The Hip-Op Hikers (Mike, Sally, Richard Copson) are familiar with my expedition logs. They are not volumes of deathless prose but rather an aide memoire for myself as the senior moments start crowding in. As an engineer I tend to deal with facts rather than emotions and so record what I did rather than how I felt about it. Not too many ‘wow’ moments, then, but maybe a skeleton on which you can hang your own memories.
The expedition was put together by Nick and Ann Gray through the good offices of KE Adventure Travel and their in-country operators, Terhaal. Most of those taking part were connected to Nick through the media world, particularly a shared history with Yorkshire Television. Mike and Sally Shrimpton brought Richard Copson and me on board; Julian was a walking companion of Caroline; and Richard Halahan was a schoolfriend of Nick’s. Well, that’s how I remember it ……
The plan was to spend the first half of the trip trekking through the desert and mountains of Wadi Rum in the south east of Jordan, and the second half among the historic sites of Petra, Mt Nebo and Madaba. I was not overly keen as I had not been attracted to deserts, preferring mountainous regions. However, Richard C said that if I did not go he would have to share a tent with a 25 year old blond and in his hour of need how could I refuse? I did pause when I realised that Jordan is bordered by Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Palestine and the Golan Heights, but summoned up my courage.
Perhaps a word of praise for Lucy Woods and the team at KE is appropriate. Those who have read the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy may remember the invention of a new branch of mathematics called ‘Bistro Maths’, based on the total inconsistency of the numbers booked, the numbers arriving, the time of the booking, the division of the bill for payment and so on. KE handled the varying numbers, flights, start and end points etc without (apparently) turning a hair.
Finally, it should be said that the itinerary is well described in the KE brochure and there is little point in repeating it here; I will confine myself to my own experience.
Apart from booking the car into the Gatwick South by Peter Terminal car park when we were leaving from the North Terminal, the first stage of the journey was uneventful. My first introduction to Nick was at the foreign exchange counter where the clerk was counting out huge wads of cash at a pre-booked, preferential exchange rate. I knew the party was in safe hands.
Easyjet did what it said on the tin and we were met at Amman by a very attractive young Jordanian woman holding a KE sign. I assumed she was just there to ensure we got on the correct bus – what an ageist, sexist thought! This was Tala, our guide for the whole trip; a co-founder of Terhaal Travel and also a Product Development & Destination Marketing Specialist at USAID. More of her later, but see this if you can’t wait.
After a half-hour bus ride to Madaba we checked into the Madaba Inn Hotel, basic but adequate, and went to dinner in a nearby restaurant. Nick took charge of ordering a Meze but could do little to lower the volume of the music. And so to bed.
We were up at 0700 and left at 0830 by bus for a 3.5hr drive to Wadi Rum along the Desert Highway. This took us a long distance through largely barren terrain although there was clearly a major project under way to lay new water pipelines. Tala explained that Jordan shared a large underground aquifer with Saudi Arabia and had been holding it in reserve for the future. Saudi had started to exploit it so Jordan was running to catch up. She also told us of a possible scheme to run a pipeline from the Red Sea downhill to the Dead Sea, generating hydroelectricity to power desalination plants and depositing the salty residue in the Dead Sea (the engineering interest emerging already!). This would involve shared funding with Israel and the project’s future was uncertain. The journey was broken for a comfort stop where some of us sampled our first Turkish coffee of the trip.
The road dropped down to the desert floor with rock outcrops and we soon entered the Wadi Rum reserve for which entry tickets were required. A further short drive brought us to the Bedouin village where we had lunch in a luxuriously decorated hall and met the crew which would support us for the next few days. Not all of us managed to avoid showing the soles of our feet as we sat on the floor.
After lunch we did a short walk in hot weather, starting with a gentle climb up steps to Lawrence’s (of Arabia fame) Well. A rougher track took us over rocks and around the mountain behind the village until we caught our first glimpse of the flat desert floor stretching away to the mountains – stunning! We could also see a Bedouin camp and camel trains making the whole picture very atmospheric, for me at least. Descending to the desert were picked up by the two trucks which would be our transport whilst in Wadi Rum and drove for about half an hour to the middle of nowhere surrounded by mountains. The (small) tents had already been pitched and tea was brewing on the fire. Later supper consisted of soup, salad, chicken and vegetables.
I woke at 0630 with the sun already shining. After dressing and packing we enjoyed a breakfast of cheese, bread, salad, houmous and so-on. After liberal application of sun-cream we walked across the desert floor to the rock wall of Jebel Burdah on the opposite side. There followed a long scramble up the rocky slopes, sometimes with able assistance from Tala and our Bedouin guide, Salama, over the tricky bits (described by KE as ‘relatively easy’), until we were below the Burdah Bridge. I elected to stay below the bridge to capture on camera the deeds of derring-do as others crossed the rock arch – they were lucky they couldn’t see the cracks. I also got to stay in the shade.
