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Monday, November 3, 2014

10/29: Following in Lawrence of Arabia's Footsteps

 Park close to our hotel in Aqaba.
Beautiful Jordanian flags: I love flags that aren’t just stripes as I tend, after a while, to forget which country had which combination of colors and in what order. Flags like Jordan's aren't as easily forgotten.
A photo of the exterior of the Golden Rose Hotel where we stayed in Aqaba - certainly not the swankiest of hotels as you can see but it wasn't a mixed dorm at least plus we had our own bathroom!
We were picked up by a taxi at 8 that took us to the village of Wadi Rum, which is also known as the Valley of the Moon, about an hour’s drive away to the northeast.Wadi Rum (rhymes with ‘dumb’, not ‘doom’) is one of the most spectacular natural environments in the Middle East and a major highlight of a visit to Jordan. The wadi itself is one a sequence of parallel faults forming valleys in the desert and the giant granite, basalt and sandstone mountains rise up to 800m sheer from the desert floor. The rocky landscape has been weathered over the millennia into bulbous domes and weird ridges, textures and fascinating color differentiation. Split through by networks of canyons and ravines, spanned by naturally formed rock bridges and watered by hidden springs, the mountains offer opportunities galore for scrambling and rock climbing where a person can walk for hours or days without seeing another soul.

Although and arid, open desert, the Rum area is far from depopulated with tents of semi nomadic Bedouin scattered in the desert and a few villages in the area. During the peak months of March, April, September and October, the desert around Rum are thronged with visitors, there for just a few hours to go camel riding or a whirlwind visit to take in the sights or some like us to spend 2 full days in the desert. 
Rum is a ‘protected area’ with controls in place to limit environmental degradation while supporting sustainable tourism though bureaucratic disputes hamper efforts. Some observers question the benefits brought by ‘protected area’ status, amid claims that the core area of Wadi Rum has seen accelerated decline in recent years, caused by at least 1200 4x4s and the presence of 65 tourist camps within the Protected Area alone. Nonetheless, UNESCO declared Rum as a natural/cultural World Heritage site in 2011.
Wandering through the tiny village of Wadi Rum, before we had to leave for the tour at 10, reminded us quickly we were in a different world and one we couldn’t wait to discover.

T.E. Lawrence (‘of Arabia’) waxed lyrically about the Rum area, describing it as ‘vast, echoing and godlike’ when he passed through in the years during the 1916-1918 Great Arab Revolt. Appropriately enough, much of the epic Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here in the 1960’s.
Steven and I left about for our 2 day tour with Bedouin Lifestyle accompanied by 2 wonderful young Austrian men, Ben and Dominik, both of whom have been living in Zurich, Switzerland for a number of years. Unfortunately for us, they were only going to be spending the first day with us seeing the most famous sights before going camel riding the next day for a few hours and then returning to Switzerland. They’d spent the last 10 days in Jordan starting off their trip in the country’s far north.
Our first stop was just a few minutes’ drive from the village of Wadi Rum at the many centuries old single, semi ruined Nabatean Temple. The temple, built in the 1st C. B.C. had rock art drawings from that period. 
Our guide/driver/cook was the very mature 21 year old Mahmoud who did a wonderful job ensuring we had plenty of snacks, juices and bottled water as we set off sitting on pretty comfortable seats in the bed of a very ancient Toyota. Unlike some of the other 4x4s we saw, ours had a covered top which thankfully protected us from the very hot sun. Climbing in and out of the truck bed onto the bent bumper, held onto the truck only by a skinny rope, soon became second nature as we had to do it so many times. However, it did not make for the most graceful of moves and is certainly not recommended if you have bum knees or other joints!

More photos above and below of the Nabatean Temple.

Pretty close by was the area called Lawrence’s Spring where we had more incredible views but didn’t see the spring unfortunately.

Stopped at some more places where we hopped out (OK, maybe I stretch the truth there a bit because I didn’t exactly ‘hop out’!) looking at an area called Ancient Inscriptions.

Mahmoud, our driver, whom we thought at this point was a mature late 20 year old, showing off his driving skills!
Our million dollar view from the back of the truck.
Red Dunes is an area of soft red sand where we all climbed to the top wading in the ankle deep, VERY hot sand and trying to gain traction by following others’ footsteps as best as we could.

We had an absolute blast chatting with both of them: Ben, 31 this week and on the left above, is quadrilingual, speaking French, Spanish and absolutely perfect idiomatic and almost completely accent free English in addition to his native German; he had already traveled extensively earlier this year and after working for a couple of weeks or so, he’ll be on the road again. This time, he’s going to Uruguay and then meeting his younger sister in Argentina where the two of them will travel before going on to Chile for a total of another month. Steven and I got the impression that work is just a necessary evil for him to travel the world! Ben would be a wonderful ‘catch’ for any woman as he’s good looking, smart, witty, flirtatious and a real gem. But he said that his young looking appearance has been a drawback attracting the fairer sex unfortunately. Here’s hoping you soon meet your dream woman, Ben.
Ben had a blast sandboarding down the dune while his friend, Dominik, took videos. Steven and I simply decided to run down the dunes as fast as we could which was hilarious fun. I don’t think either of us felt or looked our ages then!

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After driving some more, we next hiked through an area called Khazali Canyon. AboveBen passed a fig tree while talking with Mahmoud. The canyon is described in a tour book as a ‘titanic chunk of mountain,’ was supposedly named after a criminal, Khazali, who was pursued up to the summit and, with nowhere to run, he miraculously floated to earth and landed unharmed. The mountain’s north face is split by a mammoth canyon; on the walls are stylized rock drawings of people, horses and pairs of feet.

