took advantage of the darkness on the e-e-e-e-edge of town and lost them by escaping down a side road. We’d found a stubble patch for the night, made a pen, pitched the tent, bought some straw, carried some water and explained the concept of Wales to the neighbours before the police finally found us and kicked up a fuss. They only wanted to protect us from bad peoples, they said. In the end things calmed down and we were allowed to stay, providing we agreed to another police escort the next day. We did, knowing well that they’d very soon get bored of driving at 5 kilometres per hour and leave us alone. With the police gone, we were just starting to think that some peace might finally descend when...BANG! A wedding party had begun at a house over the road: two hours of fireworks and machine gun fire!
Another day along the King’s road took us to Dana, one of very few remaining stone villages in Jordan – what a pleasant change from the flat-roof concrete box with sticky up steel bars design seen everywhere else. The village is tucked below the rim of the plateau with stunning views down Wadi Dana - a protected nature reserve - to Wadi Araba, the big valley running from Seas Red to Dead. We stayed for three days in the height of luxury (i.e. showers, real food etc) at the Dana Hotel with our tent pitched on the flat roof overlooking Hannah and Sealeah in the backyard. Within ten minutes of arrival, Lisa had been asked to look at every horse in the village and she ended up spending her rest period on various farriery and veterinary tasks for horses that, as far as we could see, were used primarily for a five minute canter up the road every morning.
South of Dana the riding just got better and better. On perfect going we cantered to Shobak and camped beneath its crusader castle, another in the long line that have dotted our path all the way from Turkey. My afternoon quest for straw and barley took me to the home of a man who loved ‘Britanya’ because he’d fought alongside the British Army in Transjordan and Palestine in 1942. He was getting on a bit now but he didn’t look quite as worn out as his neighbour, a man with four wives and forty kids, all in one house!
From Shobak we dropped off the plateau again and followed tracks with fantastic views westward, down over a sea of rocky summits and domes to the hazy expanse of Wadi Araba, thousands of feet below. We passed Bedouin tents with the usual herds of goats grazing what appeared to be rocks. Now there were more camels around too, giving Hannah further opportunities to decide whether or not she can really trust such strange looking creatures. At midday we reached an abandoned village which, thanks to a spring, was a paradisical oasis of greenery. My diary for the day says “Stop Press! Grass discovered in the Middle East!” It was indeed a shock, albeit a very pleasant one, to find horse food simply growing out of the ground. We took an afternoon off to let Hannah and Sealeah remember what it’s like to graze, while we dozed under a fig tree and then ate too much of its fruit. The tranquil scene was only temporarily interrupted by a passing herd of goats accompanied by a mad shouting goat woman with a thick red woolen jumper folded in half twice and balanced on her head.
At Ain Musa, the head of the valley running down to the famous Nabatean city of Petra, we took a couple more days rest to find out as much as we could about the route to the south. Petra had been built and had prospered here for good reason: from here on the going for trade caravans across the desert got tough but, for a very reasonable fee, the nice Nabateans would make sure everything ran smoothly while you were on their patch. Despite the occasional piece of good fortune, it had been getting increasingly difficult to find horse food and water as we moved south. A camel may be able to go for three days without water but try that with a horse and they’d get quite upset. A few days earlier Hannah had warned us about her sensitive body’s requirement for constant fibre by having a mild colic episode; we didn’t want another. After a lot of talking to people and scribbling on maps, I was eventually persuaded that there’d be enough small villages and Bedouin around to attempt an all off-road route, through the mountains and across the desert to Aqaba about five or six days ride away.
We needn’t have worried about water at all if Moses had been with us. Ain Musa means Moses’ Spring and it was here that the great man struck a rock and…whoosh…out came water. Cool! Jesus may have been able to turn water into wine but Moses’ trick is a lot handier when you don’t have any water in the first place. If only the two of them had been around at the same time…no, stop, that’s just getting greedy. Quite a long stone’s throw – maybe a catapult projection – uphill from the site of Moses’ aquatic miracle, we found a fine solution to our equine accommodation problem: a cave. Now I have often been known to rant against horses (born to run) being kept in stables, on the grounds that a stable is like a cave and that it’s man, not horse, who is the cave dweller. But Hannah and Sealeah mocked this theory by being quite happy in their cave: it was in the shade all day, the view out wasn’t bad and Lisa kept bringing armfuls of delicious ‘burseem’ (alfalfa). They didn’t even mind me calling them ‘The Neandarthals’ for a few days until I got bored of that and thought up some other names.
