Mr Sponge and the Magic Desert
As David Lean's classic film 'Lawrence of Arabia' turns 50 this year, John Gimlette (author of 'Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge') and family set out for the fabulous Jordanian desert.
"Ali said his grandfather had also known both Lawrences of Arabia; the first passed by in 1917, shooting up the trains, which never recovered"
Seven-year-old girls aren't much impressed by war junk. If our daughter's anything to go by, they don’t care much for rifles in the kitchen, old Turkish revolvers or crossbow bolts (even ones last fired by crusaders in 1189). No, what really cranks their little handles is the fact that these things can be found in a cave, and that this cave is the home of a little Father-Christmassy character, known as 'Abu Ali'.
All of which explains Lucy's open-mouthed wonder on Day 3 of our Jordanian fortnight. One minute we'd been creeping through the ruined cisterns of Shobak Castle (pulverised, thanks to Saladin), and the next we were sitting down to lunch with the village treasure-hunter. Ali lived underground, knew the king, and kept two fat cats like small orange bears. The more astonished Lucy looked, the more he piled on the presents: necklaces, quartz, lava and a Roman coin. Nowhere in the world, it seems, enjoys the curiosity of children quite so much as Jordan.
The road to such amazement is strewn with sand. Technically, it's called the King's Highway, and begins in Amman. Once clear of its hilly suburbs, we found that nothing seemed quite normal. Here was a fighter jet parked on a roundabout, and a family of gypsies selling goats at the lights. Wheat grew out of dust, and football was played on the rocks. Once it rained for a few minutes, and the huge Iraqi oil tankers all slithered off the road into the desert. Then the sun reappeared, and we found ourselves on a stony plateau at 1,600m, surrounded by mountains striped like tigers.
Every now and then, our driver, Ahmed, stopped to show us something. Sometimes it was a castle, like Shobak or Kerak. Once, in Madaba, it was a huge mosaic map of the Middle East created in the sixth century (odd to think that, while Britain was reverting to chaos, this place had cities and fishing fleets). Another time we stopped at an agricultural merchant's. Here was everything you'd need for a farm in the wilderness: holsters, catapults, huge iron traps for catching hyenas.
For Lucy, there was a weird familiarity about some of these places. Suddenly, that strangest of subjects – religious education – was leaping into life. We stood where Lot's wife had stood as she turned into salt. Also, like Moses, we clambered up onto Mount Nebo and peered out across The Promised Land, only to discover that it's now 'West Bank', and The Land of Tomatoes and Glass. It was also up here that we first heard that most distinctive of Jordanian sounds: the river of bells, powered by sheep.
As we drove south, the landscape got wilder and bigger. Whole cities have been lost in its clefts and cracks; one hole is so big that it's now the lowest spot on earth: the Dead Sea (-416m). We all went floating in it once. It's not just eight times saltier than seawater; it also fizzes with exotic minerals that taste like a mouthful of sparks. To a child, this is a Roald Dahl world, alarming but fun. Beneath the surface, however, there's more than magic at work; the shores of the Dead Sea are sliding in opposite directions at the rate of 0.5cm a year. With speeds like that, Jordan's geology is Formula 1.
Finally, Ahmed pulled up next to some camels and the remnants of a Victorian train. "Here we are. Wadi Rum."
Ahead of us, the earth seemed to have opened up and swallowed the desert. Peering into this vast, scarlet valley, we could see more mountains like stacks of giant coins 800m tall. Soon we were among them, sifting the sand in a bashed-up jeep. Our driver now was a Howeitat tribesman and hunter of pigeons, called Ali. He knew all the natural arches and mushroom-shaped rocks, and could climb like an ibex. His family had lived here forever, and had put up with Romans and Nabateans, and even the strange Thamudic traders, who'd left ostriches carved in the rock.
