A journey into the Jordanian desert to find a boulder – travelling from Wadi Rum towards the Saudi Arabian border.
David tells me stories that exist in other dimensions of time – deep, bottomless pools of time that predate our planet and float in my dreams.
I am lying on the deep red sand of the Jordanian desert trying to sleep. Flat plains of sand ripple between the red rock-forms that tower above us. Not so much mountains, as a series of gnarly and twisted pebbles left on a dusty tabletop.
We are camped deep inside a cleft in one these giant pebbles – a twisting slit eaten into the bone-dry flesh of the planet. The level sand of the desert runs into this tightening gorge – a soft, musty surface lying between faces of vertical Martian stone. Hundreds of meters above us there is a slice of night sky. Stars mark time as I sleep – inching across this gash.
4.5 billion years ago this dry desert valley didn’t exist. Its dunes and its sandstones hadn’t formed yet. Its sky wasn’t blue yet and the precious few drops of water weren’t around yet. 4.5 billion years ago this planet had only recently formed itself out of a drifting confusion of dust in space. A swirling disc of cosmic ‘stuff’ that developed a certain, wobbling eddy. A vague clumping of grains, that grew denser with each speck of rock that it pulled greedily towards itself. As it’s gravity increases, it begins to accelerate the incoming junk. Faster and harder impacts create more and more heat until this knot of space-junk melts itself into a glowing sphere of liquid rock – bubbling and spinning in the blackness of newly cleared space.
The moon’s shadow is starting to creep across the canyon. High above me, faces of sinewy rock wink into light as the halo of the moon creeps nearer to the rim of this gulley. Soon moonlight will flood this cleft – reflected light from our local star. Until, in ten minutes or so, the Earth will have turned itself enough and we will be plunged back into darkness again.
Abu Hamsa’s soft snoring murmurs in the near-distance of our gulley – like the purring of a big Tomcat.
We are four-days journey beyond the end of the tarmac roads. Four days deep into the desert – almost at the Saudi border. Abu Hamsa is an irrepressible character. During the day he shouts and whoops, just for the joy of creating echoes within a near perfect stillness. He tries to teach us ‘Zaghroda’ (translated in English as ‘ululate’) – a high-pitched scream like a rebel yell but warbling higher and faster. Abu Hamsa’s tongue whips back and forth creating a siren call that rolls across the stillness of the desert and ricochets from rock-face to rock-face. The eruption of sound is like throwing a rock into the surface of a still lake. We hear the ripples fade off into the distance before the silence consumes their faintest, furthest reverberations once more.
The desert is always a sea. A sea where the water left eons ago. The frozen waves of red sand are only stationary in our timescale. Seen over years, the waves are creeping backwards. The sand flowing from their crests is gradually redrawing their forms behind them. Slow summits traveling and undulating in glacial time.
Abu Hamsa toboggans, and slides our 4×4 through these immense waves – splashing red surf high into the air around us.
“Yalla, Yalla, Yalla” (lets go, lets go, lets go) he screams above the sound of our pick-up. Maybe he’s addressing the straining wheels, maybe he’s addressing us in the back or maybe he’s just conversing with the turning planet. Periodically during the day his battered old phone crackles to life with a tiny, inhuman version of the call to prayer – but at the moment we’re too busy, or its just too much fun to stop.
Dawoud, the Jordanian geologist, took us to meet Abu Hamsa in his village at the edge of the desert. There is a conventional house but we are ushered into the Bedouin tent permanently erected in the dust of his yard. We drink tea sat on cushions, and I discus football with his son Hamsa. Abu Hamsa fetches his tattered gun and fondles the copper-headed cartridges as we drink. He smiles naughty, conspiratorial smiles and without the aid of English or football he manages to draw us into his circle. The plan was to take two vehicles – his old battered 4×4 and Dawoud’s shiny, white ‘Hilux’. Abu Hamsa clearly wants to drive this new Toyota pick-up and so the four of us cram into this one vehicle and strap our belongings high onto the roof.
David the English geologist who travelled with us to Jordan has tried to explain the processes that built this otherworldly landscape. As we drive off into the desert (leaving David behind to enjoy his climbing) I think I am beginning to understand. For a geologist this landscape must be like looking under the hood of a vehicle to see the raw, dirty mechanics of internal combustion. A denuded rock-scape – not shrouded in the soft loam and green contours of Europe. The forces and tools of genesis laid out in plain sight.
