So last Friday mum and I are doing the Lawrence of Arabia thing. Oh yes. We're curled up in sleeping bags under a thick desert sky. It's 2am and what wakes me is light. A lot of it. It's strobing off the cliffs opposite.
Ah. Some part of my mind can't help counting, then; one two three four five six and a deep surge of thunder rolls up the desert and over our sleeping bags.
Oh not again, I’m thinking.
I have this ability to conjure storms in deserts. It's happened twice before. And it's happening again.
Four hundred yards from camp, then, are two little horizontal figures in the sand, one asleep, on her side, and the other lying on her back watching the dark slowly swallow the constellations, left to right, and knowing that the rain would come. It always does.
So we dragged ourselves back to the camp, where the rest of our tourist brethren slept, and waited. And it is sufficient to record that the rest of the night involved being rained-upon inside goatskin tents, then poured upon, as Ibrahim and his workers dragged huge tarpaulins across the roof, wicking gallons of desert rainwater upon scores of horrified tourists. Hahaha. The ngiht ended in damp exhausted sleep, most of us in a pile in the middle of the tent, competing for scraps of dry floor, snoring and flapping like walruses.
It was very funny. It also pissed a lot of people off.
Which pissed me off.
Anyway, birds of course. So. Wadi Rum is familiar to anyone who’s watched Lawrence of Arabia. It looks like this:
i.e. vast seas of trout-pink and scorched orange sand, from which rise massifs that resemble in places aerated milk chocolate and in other places lungs of cold tar. And the sand is full and readable. Nocturnal lizards' dinted footfalls to their holes. Jerboa pads. The sinuous little canyons of snake trails. Desert lark feet thickly stitched over the sand. I'm horribly ignorant about mammals: these prints could be foxes. Or cats. Or caracals.
The noise of this desert is disconcerting. It’s either silence so deep the blood thumps in your ears, or, suddenly, it's full of noise. A noise like someone tuning a short-wave radio at top volume. Or making drunken wolf-whistles that echo exuberance between cliffs. And then the flock of birds shouting and whistling wheels round the corner and lights on a crag. Tristram’s grackles. Slim black starlings with a purple sheen, a fluting flight and deep orange primary patch that matches the evening cliff-face so precisely in colour that for a space of a few minutes near sunset it’s as if they fly with a hole cut out of their wings.
And there are rosefinches, too. Scores of them. Some feed on seeds on the lee side of the cliff. Others hop about eating the dry scraps of flatbread the Bedouin guides scattered on the roof of the kitchen tent. They’re blank little birds, constantly calling. Cream-paper coloured females, and males carmine-red with silver crowns. They are beautiful and unaccountably boring.
Oh, and there was a sooty falcon, too, the next morning, cleaving its way through a milky sky on its way somewhere fast. And brown-necked ravens. And hooded wheatears and and and.
But the best desert bird of the trip wasn’t big and glamorous at all. It was down among the white rock rubbish deep in the trails around Petra. I'd gone down there at dawn with my mum to miss the crowds. She'd wandered up to the far end of the site. I was dawdling. I looked up, looked down: and there was a bird on the rocks. It was whiskery and grey. At first I thought it was a female wheatear of some species or other. It had that stance. And as I got closer I noticed first that it wasn't. And second, its demeanor. It was hunting.
Some passerines hunt so purposively you almost have to hold your breath watching them. This was one of them. It was hunting ants. It had a bold black eye, a sharp insectivore's beak, and the rest of it mouse-grey except for an astonishing, rather long thrush-like tail of shiny, obsidian black. Every time it hurled itself down to snap up an ant, and bobbed back up to its hunting rock, it fanned and dipped the tail, a species-specific tic of surprising beauty.
Because I had never seen a bird as matte and soft which suddenly flashed a tail so glass-shiny that the bird hunting became rather like watching a ball of wool with a mirror somehow incorporated; every time the tail spread the sun caught it and flamed. Anyway, that was my first blackstart. And I left it snacking on ants. Nom.
One other notable bird was sufficient to pull my heart halfway out of my chest, though. And it wasn't a desert bird at all. We were on a coach somewhere on the long, dry, King’s Way between Amman and Karak. The land here was brown. For mileseverywhere you looked was nothing but brown. Thousands of acres of dry earth and broken rock. This went on, and on, and on. No trees, no plants, no fences. Not even a cloud to cast a shadow on the scene. Your eyes start to hurt in their search for novelty. And then, on a low slope just by the road, a small concrete house. In the garden, one palm tree, a scruffy oleander, and a chain-link fence. The eye fastens greedily on the two spots of green as the bus went past and away back into the brown desert. But not before seeing a bird: perched inside one of the links, his breast facing the bus, was a stunning cock redstart.
A few months ago this bird would have been nesting in wet woodlands in northern Europe. He was on his way to Africa to winter. And now, in October heat and in the middle of nothing, he had come down in the only patch of green for miles. And miles. And miles. The bus drove on. And all the long way to Karak and for several days afterwards, that redstart, with his bright forehead and his celluloid toes grasping plastic-coated wire in the middle of nowhere, burned in my mind, pushing away at me, as if I’d dropped something very precious from home behind, and was worried I might never again find it.