Monday 29 May 2017

Walking to Petra: Six days on the new Jordan Trail

The world is amazing. But every now and then I go somewhere that makes me want to shout about it from the treetops, like a new love or an epiphany.

Donkey-wrangler Ali + Sharah mtns
Jordan is my latest love and I'm writing this not just to share what it's like, but to write myself back there.

Two weeks ago today I finished one of the best multi-day treks I've done: the six-day Dana to Petra hike (Nat Geo rated it one of the best in the world in 2011), part of the new 650km Jordan Trail, which takes 40 days end to end and officially opened in February.

The whole region is a trekkers' paradise, actually. At the adventure travel conference I attended on the Dead Sea after the hike, I learned about long-distance trails in Palestine, Israel and Lebanon, and adventure tours in Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region in northern Iraq. Who knew?

Natural beauty, in sandstone 
There's something surreal about trekking in Jordan. It's an oasis of safety in a troubled region, for one thing. It's earthy and otherworldly (no wonder The Martian, starring Matt Damon, was shot there). It's rugged and ancient.

I'd expected it to be hot, but we had heat-wave conditions including a couple of 40-degree days.

Barefoot and blistered on Day 4
That meant early starts (we were usually on the trail by 7am), carrying 4-5 litres of water in our daypacks (sometimes a donkey walked with us, carrying more), stopping to sip electrolytes and snack on dates in pools of shade made by juniper trees, and long lunches to kick off our boots and avoid the midday sun.

There were steep climbs and knee-jarring descents, canyon scrambles and long trudges along rocky riverbeds, the sense of remoteness enhanced by our aloneness: we didn't see anyone else on the unmarked trail all week.

Onward and upward, Day 2
There were no roads, no fences, no telegraph poles. Just griffin vultures and lizards as blue as the cloudless sky.

Sometimes we'd pass a Bedouin camp, the black goat-hair tents flapping in the hairdryer breeze, the inhabitants out for the day, grazing their animals.

Once we came across a small shop at the edge of a cliff, run by a man called Springtime Christmas (Rabir Eid in Arabic) who played his goatskin violin (rebab) for us.

Domed tents and sandstone ones
By late afternoon we'd reach our campsite, the tents already set up by our Bedouin support crew on a ridge overlooking the Sharah mountains or surrounded by wind-carved domes of blonde sandstone.

They'd give us reviving cups of sweet sage or mint tea and set up bucket showers to rinse off the dust, then cook us feasts of lamb (and vegetarian dishes) served with Jordanian red wine.

One night we stayed at Feynan Ecolodge, an off-grid, solar-powered mirage of a place in Dana Biosphere Reserve.

The Bedouin-run Feynan Ecolodge
Built in 2005 by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, a Jordanian NGO, it operates according to strict social as well as environmental principles, benefiting 85 Bedouin families or about 400 people (all the staff are local, transfers and activities are run by locals, and food and services are sourced locally).

At Feynan we walked to a nearby hill to watch the setting sun bleed into the heat haze still radiating from the rocky ground around us. Then returned to find the lodge entirely candlelit, from its restaurant to the 26 rooms, as it is every night.

Back on the trail we found clues to the ancientness of this part of the world: fossils of marine creatures that once lived in the Tethys Sea, Roman copper mines, Nabatean dams and wine presses and tombs.

Then we walked into Petra.

The Monastery (Ad Deir)
Arriving at this World Heritage-listed Wonder of the World on foot via its "back door" was an Indiana Jones moment if ever there was one. A small ticket office in the middle of nowhere, where we showed our Jordan Passes, was the only sign we were close; there were no gates this side, no other tourists.

We kept walking, passing a few caves dug into high red-sandstone walls until, without warning, we found ourselves in front of the Monastery, Petra's largest monument, a facade almost 50m high that seems to have grown out of a vertical rock face.

Wadi Muthlim, in Petra
There were no crowds, no selfie sticks, no touts - partly because tourism to Jordan has dropped by more than half since the Arab Spring of 2011, partly because it's a long, hot hike up 800 steps to reach the Monastery from the main trail.

