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Sands of time
It doesn’t take long to get into the rhythm of the desert. All the frantic, complicated excesses of modern Western living slide away to be replaced by a much simpler routine, relating to the basics of nature, the movement of the sun, the moon and the stars.
A group of us, all horse riders, all friends, some of us English and some French, had embarked on a six-day adventure on horseback through the wild and beautiful area of Jordan known as the Wadi Rum.
It’s actually a semi-desert, an area of designated outstanding natural beauty in the south of the country, bordering on Saudi Arabia. And it’s becoming increasingly popular with people, like ourselves, seeking a different experience in the country of the hugely-hospitable Bedouin people.
Our journey had begun with a flight into the country’s capital city, Amman, in the far north where, after soon completing the formalities of buying a visa, we passed through customs to be met by our jovial, joking taxi drivers who would take us the short distance to nearby Madaba city for our first night in the Middle East.
The hotel there would provide us with the last taste of home comforts like running water, toilets and the like for another six nights.
The next day, we set off south, a three-hour taxi ride through some of the most arid countryside you’re likely to set eyes on, with mile after mile of dusty, flat, infertile land stretching far into the distance either side of the central highway that cuts through the middle of the country.
Then, soon after one short en-route break, we arrived at the village on the edge of the Wadi Rum where we met our Bedouin hosts. After a light lunch we started our ride on the horses that would become our companions for the coming week.
All around us, the change in scenery was at once dramatic and startling.
The flat land gave way to the most spectacular sight of giant, bare rocks, like so many Ayers Rocks, climbing out of the sandy ‘valley’ bottom as if someone had drained a vast sea. Which is, indeed, what had probably happened hundreds of thousands of years before.
As we moved steadily through the desert under the glare of a blazing sun and perfect blue skies, humanity faded into the distance behind us, and we seemed alone in a never-ending expanse of sand and rock, rock and sand, their colours and form ever-changing in the moving light of the sun and what little shade there was.
Our first afternoon was a shortish ride, to get us used to the horses, and, no doubt, them used to us, and before long we had arrived at our first ‘camp’ for the night.
In the cleft of a huge rock, our three support vehicles, battered old 4x4s, one with 700,000 kilometres on the clock, were waiting with the two staff who would cook for us every evening, breakfast and lunch, transport our luggage, help us look after the horses and carry, piled high on the cars, the mattresses on which we would sit and sleep.
Almost imperceptibly we had already slipped into the rhythm of our surroundings as dusk fell, and we sat on the mattresses round a rush mat where food and drink were served, we chattered about our first impressions in front of a camp fire and prepared for bed… with the time still hardly pushing towards 9pm.
Couples chose their spots in the open air to bed down on the mattresses, rolled out sleeping bags and clambered into them to then gaze up at the crystal-clear night sky and watch the natural beauty of millions of stars, shooting stars and planets glistening above our heads.
Before we knew it, everyone was asleep, to waken again at dawn to be mesmerised once more by the changing colours of the desert and begin what would be the gentle routine of the day.
Little in the way of washing, of course, except teeth-brushing with bottled water, and then maybe toiletries performed at a discreet out-of-sight distance, toilet paper always burned afterwards, and alcohol handwash used to maintain hygiene standards.
Breakfast out of the way, effects packed up, it was time to groom and saddle up the horses that had been tethered to steel posts pushed into the sand overnight. On occasions the horses broke free from their moorings during the night and wandered near us, fortunately never actually stepping on anyone!
The horses were mostly Arabs or Anglo-Arabs, and very hardy, spirited beasts, still game for a canter at the end of long days ploughing across sometimes deep sand in temperatures that touched the low 30s.
Each day we pushed further into the sparse landscape, entirely reliant on our guide and leader, Adil, a hugely accomplished Bedouin horseman, who knew the terrain where he had been brought up like the back of his hand.
One of my great expectations of the trip had been the chance to gallop across the sands, and in this I was not disappointed in the slightest. Every so often, Adil would halt us for a moment to check everyone was ready and then, whoosh, we were off at a lively canter. Two abreast like the US cavalry, we ate up the desert trails for several minutes at a time, dust and sand flying in the faces of those at the back, the pace picking up even more as we went, before being brought back to a halt, a burst of exhilarated chatter breaking out among the ten of us.
And then it was back to taking in the spectacular scenery, alternating between huge open spaces, mountains in the distance that gave way to the Saudi border, then through canyons, some barely wide enough for a horse, across rocky terrain, up and down gigantic sand dunes, and all the time we spotted features in the rock formations of human faces, dinosaurs or ET or whatever caught our imagination.
During the heat of the midday sun, we and the horses enjoyed a long, three-hour break for lunch and a siesta before setting off again for the afternoon’s three-hour ride to reach that evening’s camp .
And so the rhythm continued and Western life seemed an increasingly-distant memory. Occasionally we encountered other human beings in the form of 4x4-driven tourists or, remarkably, walkers on three-day trails in much the same vein as ourselves.
The Wadi Rum being a former important trade route in times gone by, there were ancient rock carvings to be seen on our own travels, giving a timely reminder of just how central to human civilisation this biblical land has been.
The only thing spoiling the general atmosphere was the modern ‘footprint’ of litter here and there, ruining the pristine look of the place, with many an empty plastic water bottle carelessly discarded, and food cans and other debris scattered in the more often-used stopping points, a fault Jordanian authorities would do well to tackle before it ruins their otherwise beautiful Wadi Rum sensation.
All too soon, though, our adventure was over with a final night Bedouin feast with everyone eating using just their fingers from a giant platter in the middle of a desert tent, before retiring to a concession to modernity in the form of fixed tents containing actual beds.
Strangely enough, it felt at odds with the environment, and the next day, when we were transported north again to see the ancient collapsed city of Petra and stayed the night in a hotel, it felt positively claustrophobic. Dining with dozens of tourists, and being confined to a walled hotel bedroom was awkward and not a welcome return to luxury I had imagined.
It was also odd to be among hundreds of people viewing the admittedly spectacular ruins of Petra, a city literally carved out of the soft rock in the mountains in the west of the country. Destroyed by an earthquake in 105AD, this former bustling, thriving trading centre that rivalled Rome in its heyday, is one of the wonders of the world and unquestionably worth a visit. We spent six hours touring its ruins, and felt that we had done it justice.
Our final destination was the Dead Sea, a one-night stopover at the intriguing inland sea 1300 feet below sea level, and the lowest place on earth. The descent from the plains high above is truly biblical, stark, arid and to my mind more interesting than the sea itself. Once you’ve floated in the densely-salty water for a while, that’s about it and time to move on.
Our schedule didn’t allow us to explore any of the bible lands so close to hand, and that may be for another trip. But I felt well satisfied with my experience of Jordan, its very hospitable people the great riding and the endlessly interesting countryside.