A sea of sand crashes against the cliffs of sandstone islands – towering pillars, obscene fingers, dizzying walls of rock. Waves of abrasion eat slowly into crevices and weaknesses. Sculpting, softening, corroding, melting the sandstone into looping, sinewy forms.
Sand eating sandstone back into sand once more.
We make a short stop to eat in another tight, dry gully. A winding slit of a space between oozing, treacly masses of rock. Outside, the oblivious desert moans softly to itself. There is something comforting about leaving its immensity behind us for a moment and exchanging it for the smallness of this cleft. We sit and eat. The silence of this chasm is so deep that the sound of my own chewing is starting to annoy me.
Kneeling on a low rock-form at the gulley’s mouth, Abu Hamsa has taken himself off a polite distance away from us and begins to sing what sounds to me like the call to prayer. Facing Mecca – which happens to be just over those mountains. I guess this was ‘Asr’ or ‘midday-prayer’ – made when the sun reaches it zenith in the sky. Or perhaps it was the ‘Dhuhr’ or ‘afternoon-prayer’ – started when our local star has sunk enough in the sky so that an object casts a shadow that is the same length as the object’s height.
The hardening crust of this cooling planet has been wrinkled and folded by time. A quarter of a billion years after its birth, this newborn sphere cooled enough for its surface to be covered with a brand-new ocean. An ocean whose waves were blown from a sky without oxygen. Jagged shorelines inched their way above the surface of the waves. Huge chunks of time crashed endlessly against the hard crystalline rock from the interior. The planet orbits the sun a few more million times and the granites and basalts are gradually worn down into thousands of miles of empty sand beaches – without a gin and tonic in sight.
Tectonic rafts of rock collide.
Time folds and twists the flesh of the planet, and those beaches are pushed down into the pressure-cooker body of the Earth. Sands upon sands are crushed together until the grains are fused back into rock again. A second order of rock – a crumbly, lighter sandstone. Rocks form, rocks decay. Mountains rise, mountains fall. Endless cycles of erosions and deposits. Genesis, Revelation, ravelling and unravelling.
Soon after we arrived, I found a white pebble lying in the red sand. It’s smooth round shape looked to me as if it has been polished by the action of waves on a beach. That night I take it from my pocket and David explains that it looks like a pebble from a beach – because it is. A beach that was squeezed by the passing of millennia until this white stone found itself waiting in the dark – deep within the fleshy, pink strata of this sandstone. Abraded by a little more infinity, the rock finally releases its hostage and the pebble drops back into the sunlight and air. Sitting on the sand once more – waiting for the sea.
Abu Hamsa doesn’t think so much of rocks.
Each night he chooses the place for our next camp and, having found a flat, rocky place for the Hilux, he disappears into the landscape to collect brushwood. Within minutes he has a small roaring fire heating the blackened teapot. The sweet, brown syrup is poured into glasses and we sit watching the last light painting the red sand and stone an even deeper outer-planetary red.
It’s hard to tell how old Abu Hamsa is. In the uncertain light of dusk the deep lines across his face seem like faults or strata, but his eyes are young and full of mischief. The desert-air is cooling. We cradle the glasses in our hands and sip the hot liquid. “Bedouin whisky” he winks.
Over the 4 days or our journey the polite distance that Abu Hamsa has removed himself for his prayers has slowly decreased – until he now sings at the edge our circle. As the last sliver of sun evaporates behind the sand-dunes he begins the Maghrib – ‘sunset-prayer’. Over the course of our journey my friend and helper Tim has become Abu-Ella (‘Father of Ella’) and I have become Abu-Em (‘Father-of-Emily’). Time for us is marked by the setting of suns, the creeping of stars and Abu Hamsa’s calls to prayer.
Time for a pebble is marked by the passing of continents, the coming of oceans, the setting of mountains and its long journeys down into the furnaces beneath the skin of our blue planet.
Flying back, we quickly climb above the Martian sand-scape. Its dust and rocks and stillness are already becoming memories as I daydream into the colours far below me. After a few short hours we meet the thick cloud-blankets of Europe and leave the sunlit worlds of the Levant far behind us. Eventually we descend back into these clouds and return to the lands of water and soft, grey light.