Early morning very early morning and the desert rolls before me, a vast sheet of blackness. Rubbing my eyes, I wait outside my tiny chalet for the arrival of Farad, my Bedouin guide. This will be our third day together exploring Wadi Rum. Eventually I spot a single headlight beam work its way along a distant, undefined desert path.
Each day Farad has appeared in an increasingly decrepit vehicle. Today is no exception. Pulling to a stop in front of me, it appears today’s explorations will not require a bonnet and there is definitely something special going on with the passenger door. However, this is not the most notable difference. Farad, with whom I parted company no more than eight hours ago, appears to have markedly different features and is considerably smaller and slimmer than I recall. He leans out of the space where a driver’s window should be and smiles broadly, entirely unconcerned by any anatomical alterations. Sleepily, I pull on the passenger door; am I still dreaming or has my memory become decidedly worse since arriving in Jordan?
The passenger door is not of a mind to relent without at least some resistance and a distressing crunching sound. Seating myself uncomfortably or rather on the uncomfortable seat. I peer at Farad. He appears remarkably pleased by the whole process. This is also new; in my short experience, Farad has demonstrated a proclivity for the taciturn. After a brief questioning silence, Farad announces he is in fact Faraj, Farad’s younger brother. The final surprise of this last-minute substitution is not the change of personnel but the relationship. Over the previous days I have been introduced to many Bedouins, all of whom, without exception, have been cousins of Farad.
Dawn breaks with a devastating lack of spectacle reveals an overcast day, however Faraj’s good nature and eagerness are contagious and help dispel my pessimism. It is not until the mid- morning that the haze and cloud start to lift, revealing the full beauty of desolate red sands and precipitous rock formations that rise like weather-beaten remnants of an ancient city on the lunar landscape. Frustratingly, the light is now flat and unappealing: I know they’re here somewhere, but I cannot find the elusive shots I want.
All morning Faraj has been demonstrating his ability to fall asleep the moment his assistance is no longer required. Having recently emerged from his preferred sleeping location beneath the car, he mentions lunch and goats repeatedly. Uncertain as to how these are related, I relent to this suggestion and decide to see where it takes me. It takes me a long way away. I find myself at a ramshackle Bedouin camp beneath a cliff. Here, sitting in the shade, we share a traditional Bedouin lunch with new friends, Bandar, Farad (aforementioned), Khaled and a hoard of buzzing flies. Bandar is quiet but jovial; Farad chain smokes, wearing a white thobe and cheap sunglasses; Khaled, only five or six years old, appears small and slightly wild.
Faraj’s unflagging vigour is unnecessarily rejuvenated to impossibly high levels by lunch, and he drives twice around the mountain, hotly pursuing a herd of goats. In mid circumnavigation it is decided that now would be a good time for me to experience the Saudi Arabian border: Ten minutes later and we are standing at the top of a cliff. Faraj is pointing at one of the many mountains rising from desert to infinity, behind which the Saudi border apparently lies. While I contemplate this, Faraj and Bandar, stand on the cliff edge and throw Khaled into the air, an experience which they all seem to be enjoying immensely.
We survey the desert rolling out before us. The sands relent, soft and warm with every footfall and it is clear that today there have been many visitors. An SUV pulls up and a group of ten tourists excitedly cascade from it before making the short climb to the dune summit. This is my last chance of taking any shots today. The litter of footprints, construction detritus from a half-built camp and the massing clouds combine to sap my confidence as sunset nears. I find undisturbed sand further along the dune and a composition I hope is interesting. Now it’s just a case of waiting. Waiting is a very important element of travel photography. If you’re not a fan of waiting for a series of annoying things to remove themselves from your frame or inject themselves at the crucial instant, then travel photography may not be for you. On this occasion a Ute rushes into frame at the exact and only moment the sun decides to show itself. Sometimes you just have to make it work.
Somewhere in the middle of Wadi Rum I sit cross-legged on a rug, in a distinctly unglamorous tent. I am exhausted but it’s not every day I get invited to a Bedouin meal. The construction is of four tarps; one end is open and should offer a spectacular view of Wadi Rum. In actuality, all I can see are the surprisingly whole, shiny, and comfortable-looking SUV’s belonging to friends and family of our host.
A jug of water sits on the sand, each guest upturning it to wash his hands before discarding his shoes and taking a place on the rug. A television is playing in one corner of the tent; a small fire flickers close by and around this are situated rugs and guests. An ornate but tarnished silver kettle sits in the fire and regularly provides sweet Bedouin tea; sage and sugar. The fire and the TV gain prominence as the cloudy desert sky slowly fades to black. There is a notable lack of women, I suspect they are the source of the cooking sounds emanating from the adjoining tent. Conversation flows, in Arabic. I understand nothing but I know the tea is sweet and delicious and the fire and atmosphere, intoxicating. A tall, good-natured youth whose English is particularly good, regularly breaks from Arabic to talk to me about King Hussein and tease me about my name ‘Lawrence’ of Arabia. I am starving and it’s a further two hours before a group of women appear from the desert darkness to place a huge bowl on the sand. It’s so dark it’s hard to identify exactly what’s in the bowl but there is definitely an animal’s head protruding from the middle. Cross-legged on the sand, we encircle the food. The technique is to pick the meat from the bone and roll the moist rice into an edible glob. Simple enough but if you’re very tired and unpractised at eating with only your right hand it’s tricky and I struggle.
Eventually, sated and happy, the guests squat and wash the meal residue from their hands before driving into the night. As we drive away the cool desert air on our faces is reviving. I have no idea how Faraj knows where the road is or even the direction he is going. The headlight picks out small shrubs and tumbleweed rushing towards us at great speed. I mention our current rate of progress to Faraj, endeavouring to make it sound like an enquiry rather than anxiety. Faraj grins broadly and depresses the accelerator… I close my eyes.
Sometimes you have to adapt to the conditions. On my final day in Wadi Rum I was excited to revisit locations of shots previously lined up. The great weather I envisaged was forecast. What could go wrong? All seemed calm before dawn but during the night wind had whipped sand into the atmosphere and as daylight grew stronger, it was apparent that visibility was minimal. The outlines of mountains and rock formations were discernible, but the contrast of red sand and blue sky was definitely no longer an option. My prepared shots gone, I reassessed and decided to play with depth of field, using the outlines of the mountains as a background. Hopefully with great results!