There were some interesting poses adopted as the climbers descended from the bridge with the assistance of Salama and a rope. We all then returned to the valley floor, admiring the views and cursing the heat as we went. We crossed the valley back to the campsite, enjoyed a welcome lunch and settled down for a siesta.
The afternoon saw us trekking across the desert between rock walls until we reached a second arch at Jebel Um Frith. This was fairly popular with other tour parties and more accessible to the casual climber. Some of us shinned up it and then boarded the trucks which took us to our next camp, although a couple of us bailed out for the last mile or so to get a bit more exercise.
The crew had rigged a shower for us, in the style of the old ‘bucket and biscuit tin’ we used in the scouts. Most welcome, if a little chilly. After supper we retired to our beds. We had the option of sleeping in the tents provided or under the stars. Richard H chose the latter, albeit he did have his own mountain tent with him, and I ‘borrowed’ his KE-provided tent to have more space. So Richard C could have shared with the blond after all, if she had turned up.
Omelettes for breakfast then a drive through the desert to Jebel Khasch followed by a reasonably easy circular walk round a mountain until we reached a plateau with a cairn at the centre. Here there were stupendous views down to a red valley floor and large rocky outcrops and we rested awhile to take it all in. Four horses, way below us, gave some scale to the vast landscape. The gentle walk down ended in soft sand which was less easy to walk on. Mother and baby camels were encountered here but although they were a long way from any from any human habitation we were told that they all belong to someone. We crossed the desert to where the vehicles were waiting under a long rock wall and had lunch, with occasional pauses to watch the Sinai rosefinches (the Jordanian national bird). A siesta followed until 1500.
A 2hr trek through the desert took us past many strange rock formations. On arrival at camp I elected to sleep out on a rocky ledge under the stars – our last opportunity. At this point a sandstorm blew up and I was driven back to the tent, and all the tents had to be moved into the shelter of the rocks. Good team-building stuff. Richard H elected to sleep out once the storm had abated but I chickened out. In any case, the sand in the air meant there were no stars visible (that’s my excuse).
An early start saw us embark on a long drive to the foot of Jebel Um Adaami, the highest mountain in Jordan at 1830m. It was a long haul to the top but not unduly difficult. Views were limited because of the sand clouds but they were still impressive. A Saudi mobile signal gave us our first contact with the outside world. A good spot for team photos.
The descent was straightforward, with a helping hand from Salama, Ali and Tala when necessary. There was then a long drive to a new location for lunch and a siesta. Afterwards we walked across the desert for around 2hrs to reach a Bedouin camp with traditional large tents, toilets, showers and wash-basins. Luxury! We even had tea brought to our ‘rooms’.
We had a communal dinner with two American ladies doing a camel tour and a solo Australian chap. The meal was cooked on charcoal under the sand. Afterwards there was a sing-song with our Bedouin hosts leading the way but when we started they left the tent – I wonder why? It was a cold night but Richard H insisted on sleeping out again albeit on a framed bed which he moved out onto the rocks.
The Australian set off on foot on his own – probably not the best decision of his life! The trucks took us to the foot of the hills on the other side of Wadi Rum. Here we climbed to a great viewpoint, back down the same way for a short distance, and then around the hill to start a rocky descent to the desert. On the way we saw a herd of goats (wild?) and Salama showed us how to make soap from a particular herb. We re-boarded the trucks for the final leg back to the village where we had lunch and said farewell to our trekking crew, with Geoff making an appropriate speech of thanks.
A coach took us to Wadi Musa at the entrance to Petra, pausing on the way to look across the Edom area, supposedly the site of Moses’ 40yr wanderings in the wilderness. On arrival at the Petra Edom hotel in Wadi Musa almost all of us went to the local Hamam (Turkish bath) which may be summarised as steam, legs in air, wash, massage but after 5 days in the desert was a very welcome ‘freshen up’. Back to the hotel for a buffet supper and then a walk to the Cave Bar for a much-needed (but very expensive) beer. Bed.
Petra! What to say? We walked down the main route, through the Siq, as described in all the books, with Tala giving us valuable commentary on the features we passed (eg water supply on one side, drinking trough for animals on the other). We stopped for coffee by the Treasury – fairly busy – and again Tala explained why this monument is so-called (the urn at the top was supposed to contain a pharaoh’s treasure). Onward to the end of the tourist route and lunch at the NGO café. The display boards were very informative and it was remarkable how the Nabatean carved structures had survived the centuries whilst the later Roman constructions had crumbled due to earthquakes. The latter are now being excavated and reconstructed under the guidance of Brown University in the USA.