Sadly, our stay in Ain Musa was marred by a nasty incident. We had been using the facilities at a nearby hotel and Lisa had been returning from here in the dark when a man ran up behind her on the unlit track to our cave. Frightened, Lisa shouted at him to leave her alone and quickened her pace. But he caught up with her and then grabbed her between the legs. I heard Lisa’s scream and sprinted down the track. When the man saw me he immediately turned and ran off the only way he could, back towards the main road. Before reaching the road he ran behind a mosque and into a clump of trees before emerging, cool as a cucumber and walking casually up to a police post on an island in the middle of the road. I had been shouting at top volume as I chased the man and one of the policemen immediately grabbed him. The man’s tactics had clearly been to make out that he was innocent and simply being chased down the road by a madman. His statement to the police later confirmed this. Under the light of the street lamp we could see that the man was tall but young. He looked about seventeen or eighteen but someone in the crowd said he was only fourteen. Lisa was understandably furious and had to be restrained from punching him. A police car arrived and they were both taken down to the station. After making statements, the boy was put in a cell for the night and Lisa delivered back to her cave.
The next day was taken over completely by endless visits from the boy’s relatives and repeated trips to the police station. It was a revealing insight into both the local culture and the workings of their justice system. At first light the boy’s father came round, threw himself to the ground and kissed my feet - how lucky was it for him that this was a rest stop and I’d only recently had a shower? He then suggested that he bring the boy round and allow me to beat him senseless with a stick, then we could all be friends. Lisa, of course, was completely ignored; she didn’t even come into it as far as they were concerned; it was almost as though the offence had been against me.
All day various
delegations of brothers and uncles and cousins arrived. He was just
a boy, they said, he didn’t know what he was doing, we should ask
the police to let him go. “So how would you feel,” I asked one of
them, “if somebody did this to your wife?” “I would have to kill
him” he replied, in a manner which left me in no doubt that he was
deadly serious. Other people said “our women never go out alone, why
was she alone?”
All Lisa wanted was for the boy to have a record with the police so that he would no longer have the ‘first offence’ excuse and maybe this would put him off a repeat and so protect other women. She was concerned that if I hadn’t been within earshot things may have gone a lot further. But the police said Lisa either had to completely drop it, in which case the boy would have no record, or pursue it to the stage of a hearing before ‘The Prosecutor’. Lisa was assured that at the hearing she would be able to state that she wanted no punishment for the boy other than that of a permanent record. The hearing was arranged for 9pm that evening.
We attended separately so that one of us could guard the horses, still happy in their cave and blissfully ignorant of the whole affair. There was a delay while the police tried to find a bible for Lisa to swear on. Those who know Lisa will be aware that she’s quite happy to swear without a bible being present but the police weren’t to know this. After a while Lisa suggested that as it was the same God we were dealing with, a Koran would suit her just as well. They agreed with this logic but then they couldn’t find a Koran either so we all had to hold our hands over an imaginary book and “swear by the great God to tell the truth.”
Lisa had to pick the boy out of an identity parade of five. The police had cunningly put his distinctive stripy T-shirt on one of the other men but Lisa pointed him out straight away. Later, when it was my turn, I was asked if I could do the same. But they must have let the other four go home for dinner by then because my identity parade was a parade of one, not too tricky even if it was past my bedtime. Another crack that allowed some light into the gloomy proceedings was the translator Captain Faras’s ambitious, but not always successful, attempts at some of the longer English words. He was keen to improve and asked to be corrected when necessary.
