It is remote and barren. It is a land of scorching heat. Yet, here we are, in Wadi Rum, a large valley in the southern corner of Jordan not too far from the border with Saudi Arabia. While many people visit my home country for its white sand beaches, lush rainforests and numerous waterfalls – snippets of paradise some may say – I choose to come to a place that is the exact opposite of it all. Also known as the Valley of the Moon, Wadi Rum is the largest wadi (an Arabic term to describe a dry valley or riverbed which has water only after heavy rains) in the entire kingdom of Jordan which also happens to be one of the most famous places among tourists in this Middle Eastern country. James and I are tourists after all, and when in Jordan why not go and see what Wadi Rum is like?
We start our exploration of Wadi Rum in a village that also serves as the gateway to the valley. All tour operators must collect their guests here before transporting them to their offices, and later to their tents with each company managing its own Bedouin-style campsite. We don’t have to wait for too long for the staff members of our company to come, who then take us to their office – a small house where they serve us piping hot sweet tea. Half an hour later and after being briefed about our itinerary, we embark on a day-long excursion across the desert on a 4×4 Jeep joined by two Italian couples.
We spend the first half of the day visiting Lawrence’s Spring (named after the British intelligence officer Thomas Edward Lawrence who helped the Arabs in their revolt against the Ottomans during World War I) with an ancient Thamudic inscription carved on a rock in its vicinity, traversing the vast desolate landscape with imposing rock mountains guarding its four directions, climbing a reddish sand dune under the desert sun, walking inside the narrow fissure that cuts through Jabal Khazali where petroglyphs as well as Thamudic and Kufic (early Arabic script) inscriptions abound, and checking out a ruin called the House of Lawrence (he is a recurring theme in this part of Jordan). While each of these sites is itself worthy of a visit, what I find most extraordinary about Wadi Rum is the setting, a magnificent landscape carved and shaped by the brute forces of Mother Earth since time immemorial.
Some of the tallest peaks in this barren land appear to rise from a flat red-brown surface that stretches as far as the eye can see. Their grim look amplifies the already menacing appearance of the desert’s burning earthen tone. Thanks to the multiple layers on some of those imposing cliffs, to me they come into sight as giant ancient temples that stand so tall but are badly eroded, leaving their protruding bands devoid of any reliefs. Another hill makes my mind wander further into the realm of imagination as it resembles a lamassu, a Sumerian protective deity with the body of a bull, a pair of bird’s wings and the head of a man.
As our driver takes us deeper into the valley, hopping from one spot to another, I let my imagination run wild. At one corner, I see a rock formation that resembles the head and body of an elephant, but with its trunk missing. In another part of the wadi, I spot a towering cliff whose surface appears to be so flat and smooth, accentuating the linear patterns carved upon it by Mother Nature. This particular wall makes my mind fly to Peru, home of the Nazca Lines. But there is one mountain in Wadi Rum with its rugged, muscular façade that makes my brain immediately play the theme song from a scene in the blockbuster fantasy movie The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. When Frodo and his eight companions paddle their boats pass the Argonath – also known as the Pillars of the Kings that mark the former northern boundary of Gondor – there is a sense of fascination among the members of this unlikely group upon seeing those colossal monuments. Blame my imagination, but that same feeling of being wonderstruck is what I get after processing the visual stimuli that are the majestic mountains of Wadi Rum.
Or maybe it’s just too hot in this part of Jordan so my brain begins seeing things I normally don’t.
Luckily it’s lunchtime, and our driver who knows all the routes through this desert maze pulls over at a site that is shaded from the sun’s oppressive rays. He prepares the mat on which we’ll have our lunch, picnic-style. Then he gives each of us a plastic bag filled with pita bread, canned tuna, hummus in a box, olive oil, a fresh tomato, a cucumber, and a few snacks. This simple lunch turns out to be quite satisfying, although being protected from the heat by the hill behind us means we share this place with others: desert flies. They incessantly try to land on our food, sucking up whatever nutrition they can get in this unforgiving land.
Once the meal is over, the four Italians take a nap, while I enjoy the peaceful eolian sound produced by the dry but gentle breeze. Occasionally, a bird up on the hill behind us sings repetitive tunes that break the serenity of the desert. But apart from that, it’s all calm here. I walk around a little bit and take photos of some plants that have evolved to survive in the most drought-stricken places.
Feeling refreshed, all of us continue to tour more sites in the valley, from natural bridges to a spot to watch the sunset while the chilly night wind of the desert begins to sweep across the landscape, carrying the day’s heat away.
Just as the sky gets darker, we arrive at our campsite – an open compound of guest tents, a big tent that serves as the main dining area, tents for the staff members, as well as a permanent building that houses the bathrooms. In the middle of everything is a brazier surrounded by thick mats where we sit while waiting for other guests to arrive. We take our time to wind down after a long day and chat with two friendly Americans from D.C. In the meantime, two German parents who sits across from us are keeping their daughters busy – the father gives the eldest kid math problems, while the mother teaches the toddler how to read.
Once everyone has gathered outside the main tent, the charismatic owner of the company that manages the campsite welcomes us. Standing next to the bonfire, his strong facial features glimmer in the dimmed light. He starts talking about Wadi Rum, its history and its culture, with the latter a cue for that one thing I’ve been anticipating the most from this stay: a Bedouin-style dinner. At around 7pm, he signals us to follow him to the kitchen area of the campsite where two men are waiting. We’re about to hear them talk about zarb, a method of cooking using an underground oven practiced by Bedouin people for generations. After a brief explanation of what lies beneath the ground in front of us, our dinner is dug up to the oohs and aahs of mesmerized guests.