After lunch some went exploring the many walks around the area to outlying edifices but I preferred to go to the Basin museum to see some of the history and archaeological finds. Then I did a tour of the immediate buildings including the Byzantine Petra church, Blue church, Temple of the Winged Lions and the Great Temple. The latter is a huge complex dating from 1st century BC and although ruined, the basic structure is plain to see and the columns which are just rows of collapsed discs should be fairly easy to resurrect.
We regrouped at the Treasury which was now less crowded and allowed sunset photos to capture the rose colouring beloved of poets. After the long walk back out to Wadi Musa we had dinner at Oasis, a beer (we could only afford one!) at the Cave Bar, and to bed.
The other two Peters headed off to Aqaba for some seaside R&R but the rest of had managed to negotiate an extension to Tala’s stay with us rather than opt for the ‘free time’ in the KE brochure. This was a stroke of genius – she was able to organise some guided walks around the outlying areas of Petra which we would probably not have managed on our own. And we enjoyed her company. Our first trip was by bus to Little Petra and its cave with a rare frescoed ceiling. From there we followed a local guide on a trek to a village dating from 2000BC and onwards across fields and difficult rock ledges to the Monastery. En route we encountered a lady looking after grazing goats and, in true ancient Jordanian fashion, she invited us to take tea with her round her stick fire in the middle of nowhere. Extraordinary! (Although she spoilt the effect by making a call on her mobile phone.)
From the Monastery we descended the long staircase to Petra for lunch. Afterwards we walked across to the Royal Tombs on the other side of the valley, admired the coloured rocks, and then started up a narrow gorge which, in wet weather, would be a raging torrent – the drainage channel used by the Nabateans to divert water round Petra rather than flooding through the Siq. There were difficult scrambles over several sections and we were glad of help from our guide and Tala. Eventually we emerged through the tunnel above the Siq, (surviving a challenge by a security guard), and on to the main path back to Wadi Musa. Most of us toiled back up the path but Mike and Sally put on a display of horsemanship, although Mike had to pay extra for daring to make his horse go faster than walking pace.
Dinner, beer, bed.
We walked into Petra again then turned left off the main path opposite the tunnel. We climbed an easy path through the rocks although without our local guide, Mahmoud, I doubt we would have found our way. In the distance we could see Aaron’s tomb which played a part in the rediscovery of Petra in 1812. A few more steps brought us to the Place of High Sacrifice with obelisks, ruins, and superb views of the lower part of Petra – the Royal Tombs, Great Temple, and other tombs we had not visited.
A long descent over steps led us to the Theatre and, once again, we walked up to Wadi Musa. Here we were reunited with the Peters, boarded our bus, and drove along the Kings Highway to the Mariam hotel in Madaba 24 April
Some of us were up early to go to the Archaeological Park to see examples of the mosaics for which Madaba is famous – astonishing. Then on to St George’s church to see the remarkable mosaic map of the Holy Land set into the floor – Tala reckoned that it was geographically correct other than a bit of artistic licence with the River Jordan. After this Tala very generously invited us all to her house for tea and to meet her baby daughter – an extraordinarily kind gesture. Madaba deserves another visit.
We left the hotel at around 1130 and drove up to Mt Nebo, the place from which Moses saw the promised land. There were good views all round, as far as the River Jordan, and I guess it looks much the same now as it did then! There was a museum worth a visit and a site which might have been Moses’ grave (one of several, we were told).
From here we drove to the Dead Sea, had lunch, and went for a float. Some experimented with self-mudification while Sally and Julian went for the proper all-over black stuff. Thence by bus to a shop selling all manner of Dead Sea stuff, on to a sandwich bar, and then to the airport. Fond farewells.
An excellent trip with great company (thank you all) and a perfect balance of the physical and the cultural. Jordan is a country I would probably never have visited if this trip had not been arranged, and that would have been a grave omission. Despite its location at the centre of the turbulent middle east (it is a magnet for many refugees) and its lack of resources we were made very welcome and felt very safe. There is a cloud on the horizon as I write, with demonstrations against King Abdullah and the decision to raise fuel prices – I hope this is settled peacefully.
A note of thanks to Julian for producing his extraordinary maps of our trips in Wadi Rum and Petra. Without them I would still have little idea of where we actually went, particularly in the desert.
Finally a special ‘thank you’ to Tala for ensuring the smooth running of the whole trip; for staying on for the extra days in Petra; for inviting us into her home in Madaba; and laughing at our jokes. For someone who claims to have learnt her English from TV she has a perfect understanding of British humour and used it to good effect on us!