Following the footsteps of Lawrence

Wadi Rum is one of the world’s great deserts and home to several Bedouin tribes spread over an area of 720sqkms. Lawrence of Arabia, who lived in the area for a year, described it as ‘vast and echoing’. The spectacular desert landscape consists of sheer-sided mountains of sandstone and granite emerging from open valleys to reach heights of over 1700m. Wadi Rum, known as the ‘valley of the moon’, is in southern Jordan near the border of Saudi Arabia.

A tour of Wadi Rum
The local Bedouins control the area and you must use their transport to travel into and out of the desert. Jenny and I, four friends and our local Jordanian driver, Ibrahim, are picked up in a four-wheel drive at a roadside bazaar and taken on a tour of the area, and finally to our overnight destination deep into the desert. There is a heatwave in Jordan, and we drink copious amounts of water in this 40°C climate. The windows are all down as we get in the car and someone requests air conditioning. The driver, in his all white robes and red and white chequered kaffiyyeh (head gear) turns and smiles. He appears as though he has just hopped out of a refrigerator – he looks so cool. As we travel down the tarred road, the hot air blows seemingly from a giant invisible hair dryer through the open windows. We run out of bitumen and are now driving on the sand.

The camels are drinking as we arrive at Lawrence’s Spring. He washed here during the Arab Revolt in 1916. His inscriptions in Arabic can be seen carved on the rockface. More rock inscriptions are seen at Khazali Canyon, a bit farther on, where a deep narrow fissure in the mountain is located. Lawrence’s House is nearby – the one room building is made of rocks but only one wall now stands. One can understand how he would be at peace in this area. The sand gets deeper, and the driver turns into a hoon for a while, doing his best to scare the crap out of us. Up and down a few sand dunes at speed delights our inner adolescent selves. There are whoops and shrieks of terror, but it’s fun – until we get bogged! We think the driver did it on purpose to add to the adventure. He let air out of the tyres and we clear sand away before we are on our way to our overnight Bedouin camp. There are over 100m x 2.5m square tents here with a central dining and entertaining section. This will be fun, or will it?

A camel ride and cuppa, Bedouin style
Late in the afternoon, four of us, including Ibrahim, decide to go for a camel ride led by a Sudanese Bedouin camel driver. This would have to be one of the highlights of our Jordanian journey. We ride at a slow walking pace for about one kilometre and pass some more rock inscriptions before arriving at the Bedouin’s tent.

This tent, made of black sheep hair (as they all are) is in front of a large rocky outcrop for protection against the elements, and in a valley about 300m across with large and steep craggy mountains on either side. We hop off the camels and sit on a rug laid out by our Bedouin host. He lights a fire from twigs gathered on the way and in no time the pot has boiled, and he is handing out cups of tea – black, sweet and in small glasses.

Through Ibrahim as our interpreter, we chat and find out that for three months of the year the Bedouin goes home to see his wife and daughter in Sudan. He sits with his legs tucked behind his body. He can maintain this position for five hours. We last five minutes then change to a new position. He smiles, calm and at peace with his life, which appears simple and not laden with western world issues. The camels have laid their heads on the sand and are asleep. A black bird lands on the head of a camel and pecks at an insect imbedded in its fur. The moment is serene and then out of the blue it starts to rain, but after a few large drops, it stops. We look to the sky to find out where it came from, because it doesn’t usually rain here in summer. This is one of the driest places on earth with only about 15 days of rain (in winter) a year. One tiny cloud has passed! It is weird and seemed to happen just to enhance the moment.

It’s late in the day and time to go. The unfriendly camels let out a horrible growling sound when they are woken. We are heading back, and no one speaks. This is a special moment. There is a slight breeze blowing and the sun has disappeared. The haze, coupled with the fading light, produces a surreal picture of serenity and peace typically seen in a Monet painting. The sand and surrounding mountains are spectacular and range in colour from ochre through to deep red. The only sound is that of the camels’ hooves pushing through the fine soft sand. My mate Jim and I have our head gear on. I imagine myself as Lawrence of Arabia and in that moment yearn to live this simplistic life. I snap out of the trance as we approach the camp. Surely, we have lived a two-hour dream, a dream that will be etched in our memories for life.

Hot, steamy and no sleep
This is low season and tonight there are only 37 people here. In high season there could be up to 500 tourists. It would be a horrible place to stay with that many people – bad enough with only 37 in this heat. The facilities are basic, but okay. At the urinals, the half-height wall allows one to look out onto a fantastic vista – and the passing throng of people are, of course, looking in. Smile!

The tents are small and ours contains only a double bed, with no air conditioner or fan. The temperature tonight is in the mid-30s and stifling in the tents. We sweat our way through the night. The guy controlling the dance music has headphones on – not a good sign. The noise continues past midnight. Sounds from other sources cut through the silence of the desert. The staff don’t seem to realise that this place is supposed to be serene and quiet.

Everything is wrong about this place – the trucks that roll in during the night, with lights on high beam; at 1am, a staff member has a loud mobile phone conversation for 30 minutes; a loud TV until 2am; a busload of local Jordanians who have come to party and don’t seem to consider anyone else in the camp; their kids who run riot yelling and yahooing throughout the night and are up before six the next morning continuing where they left off.

The camp was a great idea and a wonderful experience, but I don’t think we’ll be doing it again. I don’t want to think about what it would be like at full capacity. I think even Lawrence would be muttering lots of WTFs. We get up in the morning and most of us are bleary-eyed, hot, wrung out and really dragging our feet. We are happy for ‘refrigerator man’ to drive us out of here back to the roadside bazaar for transfer to our comfortable air-conditioned vehicle.

Was it a great experience?
We wanted an experience to remember by spending a night in a Bedouin camp. We certainly had that but not for the right reasons. No, it wasn’t fun! There are many of these camps throughout Wadi Rum, so do your homework and select a more upmarket one for your stay, and perhaps at a different time of year. Apart from the camp activities, the desert is spectacular, and of course I won’t forget our memorable camel ride. At sunset, climb one of the many rock outcrops. Sit on the top and become mesmerised by the beauty of Wadi Rum – one of the most fascinating places I have ever been to.

Have you been to Wadi Rum? Is Jordan on your wish list?

Related articles:
Travelling in the Middle East
Breathtaking world wonders
Forgotten world wonders

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