Getting smuggled into the Desert

That time when the Jordanian desert, Wadi Rum, was closed to tourists but we went in anyway. Armed police road blocks and lack of roads were no match for us.

We flew into Amman from London via multiple stops with Lufthansa, as it was a couple of hundred pounds cheaper than direct flights.

Frustratingly you cannot get Jordanian dinar before entry and you must pay for your visa in cash. That foreign exchange kiosk with an outrageous commission charge before passport control are making a killing.

For our first stop, we drove up to Jerash, which is as far North as I would recommend going. Even here there was a huge police presence and people were noticeably fearful of the Syrian border.

We then traversed down to the Red Sea and stayed in Wadi Mujib for some Dead Sea floating and canyoning. Followed by Petra, then we had planned to pop in to the desert for a few days before making our way North again.

Where? Wadi Rum, Jordan

When? July 2017

With whom? Martin

treasurycrack

We’d spent a couple of days in Petra. The entrance is about a mile’s walk from the iconic treasury but you can hitch a ride half way there on a “free horse”. Be warned: technically, it is free but you are expected to pay a hefty “tip”. After a short walk through a canyon, we arrived at the treasury through an opening: the first moment when we set eyes on the treasury through the crack in the canyon was one of those stop-and-stare moments; we were most definitely awestruck. The ancient site is huge and there is plenty there to keep you occupied for at least three days, however, we feel like we did pretty well out of the two days we had. We trekked up to the Monastery which is so magnificent in size that you can’t help but feel insignificant in comparison. We trudged up some stairs to the sacrificial pit and pretended to be the sacrifice to the gods, if only to have a break from climbing in the 50 degree heat. We climbed up to the top of the canyon to see the treasury from above, which was quite a spectacle.

petrabynight

On certain days of the week, Petra by Night is available and well worth doing. After dark, there were over 1000 candles lighting the path down to the treasury, where we were sat down and we watched performances of Bedouin music from a seemingly never-ending flute and an instrument that resembled a sitar. The finale and most impressive part of the event is lighting up the treasury from below in different colours.

Whilst we were at this event, we heard some tourists nattering away about how they had to change their plans as they can no longer enter Wadi Rum. It seemed odd as we hadn’t heard anything about it, but it did slightly concern me as that was our next destination. I am generally a very cold being; at home I am always cold and constantly layering up. Some people might squirm at the thought of 50 degree heat, but for me, I’m in my element (Finally, I’m warm!). When I have previously visited deserts (one of them was the Namib desert, click here to read about it), I have felt at home, and I was therefore very excited about our plans for Wadi Rum. Martin and I discussed our next move and we decided to go ahead with our plan, thinking that we could always about turn if need be.

We ensured that we had an early start to optimise our time in the desert. It’s a short drive along one main road. Having driven around Jordan for a week already we had picked up a few rules of the road that differ a little from the West. For example, indicating is for the weak. Another is that the lines denoting lanes are mere suggestions; if a car fits, it sits. We felt like natives on the roads, having adopted these much more dangerous (fun) traffic laws.

As we neared the entrance to Wadi Rum we saw many police vehicles blocking the road, with machine guns because apparently they weren’t already intimidating enough. Sure enough, the desert was closed due to a high terror alert. Bugger. What to do.

We pulled over and tried to weigh up our options. As we were deliberating over our predicament, a small man approached the car and knocked on the window to offer us tea! We had, unknowingly, pulled up to where his son was getting married. There were no guests yet, so this lovely gentleman thought he’d offer us some refreshments in the meantime! A testament to how friendly Jordanians are. As we were chatting, another Jordanian entered the equation; a young man called Mahdi who belongs to a Bedouin tribe residing in the desert. He told us that he could smuggle us into Wadi Rum on the back roads, behind the police cars with machine guns.

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It didn’t take us long to agree to this situation, and we were off. When Mahdi said back roads, he was being inventive with the truth. We were full on driving across the desert with the road way off in the distance. Lo and behold, within twenty minutes Mahdi had successfully smuggled two Brits into the desert. And now Wadi Rum was our oyster.

The great thing about being in the desert illegally, other than not having to pay the entrance cost, was that we had the entire place to ourselves! In our 4×4 we explored to our hearts’ content. We pulled in to a couple of tents that had been built and erected, and as we did we were always offered Bedouin tea; it’s made with sage and a LOT of sugar. We climbed rock piles, mountains, and sand dunes; we explored plateaus, canyons, and Lawrence of Arabia’s house. We were having the time of our lives.