So much surprised me about Petra. It's massive, for one thing (264 square kilometres) with aqueducts, avenues and an amphitheatre carved from solid rock. It's an incredible natural landscape as much as an archaeological site. And most of the monuments are tombs, the dwellings of the 30,000 Nabateans who lived there between 1st century BC and 2nd century AD having been long destroyed by earthquakes (the Jordan Rift Valley is where the African and Arabian plates grind against each other).

The famous glimpse
of the Treasury
We spent the night at a hotel in Wadi Musa, the town that sprawls downhill to Petra's main gate, and walked back into Petra the next morning, following the main tourist trail through the Siq, a narrow gorge barely 3m wide in places.

Even then we saw only a few other tourists, making that first glimpse of the Treasury, Petra's best-known monument - the same view that inspired Swiss explorer Johann Burkhardt to bring Petra to the attention of the non-Arab world in 1812 - sublime, and a fitting end to our Jordan adventure.

"From the rock as if by magic grown, eternal, silent, beautiful, alone... A rose-red city half as old as time," wrote English poet John William Burgon in 1845. Petra, and maybe all of Jordan, still feels like this: earthbound yet ethereal, a message from another time.


Group selfie by Ayman at the Treasury
Big thanks to the Adventure Travel Trade Association based in Seattle, USA, for inviting me to their AdventureNEXT conference in Jordan and to Jordan Tourism and Experience Jordan and our wonderful guide Ayman Abd-Alkareem.

Experience Jordan, based in Amman, Jordan's capital, runs the Dana to Petra Trek and others as private tours, tailoring them to each group, and always gives back to Bedouin communities who call this rugged landscape home.

Friday 5 May 2017

Adventures in simple travel: Soul trekker Laura Waters

This is starting to become a habit: I can't resist interviewing people I meet who have had an adventure that strips life back to its essence. 

Mountain RnR: Laura resting
somewhere in the South Island
This latest instalment is about Laura Waters, who spent five months walking the length of New Zealand in 2014.

Before I knew better, I'd assumed she was a Kiwi, tackling the 3068km Te Araroa Trail to better understand her home country. Turns out she’s from this side of the ditch (as we Australasians call the Tasman Sea), which made her trek even more intriguing. 

What makes a young Australian woman do a long-distance walk in the first place, solo, and why New Zealand?

Just thinking about it makes me long for mountain trails and endless beaches and the simplicity of putting one boot in front of the other, taking each day's sunrise as it comes and each night's hut companions as they are. 

But beyond the romance of solo trekking, what was it really like? I asked Laura a few questions to find out: 

Happy tramper: Laura on the trail
How did this all start? Where did the idea come from? 
I’d had the urge for an adventure lurking in my mind for years. I wanted to stretch myself and see what I was capable of and when I stumbled across the Te Araroa in a hiking magazine I knew immediately it was what I’d been looking for. A stunning country with varied terrain, navigational challenges, river crossings, a trail 3000km long - it seemed to have the right balance of challenge without being so difficult I might inadvertently kill myself. 

Thankfully the idea arrived at a time when I most needed it. I’d been struggling with a very low emotional state for about a year before I set off on the hike. The over stimulation and stress of city life had become overwhelmingly difficult to deal with and I was desperately in need of a change of environment.

How did you prepare for such an epic trek? 
I’d probably done about a dozen multi-day hikes before attempting the trail, but none over 65km! I knew my mind was already strong, but I spent eight months working with a physio to strengthen my core and gluts, weaknesses that made me prone to sore knees. I walked two hours a day for three months before departure on my daily commute to work and carried a fully loaded pack for the last month of it (no doubt to the amusement of the other corporate workers in the high rise building in Melbourne where I worked).

Lone ranger: crossing the
Richmond Ranges
Why solo? 
I actually started the trek with a girlfriend who pulled out on the second day [due to injury]. I didn't know if I could do the walk solo but I decided I'd just keep going, take it one day at a time and see how far I could get. 

