Wolves? In a desert country like Egypt?
As we’d sped along the Cairo to Aswan road the day before, I thought it might be a mistranslation from Thore’s native Norwegian. “Did you see it Ahmed? Bigger than a dog I would say and it’s coat – thick, thicker.” Then turning to me: “Is that what you would say?” I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t seen the carcass by the edge of the road and was still a little shocked by Thore’s description. Pauline and I had seen two canids (dog-like animals) scurrying across the slope ahead of us on our ascent of el-Qurn three years previously but I had thought they were jackals or foxes. But perhaps they were further away, and therefore bigger, than I had supposed? “Do you get wolves here Ahmed?” Our driver caught my eyes in the rear view mirror. “There are wolves. The villagers see him sometimes at night. He comes down to get food from dumps at the edge of the village. Once, when I was early in the Valley of the Kings, I see six, in a line, walking up the slope. They are coming back from the village. But in the day he is up in the hills, the wadis. Up there you would have a gun.”
Sunday January 11th, 2015
Fragments of yesterday’s conversation, accompanied by flashes of an image I did not see, start to fight for space in a mind otherwise at peace. A gun? What a time to find out about wolves! Back at the hotel, Thore had been quite excited, every description adding a little detail to confirm the identification. “A larger animal, less yellow, darker than the dogs, more hairy”. Perhaps it was this distraction that had led to my last-minute change of starting point and my consequent lost time scrambling on the unfamiliar rocky slopes below. But the thoughts do not last. I return to the moment.
The ground begins to level out as I approach the beginning of the high plateau. I set the GPS to “F1” (short for Farshut Road One – the first of some twenty-one waypoints I had marked from Google Earth to guide my way across the ancient high desert trail). Soon, ahead of me, I can make out a feature familiar from my previous foray into these hills; an overhanging piece of rock which, from this angle, has the distinct appearance of a lion at rest. I wonder if it had this shape when the armies of the Theban kings had marched this way against their northern enemies, 3,500 years before me? A rock in the shape of a lion. Then the great emptiness, domain of Meretseger; She who loves Silence. And – finally – battle, and a man’s fate in the hands of the eternal battlers, Seth and Osiris.
Once up on the plateau proper I become fully aware of the weather conditions. Despite the blazing sun, this is the coldest January that I have encountered in Egypt. In the valley below this means gathering round a log fire in the courtyard after dinner. Up here, walking north, it means facing the source of that cold head on. In the slight shelter of the lion rock I take a moment to adjust my kit. Over my damp shirt I put on my trusty light pertex windproof top and finish off with woolly hat and gloves.
For the first forty minutes of walking the trail remains rocky underfoot but then becomes increasingly sandy and, eventually, even spongy. If the rest of the twenty-mile walk across the plateau is like this then I could expect to make good progress. Shortly after ten o’clock I take a rest at another familiar landmark, a wall of exposed gypsum glaring white from the surrounding yellow sand and rock. After finishing part of my first energy bar I get up to go. It is then that I notice the desiccated stool of a canid, about the size of a small-to-average dog’s. At the time, my main preoccupation is with the stiff breeze, and I think little of it.
Within half an hour of this first stop I know both from memory and checking my GPS that I am in previously unexplored territory. At 10.50, a little under five miles into the walk, I reach the first large stone cairn that is visible on satellite images. Next to it, what looks like the base of some stone walling momentarily catches my attention. Is the cairn on the site of a former way-station or fort? My intention at this stage, realising that a full traverse of the plateau is probably no longer feasible, is to reccy towards “F5” which can be said to be the start of the main “massif” and almost half-way point of the high plateau.
