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The Kia ora coo-ee : the magazine for the ANZACS in the Middle East, 1918

The Road to Bethlehem

page 19

The Road to Bethlehem

A naturalist is inclined to loitering, for if he hurries he may miss some pleasant sight or sound: blue speedwells shining in the grass, the song of a bird to its mate. And if there be good reason for leisurely walking anywhere, it is along that ancient road from David's City to Bethlehem—seven miles barely, but every foot of the way some beautiful wild thing lures, bird or flower or butterfly; and on either side are hills and vales—grey rock ledges veined with greeness, valleys full of sunlight and shadows.

From the Jaffa Gate, where swifts were wheeling and diving around the tower with shrill cries, or clinging to the wall whose crevices held their nests, I swung down the road and came at length to open country. Three vultures were feeding on stony ground near the highway, and others were scaring far above them, like little white smoke-puffs adrift in the blue. Higher still, a Bonelli's eagle glided in wide circles, while away to the right another dark form, a buzzard perchance, flecked the sky.

I had walked but a mile or two down the road when an open gate beckoned me into a garden where the ground was gloomed in shadow, and flakes of sunshine glimmered beneath a roof of boughs. The old house in the midst was a resting place for travellers; not an inn exactly, but one could sit there in a porch overgrown with honeysuckle and roses, get a frugal meal for a few piastres, and watch men toiling in a field glimpsed through a long green aisle of leaves. A little Jewish girl, with sun-browned face and smiling eyes, brought me tea and fitir—hard white cakes that taste like uncooked oatmeal. This Palestine maid had some words of English. She told me she was born in Bethlehem—a place most beautiful, and but a short journey from here; one could ride there easily in an hour, on a donkey. The sun was much too hot for walking, yes! But I took the road again afoot.

Over a field, down in the valley, kestrels were winnowing the air; presently one swooped, bringing death to some small trembling creature on the ground. A little owl eyed me sleepily from its perch on a rock at the foot of a wall, but became wide awake when I neared it and flew off silently as a shadow moves. Boomah the Arabs call this pygmy owl, a "lucky" bird, which is rarely molested. And certainly I had luck on the road to Bethlehem, and coming back as well: a ramble that in memory will always be bright with flowers and faintly echoing with the songs of birds.

Wild poppies grew so thickly that, through half closed eyes, they appeared as unbroken bands of scarlet fringing the broad grey ribbon of the road: poppies smouldering in the grass, glowing against stone walls and swaying under olive trees. Red dawn is not more beautiful than a highway embroidered with poppies. When the wind came sweeping down the road blossoms bowed before it and many petals flutterd to earth like a flock of butterflies.

Going to Bethlehem you see all kinds of butterflies, blue and yellow and white-winged ones, delicate "hairstreaks", the Gipsy "wanderer", and some whose wings gleam like burnished copper. The great swallowtail, too, is there, floating lazily in the sunshine or bending a slender stem whose flower is its resting-place. They say the "swallowtail" is rare, but it is not so at Bethlehem.

Near Rachel's Tomb the air was full of swallows, gliding along invisible tracks or skimming so low that their breasts nearly touched the earth. Wheatears flitted among the scattered stones, pausing after each flight to gaze around, like their kin in the Desert. Their food is the same as the swallows', but they hunt close to the ground while the blue birds chase insects as high
The Little Owl.

The Little Owl.

as the eagle soars. A meadow bunting sang to its mate on a nest hidden in the grass, and its notes mingled pleasantly with the loud, sweet song of crested larks. All the way from Jerusalem one walks to the lilt of bird music, a medley of many tones, somehow making harmony.

I lost all count of lizards sunning themselves by the roadside. Some were brown with bright blue tails, others mottled grey. The Dabb lizard favoured ruined walls, resting there with uplifted head and quick pulsing throat. Once upon a time, the Arabs say, the Dabb was Sheikh of all animals, but followed the blacksmithing trade. His spiky tail he used as a file while his leathery skin formed the bellows. Nowadays he is of no importance, though he still has a place in the sun.

From the Jaffa Gate to Bethlehem is a short journey, and yet, going afoot, one may take a morning to accomplish it. Travel on a donkey and you will see the poppies maybe, but miss half the wild beauty that dwells along the way.