Well now I’m lost, I finally admitted to myself. For the past day and half I had been instinctively endeavoring to memorise cliff faces, track junctions and other markers in the huge, wild, remote, dry and enthralling Wadi Rum – a 720 square kilometre wilderness in the deserts of Jordan.
I had been trying to keep a mental track of where we were because we were headed into more and more remote territory. No signs, no roads, none of the usual landmarks with which to orient yourself. The vast expanse of desert was like a maze. Tracts of gently undulating sand, kilometers wide, formed valley floors punctuated dramatically by massive rocky outcrops, up to 800 metres high. They disappeared off into the distance in every direction. I wished I had a map. I am usually more comfortable knowing exactly where I am.
I trusted our guide to know his way around, after-all that was what we were paying him for, but he seemed very young and he didn’t speak all that much English. How many times could he have done this before? The beaten up old Toyota Hilux in which we were riding in the tray back also did not strike me, on first impressions anyway, as the most reliable vehicle in the world. It did have personality though and was comfortably fitted out for carting foreigners around with cushioned seats and a thick blanket stretched across a metal frame overhead to keep us in the shade.
Fortunately for my peace of mind, by the time I conceded that I really couldn’t navigate our way back to where we had started I was also convinced it wasn’t going to be a problem. Yousef may have been young, but he had clearly spent his life growing up with Wadi Rum as his backyard and he never hesitated or faltered in delivering us on our way on this magical mystery tour of the desert.
It was a wonderful experience, rich in history, culture, geology and ecology and all in a stunningly beautiful landscape. It’s the colours I love the most. Pastel shades of yellow, orange, red and purple which merge into and out of one another in that wonderful way that only nature can. The desert scene was set off by a deep blue sky and faint tinges of green from the sparse desert plants.
It was quiet too. So quiet you could hear the wings of birds tearing at the air as they flew past overhead. Crows were common, circling in groups up above the horizon, or half way up the rock faces and providing perspective to the scale of the rocky monoliths. Swallows and other smaller birds darted around low to the ground swooping like albatross over the waves as they scooped up insects before gaining a little altitude to spot another morsel and swooping down again.
We toured Wadi Rum with an outfit known as the ‘Rum Stars’. The name struck me as more appropriate for a basketball team than the business name of a Bedouin desert tribe, but who was I to question? We finished each day at their desert camp, a series of structures which were not quite a tent but not quite a solid building. Thick black cloth was stretched taught over metal frames providing a surprisingly snug interior, cool in the heat of the day and warm at night. The common area was lined with plush red cushions, with a campfire suspended on a metal platform in the centre of the open sided shelter. A pot of sweet Bedouin tea was constantly on the boil.
The hospitality shown us by Yousef and his brothers was far more genuine than I had perhaps expected from a business which sees people like us for a matter of days and probably never again. We listened one evening as Yousef’s older brother, robed in a full length white gown and Arabic keffiyeh (headdress), spoke about his desire to show people from around the world his home. His hope was that all who came to visit would then return to their own homes and speak warmly of Jordan and its people.
The same brother also spoke lovingly about Jordan’s King Abdullah and his progressive attitudes – towards women, politics and education. He contrasted this sharply with Jordan’s neighbours suggesting that while Jordan may be expensive, people were not imprisoned for expressing a political view and that there was nowhere he would rather live. ‘We love King Abdullah’ he said affectionately. I can’t remember an Australian politician invoking that kind of following.
Deserts call to mind barren, inhospitable wastelands of little value or interest to anyone. It’s an unfair and unwarranted reputation. Wadi Rum, like outback Australia, is an enchanting place with more to do than time on offer.
We hiked through canyons, scrambled up cliffs to stand on precarious rock bridges, watched as our guides prepared and cooked meals over campfires at the base of massive rock faces, leapt off the top of red sand dunes, raced across the desert floor at break-neck speed as Yousef tried to outdo his brothers in delivering us and other visitors back to camp. We also soaked in sunsets from high vantage points while Amy and Oliver scrambled up and down the rocks to deliver cups of yet more Bedouin tea.
We even spent four hours trekking on camels which was almost, but not quite, too long. It was kind of romantic, and helped evoke a stronger sense of times past. The reality was though that romance came at the cost of a blister on your behind and that made it hard to maintain the dream. We all squirmed to get comfortable on the ungainly but lovable beasties. Oliver found it best to ride backward, Amy and I attempted to imitate the cross legged style used by our Bedouin guide while Emma just urged us to keep going so we got to the end as soon as possible.
‘I like the desert’ Oliver declared spontaneously as we raced back from our sunset viewing one evening in the twilight. ‘You get to be all dirty’ he declared with a cheeky grin. Yousef seemed to encourage him in this endeavor. Like an oversize school friend, he seemed very pleased when he found a partner in Oliver to play frisbee with at every possible opportunity. They played hard, diving in the sand to take a catch, or to avoid a throw intended more to make the other guy duck for cover.
Sand boarding helped everybody get a little grittier too and has been a favourite past time for Amy and Oliver ever since our first adventure on the dunes of Kangaroo Island. I think I’m still snorting some of the sand that went up my nose when I put my feet down to slow Amy and I up before we screeched across a rocky road at the bottom of the hill. Emma took some video of Amy and Oliver careening down the slopes and Yousef snuck up behind us while we watched it back after exhausting ourselves climbing the slope. ‘Did you get me?’ he asked like a kid who didn’t want to miss out.
We also visited places made famous by Lawrence of Arabia, including the remains of his home in the desert and the springs where he apparently took a bath on the 13th September 1917. The springs emerged from the rock about a hundred metres above the desert floor at a line in the rock where sandstone sits atop an igneous base. If you looked closely you could see a horizontal line of greenery contour around various rock stacks where this phenomenon was repeated in other places as well.
In Lawrence’s own words from his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom:
“so, to get rid of the dust and strain after my long rides, I went straight up the gully into the face of the hill, along the ruined wall of the conduit by which a spout of water had once run down the ledges to a Nabatean well-house on the valley floor. It was a climb of fifteen minutes to a tired person, and not difficult. At the top, the waterfall, Al Shallala as the Arabs named is, was only a few yards away”.
There is actually plenty of water if you know where to look, enough to support a very long human habitation in any case. According to the dry but informative UNESCO website,
‘Petroglyphs, inscriptions and archaeological remains in the site testify to 12,000 years of human occupation and interaction with the natural environment. The combination of 25,000 rock carvings with 20,000 inscriptions trace the evolution of human thought and the early development of the alphabet.’
We visited three of those 25,000 rock carving sites. I wondered if those who chiseled their marks into the rock all those years ago had any inkling the world would consider their work of global heritage significance in years to come. Probably not. How could you know?
The farthest point of our tour took us to the start of a three hour walk in which we climbed up an unremarkable gorge, scrambled up a reasonably challenging scree slope, across a sun baked plateau before climbing steeply to the summit of a high peak. On the climb we spotted an electric blue lizard (the Sinai Agama) basking on a red rock in the sun. The male turns this wonderful colour during the breeding season which I can only suppose occurs around May each year. The view from the summit was spectacular and we gazed off into the distance and into Saudi Arabia.
Three days slid past and it seemed like it was all over before it had really begun. Amy, Oliver and I were really starting to like the Bedouin tea (too much sage for Emma) and we all could have spent much longer hanging out in the desert. Alas it was time to move on. Aqaba and the Red Sea were just down the road and we were off to trade the red rose desert for the sparkling blue sea.