Dirt Tracks 4: The wolf at the door
Every morning, when the long night finally surrendered to the glimmers of dawn, I felt a small dose of euphoria, as if the battle between light and darkness had finally been won and good had triumphed over evil.
Sunrise in the desert is inescapably beautiful and as the first rays of light tickled the furrows and ridges of the valley slopes, I was gripped by relief and excitement for the road ahead.
As the days turned to weeks in the lunar landscape of the Negev, I got used to walking the trail alone, even enjoying the sanctity of solitude in the wilderness. But there was one challenge that took me completely by surprise. As I laid my head down at night and switched off my torch, I soon discovered that I wasn't alone after all.
One morning, I crawled from my sleeping bag and set a fresh cup of tea boiling in a saucepan, still slightly greasy from the pasta-pesto-tuna feast the night before with golden beads of olive oil dancing on the surface of the water. I reached for a bag of granola, and munched on the overly-sweetened clusters of oats, spilling flecks of grain on the ground like an animal.
"This should keep the wolf from the door," I muttered cheerfully, ignoring what people say about the insanity of talking to yourself. A minute later as I finished the oily tea and watered the desert sand with that first satisfying pee of the day, a flash of grey-brown whistled past me at a rapid rate of knots.
A lone wolf.
It was deathly close, there was no mistaking it. It was gone in a matter of seconds, but the moment replayed in my mind for hours, the way it moved, bounding, gliding across the desert rocks with instinctive ease. Whatever it was running from, or after, it was clearly all-consumed by the chase. I chuckled to myself about the timing of the ‘wolf from the door’ comment and thanked God that it really had stayed away from my flimsy tent door that past night.
As the day tracked on, the thought kept prowling around my head.
Was it really a wolf?
Maybe I had seen a jackal, or a German shepherd from a nearby farm on a morning run?
I checked the trail guide-book and sure enough, the author, Jacob Saar promised that if I was ‘lucky’ I might see deer, ibex, foxes… and wolves.
Apparently, they weren’t a threat. The Arabian wolf is one of the smallest and least aggressive of the wolf family and will flee from a human being.
Well that’s a relief.
As I paused for lunch, and scoffed down a fistful of raisins and peanuts, I did something I should never have done.
I googled it.
There were four bars of 4g signal, it was so tempting. I caved in.
One of the first hits was a Guardian article from 4 months previous entitled, "Campers in Israel warned after series of wolf attacks" [i]
Until recently, it transpired, no wolf attacks had been reported in Israel since 2008. But last summer, there was an unprecedented rise from 1 in 10 years, to 10 in 1 year.
Good to know.
I read on. It transpired that a few individual wolves were adapting to proximity with humans, losing their instinctive fear, looking for opportunities to steal a camper’s dinner.
Little red riding hood just got real.
The attacks were almost entirely on children and in all cases, when an adult ran to the rescue, the wolf fled.
Fortunately, no children had been killed or seriously injured, thanks to the swift action and furious love of their parents, but the scares and scars they left are more than just teeth-marks. Apparently, a few clueless tourists had been feeding the wolves, which hadn’t helped to ease their carnal fear. The National Parks authority responded by "re-instilling fear in the wolves again." How did they do that? My imagination ran wild.
A few nights later as I set up camp in a natural amphitheatre nestled on a hilltop by the edge of the Makhtesh Katan crater, I discovered I had company. There were a few smashed-up wooden pallets left by a previous group of campers so I made a roaring fire and cooked dinner over the embers, a welcome break from my piddley gas stove.
I was settling down by the fire after dinner, watching the flames rise into the night, glued to ‘nature’s TV’, when I was brought to my senses in a startled moment by the thunder of feet, sweeping across the camp-site.
In the faint light of the moon, I saw two great shadows galloping past, snorting and snarling. With my heart racing, and adrenaline coursing through my arteries, I grabbed a flaming log from the fire and chased after them, launching rocks hot on their tail. They were gone in an instant and as I slowly retreated to the comfort of the fire, I felt a renewed courage rising within me. No wolf was coming near my door that night.
When I eventually calmed down and slipped into my tent, I flashed my torch into the darkness one final time and saw two little eyes staring back at me.
They were small and close together, maybe a fox or a wild cat, nothing to fear. Campsites, it turns out attract no small amount of wildlife. In the barren wasteland of the desert, the possibility of stealing someone else’s dinner is a treat that attracts many paws.
It’s fair to say, I didn’t sleep much that night. It’s a weird feeling trying to fall asleep in the wild, knowing that you’re not entirely alone. As the dawn slowly conquered the night on the crown of the mountain, I emerged from my tent to survey the scene.
