My David Attenborough moment

Cath Barton

It had a beige speckled head and a banded body, alternately bright pink and green. You can be forgiven for thinking I was hallucinating, given that I was fasting at the time. In the Sinai desert. Alone. All the more so as I have never been able to find any reference to a creature of this description on the great worldwide web.

Anyway, whether you believe me or not, I know I saw it. Him. His movement, first of all, while I was busy doing what you have to do when you’re fasting in the desert — making sure my water bottles were in the shade. That’s pretty much all you have to do once you’ve explored your chosen space, identified suitable areas for sleeping at night, resting in the shade during the day and attending to bodily functions whenever. Oh, and I had set up a stick as a sundial, so there was that to check, and of course the stone at one of the three entrances to my room where I exchanged patterns in the sand twice a day with Alex, my retreat buddy. I know. I know I said I was alone. I was, but come on, I’m not stupid, or crazy. My buddy was just around the corner. This was not about heroics.

It was extraordinary how quickly the shadows shifted across the sand-covered rocky floor, the gypsum nodules littering it, and the five wind-eroded bluffs, which bounded my room. These golden bluffs are consolidated sand dunes coated with a thin layer of limestone. The wind breaks through the limestone, renders and etches fantastic holes, often leaving the slimmest of pillars between them. Apparently this is what inspired the people who carved out the rock temples at Petra, not far away across the Gulf of Aqaba.

Now, about the water bottles. There was quite a bit of water bottle shifting to be done, and when you’re not eating, and it’s hot, and everything’s an effort, this takes quite a bit of your day. Which is fine. Stops the mind playing tricks.

The only sound in that vast room was the tiny swish of water in my bottles as I lifted them up and put them down. I don’t think the creature’s tail made an audible swish. Not the first time anyway. I just saw the end of it. The swish. And the end of the tail. Stubby.

I stopped still. All my senses were sparking. I could feel the fire of the sun on my arms and the blood thudding in my temples. Then I saw him: a lizard, a foot or so long, and dressed in these extraordinary colours. What had possessed Dame Nature to give him that outfit? Clearly it had to be a male. I do know something about the Dame’s ways.

I did what you would have done. I started moving towards him. Cautiously. But not cautiously enough. Another swish and he disappeared. I had to be cleverer than this. I crossed the hot sand to my bed platform, found my camera, took it out of its case, and slipped its carrying strap over my wrist. Then I walked slowly — shway, shway, as the Bedouin would say —towards the place where Alex and I made our sand signs, and from where I could see anything moving in the wadi below. I stood for some time looking down on the shimmering plain. Away to the west, a small Bedouin boy was leading a loaded camel, its two-jointed legs moving like bungee jump ropes in slow motion.

When I turned back into the room, feigning nonchalance, the weight of the day’s heat pressed against me as I took the most circuitous route possible back towards the lizard’s lair. If I had been David Attenborough I would have been whispering into a microphone, though actually I’m not sure that would have been a good idea. I think the lizard would have heard it.

One minute there was no lizard in sight. Then he was there. Perhaps lizards can just materialise. Or perhaps they just have infinite patience. I remember once watching a gecko in the zoo, on a twig in a small cage. I watched and watched and he didn’t move. I concentrated so hard, but he concentrated harder. When I lost it for a second, just dropped my eyes or something, he moved.... This fellow didn’t move. He sat motionless, his glorious colours shining. My mouth was sand-dry, but I didn’t dare lift my bottle.

Suddenly and shockingly, in that desert room, a bird sang. This did not trouble the lizard. Well, why was I surprised? It was a small bird and he was a foot-long lizard. No threat, unlike me, the approaching monster. I crept closer, camera at the ready. Eventually I was no more than six feet away. I should have been satisfied with that, but oh no, not me. I lifted my left foot, with the infinite care and grace of a camel, onto a large block of sandstone, so as to get a little higher. Big Mistake. The rock split, with the sound of a gunshot ricocheting round the room, and the wadi below too, I shouldn’t wonder. Swish. Exit lizard, this time for good.

Later that day I was sitting on the rocky ledge where I made my evening fire, looking over at the rocky bluff opposite, which I had estimated to be about 40 feet high. As I gazed at it, something changed. It was rather like looking at that picture of an old crone and your brain switching to seeing it as a young woman. The bluff wasn’t a rock now. It was a gigantic lizard. Spirit of lizard. Cheeky thing.


About the Author

Cath Barton lives in Abergavenny, Wales, where she writes, sings, gardens, walks, and generally enjoys life. She has visited the Sinai desert in Egypt three times (see www.makhad.org). She hopes that readers in the US will know that David Attenborough is Britain’s best-known natural history filmmaker!