In the middle of southern Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert, in 35-degree heat under the beating midday sun, our Bedouin guide Ali Hammad is insisting we drink tea. Crouched over an open fire beneath soaring walls of sandstone, Hammad boils the tea with sprigs of rosemary and thyme and innumerable tablespoons of sugar. We protest it’s too hot – it has been since we woke at dawn in our Bedouin camp this morning.
But Hammad was born and raised in this desert and will have none of it, dismissively waving a hand and promising the scorching liquid will, in fact, cool us down. “Tea, fire, silence, nature, these are the best things,” he says, pressing the cups into our hands.
To readers of T.E. Lawrence, the journey into this World Heritage-listed desert is a familiar one – “vast, echoing and God-like”, as he described it in his World War I memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It is the Middle East of our imaginations – arid plains, craggy outcrops, curious camels and luxurious Bedouin encampments.
In a region known for its instability, it is an oasis of calm that is safe and unfrazzling for travellers. (Apart from the heat, that is…)
For those willing to extend what is often just a day trip from Petra or the Red Sea port city of Aqaba to a few days, visiting this patch of wilderness the size of New York City is a way of stripping life back to what’s purely essential.
After our mandatory tea break, Hammad bundles us back into his Jeep and drives us through the desert. “This is where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed, and The Martian and Red Planet!” he yells over the wind from the front seat. Looking at the expanse stretching before us, coloured red by iron oxide and dotted with natural rock towers, it’s easy to see why film crews picked this place to represent the outer reaches of our universe.
We stop briefly at a crumbling sandstone structure, said to be the remains of Lawrence’s headquarters when he passed through the area in 1917 during the Arab Revolt, before pulling up at a rock face scrawled with dozens of petroglyphs.
Hammad says the crudely drawn camels, human figures and symbols, thought to have been messages left from one Bedouin tribe to another, are over 4000 years old. Tens of thousands of these rock carvings and inscriptions have been documented throughout Wadi Rum, he says, some of them dating back 12,000 years, providing a rare window into humankind’s beginnings.
The most extraordinary feature of this desert, though, is the great nothingness of it. After taking us through narrow canyons and beneath soaring rock bridges, Hammad deposits us at the ribbed flank of a sand dune and delivers the news that our desert experience ends with a 90-minute hike back to camp. This is how we find ourselves on a vast sandy plane with nothing but half-a-dozen camels as company, our camp a mere speck in the distance, being reminded that we’re far less important than we think.
These days, Wadi Rum is dotted with stylish camps offering the kind of elegance usually found in east African safari scenarios. The nearby Wadi Rum Night Luxury Camp is Bedouin chic at its best: large tents furnished with king-size beds clad in smart linens, wrought-iron lanterns and hand-carved wooden furniture, or transparent dome rooms for those wishing to stargaze from bed.
Our Wadi Rum Bedouin Camp, while on the simpler side, feels authentic. Owned and operated by Hammad and his two brothers for 10 years, the 11 traditional black-and-white Bedouin goat-hair tents tucked beneath the cliffs are small but comfortable. They take nothing away from the landscape and provide the ideal place for a pre-prandial nap.
While there’s not an abundance of variety in Jordanian cuisine, the traditional dishes are tasty. By night, the table in our dining tent heaves with bowls of creamy hummus and labneh sprinkled with olive oil and zaatar, marinated olives and plates of crunchy fresh fatoush salad, all served with just-baked shrak flatbread, like a delicious pita-crepe hybrid. The real treat, though, is zarb, the traditional Bedouin barbecue that’s more ceremony than meal.
Earlier in the afternoon we watched the Hammad brothers place a cylindrical metal cage filled with layers of chicken, lamb meat and vegetables into a fire pit, which they then sealed with clay. Now, hours later, we watch them smash the clay, exhume the cage with great fanfare and serve the smoky, melt-in-your-mouth dishes directly to our table.
Later, despite knowing we have to rise at dawn for a camel safari, we’re lured outside by the campfire, more tea, and a dessert of fresh dates. We gaze up at infinity, feet burrowed into the warm sand, and realise that Hammad was right. Tea, fire, silence, nature: they really are the best things.
THIS STORY FIRST APPEARED ONLINE HERE AND IN PRINT BELOW
TAKE ME THERE
Qantas and Emirates fly to Jordan’s capital Amman via Dubai. It’s then a four-hour drive south on the Desert Highway to Wadi Rum, a transfer the desert camps can arrange. A useful trip planning site is the Jordan Tourism Board (visitjordan.com).STAYING THERE
The Dana Biosphere, Jordan’s biggest nature reserve and a three-hour drive from Wadi Rum, is home to Feynan Ecolodge, one of the world’s most impressive ecolodges. Completely solar-powered and staffed by local Bedouins, its adobe design is infinitely photogenic and its rooftop terrace is perfect for contemplating the night sky. ecohotels.me.SEE THERE
For a bird’s-eye view of those dusty expanses at first light, hot-air balloon rides over Wadi Rum depart each morning and can be booked directly through your camp. wadirumnight.com; wadirumbedouincamp.com.
For those wishing to extend their Jordanian adventure, the 4th century BC Nabatean city of Petra lives up to its hype. Walk through the Siq stone corridor at first light, which leads to the majestic facade of the Treasury. After dark on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays it’s lit by candles. Hike past hundreds of cave dwellings and rock-cut monuments, and see some of the best dressed donkeys and camels in the Middle East. It’s a 90-minute drive from Wadi Rum.