Thursday, October 16, 2008

Jordan: The Magical Desert of Wadi Rum

Chapter Eight - The Magical Desert of Wadi Rum

We headed south along the King's Highway. The whole road was under major reconstruction and it was only after 40 minutes or so that we reached the town of Tayyibeh, only about 15 kilometres further on. It's a rather quiet place, which the Taybet Zaman hotel complex cannot seem to change. I would think twice too before spending an outrageous JD110 or so plus taxes in a place where nothing much is happening. But then perhaps you should come here because of that. At Ras an-Naqb the King's Highway joins the Desert Highway and that's where things start to look much more dangerous on the road. The sun was setting, and especially in the dark, this stretch of highway is a nightmare. Trucks were everywhere, travelling at very high speeds (often much faster than ordinary cars) three-abreast despite there being only two lanes. Looking for and taking the turn to Wadi Rum was highly risky. A jeep that was passing us even though we were signalling a left turn, was itself being passed by a truck going at least 130 km/h (80mph)! We were forced to miss our turning and turn back further on. We were glad to be off that road, though my friend and I love driving.

It was an hour after sunset when we arrived at the village of Rum. I had expected a tiny, quiet place but that was not really the case. Rum was bigger than I expected and there were quite a lot of people, especially at the Rest House. Wadi Rum desert vistaWe paid the obligatory JD1 for entering the Wadi Rum area and it was at the tiny office that we met a Bedouin who offered us a jeep trip. The cost was JD60 for two. This included supper, camping a night out in the desert together with him, breakfast in the morning, dinner, drinking water and a jeep trip of a whole day, lasting until past sunset. This sounded nice enough, but it was also expensive. We told him we would think about it and went to see the prices posted inside the Rest House. The official price was JD45 for a full day, lasting from the morning until sunset, but not including a night out and no food and water. I went back to the Bedouin and tried to bargain down. He wouldn't budge. Not 100 fils. He explained that we could have a night out in the desert including the meals for JD15 per person, but then we would have to return after sunrise. To extend the trip to a full day it would cost us another JD15 per person. I decided to check with some other people offering jeep trips, but everyone in the village seemed to know already that we had been approached by the first man, and wouldn't go below that price. They offered several other formulas, yes, but the final price was always about the same.
We had a drink at the Rest House. Very expensive at 750 fils for a Coke. A place to sleep on the roof was JD2. According to a woman we met, from the Dominican Republic, we shouldn't bother. She had slept there the night before and had been awake most of the night because the whole area had been very noisy and there were lots of mosquitoes! The idea of sleeping out in the desert only became more appealing. We decided that we would take the trip for JD60. After all, we had little choice left but to try it on our own - and that's not really the best of ideas if you don't know the desert! The Bedouin also acted as a guide, which otherwise costs at least JD5 an hour, so taking that into consideration it wasn't that bad. We went to have a meal at his house. We saw one of his wives running around through the kitchen window. About an hour later the meal was ready. Hmmm! This is going to be delicious! ... Huh? What's that? This is a breakfast we're getting here! The same dull stuff we were already used to. Exactly! The flat bread, processed cheese, marmalade and yoghurt. What a treat at 8 in the evening...
Then we headed out into the desert. About 5 kilometres or so from the village we saw a huge campfire. We headed for it and met some people who were on an overland trip from Britain to Nepal. It was nice talking to them. We went on to sleep in a quite secluded spot not very far from Mt Khazali. We slept in the open, lying on a rug in our sleeping bags. It was a great experience. It wasn't very cold, only in the morning when there was a bit more wind did it become somewhat chilly. In the morning we saw the sunrise (unfortunately it was a bit cloudy) and the Bedouin prepared our breakfast, making a fire from some dead wood he had gathered. It was the same food we had eaten in the evening.
Breakfast eaten, and before the sun was too high, we went for a 2 hour walk to see the graffiti in the Mt Khazali canyon. The surrounding desert was very beautiful in the, as yet, soft light. One thing that is really a pest, are the aggressive flies. Soon all of your back and face is covered by these bloody bugs, and the more you try to get rid of them, the more they attack you. Anyway, we made it (he-he) to the canyon. The graffiti is interesting, but the canyon itself is not that baffling. One can use ropes to climb further inside. The ropes are totally unsafe, however and should be avoided. On our way in, we were greeted by a man whose head was bleeding severely. A rope had snapped... I climbed a couple of rocks but decided it was too dangerous to continue.

From there we continued by jeep to see the obligatory sights such as a couple of rock bridges (including the Burdah Rock Bridge), Lawrence's Well, the Nabataean and Thamudic graffiti on the mountains' walls, the big red sand dune and a selection of the best-known mountains. Then it was back to the Bedouin's house for tea and dinner. Dinner was good: chicken. The only problem was that it lasted from 12 until 3.30! The Bedouin did nothing but sleep. We sat there, bored at first, but then decided to go with the flow. At 3.30 our friend woke up and we went to visit the Desert Patrol fortress in the village. The policemen with their long khaki robes are highly picturesque, but they have become very bored of tourists taking their picture. Not exactly an exhilarating experience, but nice anyway.

Sunset over Wadi Rum desertAfter that we headed back into the desert. It was an exciting drive as we flew over the fine sand at speeds that were sometimes around 100 km/h (60mph)! It becomes even more of an experience in the back of the open jeep and you know that the steel belting on all four tires is visible, making the jeep drive as if it were on snow. As you can imagine we did make tremendous progress. In seemingly no time we were near the desolate Saudi border. Just in time for the desert sunset, which was stunning! Only the sunsets I saw in Sri Lanka and Thailand are comparable. We were standing on a small hill that rose up from the desert 'floor'. Everywhere in the distance were warm coloured rocks and mountains. Not a soul in sight. This was an absolutely great experience.
We stayed up there until it was completely dark. Then we headed back, but our guide needed some fuel for his jeep (it consumed over 20 litres per 100 km!). He went to pick it up at a Bedouin camp. These nomadic people were very friendly and hospitable! We were invited for tea and - later - to spend the night in a goat hair tent. After our guide had agreed, and we had made arrangements for picking us up the next day (without paying extra), we stayed with the Bedouins close to the Saudi border and had a great time and a good night's sleep! This was one of the best moments of the trip, definitely! The scenery was much better than near Rum village with a genuine, much more desolate feel.

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