“I think the boy’s family is
very pathetic to you” was one example. “Errr…sympathetic?” I
volunteered “Ah yes, very good, sympathetic, sympathetic, very
Leaving Ain Musa the next morning we had every intention of following the sensible high-level path that had been described to me. But we couldn’t help thinking about Petra, the ‘rose red city half as old as time’. To ride from Wales and bypass Petra by a couple of kilometres? We’d probably have regretted it until we were half as old as time ourselves. So we changed plans, obtained special permission from an important man with a big desk and found ourselves riding down the Great Siq, past the stunning Al Khazneh (Treasury) and into the heart of the ruined Nabatean city. A beautiful Arabian city on a beautiful Arabian horse; you only live once.
Turning south we soon left the tourist hordes behind and followed a good trail towards Jebel Haroun (Mount Hor in the bible) where Moses’ brother Aaron came to pop his clogs (it seems that both brothers were keen on mountaineering). Where the path up the mountain swung west, we continued south down a steep side valley into Wadi Sabra. Now Wadi Sabra has a wild feeling about it; alone in the desert and surrounded by towering red-rock walls, we suddenly felt quite small. We’d ridden in but could we ride out?
We’d risked this route on the dubious basis of having a walking guidebook which referred to ‘an ancient caravan route to the south of Sabra’. But a reconnaissance on foot showed the only way out to the south to be a narrow twisting rock canyon. Perhaps the ancients used caravans of rucksack-wearing monkeys? Or specially trained goats with mini pack saddles? Fortunately there was a spring at Sabra and some reeds that the horses were pretending was real food. So we decided to bivouac and put off the hard decision until tomorrow.
Even more fortunately, I discovered a Bedouin family just downstream – mother, father, son, twenty goats and a donkey – all of them hiding under a single palm tree. They cleaned out a rusty old tin with a filthy rag and a generous gob of saliva (don’t worry, it works, I’ve done it myself) and filled it with chai for me. By means of a hard work combination of my bad Arabic and sketching lines in the sand, the old man confirmed that there were no horse able routes out to the south. Instead we would have to go west into Wadi Abu Khusheibeh before there was any feasible way to escape. Even this route, he said, was only just possible for donkeys and maybe too hard for horses. What’s more, he kept shaking his head and saying that it was “ba’id” (far). But we know all about ‘far’ and Hannah and Sealeah’s scrambling skills have been honed on many a mountain range. So we decided to go for it, anything to avoid backtracking.
Next day we found the tiny path, complete with reassuring evidence of past donkey usage, and followed its intricate way up and out of Wadi Sabra. Walking over sandstone domes and surrounded by wild and rugged rock peaks, we had the uneasy feeling of being somewhere that horses shouldn’t really be. But it was fantastic all the same: the four of us alone in the sharp early morning light, tiny dots moving through a big landscape.
The old man had been right about the ‘far’. It was a relief when we reached a good track leading down into Wadi Abu Khusheibeh. This valley is thought to have been one of the ancient trade routes on the way from Babylon to Egypt via Petra. Old habits must die hard because at the first tent we reached, a woman tried to trade a pair of her husband’s completely worn out and damaged trousers for some of our hard cash. I commented on their poor condition. “But look at the state of yours! Look at that! And that! And that bit there!” she said, pointing at the numerous patches and holes and rips in my legwear. She did have a point but this was coming from a woman whose five kids were grubbing around half naked in the sand, completely trouser-free! And how could she possibly have appreciated the emotional value of a pair of trousers that have covered my legs since home, since Day 1, since we left the promised land? These trousers have survived maulings by Romanian thorn bushes and frenzied Bulgarian guard dogs. Did she really think I was just going to abandon them in this hostile desert? And with the finish line now only days away?
She clearly thought I was mad, especially considering the extortionate price I’d just been prepared to pay her for a miserly amount of straw and barley. By now it was mid-afternoon and we still had 25km to go to reach Bir Hamad (Hamad’s Well), the next source of water and a place where we’d been assured there’d be Bedouin living. From where we were there was an asphalt road all the way but it was a long hard uphill slog under a burning sun. Dusk brought some relief from the heat but the road kept climbing and we climbed into the darkness. Only moments before the dark became pitch dark we spotted a huge water tank down below the road and stumbled down to it. Hannah and Sealeah drank, and drank, and then drank some more. Sealeah (aka The Bristol Dribbler) then dribbled most of it back out over my T-shirt which, as luck would have it, needed a bit of a wash. Then we drank and it was better than wine. If Jesus had been around I may well have had to ask him to hold back for a bit.