Were there any little luxuries you couldn’t leave home without? 
Music, a massage bar and a diary. I had wondered before I left whether I should leave the tunes at home and just listen to the sounds of nature, but music has a great capacity to uplift and transport your mind to another place, which comes in handy when you're having a challenging day. I took a small chunk of Lush massage bar too. Massaging your legs and feet not only feels great, but helps your body recover after the constant daily pounding. And the diary was a must-have to record the journey I was on, both external and internal.

Tree time: the Raetea Forest 
What were your days like?
It's not an easy trail. It’s very physical at times, bush-bashing through overgrown forest, rock-hopping boulders, climbing over logs and falling down holes hidden by waist-high tussock. On average I walked about eight hours a day, six days a week. Some days were much longer and sometimes I didn’t get a break for nearly two weeks. 

I also hiked faster than I would on day hikes back home, conscious of the need to finish within five months, before winter set in. It was really a whirlwind of walking, eating, setting up camp, cooking, washing clothes. I would aim for one rest day a week during which I could have a proper shower, launder my clothes, resupply on food and share my journey and photos with the outside world.

Tackling scree: Near the Waiau Pass
Were you ever afraid? 
Not of people. I had one slightly creepy guy invite me to stay at his place during the first 100km of beach, but other than that I didn't see many people at all, just a few hard-core hikers. 

But I regularly felt completely intimidated by the weather and the terrain: the precipitous drop-offs to the side, the ridiculously steep 'trails' where you could easily fall backwards and tumble to the bottom. My scariest moment was getting caught in a sudden snowstorm on the last day of summer in the South Island. I was only half an hour from a hut, but my core temperature plummeted like a stone. And I nearly got blown off a ridge in the Tararua Range in the North Island. The wind sounded like a jet engine. You realise your insignificance over there.

What did you love about life on the trail?
The simplicity of daily life: walk, eat, sleep. Washing my body in a river, collecting drinking water from dripping moss, eating simple food, listening to rivers rushing or owls hooting from my tent at night. No makeup, no mirrors, no media, no advertising, one outfit, one bag of belongings. I’ve never been happier.

What did you miss, if anything? 
Nothing. I realised you actually need very little to be blissfully happy. Nature filled me up.

The end is nigh: Tussock grass
What else did you learn about yourself and life?
Oh gosh, where to start? I learned I am capable of much more than I realised. That most fears are largely imagined and often it’s the thought of something that gets in the way of life more than the thing itself. 

I learned to listen to my intuition and trust my judgement. Without the constant noise of modern life, I gained clarity of thought. I discovered who I really am, free of any outside influences such as society and media and I had a blank slate on which to rebuild myself. I realised how much unnecessary noise and drama humans create and decided to opt out of that in future. I realised that if you just try, things generally work out – just head in the direction you want to go and you will find a way.

Views: Fresh snow and Lake Tekapo
Did the trek make you want to walk more, or hang up your hiking boots? 
I finished the hike feeling bulletproof and super fit. I could easily have kept walking. In fact I did, down to Stewart Island [at the bottom of the South Island]. I actually felt quite traumatised when it was all over; I didn’t want to go back to ‘normal’ life and everything that went with it. I’d discovered a new world – a better one, to my mind – and no longer felt I belonged in modern society.

How did it change your life?
It’s been three years now since I finished the hike. After six months back at my old job I quit the corporate world, sold a lot of my belongings and started wandering with my backpack and a laptop, working on a book about my hiking journey. 

I keep my expenses down by living simply, volunteering in exchange for accommodation and writing articles for magazines. I’ve roamed in the Solomon Islands, Thailand, New Zealand and around Australia, even spent six weeks sailing up the Queensland coast. I buy very little these days besides the essentials - food, wine and travel - and though I don’t have a lot of spare cash I have freedom and that makes me feel rich. I live inspired, doing things I love and going wherever opportunity leads me. Life is good.

Laura's book, tentatively titled Soul Trekking, is due out later this year. You can read more about her love of simplicity, nature and walking at her website Soul Trekkers.