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.

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