Thursday, 26 February 2009

Distrubing a Lion

Disturbing a Lion

Deep in the Okavango Delta Ben Whateley-Harris lets his mind wander and comes face to face with one of the world’s greatest predators

We set out from the bush camp deep into Botswana’s Okavango Delta to try and see some of Africa’s bountiful wildlife. The sun beat down on my shoulders and the dust filled my nostrils as our walking boot clad feet slowly and quietly plodded on.

I had only been in Botswana a few days having arrived overland from Namibia and already was way off the beaten track deep in the swamplands having arrived by hollowed out mokoro canoes.

I was with a small group of people as we set off with our local guide Free. Free must have been in his late fifties, the typical African bushman, thick accent, bare calloused feet and a deeply lined face. His eyes were small and squinting, an occupational hazard from constantly peering at the sun to track our direction.

We all stopped and peered round some bushes, for in the distance we could see two large elephants with birds in abundance standing on their bulking backs. By this time on my African trip I had seen many elephants and really wasn’t too bothered about them. I longed to see wildebeest up close and personal.

Onwards we trod, the dust sometimes clouding all round us. Free would stop us at random points, sniff the air and point with his little stick in the direction of a bush. Then as we watched nothing would happen. After stumbling across the elephants I was beginning to believe that Free didn’t have a clue what he was doing or where he was going!

The sun in Botswana is so piecing that it’s like knives sticking in your skin and twisting, by this time it was at its most powerful and we had entered a clearing with no shade to hide from the relentless heat.

Free must have stopped a dozen times and pointed with his magic wand, but no matter how hard we peered around us we could see nothing apart from the occasional flock or birds in the sky.

Only the elephant skeleton gave us some respite from visually searching the undergrowth and the horizon. The sun bleached bones heavy in my hands.

The group I was with were now all starting to moan and fret about the lack of animals that we had seen today. Everyone was annoyed with our guide who was being called words such as inept and useless.

At this time my mind was wandering to other aspects of my trip. Places seen and places yet to be seen. I was lost in my own world and oblivious to the others around me.

I started to play with the plants and was whittling down a stick into a rudimentary spear all the while having fallen back from the main group.
I whittled and ambled after the trudging group, and then something happened to make my heart skip a beat before going into overdrive and taking 5 years off my life.

I had stumbled only ten yards away from a lion and lioness. The two massive beasts lay on the ground with their heads upwards looking in my direction. .

I was frozen to the spot thinking that any moment those massive teeth and claws would rip me open and pull out my innards. As I waited for the impending attack, nothing happened.

My heart was going like the clappers and I could hear it ringing in my ears. Time had frozen as the lions stirred and kept perfect eye contact with me.

I remember being told what to do if you encounter animals in Africa. Zig zag away if an elephant charges and climb a tree is a wildebeest comes at you. The advice for a lion is stand your ground. If truth be told I was rooted to the spot with fear and could do nothing but stand still.

A giant roar erupted from the female and in a flash of fur and undergrowth they were gone. I exhaled loudly and turned to see the group staring at me. I was the only one who had seen the lions.

We made our way back to the bushcamp with people still moaning about Free. All the time I regaled them with stories of the lions and how majestic they look. The sun was setting over the Okavango Delta and the noises of nocturnal animals stirring were echoing in the darkening sky.

That night we sat around the campfire and I couldn’t bring myself to say just how scared I had been when face to face with one of natures most feared.

Date of trip - Early 2008

Place - Okavango Delta, Botswana, Southern Africa

Discovering Petra

Discovering Petra

For centuries shrouded in secrecy, now open to all, Petra has remained one of the true wonders of the world. Ben Whateley-Harris walks in his father’s footsteps to discover the beauty of the rose coloured city
The ancient entrance to Petra is down a long channel deep in the rock known as the Siq. Easy to defend in times gone, it is now a walkway where tourists dodge carriages, and silver sellers wave from every nook and cranny. The morning sun is rising chasing the shadows away for the day; in their place you see every shade of red from rust to the brightest pink embedded in the rock.

The air feels chilly and people around me are still in fleeces and hats, but those in the know are already stripping off for the walk to the first awesome sight. The Siq twists and turns and shadows engulf at certain points; the noise of horse drawn carriages carrying older tourists echoes and reverberates down the channel. The tension builds and soon the anticipation is too much for me to take, I start to run.

For me this is not just a trip to Jordan and the Middle East; it is a personal homage and journey into my past. My late father came to Petra many years ago. To say he loved the place was an understatement. He adored every inch of this historical masterpiece. For me this trip has deeper meaning. I want to re-trace his footsteps and see with my own eyes why Petra stole his heart.

The first Whiteman to enter Petra was Swiss Johan Ludwig Bruckhardt in 1812, disguised as a Bedouin. He spent two years previous, in Syria, learning Arabic and converting to Islam. One day he heard locals talking about fantastic ruins hidden in the desert and decided to set out to find them. In full Bedouin attire he managed to sketch the ancient monuments and record a log of his trip, the first ever by western eyes. Unfortunately Bruckhardt contracted dysentery, and died in 1817. He was only 33.