Thirsts quenched; next
problem: where the hell are all the people? Then, out of the
darkness came a light. A tiny pool of torchlight was making its way
towards us. Attached to the torch was an arm and, not far behind
that, an old man. We were so glad to see him.
With the first glimmer of morning light we were up and away, down the track. We reached a Bedouin settlement and literally begged for some straw. “La, ma fi tibin hon ” (no, there’s no straw here) we were told. Lisa refused to take no for an answer and marched off to ask at some other tents. “We’re not moving an inch,” she said, “until those horses have had some food.” More “ma fi”s. Finally, one old man said he loved horses and would spare her a bit of straw from his secret stash. Lisa returned relieved and at last, after a terrible gap of nearly twenty hours, we were able to get some food into the poor horses.
After a good long refuelling and watering stop we continued south on jeep tracks into a wide open bowl of desert ringed by mountains. On our left they formed the edge of the plateau carrying the highway, the one we’d left behind in search of greater adventure. On our right, the rock peaks guarded the entrance to valleys carving their way down to Wadi Araba. But our enjoyment of the landscape was extinguished as instantly as a room is plunged into darkness by the flick of a light switch: Sealeah was going into colic; the nightmare had begun.
We reached some Bedouin tents, threw off the tack and asked for water. It was midday, the sun was merciless and there was no shade. The next twelve hours brought nothing but agony and torment; Sealeah grew worse and worse. We put a stomach tube down to dose her with electrolytes and then left it in with a valve attached to allow gas to escape. She went down, got up, went down again, rolled. Over and over again. She couldn’t escape the pain. There was no clinical evidence that this was a surgical colic but we wanted to get her to a clinic where we could drip her. We realised that we were going to need some help. Somebody ran off to fetch a mobile. We rang Dr Ali, the vet at the Brooke Hospital Clinic near Petra. He said there was no clinic in Jordan that could do colic surgery, there was no point taking her anywhere in a truck, he would come out and bring drip fluids and more drugs. Now we had nothing to lose by giving Sealeah a good painkiller. But the pain must have been intense because she continued to throw herself around. Now we were really worried; there was nothing more Lisa could do until the drip fluids arrived. All the indicators showed rapid deterioration, we just had to get fluids into her. The wait seemed interminable but finally, in the fading light, we saw the dust plume from Dr Ali’s pickup blazing across the desert; help would soon be here.
The first drip was broken during an extra violent thrashing episode. More painkillers. The second attempt worked and slowly, very slowly, the drips flowed, the fluid level in the bags went down and the fluid level in Sealeah went up. By now it was dark and several more pickups and jeeps had arrived. There was an army camp nearby and the men from Special Forces had come straight over to help. Engines were left running and all headlights turned on the patient. I wasn’t aware until afterwards who all these people were, they were just a background blur. But it struck me how readily so many people had pitched in to help, doing whatever they could and asking if they could do any more. The hours passed and the drips flowed until nearly the full twenty litres had gone in. Sealeah was well hydrated but the whole time she had been getting worse. Gut sounds were now zero, the colour of her gums was awful, and it was only the regular inputs of painkillers that kept her from rolling in agony. I sat in the sand and held her beautiful head in my hands. “She’s just not improving”, said Lisa, “we’re going to have to think about how much more pain we should let her suffer”. She turned to Dr Ali. “Do you have a gun?” “No, but the Bedouin here will have one, somebody will have one.”
The words were like knife wounds. We were going to lose her like we’d lost Audin, but this time it was very different, this time is was our fault. We’d gambled and lost. We’d wanted to go alone with no support, like we had done since Day 1. We’d wanted an adventurous route. Now, sitting in the desert, faced with a dying horse, faced with losing another loyal friend, these ideals seemed ludicrous. If we lost her, I made up my mind to just crawl off into the desert and stop living. Lisa and Ali were discussing another option: putting a metal tube in Sealeah’s side to release the trapped gas that was causing all the trouble. Ali wasn’t happy because it virtually never works, the horse still dies. But as a last resort ? Lisa began disinfecting a patch of skin on Sealeah’s flank and getting some instruments ready. I was just numb. After all we’d been through I couldn’t accept that we were going to lose her.
