The Colours of the Desert

Trip Start Sep 12, 2005
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Trip End Dec 12, 2005


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Friday, November 18, 2005

We worked a deal with a taxi driver to take us to Wadi Rum for about 20 JD - that's about $10 each for the four of us for a 1 1/2 hour trip. Otherwise it meant catching a bus at 6:30 am. Because Tara and Tristan still hadn't recovered fully from "Beduoin-belly", they thought a little more sleep would be helpful.

Our taxi driver met us at the hotel and told us he had to travel to Amman and, instead, had arranged a driver with a 4WD truck for us. That was fine; it didn't matter how we got there, as long as got there. However, we (or I should say, Tara) started getting suspicious when the driver started travelling through the dessert, stopping at various spots of us to take photos, more than two hours passing by . . . . Here he had been instructed to take us on a day tour through the desert, then drop us at a Bedouin camp for the evening for 20 JD each! We explained to him that that was not the deal. All we wanted was to be dropped at the visitors' reception at Wadi Rum. So after an abbreviated "tour", we finally arrived at the park gate, paid our guide the predetermined amount of 20 JD (total) and entered the Wadi Rum site. (Many entrepreneurs have set up businesses/camps outside the actual designated area so they do not have to abide by government regulations. This has also caused some concern re: degradation of the landscape with trucks driving all over the place damaging the desert vegetation.) I understand that Jordan has some of the most advanced environmental policies in the Middle East.

We found a ride to the government resthouse. Basically the resthouse consists of a restaurant and "Canadian" (or so the labels said) tents with mattresses and bedding. You can also camp there with your own tent for a small fee. Unless you have your own food, cooking utensils, etc., you're pretty well stuck with the restaurant at the resthouse - or you could live on bread and snacks from one of the local shops. Early each morning (2 am) we were awakened by some rather mixed-up roosters, then roused from sleep about 5 am by the local mosque. There was general agreement from campers that they should hire a new singer.

Wadi Rum (meaning "valley mountain") was made famous by the Arab Revolt and TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) early in the 20th century who described this area as "vast and echoing". It offers some of the most stunning desert scenery you'll ever see (some 720 square km), combining granite/sandstone cliffs reaching heights of over 1,700 m, sand and desert vegetation, an imposing sky whether night or day and the presence of the Bedouin people. Like Palmyra, Syria, it is primarily Bedouins who live in the townsite of 1,000 people and provide services for travellers who come there. The Desert Patrol drive around in armoured patrol trucks (with a gun on the roof) keeping dissident tribes in order (and probably tourists as well!).

On our first day at Wadi Rum, we had arrived too late to take a tour, so we walked to a couple of the sights close by. Walking in the sand is no small feat - you wish you had either snowshoes or camel feet so you wouldn't sink so much! Our second day, we negotiated a trip with a local Bedouin named Awad who spent four hours driving around the desert is his 1980 ramshackle Toyota 4WD with us in the back, the door tied shut. I was worried we would never make it back!

Awad was dressed in typical Bedouin dress, i.e., the long gown with the red and white checked kouiffieh head dress. He was very courteous - always checking that we were OK when he hit a bump and that we were enjoying ourselves. He was also very concerned when I got sand in my camera. (I threw it to Martin to take a picture of me on the sand dune - stupid, I know!) Awad was very inquisitive, asking us about Canada, how much vehicles cost there, why we came to Jordan, etc. (He was also about the only Arab man I have met who didn't smoke!)

Part way through the trip, Awad stopped to make us tea. He gathered a few bits of brush and twigs from a bush, started a fire (I was amazed how long the tinder burned), boiled some water and made us a cup of the sweet, sweet tea that is so popular here. (We asked him not to add too much sugar, but it was still too much for us!). He also added a few spices to the tea: cinnamon, cardamom and sage. It was delicious. We enjoyed the tea while Awad changed a flat tire. He simply put some rocks under the truck to support the axle, dug out the sand around the tire and replaced it with the spare, then we were away again.

People often think of the desert as a dry, brittle and desolate place, devoid of life. That just isn't true. The desert is a vibrant and delicate ecosystem that supports a myriad of plant and animal life, including snakes, spiders, scorpions(!), beetles, mice, birdlife (vultures, buzzards, eagles and sparrows), ibex (a type of mountain goat) and Arabian sand cats which are similar in appearance to a domestic cat. They have also recently reintroduced the oryx, a type of antelope. The desert sand and rocks range in colour from white to yellow to green, blue, brown, purple and black. And, although I have never witnessed the desert in full bloom, I understand that it is a beautiful sight with its brilliant blooms: canary yellows, ruby reds, fuchsia pinks and tangerine oranges. Like the Artic, the desert possesses a serene beauty in contrast to its harsh climate and it struck me, while in the middle of those acres and acres of sand, just how peaceful it is. It was so quiet out there.

We said goodbye to Tristan and Tara at Wadi Rum when they headed off to Aqaba, bound for Cairo (and an Imaginative Traveller tour). We had spent almost four days with them - the longest we had been with anyone on our travels. Unless you're going in the same direction as other tourists, you often meet each other only in passing, spending a few hours or a day together.

Although we didn't know it, Wadi Rum is a popular destination for rock climbers (and not being the rock climbing type, it's no wonder I didn't realize this!). Many of the people camped at the resthouse had come to climb, including a Dutch couple, Wynard and Marloes, as well as about a dozen British military from Cyprus.

Wynard and Marloes had been on the road several months investigating the climbing in Eastern Europe and the Middle East with the intention of writing a book. After we met, Martin and I approached them to see if they might be interested in sharing a jeep with us to tour the desert; they preferred to do some "scrambling" up the rock and invited us to go along. Needless to say, "chicken" me politely declined. They also did a couple of climbs while at Wadi Rum, as did the Brits. A couple of climbers (we never found out who it was) got stuck part way up a cliff wall after the sun went down and we could see their headlights from the camping area. Crazy climbers! (With the time change at the end of October, the sun comes up before six, but sets not long after 4 pm, so if you weren't aware of this you might get caught in the dark. I don't know why they change have implemented Daylight Savings Time in Jordan/Syria/Turkey - it makes no sense.)

Marloes and Wynard invited us for supper our second evening at Wadi Rum. They made rice and vegetables with a pre-packaged Indonesian sauce. (You generally don't get many vegetables here - or fruit.) It was so tasty! Food in the Middle East, with the odd exception, has been pretty bland. Next time we travel I'm taking a bottle of hot sauce with me!
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