Desert Treasure

When most people think of the Middle East they picture rolling sand dunes and
desert storms. Yes, that's a pun. When I signed up for a two year contract with
Capilano Geophysical through Petro-Canada in Jordan I, was no different. Sand
dunes, kafirs and camels I'd thought it would be. The reality was quite different.
I ranged the Eastern desert from the friendly Syrian guard outposts, waved off in
sight of the formidable Iraqi border tanks, to veiled Saudi Arabia.

The first area of operations was North of the Baghdad highway. The second area
was South. Shaun, the party manager, and I scouted it one day. These were the days
before a GPS constellation and I navigated with compass, odometer and topographical
map. This area was the site of Jordan's first oil well. The flow of the well was only
about two barrels per day but the quality of the oil it pumped out was almost
straight forty weight and the Crown Prince flew out from Amman in a helicopter
to see it. On our way back our route passed a watering hole. The Chieftain’s son,
outfitted in a chest walnut gun holster, invited us to lunch. Though one can travel
the dust roads with great speed Shaun wanted to continue back to camp but the
invitation became insistent. Sounded interesting to me and I was all for staying.
"You must come". It was more than just lunch in a Bedouin tent. Cucumbers,
tomatoes, french fries, flat bread, braised sheep and tea it was a large meeting
with representatives from the desert clans attended as well by representatives
from the army. One visitor arriving after us greeted shorthaired Shaun. My back
was initially toward him and he would have only seen shoulder length sun bleached
blond hair. I think he thought I was a woman as when I turned to him I saw the
surprised expression on his face and he was quick then after to extend a greeting
to me as well. Differing cultures oft lead to humorous encounters. The Chieftain’s
son, having invited us, attempted to converse with us when everyone had arrived.
We were seated in a loosely defined circle beneath the large open tent. With only
Arabic greetings at our vocabulary disposal and for me numbers, it became awkward.
I realized he was asking where we were from and spoke "Ah, Canada". This relieved
the brewing tension and he smiled, hesitantly, at me. This situation too was
humorous, to me, and I smiled back through his discomfort and we both ended up
grinning at each other from ear to ear. It was a moment without guile on both our parts
that crossed the lines of culture and we knew that we were friends because of it. Just
two young men surrounded by our important peers finding, seeing, the lightness in
an uncomfortable situation. I hope he is doing well. When the meal was over the
Chief spoke, to me, on our way out we didn't know, in flawless English "OK you
can go now".

Our third and last area of operations took us South of the capital. I navigated East
to West, this time solo, again using compass, odometer and map along what we
called the Barrel Road. It takes talent to do navigate this way, the reason I mention it,
and field learned knowledge. Metal barrels, now rusted, decrepit and mostly invisible
had once been placed intervisibly on the far flat horizons to mark the Southern route
ending at the town of Ma'an. There on the Southern route to along the Saudi Arabia
was the only place I saw the great sand dunes I'd pictured and the trick was to lower
the tire pressure to travel them in a Toyota quarter ton pick-up truck. The most of
the desert was pressed sand and small rock. It was there, earlier, amongst the sand
dunes that Al and I met some smugglers. They motioned us to follow them. Their
tire was flat and they without a jack we changed it for them. The two men and a son
with them and he was of about ten years in age. While the laden truck was lofted on
a jack-all with unsteady footing he hopped in the box of the truck and began jumping
up and down endeavoring to bring it down upon us. The men made no move to
discourage him and with the knives we knew were concealed in their flowing ropes
we were not in a position to do so either. Infidel was written on the wind. In the
end we completed our charity and were given a bowl filled with sand and warm camels
milk as payment. That was the second flat tire we changed. Few people there seemed
to carry a jack with them. The first was a small busload of pilgrims on their way to
Mecca that were genuinely grateful we happened along. Glad to have helped!

Jordan is on the migratory bird path geographically perfectly centered between
Africa and Asia. Now we don't picture flocks of birds when we think of the desert
but during the spring and fall migrations this was so. With the second fall migration
we were there came also a rumor that one of the Sheiks in the area was a Falconer
or wanted to become one and that he would pay $45,000 USD for a Peregrine Falcon.
Now the story was never quite clear if it needed to be a young one to be trained or
not. We never did hear it from the man himself anyway. Anyway, though cause for
speculation it somehow didn't matter, and the race was on to capture one. Teams
were formed and various methods were secretly planned without side of the hearing
of the other teams lest they hear of it and claim first the prize. It was a great conspiratory
adventure! The first method we tried was a simple box trap. You know the kind,
likely first too tried it in your youth to capture anything of a curious nature that
might have ventured near your or to your backyard. A mouse, a neighborhood cat.
A bird. A box propped up with a stick attached to a line and some bait underneath
the box. The intention was to draw the Falcon in under with meat as bait and then
pull out the stick thereby springing the trap. Ah the glory to be had!

Though this idea was simple our planning involved a surprising depth of thought.
A fisherman, my idea was to use clear monofilament fishing line imported from
Canada lest the Falcon be wary in seeing a rope payed out along the ground. This
was to us an obvious necessary, thoughtful, component and we had no doubt this
put us measures ahead of the by now numerous competition for the rumor was
prolific had spread throughout the crew. We laughed and joked, quietly of course,
when we saw the thick half-inch hemp rope readily available from the camp stores
attached to the sticks of other teams who had, somehow, come up with the same
box trap idea as us. We wondered if they had not overheard or seen us and our
planning’s became even more secretive.