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We stopped off for lunch and came across a foursome of Dutch tourists, who had managed to get into the desert before it was closed and had loitered inside since. We shared rations for food as well as stories, jokes and terrible ideas. One such terrible idea was to have a race in our jeeps. We piled back into our respective vehicles and set off as quickly as we could so as to gain the advantage. Martin and I stormed ahead, maniacally cackling as we sprayed sand all over the enemy jeep. One problem (aside from a faulty gearstick and never having driven on sand before): we didn’t know where we were going! I have to admit, at this point, my competitive nature took over and I was going for gold. Under my hand, our jeep careened around sand dunes and foliage at top speeds, knocking Martin off his feet in the back. No matter, it was all worth it; we won the race.

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The six of us had found a rock that looked like a chicken to climb that gave us a spectacular view of the sunset. We watched as the sun descended towards the layers of interlocking mountains, which faded in shades of blue with the distance, and the orange haze of the sunset spanned the entire horizon. We perched on ledges and silently watched as the sun disappeared beyond our sight. With the day’s last light, we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways.

Martin and I didn’t have a tent; our plan was to sleep under the stars in the desert and hope that the scorpions and snakes didn’t fancy us for dinner. On the subject of dinner, we were ravenous. We stopped in a Bedouin camp we spied from afar to see whether we could stock up on supplies. To our delight, we were invited for dinner! A sizeable Swiss-Jordanian family were on their way so the Bedouin men had catered for the masses. Each person spoke English and the two of us were welcomed into the camp. We had a delicious dinner of salad, tahina, yoghurt, chicken, potatoes, rice, lentil soup, chick peas, and bread. It was a feast fit for a king, and was all cooked in the ground! The pet hedgehog and kitten accompanied us for dinner, after which we were serenaded by the Bedouins as they sang us a cultural song about love and how love can spread as far as the desert. The way they sang made love sound a lot less like a disease than the way I just recounted it.

After lots of laughter and chatting and an offer to take us to the camel racing the next morning, we thanked our new friends and set out to find somewhere for the night. Against a huge deep purple backdrop, stars littered the sky with more than we had ever seen. We observed the arm of the galaxy snaking its way across the night sky, pointed out familiar constellations and made up new ones for those we didn’t recognise. It was peaceful yet mesmerising, quite literally only sleep could stop us from staring. We gave ourselves the deadline of going to sleep once our shooting star count had hit 30, each one making us gasp or squeal.

Info: I’d definitely hire a car around Jordan. We met a number of travelers who were frustrated with the restrictions that public transport had on them – they weren’t regular nor frequent. It’s also fun to abide by new traffic laws. You get to see parts of the country that you wouldn’t otherwise see – I lost count of the number of times we pulled over and jumped out of the car to climb up some rocks and appreciate the view. Also, Jordan is much more expensive than we had anticipated. It’s not quite London prices but not far off. Alcohol in Jordan is not illegal but hard to come by. This wasn’t a problem for us but was surprising. If you’re desperate, you can find some in the tourist areas.

ontherocks
Pulling over to scramble up some rock faces. Some of it crumbled beneath our feet but the injuries were worth the view!

Product of the week: In the desert it’s more important than ever to stay hydrated. I loved the camelbak reservoiras it fit nicely in my day pack and distributed the weight of the water evenly across both shoulders.

Tip of the week: Invest in a “tea towel”. Nobody wants a sunburnt scalp. Plus we thought we looked super cool.

Other things worth visiting: In the desert, there is camel racing every Friday morning. It’s an early start (at dawn) before the camels get too hot. It was a fantastic experience. Also in the desert, Jordan’s tallest mountain, Jabal Umm ad Dami. It’s not a difficult climb but some might struggle in the heat. From the top you can see into Saudi. The obvious activity nearby is Petra. It’s the main attraction of Jordan and is spectacularly beautiful and impressively sculpted. If you go, take your own food for lunch; the food inside is extortionate. I’d recommend Petra Gate Hostel for accommodation. It’s basic but the host is fabulous and the food is incredible at great value! There is a balcony area that has an epic view of the sun setting over the ancient city. Also nearby is Little Petra, which is exactly what it says on the tin. Here, you can camp the night and cook as the Bedouins would have done. If you stop at the Wadi Mujib for the canyoning, make sure you stay at Mujib Chalets. It’s opposite the nature reserve from where you start the canyoning and on the coast, a short drive South from the tourist area. The Dead Sea is easily accessible and the views are something else. It felt like we had the Dead Sea to ourselves to watch the sunset.

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