Petra was the main reason I wanted to visit Jordan, but I had met a Jose, a Puerto Rican, on my flight from South America to Europe and he highly recommended checking out Wadi Rum in the south of the country. Only having a few short days, we decided on two days with Petra, two days in Wadi Rum and our last day a stop at the Dead Sea while on our way to the airport. Jose, my friend, I cannot thank you enough for your recommendation because Wadi Rum was the absolute highlight of my short time in Jordan. There are few places in the world as breathtaking as The Valley of the Moon.
We left our Bedouin camp outside Little Petra in the early morning, a taxi arranged for us by the camp. The morning was a little frustrating as I found out later in the taxi that we had been brutally mislead about the cost of our back tour into Petra and what was supposed to be a shared taxi was now a private, much more expensive taxi. We were easily out over $100 each. The only unfortunate thing we discovered about Jordan is that sadly people will rip you off unabashedly left, right and centre. If traveling to Jordan, I can’t urge you enough to rent your own vehicle, especially if tight on time, as taxi rates are exorbitant and bus schedules intermittent and unreliable. And if you’re arranging any sort of tours or deals with local people, ensure you settle the price and pay up front so there is no confusion. It really put a sour note on my time in Jordan and made me feel quite bitter towards how the people were conniving and ripping us off so badly. But our journey into Wadi Rum all but made up for that and let me leave Jordan with warmth in my heart.
Our taxi sped treacherously fast, hurtling at incredible speeds along the highway, leaving me pressed back into my seat, anxiously trying to peer at the speedometer. As we cruised higher up into the mountains, a thick fog over took us completely, enshrouding us in a white mist so dense it looked as though we were cruising along a road floating in the clouds. If it were not for the yellow lines I don’t know how our driver would have managed. Luckily he slowed down perceptibly in the fog and we eventually came out safely as we descended, and as the morning worn on, the sun drove the fog away. For two hours we drove, and as the land flattened out, we began to see camels in the distance wandering as common as cattle do in the prairies.
“Wadi Rum is very small,” our driver informed us. “All of the cars are ancient! I do not lie, you will see!”, he laughed. Sure enough, when we pulled into the tiny little village, every vehicle we saw was easily 40 years old or more, ramshackled and crumbling. The buildings were low, and made of weather worn brick. The village was tiny, made to seem even smaller as it sat nestled between the impressive cliffs of sandstone and granite on either side, the entrance to the Valley of the Moon. We were dropped at our tour office, greeted with some hot sage tea, and repacked our bags – we only needed our small day packs for our one night stay in the desert. After packing our warmest and dearest things, we said goodbye to our big packs and waited outside under a small flowering dogwood tree.
A bedouin man approached, spoke with our tour operator and we bid goodbye to him. We were introduced to Saaba, who would be our guide and driver through Wadi Rum for the next day, night and following morning. He took our small packs and told us he would be taking them in the truck while we rode the camels for the next hour or so and would meet us in the desert at the sand dune. We excitedly obliged, anxious to meet our camels and be off. This was both mine and Rug’s first camel experience! I was slightly nervous as I had read a few horror stories about these beasts being rather disagreeable and cantankerous. The large camels were sitting in the road, their legs folded beneath them, calmly looking around, barely taking notice of us. We had been left with another Bedouin who was our camel guide. He didn’t speak any English so we just gestured to each other on how to approach the awkward situation of mounting the camels. Thankfully they were seated – thus much lower to the ground – and after watching Rug hop on (he had a slight advantage, you know, being two feet taller than me!), I stood beside my camel, eyed it wearily while it in turn ignored me, then gave my right leg a mighty swing over top of him and landed my behind on the blankets padding the saddle. The bedouin urged the camels upwards, and I grabbed on tight as I lurched forward alarmingly fast at a terrifying angel, as the camels back legs shot up first. He levelled out and I with him. The bedouin tied my lead to the back of Rugs and the camels led the way while our guide walked behind us.