But not long after leaving the cairn, headlong into an increasingly strong wind, I notice that despite drinking plenty of fluid and finishing the first energy bar, I am feeling distinctly tired. Though all around me is desert sand, and above me a bright yellow sun, my exposed face has the feeling it did when I walked the winter hills of Scotland with my father as a boy. On the way towards “F4” I realise I am becoming a little light-headed and fear that I might be experiencing the first effects of exposure. I certainly do not appear to be warming up at all, despite maintaining as good a pace as the wind will allow. It occurs to me that if anything did happen further on across the plateau, such as sustaining an injury, I could have problems in this cold wind. It is decision time. Decision time while my increasingly flighty mind can still make a decision.
I have enough mountain and wilderness experience to know when to turn back. Especially on your own. At “F4” I take a final photograph of the receding trail ahead of me and a 360-degree video to help with future route-finding. As I turn back, increasing light-headedness, coupled with an absence of regret, confirm that I have made the right decision. Back at the cairn I use the opportunity to get out of the wind, taking advantage of a one-person hollow scooped out of the leeward side. Keeping low, I take off my sweat-soaked shirt and lay it in front of me to dry. It does so within not much more than a minute. For the return walk I put fleece directly against my skin and the pertex over that. After a ten-minute rest I set off on my return.
Since catching sight of the balloon over the Valley of the Kings early in the morning I have been conscious of only one sound, that of the wind. I know from experience that no-one else comes up here. Modern Egyptians, much like their ancient forebears, have little interest in leaving the familiarity of their towns and villages and I am way off the tourist trail. But now I become aware of something else. I stop, to listen more carefully. Howling. Apparently coming from about a mile behind me, near the top of the “Big Wadi” that I explored back in 2010. Possibly three separate animals. I expect this primal sound, that has apparently haunted the imaginations of generations of my own species, to make me panic, but it doesn’t. I take confidence from the fact that the wind is blowing from them to me. Still, in this unusually cold weather who knows how they might behave if they did come after me? I am still about a mile from the safety of the plateau’s edge and there are no sticks up here with which to defend myself. Time to get walking again.
So there is some slight relief when I am once more back in view of the Nile. And what a view! This is the clearest visibility I have encountered on any of my visits to the country, with distant vistas up and down the Nile, and beyond to the distant mountains of the Arabian Desert on the other side of the river. I am looking at Ancient Egypt, any remaining disappointment at the abortive expedition vanished. These hills, and their contrast with the cultivation of the valley, and the river within it, form the connection I make with this corner of the Earth. I feel absolutely at peace. As I look to the south, into the western offshoot of the Valley of the Kings, a hawk alights from one of the cliffs and rises on thermals straight up into the clear blue above me, higher and higher, until it seems to vanish into the sky itself. Horus ascending.
Back at the Amon Guesthouse that evening, I chat with Ahmed. He might be ten years older than me, maybe less. It is hard to age these rustic inheritors of a timeless race. But certainly, with galabeya and scarf wrapped close to his neck against the cold he exudes an air of wisdom and authority. Thore has already left for Cairo so it is to Ahmed that I recount the day’s adventures. Though his attention appears to be taken with tending the fire I can tell he listens intently. After I finish my story he pauses a while, collecting his thoughts. “They are strong. Someone from Qurna tried to shoot at one but he broke the barrel of the shotgun with his teeth. And sometimes, he shows his anger by tearing at his hair with his claws.” He pauses again to draw from his cigarette, as much to keep himself warm as anything else you feel. “Sorry Ahmed – they tear at their own hair?” “Yes, he tears at his hair, like this, with his claws” and draws his own hand across his head as I catch his eye through the curling smoke of the fire. “It is in the Quran.”
Coincidentally, on my return to England I found that there had been recent advances in the complex classification of African canids. Specifically, the African Golden Wolf was found by study of DNA samples to be a distinct species from the Eurasian Golden Jackal. Among the various subspecies, the Egyptian Wolf (canis anthus lupaster) is one of the largest, standing at over 40cm at shoulder height and 127cm (about four feet) in length. It is also known to take the largest prey, including, sheep, goats and cattle. This ties in with stories you hear in the west bank villages of the Nile at Luxor though, as far as I know, the animals that roam the mountain desert hinterland have never been positively identified.