Something about last night didn’t feel right. I thought about the thunder of feet galloping across the camp, the sound amplified in the natural bowl-shape of the mountain-top.
But wolves don’t thunder, they creep.
They are masters of stealth, not stampeding.
Come to think of it, the sound was more like hooves than paws. The noise they made was more of a snort than a snarl and certainly not a howl. Those shadowy beasts were big, that’s for sure, but perhaps too big for the stealthily frame of a couple of wolves. And why were there two anyway? So far, I had only seen a lone wolf and that was a few days before.
Ibex, the sure-footed mountain goat of the Negev, well, I had seen a family scaling the rocky peak only half an hour before setting up camp.
Suddenly I didn’t feel so impressive. In my head, last night, I had seen off a pack of wolves with a flaming log, like that scene at the start of the ‘Bourne Legacy’. But in the cold light of day, it occurred to me that I had probably just chased after some large goats, with a smouldering stick and thrown a couple of rocks non-threateningly at two benign creatures who were already gone.
Not so brave after all.
I did see a wolf again, later in the trek, sniffing through some garbage outside a quarry, but it ran away when it saw me, almost silently. It was thin, scruffy and rather underwhelming. I caught a snap of it on my phone.
As I reflect on these brushes with wild beasts, deep in the desert, I feel rather embarrassed.
For all my fears, they turned out to be completely harmless. The only creatures that ever attacked me were three dogs outside a village on a valley-path north of Arad once I had left the Negev. I was lucky not to get bitten, but being fiercely territorial, once I was out of their patch, they left me alone.
It turns out that the only dangerous animals on my journey were the domesticated ones.
There’s a lesson in their somewhere.
While my fear of wolves subsided, I realised that it’s one thing defending yourself as a full-grown adult from a wild animal that has no intention of harming you, but it’s quite another defending a flock of lambs in the darkness, with many a hungry opportunist lurking in the shadows. The wolf might not be after me, but it would happily take my dinner, given half a chance.
There are some lines in Scripture that I will never look at the same way again.
When Jesus was being tempted in the Judean wilderness, Mark records that he was, ‘out among the wild animals’ [ii]. No kidding.
We read that the shepherds on the hillside outside Bethlehem were guarding their sheep by night, before they visited Jesus at the nativity scene [iii].
I now know why.
In the days of destitute poverty when farmers were struggled to pay draconian taxes to the despotic Roman Empire, keeping their flock intact was a matter of life and death.
I met a young Bedouin shepherd in a narrow ravine, the morning after I saw that wolf and we shared some semi-melted chocolate together. I wondered how much he had slept that previous night.
When Jesus taught his followers that he was the 'good shepherd' and the 'gate’, he used the image of a shepherd lying in the gateway to a stone-walled pen, so that wolves would have to cross them to get to the flock. A 'hired hand' would abandon the flock in a wolf attack, but the good shepherd would literally lie down his life for the sheep [iv]. Jesus spoke metaphorically of course, we are no sheep, (although the parallels are uncanny), but not long after he shared this teaching, he really did lay down his life for us on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem.
"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep"
I thought back to the 30 years before that fateful Good Friday, far from Jerusalem, when he would have hiked these dirt tracks as a young boy with two dusty feet, leaving child-sized footprints in the vast shifting sands of the desert.
Perhaps death wasn’t far from his door, even back then.
If a wolf would attack a child in the 21st century, would it go for one in the 1st century?
I hardly think wolves have become more civilised over time.
Jesus’ family would’ve had no lightweight trekking tent, just a few blankets. When Joseph and Mary brought their toddler home from Egypt through many a wilderness mile, they would’ve had far more justifiable cause for fear than me. Would they have laid awake through the watches of the night, taking it in turns to defend the child? Would they have stoked the fire all night to keep the wolf from the… well there was no door?
Maybe Jesus would have been sandwiched between them for warmth and safety, much like any young child sneaks into their parents’ bed at night.
Probably all of the above.
But for all the challenges of life in the desert, there was one enormous blessing that was as true in the 1st century as it is now.
Jesus’ family would likely have known it, and I have too.
Never underestimate the kindness of strangers.
Up next… Dirt Tracks - Part 5: The kindness of strangers
[i] Peter Beaumont, (20th Sept 2017), 'Campers in Israel warned after series of wolf attacks', The Guardian, available here
[ii] Mark 1: 12-13 Available here
[iii] Luke 2: 8 Available here
[iv] John 10: 9-16 Available here