We ambled down the broken paved road, our camels stepping nimbly over the large chunks of displaced concrete and exposed water lines, making our way towards the awaiting desert at the edge of the road. In the two minute walk down the road, five local children on five separate occasions all ran forward from their play spots in their yards to wave ecstatically and yell out, ‘hello hello!’, eager to practice their English. We smiled and returned their greetings with just as much zest, always happy to engage with local children. They all stayed at the edge of their yards, peering down the road at us, calling out their ‘hellos, hi’s and goodbyes’ until we disappeared into the desert. We passed a shepard leading her herd of goats into town from grazing in the desert (sounds slightly ironic, grazing in a desert!) and they scattered past us, trailing sand from their hooves onto the pavement. Our camels stepped off the last fading edge of the road and onto the soft copper sand of the desert. It was strange to literally step out of a town and be instantly inside a desert. Without a look back at the tiny village, we pressed forward deeper into the desert and the scenery left us wide eyed with grins permanently fixed on our faces. The bedouin remained in the rear, gently slapping the camels behinds with his willowy stick, and occasional ‘tsck tsck’ calls to urge them forward.
Rug and I chatted a bit about how beautiful it was and then let ourselves settle into silence to simply admire the beauty enshrouding us. I let the ebb and sway of the camels gait lull me into a quiet rhythm. Those towering cliff faces flanked us on either side like a wide alley, guiding us deeper into the valley. Ahead, dark churning clouds were slowly pulling inwards, deep plum billows, those holy grails of rain, loomed threateningly over the distant rock face. Childhood memories of The Rescuers Down Under came to mind, and those bright red staggering cliffs of Uluru, where the eagle soared high, played over in my mind. The orange sand melted away beneath the soft pads of the camels feet as they padded ever onward. Rusty maroon rock faces contrasted starkly against the sky that was half blue and half mauve and gunmetal with the encroaching storm. The bright white of the cumulous clouds billowed and undulated as the storm grew and we marched ever closer. It was strangely silent, there was nothing in the desert but us and the storm; it was that eerie moment of palpable silence, right before the storm breaks. And then it did. The clouds crashed together and the thunder reverberated off the mountains shattering the silence. My camel bellowed out a cry of discomfort, obviously displeased with having to walk straight into the storm. I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that within an hour of entering the desert we were about to get rained out in a storm! This was already proving to be a unique desert indeed! As the thunder rumbled on, closer and closer, my camel continued to voice his protests, eliciting laughter and a bit of pity and some consolatory neck rubs from me.
After an hour we had arrived at the distant sand dune and reached near the base of the massive mountain face that reminded me of The Rescuers, the way the top of it looked as if it had been chopped off evenly. I grabbed hold tight again as my camel got down on his knees and lurched me precariously forward. I awkwardly dismounted and fondly rubbed the beck of my camel as thanks for his ride, wishing I had brought a snack with me to share with my noble steed. I decided he needed a name and went with Michael Bolton for his beautiful crooning along the way. I bid goodbye to Bolton and our Bedouin, and Rug and I set to climbing the sand dune to get a view of our surroundings. They were utterly marvellous. This place was beyond striking. The colours were otherworldly. I was reminded of Bolivia (read that adventure HERE!) and the striking reds of the sands and brilliant blues of the crisp blue skies in that far off country on the other side of the world. I loved those moments, when I was a place and could suddenly be reminded of another place half way around the world, somewhere so completely different, yet so much the same. Half the Wadi Rum sky remained cyan while the other was rolled over with gunmetal grey and a few fat rain drops began to fall on us. We ran down the dune after taking in the view and met Saaba who had pulled up in the truck. The back of the truck bed was open with a roll cage design and padded bench seats so we could sit outside to enjoy our tour through the desert – so much better than trying to see it all from through a window!
Our first stop was a massive crevice that ran from the top of the mountain and split it entirely down the center – but due to a huge rainfall the day before, we could only hike part way in due to flooding. We had arrived in Jordan near the end of fall with winter approaching and the rains had just begun in earnest. We could see the evidence of the recent falls all over the desert as many areas looked washed out, with little sand rivers making it a bit of an obstacle course for our driver to avoid getting stuck in soft wet sand. After our little trek, we wandered into the tent where Saaba was. A bedouin had set up a tent here and we were offered tea. As I sat down he gently took my wrist, and then Rug’s, and rubbed something on them. I sniffed my arm at his urging and nearly swooned. He was a smart business man, that’s for sure! It was some kind of solid amber perfume and I was sold on it on the first sniff. I also saw that we could buy dried sage! I was ecstatic as I was now addicted to this tea, so I bought a big bag as well. These were the only things for sale on the meagre table.
