8-9 October 2015. We’ve been travelling for an hour or so, with a quick stop along the way for our guide to dive into a store to pick up boxed lunches for everyone. We stop in the middle of nowhere. Pretty much all that’s around is the building we’re about to enter surrounded by the sere Jordanian desert. I’m not sure if it’s a restaurant or not, but it is a souvenir shop, and there is a room with a long bench for us to all sit on where we can balance our lunches on our knees. We’re told as we exit the bus that we have twenty-five minutes. Twenty-five minutes for eighteen people to gather their stuff, file off the bus, collect their lunch, find a seat, order drinks, eat lunch, pay individually for the drinks one by one, look at and buy souvenirs, and get back into the bus. It’s madness. It’s especially madness since we’ve spent the morning lazing around at Petra, the entire group hanging around in the lobby of the hotel waiting for our scheduled departure time at noon. Why didn’t we leave twenty minutes earlier?
We arrive at the Wadi Rum Visitors Centre where there is a panoramic view of the rock formation known as The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, although there is no known connection between the landmark and the book of the same name by T. E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. It’s a magnificent landscape but there’s no time to linger, no time to take it in. Quick, take photos; be back on the bus in ten minutes. Why didn’t we leave earlier?
We transfer to jeeps and head off on a two-hour tour of the desert.
We stop at ancient rock glyphs five thousand years old,
and eventually we stop at a Bedouin café for tea. Nearby, on a high steep hill of sand, eight or nine Bedouin children play boisterously, racing up the hill and rolling down, over and over. Tumbling laughing screaming happiness. I watch them for a couple of minutes, relishing their freedom and their infectious joy.
In the café there is loud endless chatter. Don and I walk away and into the desert a hundred metres or so. It is a powerful ancient compelling landscape. There is a majesty here that fills the soul, and this is my only chance to really feel it. Stop. Be still. Let in the vast silence. Eternity is right here. For a brief second just feel it. This endless burnt orange land, now turned pink in the fading light, all towering rocks and shifting sands.
We are dwarfed by mountains of rock.
The sun is setting,
but quick, now it’s time to get back into the jeep. There is no more time to just be here, it’s time to go to the camp.
We drive to a Bedouin camp that has been reserved for us, grab our bags from the bus, take them into our tent ‘bedroom’ and begin to unpack our needs for the night, then suddenly quick, come now, gather to watch traditional bread making – interesting and very very yummy. I eat too much of it because it is so good, not like pita bread, but something more delicate.
Then more unpacking and organizing for the night, moving our mattresses outside to sleep under the stars, then quick, come now, gather to watch the big dinner being taken out of the ground, an entire delicious meal cooked inside a forty-five gallon drum buried in the sand,
then quick, come now, into the dining tent to eat. Fabulous meal! The best meal in Jordan. And immediately after dinner our guide gives us
a long and interesting talk about Bedouin life during which I upload photos and do a backup. It is the only time to get it done so the camera will be ready for tomorrow.
And so to bed. I lie looking at the stars for most of the night, and get very little sleep. It is the same for most of us. The wind howls all night. It is cold, though I am not. And it is very very dark. The sky is a riot of silver pinpricks.
What is this place? Described by T. E. Lawrence in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom as “vast, echoing and God-like”, Wadi Rum is a valley cut into the rock in southern Jordan. It is a desert wilderness of sheer-sided sandstone and granite mountains towering seven hundred metres (2300 ft) over wide sandy valleys. It is a protected area of seven hundred and twenty square kilometres. It has been home to many human societies since prehistoric times, hunters, pastoralists, farmers and traders; resilient, resourceful people who adapted to the harsh environment. And it has been home to the Bedouin for hundreds of years, some of who still live dotted about the landscape in their goat-hair tents.
In the village of Wadi Rum they live with their tents, and concrete houses, and 4wd vehicles. There is a school for boys, and one for girls, a few shops, and the headquarters of the Desert Patrol. They were nomadic until recently. Now some are partially nomadic, and many are involved in the tourist industry.
We are up at five for a sunrise camel ride. It is an unexpectedly short ride. We anticipated riding out into the desert, not just around the corner so to speak, but since it is so uncomfortable most of us are glad it is short. I don’t know what they did with the camel saddles in Australia but we rode for over an hour there and I don’t remember it being anything like as uncomfortable. After no more than ten minutes we stop and dismount and are shooed by the cameleers
up a rocky escarpment to watch the sunrise.
It is a moment. It is indeed a moment. I stop to take it in, this glorious landscape, this timeless place,
looking in all directions, allowing the land to speak to me.
Climbing back down I see our camels waiting patiently
and a flock of birds flitting and dancing around the resting camels in a symbiotic relationship. I wonder to myself how birds survive in this unforgiving environment.
We head back to camp,
where we rush to pack. We must be ready to leave by eight because there is a boat cruise booked in Aqaba for nine-thirty. I complain to our guide, in between hurrying around getting everything packed up and returning the mattress to our room in the tent. We are barely back from the camel ride in time to have all our bags packed and ready by seven-thirty. I go to the bathroom for a quick wash and start complaining to a fellow traveller about the rush when I realize our guide is standing right next to me. He asks what I’d do in Wadi Rum. I reply that for a start I’d have time to eat my breakfast at a reasonable pace. As it happens they are serving individually made omelets, one after the other. In the line-up for breakfast someone has to be last. I am last, and I’m not even actually served my meal until ten to eight. Our guide changes the leaving time to eight-thirty.
But neither of us gets to the nub of the matter. I don’t express myself well. Yes I’d like more time to eat breakfast but what I really want is time in Wadi Rum.
Our guide says, twice in two days, that there’s nothing to do in Wadi Rum, which is nonsense of course. In Wadi Rum, apart from riding camels, you can hike, climb the mountains, ride an ATV, and visit a Bedouin camp. But what I really want is simply time in Wadi Rum. Time to experience the landscape. Time to wander away from camp into the vast silence. Time to let my bones absorb it. Time to just be.
I wish I’d been able to express myself more clearly at the time. I wonder if we all missed out on something special because I couldn’t.
Next post: Aqaba. Where we found plenty to do.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2016.