October 7 – 8, 2012
Of all the controllable factors, the impulse to try to see as much as possible in a finite amount of time has the highest potential to sidetrack any trip. Developing and sticking to a ranking of priorities is the key. Here is my train of thought when I was planning this trip:
- I have to see Petra
- I only have 11 days, do I want to spend them all in Jordan? (NO)
- Where else do I want to visit in Jordan? (Wadi Rum)
- With regrets, am I willing to sacrifice interesting places like Jerash and the Dead Sea so I can concentrate my limited available time in Petra and Wadi Rum? (YES)
The second question was the only difficult one; while I very much would want to see more of Jordan, Egypt was too intriguing a destination to abandon completely on my first foray to the Middle East. On the other hand, the forth question was a no-brainer. We were content of not seeing Aswan or Amman if the reward was that we could spend some quality time in places we cared deeply about.
So what does all this have to do with Wadi Rum?
The online feedback on this desert valley, about a 1.5 hour drive south of Petra, is quite mixed. Some declare this desert landscape, made famous by its association with T.E. Lawrence and as the backdrop to the epic biopic Lawrence of Arabia 50 years later, the most beautiful they have ever seen. Others are put off by its blatant commercialism, the high hassle factor and the belief that Wadi Rum simply doesn’t stand out in a region where sand is almost as abundant as oxygen.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but one noticeable difference between the visitors behind these two seemingly incompatible views appears to be the amount of time each actually spent in Wadi Rum. Take this statement with a grain of salt given the small sample size, but day-trippers generally appreciate Wadi Rum less than those who are out in the desert for at least a night. It was imperative for us to spend the night so we could have a greater chance of seeing Wadi Rum under the best light possible, literally speaking, at dusk and dawn.
It was hard to choose an operator when a quick search online came up with dozens of results. The only criteria I had was the operator has to be run by Wadi Rum-based Bedouin. After a round of rudimentary comparison of price and recommendations, I booked an overnight tour with Bedouin Meditation Camp for 35JD per person. The itinerary was the standard affair: Lawrence’s Spring, Lawrence’s House, Anfashieh inscriptions, Burdah Arch, Umm Fruth rock bridge, etc…
Through the operator we had arranged a driver to pick us up at our hotel Petra Palace. One of the many Mohammeds we had encountered in Egypt and Jordan, this stout man in his late fifties/early sixties was passionate about entertaining his passengers.
Upon boarding his car, he eagerly showed us his formidable cassette tape collection of Bedouin music. A Bollywood-like music soon filled up the car and Mohammed began dancing to the rhythm with his right hand first, then after several beats switched to his left hand, all in a fluid motion while maintaining a hand on the steering wheel at all time.
Mohammed has eight children; a thirty year-old son follows by seven younger daughters. As we spoke our car arrived at Mohammed’s home town, which is 20 minutes by car from Wadi Musa. And suddenly at a crosswalk to our left was the subject of our conversation – Mohammed’s son. He waved to us in response to our car horn, but before I could take a proper look at him our car had moved on.
Not speaking Arabic is an insurmountable obstacle to any deeper interaction. There it was a man probably full of stories about living in one of the most dynamic regions in the world for the past half-century and all I had learned was how many children he has. At a small grocery during a washroom stop I was introduced to a store clerk from Yemen. He is the first Yemeni I have met, yet all I have to show for our encounter are a handshake and a photograph.
The road abruptly came to an end soon after passing through the Wadi Rum Visitor Centre. Situated precariously next to the boundless valley of red sand was a small village of a few dozen houses, one of which was the office of the Bedouin Meditation Camp, run by a man called Zedane al-Zalabieh.
Our guide Mohammed Zedane, possibly the owner’s son, greeted us with some “hospitality tea” while we waited for the arrival of our group mates and transport. I still hadn’t gotten used to hearing the word hospitality being used as an adjective even after being first introduced to it in Egypt. Pity the genuineness that is typically associated with the word.
Our group mates gradually showed up; five pair of couples from France, UK, the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Italy, respectively. Each 4-Wheel Drive carried three couples and we were on our way.
The rest of the day was spent rather leisurely. The adrenaline generated from blazing through the sea of sand on our 4-Wheel Drive, scaling sand dunes and crossing rock bridges were subdued by long periods of sipping “hospitality tea” in tents set up across the desert and a two hour-long picnic in the shadow of a gigantic piece of granite. No reason to complain though, when the landscape that surrounded us was as awe-inspiring as Wadi Rum’s.
We arrived at the campsite just when the sun was about to descend below the horizon. Known as the Golden Hour in photography, the shimmering sunlight brought out an intense redness that was not noticeable early from the encompassing ocean of sand. After taking a few shots with my telephoto lens, I ran back inside the main tent, change to an ultra-wide angle lens, then rushed back to the desert to setup my tripod. All the back and forth wasted some precious amount of time but I couldn’t bare myself to change lens out in the open.
Desert‘s large daily temperature range is a well-known fact. Still I was caught slightly off-guard by the immediate impact caused by the sun’s disappearance. Wearing just a t-shirt was totally insufficient to combat this new level of algidity and I had to retreat back into the tent.
For dinner we would be having zarb, a Bedouin barbecue of chicken and potatoes cooked in a large underground pit. During the 90-minute wait the camp owner showed face and sat among us. Led by the obviously Mr al-Zalabieh, the conversation soon turned into a sort of self-directed Q&A on the man’s accomplishment in setting up the camp. The rhetoric aside, it was evident that the establishment of Wadi Rum into a natural reserve had channeled precious tourist dollar directly into the hands of the local Bedouins.
Feeling warmer after the surprisingly delicious dinner and having a jacket on me this time, my wife and I set our foot outside again. Even at 9 o’clock in this early October night the sky had not completely darkened – some hint of whiteness was still visible at the very edge of the horizon. Above us the Milky Way, the Big Dipper, all the constellations I could name and an infinite more that I couldn’t filled up the sky. The ethereal display of light became even more bewildering when the fact sank in that we have all been living under these stars for our entire lives; yet it is only in the wilderness that they reveal themselves to us.
I have been humbled by the overwhelming scale of the natural world many times, but never before had I felt such utter insignificance of my own being. Perhaps the desert brings out human’s inherited insecurity from within. In the brittle wind I held my wife’s hand, closed my eyes and emptied my mind. Maybe the link between many Biblical stories and the desert is more than mere geographical coincidence – the barren landscape seems to invariably draw one closer to the divine.
We slept unexpectedly well. The tent proved its worth and kept us insular from the elements. Our guide and his brother, however, had to spend the night out in the open.
At 5:40, the sky remained wholesomely dark; however no trace of the stars could anymore be found. A glimmer of light from the east forecast the long night of darkness was nearing to an end.
With ample of time before dawn, I had the luxury this time around to trek around the campsite to compare the various foregrounds and angles. As the sky gradually brightened up, the colours of the landscape returned with all their glory. The soft morning light brought out something different from the red sand. Where the fiery afternoon sun amplified the tone of the desert, the morning glow in contrast showcased its vastness and multi-layered characteristic.
I love Wadi Rum. I am able to appreciate it only because I have given the amount of time it deserves, as limited as 24 hours might be. Certainly if I had chosen to visit the valley as a day trip from Petra or Aqaba I would end up appreciating it much less.