Bruckhardt’s day is a long way from modern Petra. Gaggles of tourists pour into the city and clog the Siq; tour groups following umbrellas are a common sight and I wonder what the place would be like if I had it to myself.
I run to get in front of the crowds (Japanese groups with matching backpacks and white gloves). I just want to get there first, to see the place un-spoilt by tourists. I am not alone though; my younger half brother Tom has come with me and we tear down the Siq arriving at the opening.

Manoeuvring past a camel, I finally come face to face with the Treasury (Al-Kazneh), as the Siq opens up revealing what many know as the Holy Grail’s final resting place in the Indiana Jones Film the Last Crusade. To others it is the Treasury, carved into the rock by the Nabatean race from the 6th Century BC.

Many people think that this is all Petra has to offer, but the Treasury is only the tip of the iceberg. The entire city is a treasure-trove of tombs, amphitheatres and ornate buildings, all hewn from the rock face.

The Treasury stands in front of my brother and I, looming down on us looking weather beaten yet still powerful and royal, like an ageing screen goddess who refuses to succumb to time. By this time the sun is at its hottest and we have taken far too many photos. The crowds still pour from the Siq. Breaking into sweats after the sanctuary of their air conditioned tour buses.

We decide to move on but my brother hasn’t been well on this trip; what started out as the typical holiday stomach ended up as food poisoning. For him standing up without having the urge to run for the nearest convenience is a real effort. Running down the Siq hadn’t done much to ease his stomach, so I have to abandon him in the toilets. I want to wait but he insists that I go on and that he’ll catch me up.

My first port of call is the amphitheatre, which is cordoned off; the only way to get a view is to the climb up to the royal tombs and look down from above. The tombs are perched up high on the valley, looking down on Petra’s Bedouin trinket sellers. Some are almost

inaccessible, but with a small jump and some good balance I clamber up and into them. I wouldn’t recommend it though, as many are used as communal toilets. Imagine climbing in the heat up to an ornate tomb to be greeted with someone’s best deposit.

Next I decide to trek the supposed 800 steps up to the hillside to the monastery. I stand high up looking out for my brother but can’t see him and assume that he is still studying the rock formations of the toilet ceiling.

I walk past colonnaded streets, pausing to peruse the trinket stalls manned by mustachioed men, women with toothless grins and children who hide behind their mothers peering round at you with wide eyes and broad grins. A timeless image that my father must have seen.

I don my straw trilby and feel every inch the explorer. All I have to do is ignore the camel riding Americans and the coffee shops with Coca-cola banners outside and I could have been transported back to Bruckhardt’s time. The climb up to the monastery isn’t as daunting as it is made out to be; I pass donkey trains and waving children. Pathways lead off the main track to smaller tombs; the temple of the winged Lion is one such gem and regularly missed out by passers by.

Then in a cloud of dust out of nowhere Tom rounds a corner in the path on a donkey, wearing a cheeky grin on his face and an Arabic scarf around his neck. I stare in amazement and disbelief, as he is far too large for the small donkey; I laugh loudly sending an echo into the valley.

Tom introduces me to Monica. He tells me he assumed that I would go gun-ho up to the monastery, so he hired a donkey and set off, because if he sat down his bottom leakage problems eased off. Now he is on his way down and says that it isn’t much further. Tom soon disappears down the track shouting ‘I am Tommy of Arabia’; his shouts fade and the echoes die down.

I am left with the children selling rocks from a dusty tray looking at me with large eyes and dirty fingernails, I am drawn in and have to buy three of them from a little girl dressed in a superman t-shirt.

Towering above me casting a shadow over the scorching red sands, stands what many people call the monastery or as the local Bedouin population refer to as Ad-Deir. The shear size and scale of the monastery cannot be described; I ask myself ‘How did they make this’?

Standing next to the monastery I feel insignificant; I cannot fit it into a photo unless I walk a few hundred meters backwards. I feel dumbstruck and completely in awe of what I am witnessing. I now know how my father felt and puzzled how Bruckhardt hadn’t given himself away when seeing this sight.

I sit for a while sipping coffee from a Bedouin vendor when a noise and commotion start up; people are looking and pointing with disbelief. I put on my sunglasses and follow their line of vision. There, high up on the roof of the monastery is a lone figure. The gasps grow louder as he clambers over the edge and soon is traversing his way around the ledges. My heart is in my mouth; I didn’t want to look but can’t turn away.

Once the idiot had traversed the entire roof and climbed back down, I feel enraged that someone would climb on a world heritage site and by doing so encourage others to dice with death. The Bedouin coffee vendor tells me that eight years ago an American tourist had fallen to her death.

It seems to me that Petra is at risk of being loved to death. So many tourists file through the Siq everyday, touching the carvings, wearing away the mountain footpaths and generally being messy and inconsiderate.

I leave Petra through the Siq as the sun sets in the distance. I imagine Bruckhardt leaving for the first time and smile to myself thinking that tourists wouldn’t have surrounded him. The curtain is coming down on my Petra experience. The world retreats into the shadows once more; the red colours fade and are swallowed in the Siq. Now, I have to find my poor afflicted little brother.

Date of trip - 2008

Place - Petra, Jordan