Mike Yardley: Solitude and soul in Wadi Rum, Jordan

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Friday, 25 March 2016, 7:13a.m.
Camels in the Wadi Rum desert
Camels in the Wadi Rum desert

Ever dreamed of drifting to sleep amid the desert’s shifting sands? Fancy following in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia? Introducing Wadi Rum in Jordan! Situated in a gnarly neighbourhood of nations, wracked by turmoil and terror, lovely little Jordan is a refreshing sanctuary of Middle Eastern stability. Venturing south from the Jordanian capital of Amman, Wadi Rum offers an unrivalled experience with the soul of this country. It’s a spectacularly scenic desert valley; a maze of mesas,  a place of legend, steeped in history, heroism and more recently, Hollywood fame.  This dramatic desert wilderness straddles an ancient camel trading route to the Arabian Peninsula, comprising one of the classic landscapes of the Middle East.

Towering monoliths of sandstone, basalt and granite emerge, sheer-sided, from wide sandy valleys, thrusting skyward to heights of 1700 metres.  Narrow canyons and fissures cut deep into the mountains, with many concealing ancient rock drawings etched by desert dwellers over millennia.  Wind and water has eroded and sculpted many of the striking rock formations and precarious rock bridges that add even more theatre to the valley.  Maybe I was falling prey to the ferocious desert heat, but I saw all manner of shapes exquisitely rendered in rock, from ostrich heads to alligators.

There are a variety of landmarks within Wadi Rum that you’ll want to tick off, none more so than the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Taking its name from T E Lawrence’s autobiography, this stirring landmark, a caramel-coloured monolithic rock creased into seven gargantuan folds, backdrops the Wadi Rum visitor’s centre.  I loved exploring Jebel Khaz’ali, a narrow canyon containing numerous rock carvings of people and animals, dating back to the Nabatean kingdom, over 2000 years ago. In the short canyon of Siq Um Tawaqi, a rock carving of the head of T E Lawrence adds a touch of Mt. Rushmore magic to Wadi Rum. 

I was led to Lawrence’s House, a crumbling stone structure, built on the remains of a Nabatean building. It’s another beautiful spot in the desert, although no one seems sure that Lawrence actually stayed here, or whether it was just a storehouse for his weapons.  Still revered here, Lawrence of Arabia was of course the British army officer who heroically united rival desert tribes and led them to war against the Ottoman Empire, crushing the Turkish and German forces.  T E Lawrence fell in love with Wadi Rum and his autobiography poetically encapsulates the soul-rinsing beauty of the area. “Vast, echoing and godlike”, he wrote.  Rendered silent by Wadi Rum’s “stupendous hills”, I was too.

Another enchanting encounter is to sprawl out on the sandy blanket of the desert dunes, at the confluence of red and white sands. Like the rocks, the colour palette spans caramels, reds and oranges in the playful shifting light of the sun. Needless to say, spectating a sunset in Wadi Rum is what spiritual experiences are all about. Ever since Hollywood rocked into the desert to film Peter O’Toole’s 1962 epic, Lawrence of Arabia, the movie industry’s love-affair with the landscape was set in stone.

In 2000, two thrillers were shot here, Red Planet and Mission to Mars, and most recently, Wadi Rum once again represented Mars in Matt Damon’s Oscar-nominated hit, The Martian. Gazing across the richly coloured vastness of the desert and delighting in the soaring cliffs and other-worldly rock formations, it’s readily apparent why Wadi Rum remains a trusty stunt-double for the dusty red of Mars.

In addition to the romance and solitude of the landscape, the real reward in Wadi Rum is connecting with the culture of the Zalabia Bedouin. They are the descendants of the tribesmen who joined Lawrence in driving the Ottomans and Germans out of the region.  The Bedouin call Wadi Rum, the Valley of the Moon, and it’s still home to 5000 of them, many who maintain a semi-nomadic lifestyle. Traditional goat-hair tents speckle the landscape, as they have for 2500 years. Most Bedouin now live in Rum village with their goat herds, as the Zalabia tribe is largely responsible for providing tourism services in this protected wilderness area. 

Throughout the year, most tribe families will head into the desert for a while, with their flock of livestock, to reacquaint themselves with their wandering roots. I spent a day in the desert with a charming and hospitable Zalabia family. Their Bedouin “house of hair” provided welcome respite from the desert heat – a long, low tent hand-woven from dark goat’s hair. Ahmed, the father, told me that the current going rate for a goat was NZ$200. Goat herds are maintained for milk, jameed (a type of yoghurt) and their succulent meat. 

Ahmed remarked that his family often spend the weekend in the desert, as he is anxious to keep his beautiful and inquisitive young children grounded in tradition.  I spent the night at Sun City Camp, a thoughtfully designed boutique accommodation experience, operated by the Bedouin villagers.  My tent was surprisingly well equipped with contemporary comforts, a flushing toilet and electricity. But the real draw was the silence and the unspoilt, horizon-searching desert vistas that I drooled over long into the night and at the dawn of day, in tented comfort. 30 of these en-suite tents cluster around the tented dining area of the campsite.

The evening dinner experience was a cultural treat, with traditional Bedouin music and dancing, preceding the buffest meal.  It was a thrill to experience a Bedouin roast a “Zarb”, which consisted of a whole lamb cooked in a drum, in the ground and under the sands of the desert.  It was like a barbeque hangi, Bedouin-style.  My fellow campers and I were eagerly encouraged to form a circle around the food as it was unearthed. The permeating fragrance was unbelievable! The lamb was so juicy, tasty and succulent – the moist meat literally fell off the bone.

In Wadi Rum, there’s no avoiding their saccharine sweet Bedouin tea, which greets you with great insistence, at every tent you visit. Usually flavoured with mint or sage, it’s a surprisingly refreshing antidote to the fierce desert heat.

From Sun City, a variety of transportation options, manned by Bedouin villagers, zip you into the wondrous nooks and crannies of Wadi Rum.  Some terrain is certainly more conducive to the 4WD excursions, including a fantastic ride through the main canyon synonymous with T E Lawrence. But nothing beats the timeless romance, loping across the desert on a camel, as you soak up that “vast, echoing and godlike” scenery. www.suncitycamp.com

Mike Yardley is Newstalk ZB’s Travel Correspondent on Saturday Mornings with Jack Tame. 11.20am

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