Dinner is served in a buffet style with all the chicken and vegetables cooked underground placed at the very end of the medley of Jordanian dishes spread in front of us. We share a table with the two Americans again, and while the conversation itself is wonderful, the zarb chicken really is the star of the night, for not only is it juicy and tender, but also smoky.
I had read people’s accounts of Wadi Rum prior to my visit, and many of them mentioned seeing the beautiful star-studded night sky during their stay. Tonight the sky is clear, but as our sojourn coincides with the full moon, instead of bright twinkling stars, the perfectly round disc of the Earth’s satellite dominates the view above us. To be honest, I have never seen the moon that bright in my life, and this makes me think of ancient civilizations who personified the celestial object as gods and goddesses and worshiped them.
At around 10pm, after taking a much-needed shower, we retreat to our tent and call it a day.
I wake up around 5am, when other guests are still sleeping, to go to the bathroom which is located around 100 meters away. As I open our tent’s door, I immediately look up and notice that the moon has already descended behind the hills to the west, allowing the stars to finally reveal themselves. I try to remember the shapes of constellations from an encyclopedia that I read a long time ago, and realize that I’m actually looking at Ursa Major, a constellation that can only be seen in the northern hemisphere. All these years I have been looking at the Southern Cross while wondering when I would get to see its northern counterpart. Apparently, on this quiet morning, the time has come and I can’t help but feel so fortunate to finally behold the Big Dipper.
That is the last fortunate thing on our second day in Wadi Rum, sadly.
As opposed to most guests who only stay one night in the camp and leave the next morning, we opt to spend two nights in this secluded valley. There are far less sites to see this day, but that’s because this time we’re going to explore the wadi on the back of a camel. As the sun rises, we see three dromedaries stationed near our tent – two for each of us, and the other one for the guide, a friendly local Bedouin man who can only speak a few words of English. But first, we need to learn how to get on a camel. I mount mine who’s kneeling on its four legs, and with a single and rather gentle jolt by the guide, the camel raises its hind legs, followed by its forelegs. The sensation of being suddenly lifted above the ground reminds me of that moment I rode an attraction at a theme park in Jakarta when I was little. Soon afterward, James mounts his camel, and moments later the three of us are all at the same height and ready to go.
Our guide leads the way, and all the camels slowly walk away from the campsite – when I say slowly, I really mean it. In the beginning, it’s a nice experience to traverse the desert at a leisurely pace with the gentle warmth of the morning sun and the occasional breeze caressing my face. Our first stop is the House of Lawrence, but contrary to yesterday, this time we are the only visitors there. We spend around 15 minutes at this place before continuing our camel ride to the second stop: the Anfashieh inscriptions depicting camels in different sizes. By the time we get here, the sun is already quite high, making me think of the journey we have to take to go back to our campsite in the midday sun. But the day is still long, and soon enough our guide takes us to the third spot: a sand dune hidden amid rocky outcrops. He signals us to go up and take a photo, but we politely decline and choose to stay at a shaded corner of this area. Probably understanding that we’re beginning to feel overwhelmed by the oppressive heat, our guide leads us back to our tents. However, with our camels walking at a pace that is frustratingly slow, the campsite seems like an ocean away from where we are.
On our way back, there’s no mountains nearby to provide us with much-needed shade from the sun, nor is there a fresh gentle breeze. It’s just the three of us, three camels and the sun right above us. We signed up for a five-hour camel ride, but we never thought it would come to this tormenting experience. Hours pass by, and I see a clump of black Bedouin tents a few hundred meters in front of us, hoping that it’s our campsite I’m looking at. But it’s not. Our camels keep walking and our guide sits cross-legged atop his camel – a position I’m tempted to copy but decide not to. He seemingly enjoys this long ride, but when I turn to James and look at his facial expression it appears that he might faint at any time. Suddenly our guide’s camel farts really loudly, giving us a little entertainment in the middle of this torture. Then my camel starts biting James’s, then his camel urinates while walking. All these desert absurdities, and the hope for seeing our campsite soon, keep me awake and sane.
Five hours after beginning this excursion, I finally see it: the big tent of our camp’s main dining hall and the smaller tents forming two neat rows of black boxes. I couldn’t be more relieved to know that this excruciating camel ride is about to end very soon. There are things that look cool only in photos, and this is certainly one of them. But this also makes me think of those merchants in the past who traveled across the region, through some of the world’s most inhospitable landscapes, on the back of their dromedaries. They traveled for days, even weeks this way, while I can barely survive five hours.
However, my account is not meant to deter you from going to Wadi Rum. It really is a magical place. Every corner of this barren valley stirs the imagination, the same way the entire wadi has evoked people’s fantasies of faraway places, like Mars. Wadi Rum is in fact where some Mars-themed movies were filmed, including Red Planet and The Martian. It has also been used as the backdrop of some scenes in Prometheus and the Star Wars franchise. But probably the most recent film that showcases Wadi Rum’s majestic and mysterious beauty is the live-action version of Disney’s Aladdin.
These days our movements are limited, but our imagination is as vast as the universe itself. And when you do come to Wadi Rum after this storm has passed, be prepared to unleash your own imagination.