Ali said his grandfather had also known both Lawrences of Arabia. The first passed by in 1917, shooting up the trains (which had never fully recovered). The second – better known as Peter O'Toole – had called by in 1961, to make the film. He was made of different stuff, and hated riding camels. He'd even bought himself a piece of foam rubber to sit on (it can just be seen in the film). Even to this day, he's known to the Howeitat as 'Mr Sponge'.
That night, we stayed at one of Ali's ancestral camps. But this was no Boy Scout job. Our main tent was a beit ash-sha'ar, or 'House of Hair', an enormous carpet-walled structure, fitted out with cushions, kilims and a large log fire. The evening that followed felt splendidly ancient. An uncle arrived from Saudi, and we ate zarb, a feast of chicken, steamed in a pit. I don't know which bit of the night Lucy enjoyed most: the enveloping silence, the toasted marshmallows or the Bedouin war-cries howled over the flames. The cook, Islam, said she was the youngest guest he'd had, and sat up all night drawing a very beautiful certificate.
I didn't want to leave either, and woke early. Underfoot, the sand felt cool and creamy. Out there, Wadi Rum was just beginning its cycle of colours, starting with violet and pink. The air was so dry and brittle, I imagined that I could see 20 miles of desert, spilling through the jebels. It was tempting to think of all this as silent and godless but – as always – Lawrence had described it better: 'echoing and godlike'.
Dana Nature Reserve
Our last few days, we headed north again, to an area that's now been quiet for 3,000 years. Once, the gorge between Dana and Feynan was busy with mines, and it supplied the world with copper. But by 1000 BC, the copper rush was over, and the animals returned. Now, it's a reserve, and crumbling communities at either end are being restored. Up in Dana, we stayed at a guesthouse run by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. Dangling over the rim of the gorge, this modern, nine-bedroom stone hotel was comfortable if spartan. Ask for Room 9, where Queen Noor stayed, which has one of the few private bathrooms. Oddly, the whole place had a 'ski-resort' feel, with real fires and hearty local food.
Although it was 15km to Feynan, the path was easy, and so – hiring a guide called Abdullah – on we went. It was an unforgettable walk, beginning with oaks and hyena poo, and ending 1,000m downhill among clumps of oleander and flecks of prehistoric slag. Lucy hardly noticed the distance. Abdullah had told her his father had 18 children and three wives, prompting a detailed enquiry.
A good desert adventure should probably end – like Lawrence's – in a gun-fight, but ours ended at a fabulous boutique hotel. I still pinch myself when I think of Feynan Lodge, with its huge log fires, polished concrete floors and brilliant silks. But then, I suppose, that's the mirage of Jordan. Just when you think there's nothing there, something amazing always turns up.
I love the idea that this city simply disappeared from view for over 500 years.
Following the collapse of Rome, this Nabatean trading centre went into decline. Several earthquakes later, it was almost abandoned. In 1276, a Turkish Mamluke passed through, and that was it for five centuries; no outsider would see Petra until Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, a Swiss explorer, pitched up in 1812. In London, news of his discovery caused wild excitement. But Burckhardt never got to enjoy his fame: he died in Cairo in 1817, aged 33, still disguised as a Muslim cleric.
Exactly 200 years after its re-discovery, Petra is as thrilling as ever. It's not just that 'Indiana Jones moment', emerging from the siq (a fracture 80m deep and 1.6km long). It's also the network of gorges, the empty Roman streets, the 7,000-seat theatre, the blood-red rocks and the facades carved into the cliffs. Add to this the clink of hooves, the shouts of muleteers and the chatter of nomads, and you feel Burckhardt's excitement all over again.
We stayed at Beit Zaman, basically a restored 19th-century village. It offers a wonderful respite from the heat and bustle of the town below. The 136 stone-built rooms are simple, the heated indoor pool very welcome.
While here, try the Petra Kitchen. Under the expert tutelage of local chefs, you prepare your own Jordanian dishes and then eat it in their stylish restaurant-cum-kitchen.
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