It is dusk and three Bedouin men are starting to light a campfire near their tent. At a distance, a young shepherd boy is urging his herd back to the ranch, though two frolicking kids are in no mood to return. As the natural light begins to turn faint, their silhouettes disappear into the horizion. Here I am, holding a glass of piping hot tea, staring at the endless stretches of empty space, astonished at how the harsh weather and strong winds have created an elegant carving of sandstone and granite, with narrow canyons and fissures cut deep into them.
Remember the 1962 Oscar-winning film, Lawrence of Arabia, based on the life of British soldier T.E. Lawrence, which brought Wadi Rum alive to the West and its tourists? The area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, adding to the interest in this region. Secluded from the touristy Rum village and its guesthouse, my private space was an authentic Bedouin tent with the finest Persian rugs, over-sized gilded cushions, traditional Bedouin low seating in the main room and an elegant bedroom with ornate furnishings, solar torches, colourful lanterns and fragrant candles. It was peaceful and I needed to soak in the calm before venturing into adventure.
The following day, laden with an SPF 50 sunscreen and wearing a large straw hat, I boarded a desert jeep that was waiting for me, with a Bedouin guide. The landscape was perfect for 4×4 exploration and I could clearly see Mount Um Dami, the highest elevation in Wadi Rum, a place inhabited by many tribes who had left their mark in the form of intriguing rock paintings, graffiti and temples.
Here, it’s easy to bump into foreign tourists, mostly trekkers and the ones who visit the valley for camel and Arab horse safaris. The campsites also offer a regular spot for party-goers.
Our first stop was a Nabataean temple from where we headed to Al Shallaleh and further to Lawrence Spring. The almost static landscape was resplendent with never-ending sand dunes dotted by sheep, a few shops, large goat-hair tents and concrete houses with expensive four-wheel drive vehicles parked outside. En route, we stopped by at a local’s abode. The Bedouins are an amazing tribe who make a living out of the area’s developing eco-adventure tourism but manage to maintain a semi-nomadic lifestyle. They are hospitable to visitors and often invite them to enjoy a coffee or even a meal. I learned that unless you want a second round, when offered coffee by anybody Bedouin related, which includes the whole population of south Jordan, you should shake the cup when you give it back. Also, it’s best to dress modestly to respect their not-so-liberal culture.
From here, we drove across open terrain for about half-an-hour before arriving at the Khazali Canyon, famous for its 4000-year-old rock drawings etched by former inhabitants. Another half-hour through the beautiful desert landscape and we reached the famous Burdah Rock Bridge, one of the highest natural arches in the world and a real gem to behold. One can walk across it without difficulty and the bonus: the most imposing view of the desert from the top.
Anyone who imagines deserts are monochromatic vistas should experience the drama of grading hues at Wadi Rum. In contrasting towering red sandstone walls and orange sand dunes, the base of the Rum Mountains are purple sandstone formations with white summits. Close by is Jabal Rum whose peak is covered with snow and from its top, one can see the Red Sea and the Saudi border.
At night, the temperatures dropped significantly but I wasn’t complaining. The amazing panoply of stars started their performance again, this time, with a full moon in tow. After a quick hot shower and a quiet excellent meal, I retired early to wake up at dawn to watch the sunrise at Umm Sabtah…a compelling sight.
Later, I headed to another adventure in the form of a microlight flight at the Royal Aero Sports Club of Jordan. Before I knew it, with headphones on, I was strapped to a seat behind the pilot and in no time, we were soaring at an altitude of around 1000 metres at nearly 100 km per hour. Calling it fascinating would only be an understatement. This expedition, over an intensely beautiful mass of soaring cliffs and granite mountains, through wide canyons and across large open areas of coloured sand dunes took my breath away. I was someplace else! Next, it was a round of more sedate viewing on a balloon ride.
That afternoon, an unexpected shower changed the entire atmosphere of the village. Sipping on labaneh and breaking bread with the locals, I watched the low-lying clouds and fog in the desert. At that moment I fell in love with Wadi Rum even more. In no time, the sun was back for us to continue on our journey to Umm Fruth, another rock bridge. Of the many small and large rock bridges I have seen, this one was most impressive. Back at the tent, hot meals featuring local cuisine prepared in a traditional earth oven awaited us, this time alongside a traditional campfire accompanied by Arabic music.
Lawrence of Arabia, T.E. Lawrence, had described Wadi Rum as ‘vast, echoing and God-like….’ I wouldn’t call it any different; a great way to break with the mundane, enjoy an existence at desert-speed and put life as you know it, on hold.
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