Ben, with his always present Stetson hat to protect his fair skin, in the foreground and Dominik in the background. 

Dominik, 28, is shyer than his more outgoing friend of about 2 years; he, too, loves to travel and will soon be off to visit Eva, his girlfriend who’s living in Valencia, but who plans to join him in Zurich soon, he hopes. What a delightful pair of men to be traveling with if only for a few short hours. Steven and I hope that both of them will find their way to Denver at some point so that we can wine and dine them chez nous.

Ben again.
Some more beautiful desert scenes.

Driving in the desert!

Our next stop was here at Burdah Rock Bridge where we all climbed to the top. I normally am no good at heights but I did fine here. Think it was a case of not wanting to wimp out in front of all that testosterone!

More climbing up and then scrambling down sand dunes!

Ben and Dominik in the truck.
Fascinating to see how the desert changed from areas of sand alone to areas comprising a fair amount of vegetation only a short distance away.

The ruins of what had been Lawrence’s House was our next stop.
Nearby was a brief rest stop where we had a choice of Bedouin tea which we all declined since it hot enough out already. 

It was a tad bizarre seeing items available for purchase here like Kohl eye makeup, scarves, bedouin tea, etc.
I think Mahmoud sensed we were beginning to tire somewhat as it was well after 2 before he stopped the truck in a mountain’s shadow (Ben: that’s for you!) so we could enjoy a well deserved lunch.
I think the tag line here should be ‘How many men does it take to get a fire started?’
Lunch prep desert style!
Another guide wandered over to our picnic area to give us all a hand.

One of the few smiling photos I could capture of Mahmoud, our indefatigable guide/cook/driver.

Lunch was an al fresco feast of hummus, salad (my contribution to the cause), and a delicious mixture of cooked onions, peppers, canned tomatoes, beans, with cold canned corn, tuna, olives and flatbread on the side. We also had a  choices of juice or bottles of water or hot tea to wash down the meal with. Then dessert after that too! Mahmoud easily made enough food for 8 which we later found out was the Bedouin way of cooking so that nobody ever leaves hungry. The leftover food was left out for desert animals to find and enjoy.

After eating enough food to satisfy an army or at least us before our next adventure, we drove to the aptly named ‘Mushroom Rock.’

Hiking through Burrah Canyon was our next opportunity to climb out of the truck and get some more exercise.

The above photos are all from Burrah Canyon.
Umm Froth Rock Bridge was another stop included, not surprisingly, on all tour operators’ itineraries. The rock bridge rises majestically from the desert floor and was popular with the more adventurous and dare devils who climbed the rocks, then onto a narrow ledge before reaching the actual bridge itself. There was no way I was going anywhere near there but Steven braved life and limb to go up – good for you, hon!
The intrepid Ben and Dominik atop the rock bridge!

My ever loving Steven so very close to where Ben and Dominik had just been. My heart was beating a mile a minute and my hnds were all clammy watching him up there.

I stayed safe and sound on terra firma!

As you can see, the sun was beginning to set so it made for memorable photos.

Another excuse to throw sand and behave half our ages! This was all Mahmoud’s doing, I’ll have you know!
In all the many, many kilometers we drove that day, this was the 1st time we saw the sand looking like this, with the beautiful ripples.
How positively blissful walking to the top of this small mountain at Mahmoud’s suggestion to sit a spell and watch the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen.

After viewing the absolutely gorgeous sunset, we walked a few minutes to the nearby camel camp. After last year’s misadventure with riding a camel in Mongolia, I didn’t ever think I wanted to get too close to a camel again but I changed my mind after seeing these ones. I still didn’t want to go for a camel ride, though, as the last one had been so unpleasant.

Ww then walked a mere 10 minutes to the Bedouin Lifestyle Camp where we were given the key to Hut ‘5’ although the key had a number 0 on it which is actually number 5 in Arabic. Pretty confusing, huh! We collapsed for an hour or so inside our cozy abode that had a double bed, an overhead light and nothing else. I was thrilled to see the adjacent bathrooms were far more modern than MANY a bathroom we’ve used this trip. Surprise, surprise, it had running water, albeit cold, flush toilets, lovely tile floors and walls all built right into the mountain. All this in the middle of nowhere too – wonders will never cease! Rereading what I’ve just written makes me feel old as I can’t imagine any ‘young’ person would care one tuppence about the state of the bathroom facilities as do we older folk!  Oops, after all that talk about the bathrooms, I realize now those photos are with tomorrow's photos. I will include them then! My apologies.

Watching the traditional Bedouin dinner appear was intriguing: It’s cooked for a long time in a ‘zarb’ which is an underground oven comprised of 3 tiers, each divided from the other by about 6”. The bottom layer had roast potatoes and onions, the second had tomatoes and other vegetables and the top tier had chicken pieces in a delicious seasoning. All the guests had gathered around as the cook unveiled dinner by digging away the sand covering the cooked food, then carefully haul it up and remove the tin foil to the oohs and aaahs of everyone present. There was an assortment of yummy side dishes we all feasted on too. 

After dinner, most of the guests gathered around the fire sitting on low cushions and listened to four of the guides sing traditional Bedouin songs and play their native instruments. As I mentioned, there were just the four of us on our small tour but Bedouin Lifestyle is a large operator offering camel rides, hiking and jeep tours for just a few hours or overnight or 2 or 3 nights so there were people at dinner from a huge assortment of tours.

We didn’t stay outside long as it was getting decidedly chilly. The temperature the two nights we stayed at the camp was only 7 degrees Celsius and it was awfully cold all night long with just one, albeit very thick, fleece blanket on the bed. We had the good sense to get a second blanket for our next night!