Next we drove towards a spot that was one of many within Wadi Rum shown in the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. The stone house was used over the years by caravans as a shelter linking Arabia and Syria. Our next stop was for lunch as the clouds cleared away and the sun beat down mercilessly reminding us that we were indeed in the desert. Saaba urged us to explore the area while he fixed lunch. He gathered some twigs nearby for a fire, and prepared it effortlessly, while we clambered up some rocks, marvelled at our surroundings and bunched up our jackets into a pillow and laid down to watch the clouds pass by over the mountain tops. It was entirely peaceful. Restorative. We felt like the only people in all of Wadi Rum, just us with these spectacular mountains surrounding us, this breath taking scenery to feast our eyes on. We left the eye feast to head to the real feast that Saaba had whipped up and thanked him profusely for such a delicious meal, a medley of tomatoes, cucumber, tuna, beans with onion, olive oil, tomato paste, pita and cheese. It ended with the most delicious banana I’ve ever tasted. Saaba informed me that it was from Senegal. It was slightly crunchy with a melon flavour – so utterly unlike a banana, but so surprisingly perfect! We packed up and hit the road again. Er, the sand tracks, seeing as there was no ‘road’.
Saaba took us to the entrance of a small canyon and told us we could hike through it for about 45 minutes and that he would drive around and pick us up on the other side. It was nice to get out of the vehicle and do a little easy hiking through the beautiful canyon. He picked us up as promised and we drove to a ‘bridge’ – a place in the mountains where erosion has caused a wide gap between two areas of rock but they meet at the top to form a bridge. The rains came back with a vengeance and we waited them out a little bit under an outcrop of rock. We drove onwards and spotted what I was sure was snow in the distance. How could this be?! We got closer and I was even more sure. We all hopped out of the vehicle to inspect and discovered it was hail!
‘We had a very big hail storm the other day.’ Saaba informed us. “No sun comes to this place. So It has not melted yet.’
Rug bunched up a handful and hucked it at me as I turned, unknowingly, and took a gob of ice smack in the neck! For the record, snowballs are way softer! But how many people can say they’ve thrown a hail ball in a desert?! All was forgiven for bragging rights! Back in the truck, we carried on and the rain teased us here and there. We were closing in on a small Bedouin camp and Saaba yelled out the window, ‘This is my fathers home. Do you want to come and see? We shall have tea’.
We eagerly accepted his gracious and unexpected offer. It was a great way to get out of the drizzle a bit and so we veered off towards the tent. It was the typical Bedouin tent of black and brown made from goat hair. A herd of sheep and goats rambled about, a lone donkey was tied to a rock, and two dogs bounced around excitedly while a flock of chickens squawked and darted beneath the feet of the sheep. We gladly busied ourselves with the animals. I was desperate to meet the donkey and give him some rubs, as he was tied to a very short tether and all alone, looking terribly lonely and sweet. I was nervous, however and didn’t want my hand chomped off, so I was quite tentative, but finally got to give him some love! The one pup was exceedingly friendly and needed my constant attention, not letting me alone for a moment, even when I was trying to befriend the donkey. A woman clothed in dark material, a scarf over her head, emerged from the tent and Saaba greeted her, telling us this was his fathers second wife. Two children, girls, one a teenager, the other on the verge, shyly followed their mother from the tent to inspect the strangers at their home. His father was out in the desert right now, so it was just the us and the ladies of the home.
