Wadi Rum – Lawrence of Arabia’s desert

Jebel Rum, Wadi Rum, Jordan

Jebel Rum, Wadi Rum, Jordan

“The crags are capped in nests of domes, less hotly red than the body of the body of the hill. They gave the finishing semblance of Byzantine architecture to this irresistible place, this processional way greater than imagination…vast, echoing and godlike.”

T E Lawrence

The desert which the Queen of Sheba crossed on her way to see Solomon, which the Israelites took 40 years to negotiate on their way to the Promised Land and where Lawrence of Arabia wrote the quote above and helped the Bedouins fight the Turks has captured the imagination of countless visitors over the centuries.

The hills Lawrence loved so much are today are called ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ in his honour and the area has been established as a protected area with a social mandate to promote tourism while protecting the fragile desert environment.

It’s a tall order with 100,000 visitors a year, but the authorities work closely with the traditional guardians – the Bedouin – and there are a number of initiatives to reintroduce previously abundant wildlife, such as the oryx, and boost numbers of other – increasingly rare – wildlife such as ibex, caracal, wolf and jackal.

We stayed at Bait Ali, a superior camp on the edge of Wadi Rum itself that is eco-friendly, versatile and brilliantly thought out, with a swimming pool, which felt very odd in the desert!  Our host, Suzi, is an English woman married to a Jordanian.

Suzi initially came to Jordan because of the horses and the desert racing and she competed in the annual Wadi Rum Endurance Race (120 miles in one day; about 100 horses usually start and less than 30% complete) until recently. She likens it to the Formula 1 (F1) of horse races and it takes place at the end of April/beginning of May before it gets too hot. Strangely enough, the chestnut stallion I rode in Petra (Irun) and Jarar, one of the grey stallions from the Al Noor Stables in Madabar where we rode later in the trip, were both entered in the race when we visited and it is televised and covered internationally.  I hadn’t realised it was such a huge equine event.

One day we visited the visitors centre near the Seven Pillars themselves. There was a museum and lots of locals with whom to organise guided tours in to the desert on camel, 4×4,etc, for an hour or a day or two, as well as buy local Bedouin handicrafts and view the Seven Pillars in all their glory. We then made our way to the small town of Rum for lunch at the traditional Resthouse, just across the sandy wadi from the utterly impressive sheer rock wall of Jabal Umm Ishrin.

The following day we took the camel ride and 4×4 trip arranged the day before, and explored some of the camping areas where the spice traders and camel trains would have rested on their way to and fro Petra and beyond. We had hired a Bedouin guide, the lovely and knowledgeable Aid Mohamed Soylhin, and he showed us ‘his desert’. His family had been proper nomadic Bedouin and he hadn’t ever been to school – he now drives a 4×4 (“camels are so slow and grumpy!” he said) runs his business with an email and mobile phone, and said that if his children (he has six) want to go to university, they can – Jordan is now one of the highly educated countries in the world.

As dusk fell the three of us were treated to traditional mint tea brewed over an open fire inside a goat hair tent with the Bedouins themselves, while the camels and 4x4s were parked together outside.

Once Aid Mohamed Soylhin had finished his prayers at the other end of the tent he bought over a traditional Bedoin woman’s headdress and face mask (complete with fringe) for me to try on. It was the most bizarre feeling, very claustrophobic and hot, and bought my view of the world down to what was basically a camera aperture. He laughed seeing my reaction, and said traditionally they would only have been worn outside the tents, and were designed to keep the hot sun off the skin and sand out of eyes, ears and skin creases.

It all left my teenage girls wide-eyed and very conscious of different cultures and ways of life.

Magical stuff.

Wadi Rum tips

• Come prepared for temperature fluctuations even during spring and autumn, when it is in the top 20°Cs/low 30°Cs as it can still get chilly at night.

• Bait Ali (00962 202262 suzi@baitali.com) offers eco-friendly, versatile and brilliantly thought out accommodation (including a swimming pool), as well as a wealth of local knowledge and contacts – English owner, Suzi Shinaco and her Jordanian husband, Taheen, know pretty much everyone and can organize anything you fancy, from horse trekking to hot air ballooning.

• Bring cash – it’s a desert and there are few electronic payment facilities and no ATMs.

• Buy local indigenous handicrafts – made by the local women it forms an important part of their economy. Look out for their depictations of antelope and hunting scenes made from beaten tin cans and placed in glass (see picture).

• Hire a Bedouin guide – ours was the lovely and knowledgeable Aid Mohamed Soylhin – 00962 795 624671 badouin_lifestyle@yahoo.com) and get out and explore the desert’s secrets. Whether you ride on a Arabian horse, a camel, or a 4×4 (or all three) or simply hike, spending time in the desert lets you see the hidden treasures, such as a natural rock arch; hanging gardens of melons near an oasis; rock carvings of camels and goats; a ruined Nabataean temple and experience it up close and personal.

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