I landed in Amman, the capital of Jordan, at the beginning of November. That day, torrential rain had caused flooding across the country. The accommodation I had booked was lost and I could not get my money back. As I waited in the office of the company that runs trips to the south of the country, I cursed my overzealous planning. The trip had been delayed by two days. An employee of the JETT bus company assured me that I could change my bus ticket to another day free of charge. To which day? He could not say.
Twenty-four hours on the road
Public transport in Jordan is not well developed. Buses, even on the main routes, often only run once a day. And they usually leave early in the morning, making efficient transfers impossible. The direct route from Amman to Wadi Rum takes about four hours by car. However if, like me, you don’t drive and don’t want to join tour groups, it takes more than 24 hours to get there. I initially took a bus from the capital to Wadi Musa. Then the next day, at around 6am, I caught a bus to the Wadi Rum Visitor Centre. There I am met by Mehedi, an organiser of desert tours in the region.
It is always a good idea to have some extra money with you as the fare varies depending on the driver and his mood. I read that the usual fare between Wadi Musa and Wadi Rum is seven Jordanian dinars. I pay eight. The boy behind me pays ten. I quickly jump on the bus and, considering the early hour, try to take a nap. I don’t get much sleep because the bus radio is blaring music. Local songs alternate with international hits. I look around. The driver is gently bobbing his head to the rhythm of the music. He has one hand on the steering wheel and the other smoking a cigarette through the window. I smiled as I noticed several no-smoking stickers.
The sweetest tea I have ever had in my life
Mehedi greets me with a big smile. He is my height and wears a long, loose, ankle-length white robe called a thawb. His head is covered by a keffiyeh, a scarf that protects him from the sun and sand. I was surprised to see that he was wearing sandals, while I was wearing trainers. He later explained to me that sandals are the only proper footwear in the desert, as socks and closed shoes are not comfortable in the hot, humid climate, and sand gets in easily.
Mehedi has two smartphones. He is just about to ask me how my trip went when one of them beeps. He picks it up and starts speaking quickly and at high volume in Arabic.After a while he stopped talking and asked me to follow him. We reach the car park where we get into a worn white Toyota Land Cruiser. After a few minutes of driving, I look around anxiously for my seatbelt. I hold on to the door, but the dunes and rough terrain make the road bumpy and Mehedi doesn’t take his foot off the accelerator. There is orange sand in the air – I can feel grains of it in my eyes, on my face and under my clothes.
In front of me is a desert landscape. At first glance, it appears to be bands of seemingly monotonous sand. But Wadi Rum is actually a habitat for flora and fauna that have adapted to survive the relentless heat. They are surrounded by monumental geological formations and decorated with cave paintings that tell the story of millions of years.
I came here to spend a few days in the desert with the Bedouins. They are the oldest Arab tribe and once lived in constant motion. It is estimated that there are nearly four million Bedouins in Jordan, but only a small percentage still live a nomadic lifestyle. What has not changed, however, is their attachment to the desert and their use of its natural resources. Once for livestock and crops, and now for the development of tourism.
I hadn’t even had time to get out of the car before someone handed me a glass of hot, extremely sweet tea. He tells me to sit down and relax. We have reached the camp from where we are about to set off into the desert. Mehedi tells us how he started out as a driver. Now he concentrates on coordinating bookings, running the tour company website and answering customer queries. This takes up a lot of time as they currently offer more than a dozen types of tour – from multi-day stays in the middle of the desert to climbing escapades. And there is no shortage of takers, especially in the high season (March to May and September to November)!
Have we landed on Mars?
“Enough talk,” says Mehedi’s colleague. He smiles from ear to ear and hurries us along, clapping his hands. This turns out to be Aamir, my guide to Wadi Rum. Like Mehedi, he is wearing a thawb over which he has pulled a waistcoat. November days in the desert can be chilly!
I quickly get used to Aamir’s carefree and energetic driving style. This allows me to concentrate on admiring the desert landscapes as if they were from Mars, the sharply contoured rock formations, the stone bridges… We spend the first part of the day traversing the desert, at high speed of course, ticking off the key points on the list.
After a few minutes’ drive we stop at the red dunes. We climb to the top and admire the view of sanddrifts stretching in all directions. In the distance we see tall mountains of sandstone and granite, sometimes called ‘jebels’ by the locals. I turn my head in every possible direction, straining my eyes, and still find it hard to comprehend how vast this desert is. The longer I look, the more I get the impression that the horizon is receding. Aamir snaps me out of my reverie and suggests that we walk downhill quickly. I nod and after a few seconds I realise why he wanted to do this. Running on the soft sand feels like floating on water. I look in the direction of Aamir, who is running downhill, laughing and shouting like a child. What fun!
Our next stop is the Khazali Canyon. It’s nearly noon, and we can escape the scorching sun for a while by hiding among the canyon walls, which are covered in Islamic inscriptions. Some of them show us the way, others teach us about Islam. There is also a small stream running through here, so sometimes you have to make an effort to make it all the way without getting your shoes wet.
Aamir makes a campfire in the middle of the desert. After leaving the canyon, we get into a jeep and arrive at a secluded spot in just a few minutes. Here we have lunch. The main course is a thick stew of vegetables: tomatoes, beans and peas. I also have a choice of several kinds of hummus and fresh, delicious pita bread.
The Um Frouth Bridge connects two huge rocks next to each other. While I was still admiring the formation from below, Aamir was already on his way up. In sandals. Up the steep rock. Suddenly he turns to me and shouts: “What are you waiting for? We’re climbing! I didn’t even argue and, although it didn’t look safe, I followed him. The climb, although very steep, took less than twenty minutes. Once at the top, I looked out at the endless sea of sand, the track marks of the vehicles that pass by every day and the rocks changing colour in the setting sun.
Aamir was right. The day is slowly coming to an end. I now feel quite cold compared to the hot south. In November the temperature can easily drop below ten degrees. My guide rekindles the campfire in a secluded spot and tells me to sit close to the fire. I put my hands over the flames, warm myself and watch as Wadi Rum is plunged into darkness.
An evening in the desert
I feel quite alone in the middle of the desert. Our camp is away from the desert attractions, surrounded by high rocks and very private. We sleep in tents with only beds, pillows and blankets. Lots of blankets! There is no heating, electrical sockets or bedside lamps and the bathrooms are outside – two toilets, two showers. The hot water comes from a huge tank, where it heats up all day.
Let the trays be unearthed and let the feast begin! For dinner we were served zaarb, a typical Bedouin delicacy. Its uniqueness lies in the way it is prepared. First, a hole is dug in the ground and a fire is lit. Then the bottom of the hole is lined with stones. When it is hot enough, trays of meat and vegetables are covered with a metal lid and a blanket and buried in the pit and in less than two hours, the meal is ready. We gather in a large tent which serves as a lounge and meeting place. It fills up by the minute and Aamir and I are joined by other travellers and their guides. The sounds of conversation and laughter fill the tent. Aamir makes sure everyone has a taste of the food, refills our sweet tea from time to time, and talks about how he became a guide. He reminisces about his early expeditions, learning English and showing pictures of his children.
The real magic of Wadi Rum is not in the breathtaking scenery or even in the Bedouin traditions. It is in moments like this. When people from different corners of the world, different cultures, different faiths find a common language in the middle of the Jordanian desert.