Saturday, 30 January 2016

When the Whanau visits.... Arabic Falcons

Shortly after we’d arrived in Saudi, I made a list of the three things I wanted to do most before we returned to New Zealand. The first was visiting the ancient Nabatean trading post of Madain Saleh. Done. The second was seeing a traditional Arabic falconry display. The third, and probably most simple, was spending an evening in the desert enjoying a traditional Arabic meal around an open fire under a starry night sky. I decided that the second of these would be an ideal activity to organise while my son was visiting. 

It was a Friday afternoon when we met up with friends and climbed into our Haya Tours van. We travelled an hour into the desert, north towards Qassim. Shortly after we arrived, so did the falcons, spread out comfortably along the back seat of a SUV. Initially hooded to keep them calm, the falcons were placed on small wooden perches which sat upright in the sand, rather like oversized golf tees.

Once a bird took to the air and the falconer enticed it with prey, we could see the utter ruthlessness with which it circled, swooped, caught and then devoured the prey. There were moments when I had to turn my back, handing the camera to my son who displayed none of my squeamishness.

There was one unexpected moment of light relief when a small hen escaped and staged a bid for freedom with three falconers in hot pursuit. Sadly the end of the story was not so amusing, but the laughter beforehand was definitely a good thing.  

Holding a white Siberian Falcon on his gloved hand, our Bedouin falconer told us that he’d trained over a hundred birds. In H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, training just one goshawk took total commitment and eons of her energy. It's definitely not something for the faint-hearted. I can't imagine what it would be like to train around 150 birds.

The desert light, especially as the evening drew in was stunning. Sunlight on wing tips, the distant sunset, Bedouin falconers and the remote desert setting all conspired to create a sense of history and myth conjoined.

We travelled back in the dark. My son said he remembered a falconry display we’d taken him to see in England at Beaulieu Castle. He must have been only seven or eight. I was impressed at his memory. Today though he said, had been very different. More real somehow. I nodded, then thought of my list. One more remarkable memory to tick off, and still one more to plan and look forward to.

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