The tent was pitched in the shadow of a massive cliff face, completely sheltered on one side, completely open on the other. We ducked inside of it after being ushered in by Saaba. I felt so honoured to be invited to Saaba’s father’s home, to get a glimpse into traditional – and still thriving – Bedouin life. It was simple – the tent, a small space where all slept together, a cooking fire and a kettle, always ready to make tea, which his second mother set to making for us. The girls sat down timidly, not saying a word unless Saaba asked them a question, to which they meekly replied. I smiled often and brightly at them, trying to disarm them, unsure how to communicate as they didn’t speak any English, nor I any Arabic. They were desperately shy and I wished only I knew how to break the barrier between us to engage them. I couldn’t help but wonder at the cultural gender dynamics as the three women were all so submissive and seemed to stare abjectly at nothing. We enjoyed the tea and thanked them kindly, testing our newly learned Arabic of thank you – ‘Shukraan’. After tea and listening to Saaba speak in Arabic with his second mother, we headed back outside to be with the animals, where I felt a little more comfortable. The sheep and goats had been corralled into a make shift pen against the rock face by the girls while the tea was brewing. Some were licking the fence – perhaps for the minerals. I enjoyed simply watching them interact and tried to take pictures of their rectangle pupils.
As the rains cleared up we said goodbye to the humble little home, waving and saying goodbye to the girls. We sat in the back of the truck in awe of the remarkable experience we had just been so lucky to have. It’s not every day you get invited into a Bedouin’s home for tea in the middle of Wadi Rum desert. Our next stop was the largest of the bridges in the area. We were able to scamper up the side of the smooth rocks and then climb further upwards and walk out on to the bridge while Saaba took a picture far below for us. The last stop of our day was a prime sunset watching location. The sun had just begun his daily descent. Rug and I climbed up the rocks to get a better view point while Saaba remained below in the vehicle. We perched ourselves on the edge of a little cliff, let our legs dangle over and watched in silence, reflecting in our own heads at what an incredible day we’d had in this magical place. The sun slipped behind the low cluster of clouds and his kaleidoscope of colours burst from behind them. Prisms of tangerine, butter, periwinkle and fuchsia shot out at all angels. As he lowered deeper into the horizon, he set it aflame in a burst of blood red before finally crawling beneath that far end of the earth and surrendering to his master, night. We pulled our jackets tight against our necks, and scrambled down the rocks in the fast approaching dark and climbed back into the back of the truck.
It was just a short drive away from our final destination and we soon came around a huge rock face to see the Bedouin camp. A man came out to greet us – the cook, Sayyid. The camp was nestled at the base of a colossal cliff, 20 individual black and brown tents set into the corner neatly. One large communal tent for eating was at a distance from the rest, closest to the trail of single tire tracks we arrived on. A small building that looked like it was part of the rocks housed two toilets, a sink and shower. We were the only ones in the entire camp, us, Saaba and Sayyid. It was eerily quiet, as things tend to be in the desert, and I marvelled at how lucky we were to have an entire camp all to ourselves! We grabbed our packs, were shown to our cozy tent and after we were settled, we headed to the main tent to get some hot sage tea and read our books while waiting for dinner as it was presently being prepared for us.
Sayyid didn’t speak English, but he wanted to show us how he was preparing our dinner, so he urged us outside with hand gestures. The entire meal – a whole chicken, a huge plate of zucchini and carrots and a rice dish – were all cooked underground. We followed Sayyid outside and watched him as he lifted a huge metal pan. Beneath the metal pan was a blanket buried with dirt, only the edges visible. He gently worked the dirt off the blanket and eventually lifted off the blanket to reveal a hole in the ground. He had built a strong fire in the hole, let it burn down until it was hot coals, placed a layered rack over the coals and put the food on the rack to cook for hours in this underground oven – ingenious! A slew of side dishes accompanied our feast: cucumber salad, tomato, cabbage and cucumber salsa and of course, pita. It was such a massive feast and I couldn’t compliment the chef enough! With bursting bellies, we read some more by the fire, sipped our tea and then when the cold got too much, made our way back to our tent for the evening after saying goodnight to Sayyid and Saaba.
