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, sun, 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 served overheard 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 Chieftainís son, outfitted in a walnut-colored chest 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," insisted the Chieftainís son.

 

It was much 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 police and army. One visitor arriving after us greeted short-haired 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 Chieftainís 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, again 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 only to me on our way out. In flawless English he said, "Okay, 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 inter-visibly on the far flat horizons to mark the Southern route ending at the town of Ma'an. There on the Southern route, along the Saudi Arabian border, was the only place I saw the great sand dunes I'd pictured. The trick to travelling over them was to significantly lower the tire pressure in the Toyota quarter ton pick-up truck I was driving. 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, and on their faces. 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 a 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. 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 conspiratorsí 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 or into your backyard. A mouse, a neighborhood cat. A bird, a squirrel. 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 imagined glory there was 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 obviously necessary, thoughtful component, and we had no doubt this put us measures ahead of the, by now, numerous competition; for the rumor was prolific and 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 planningís became ever 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 kitchen 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, 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 we had previously scorned, 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, and with ample free afternoon time on our hands, we devised a revolutionary new approach unthought 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 envisioned 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 we even came 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, itís been said, is half the fun, and this journey became a great fun for us that dwelt beneath the desert sun.
 

FOOT & CHAIN