But then a turning point. The last dose of painkiller had worn off but she’d remained relatively calm. The tiny burps of gas coming down her stomach tube became bigger and more frequent. The last drip was squeezed from the last drip bag and we led her off for a walk. Earlier, Lisa had put some local anaesthetic solution into the drip bag. This reduces gut pain and can stimulate movement of the intestines, exactly what was needed to shift the gas. It doesn’t always work but we were counting on it. Suddenly, another glimmer of hope: a fart. A small one but a fart is a fart. Better out than in (as they say). “Sealy farted!” Lisa shouted. The assembled Bedouin laughed. She farted again and it was bigger this time. “Sealy farted!” said one of the men, very pleased with this new addition to his English vocabulary. Now everyone was laughing. We trotted her around. More farts. She went down and rolled then just lay on her side in the sand. Everyone crowded round, anxious again. Then it came. The biggest, longest, loudest, most utterly beautiful fart that’s ever been farted in the long history of farting. It just went on for ever; all that horrible trapped gas was finally escaping. “SEALY FARTED!” shouted ten Bedouin voices in unison. Laugh? I nearly farted.
At three in the morning we finally lay down outside Salaama’s tent. With Hannah and Sealeah tethered beside us, we listened to a wonderful duet: two horses, both of them eating. With Sealeah alive again, the million stars above us were more beautiful than ever.
Salaama was about the most laid back, friendly, generous person you could imagine. We needed to give Sealeah a few days to fully recover. “Stay for a month,” he said, “no problem!” His home was a tent of two halves: one half was for women and children, the other was for the men and it was here that all the serious tea drinking work was done. Like the glass and half of milk in every Cadbury’s chocolate bar, there was a glass and a half of sugar in every pot of Salaama’s tea. The army boys came round for breakfast. “Sealy good?” they asked, “Sealy farted?” Salaama pointed to one of the soldiers. “Look,” he said “too much moustache.” He had a point; it was way bushier than your average ‘tache, verging on a full handlebar in fact. In a ‘Dances with Wolves’ kind of way, the name stuck. Too Much Moustache had been in the thick of the action in last night’s battle to save Sealeah and we thanked him for it.
But he still wanted to do more and so drove off in his Land Rover to get us some bales of alfalfa. Those few days spent living with Salaama and his family and friends were a special time, more interesting insights into how others live their lives. We made new friends among the Bedouin of Humeimah and were pleased to accept their offer of delivering some hay and water by pickup to our next planned stop at Jebel Kharazeh. From now on we were more than happy to enjoy the final few days ride to Aqaba without living in fear of dehydration or colic.
Through the desert to Kharazeh and south to Shacria, the sandstone peaks grew in density, size and beauty. Crossing the Hejaz Railway, we entered the awe-inspiring valley of Wadi Rum. We were now on familiar ground, having spent a couple of weeks climbing here in 1996, but it was still amazing to be riding down the middle of this ‘vast, echoing and Godlike’ valley, as T.E.Lawrence (of Arabia) described it.
After a final,
peaceful, simple night in the desert south of Rum, there was a long
steady climb to a col at 1000m. How many passes had we crossed since
leaving home, I wondered? Plenty, but this was the last; it was all
downhill from here. During the First World War, when Lawrence of
Arabia and Faisal’s soldiers of the Arab Revolt rode from Wadi Rum
to take Aqaba from the Ottomans, they came to a halt when faced with
their first view of the town.
In a few hours the long descent was over. In fact, it was all over; after five hundred and ten days and five thousand eight hundred and seventy miles, this was it: The End. We crossed the beach and waded into the warm, tropical water. We couldn’t swim because there was a coral reef in the way; you don’t get that problem down on the Gower. We were happy but we weren’t jumping for joy; one of us was missing. He should have been there and he wasn’t and we missed him.
Audin. We loved you. We miss you. We will never forget you.
What happened next? See
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