Thankfully our tent was equipped with all the blankets one could ever need and we were able to stay toasty warm beneath them. I awoke as usual in the middle of the night needing to pee and so slipped my shoes and headlamp on and dashed for the door, and as my usual night time terrors surfaced, wondered if some strange desert wild cat was going to maul me. On my way back to the tent, I looked up at the sky and gasped and stopped dead in my tracks. The stars! My god, the stars! They were utterly brilliant. I turned off my head lamp and stood frozen staring at the galaxy above me in awe. How miraculous is the world, this universe? How lucky was I to be awake in the middle of the night, in the middle of the desert, utterly alone, to stare up and witness this nightly display of the heavens? It was one of those moments that you feel so full of life, so full of awe and appreciation at this life, that I nearly cried. I felt like I could burst with happiness as I crawled back into my warm bed, images of crescent moons and cosmos, nebulas and Neptune, winking stars and twinkling satellites, playing out behind my closed eyelids.
We awoke early to the sun peaking its head around the corner of the cliff face, brilliantly lighting the red sands on fire with that stark morning light. We climbed up the rocks for a couple of yoga poses to salute the day and to admire our camp from above. Then we went down for a quick breakfast and said goodbye to Sayyid. In the back of the truck once more, we set off making our way back out of the desert towards Wadi Rum village. We savoured every rock, very grain of sand, every high circling bird, every staggering tower of mountain, knowing we were leaving this sacred place – for who knew if we would ever be so lucky as to return? It’s funny how sometimes you can spend a mere day in a place and yet you feel it burrow down into your soul and refuse to leave, making itself at home, and you gladly oblige it. Wadi Rum is special, there is no doubt. You feel something here, in the Valley of the Moon. I lamented not having more time to explore now that I understood the magic that saturated this place.
Arriving back in the village was strange after such a magical night in the desert and Saaba assured me there were more amazing ways to see more of Wadi Rum – days on camelback! I knew I had to come back one day and let myself feel the magic of this place for longer than just a day and a night. We thanked him deeply and then waited for our cab which was taking us all the way to the Dead Sea and then back up to the airport in Amman for our flight late that night. It was a terribly expensive cab but we had no other choice.
The Dead Sea is truly a unique experience. We googled it ahead of time just to be sure we knew what we were getting into and logged a few tips away in our minds. Our driver waiting for us while we changed into our swim suits and headed down the the beach which was scattered with only a few people. We paid an entrance fee at one of the cheaper entrance areas, which had pools as well, but we skipped the pools and went straight to the sea. It was a warm temperature and the bottom strangely looked like ice crystals. We waded inwards until it was waist deep and then sat back on our backs (we read under no circumstances should you try to go on your belly or you’d flop over like a dead fish!) and low and behold we floated on the surface of the water without the slightest of effort. It was so bizarre! There is no way to explain or describe the feeling of this incredibly buoyant water (nearly ten times more salinity than the ocean!). You can’t sink no matter how hard you try, no matter how heavy you are – you just stay bobbing on the surface! We played around twisting into all sorts of positions and flopping about awkwardly – it was almost like the water was trying to spit you back up out of it! I did my best to ensure not a drop got in my eyes as it would burn like hell, but I did get one small drop splashed in my mouth and gagged. It felt like it was burning a hole in my tongue where it hit! The taste was beyond salty, it was blistering. I kept my mouth on guard after that. We got out and dried off in the sun before heading up to pay a few dinars for some of the famous Dead Sea mud that was loaded with minerals found no where else on earth. We lathered our bodies up with the all too eager help from the workers and become mud smurfs. We dried in the baking autumn sun as patiently as we could and then swam back out to pick up handfuls of sand to scrub the mud off. I didn’t dare use the Dead Sea water to wash the mud off my face, so when we were done floating around, we headed up to the showers and got the remainder of the mud off.
I was so happy we were able to make this stop off at the Dead Sea to experience the strangeness that is one of the saltiest bodies of water on earth and to step on her shores – the lowest elevation on earth at 429 meters below sea level. My skin felt strange after the salty, muddy adventure, so I showered as best I could in the change rooms again with some soap (note to self, don’t wear a light coloured bathing suit in the mud as it will never come out!) and refreshed as best as I could. We were heading to the airport right from the Dead Sea to wait a few hours before boarding for a long journey that would take us all the way to the bottom of the African continent. It was at last time for me to realize my dream of setting foot in Africa and beginning a three and a half week road trip through…Namibia!!!