The box itself had to be of a size and weight to capture and hold the bird. A simple
cardboard box already constructed and available though the food caterer was easy
but our trial showed that the desert winds continually blew it over. We then tried
rimming the box with wooden stakes, available from survey supply, to add the
weight required to mitigate the wind. Though this worked to some degree we
discovered through a "Be the Falcon" approach that the Falcon could easily rip
through the sides if we did happen to capture one and so the cardboard box was
discarded in favor of a full wooden box. When field trials proved this construction
unable to counter the effects of the wind we petitioned, then bribed, the twinkle
in his eye mechanic to cut and bore steel shanks for us to rim this new box for weight.
This new design, though very heavy now by this point, worked well in the wind
and we endeavored to make our first actual attempt at a capture.

The following afternoon of our completed preparations we acquired some raw
sheep meat from the cook and placed it beneath our box propped up with a survey
stake tied to fifty meters of the fishing line. Though the shade provided by the
angled box seemed to us inviting and the offered dinner appealing it was a party
to which no one came. Thinking our proximity might be the problem we attached
another fifty meters of fishing line and placed the trap so we were positioned just
over the rise of a hill. This still not working maybe thinking the truck was too visible
thereby causing the birds to be cautious we employed modern equipment to our
advantage in the form of handheld radios and moved the truck to a further hill while
one of us stayed hidden with hand on fishing line attached to the stick at the box
attached to a pull stick for quickness awaiting radio signal from the adjacent hill to
pull the line when a bird was enticed and thereby close the trap. Success! Well a
measure of it anyway. Some birds, no Falcons for sure, approached the trap and
the radio signal was given. Now there is a lot of stretch in 100 meters of plastic
fishing line and this proved to be a critical delay. The birds easily escaped capture.
Not even close spoke Al Pederson who was my partner positioned away on the
adjacent hill spying the trap through the high powered optics of our Topcon TDS3
digital surveying theodolite. Not even close though we repeatedly re-baited the
trap and waited there hidden amongst the lizards, scorpions, spiders and buzzing
desert bees the enduringly long times needed between when we set new bait until
a bird would again approach the trap. We tried various measures, including using
the half-inch hemp rope, over the ensuing days to improve on our idea but the birds
were just too clever, too fast. Once, one of the many migrating eagles approached
the trap and somehow made off with the bait no doubt masked from sight through
the heat shimmer which obscured the accuracy and timing of our visionary setting
idea. This was very exciting but the efforts given proved the ineffectuality of our
system at base level and the box and stick method of capturing the elusive Falcon
was exhausted, scrapped and abandoned.

Unwilling to give up, with ample free afternoon time on our hands, we devised
a revolutionary new approach un-thought of as yet by our contemporaries that
eventually embarked Al, who last I heard works at Calgary Tent and Awning
where rope work is undoubtedly involved, on a new career path. We decided to
construct and deploy throwing nets. Secrecy was paramount. We used the half-inch
hemp rope, which we now had in long supply, to make the form of the net. By
now many of our competitors had given up ground pursuit and some had taken to
flying racing kites thinking if they couldn't catch a Falcon they could possibly
knock one out of the sky and we secured some of their thin pliable nylon kite
line with which to weave the mesh into our throwing net. Our net, through many
iterations, became absolutely intricate. A work of art nearly. Hidden field trials
just away from the camp showed us we needed to weight it. The wind again. It
was just too light to throw especially when the afternoon wind was up and it
was in the afternoons that we had our best free time. We visited the mechanic
again and were able to procure two dozen wheel lug nuts. He had these in good
supply as lugs were constantly being lost due to the vibrations of desert travel.
I once had a wheel come off the pick-up truck at the end of a day and the wheel
made it into camp before I did! It was no simple act to undo the intricate splicing
of the throwing net to place on the lugs for weight. Al had it completed though
when I returned from the next two week break I was due for and we were ready
again to attempt a capture. The birds seemed to congregate in the lower areas.
This is called a wadi in Arabic. The translation is creek but this is a weak translation.
Imagine Conan the Barbarian with the nets thrown from horseback and you will
picture our deployment method. Creeping up over a rise, one person in the open
back of the truck holding the net. If there were any birds there'd a quick acceleration
over bumpy terrain and the net would be thrown by the person, we took turns, in
the back of the truck sometimes in desperation, occasionally even close, but we
never managed to quite catch one! By this time in our treasure endeavor we were
just hoping to catch any bird. The kite flyers had learned to spot the Falcons diving
through the air but we never did ever see one on the ground. The heavier eagles
were our best hope to catch a bird as they were slow to gain flight. We asked Shaun
if he thought the Sheik might have some interest in an eagle but he expressed
amusement without answer. The rumor had been voiced to us through him and
may just have been a misunderstanding after all.

One of the locals did manage to catch one of the black eagles. It remained tied
to a post for three days near the Sunday barbecue and volleyball area perhaps
as an enticement? Or grapes. He never told us how it was that he had captured
it. Perched there with its beak part way open it wouldn't eat. It was a wild thing
and you wouldn't want to get too close. Close enough though I got. As I walked
away a shadow passed over the sun and when I looked back the eagle was gone.
Good for him. Wild and free.

That was the last day I tried to capture a Falcon. A journey its been said is half
the fun and this journey became a great fun for us that dwelt beneath the desert sun.