Wadi Rum is one of the great Middle Eastern wildernesses. Over the years it has provided a refuge to the hardy Bedouin who knew how to survive and thrive in its arid landscape. Many of Lawrence of Arabia's exploits unfolded here and more recently the harsh backdrop of fissured rock and red sand has doubled up as the surface of Mars in several films. Your tour today takes in seven of the sights of Wadi Rum and is a detailed exploration of the deeper recesses of the wadi.
At the entrance to the wadi, near the modern visitors' centre, you pass the fluted rocky hill known as the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which gave its name to Lawrence's account of the Arab revolt. Nearby, in the lee of a steep cliff, are the remains of a Nabataean temple. Partially restored, the temple was probably used by Nabataean traders entering or leaving the wadi, presumably to pray for, or give thanks for, a safe passage.
Moving deeper into the wadi, past the settlement of Rum, the scenery opens up, and it matches Lawrence's description of "vast, echoing and God-like". Broad sweeps of red sand wash up against the base of rocky mountains and cliffs underneath a curving blue sky. Heading for one of the monoliths of fissured rock, you walk into a narrow canyon where the walls are etched with Thamudic inscriptions, the language of pre-Islamic Arabia. The inscriptions and depictions of camels suggest that the canyon was used as a refuge from the hottest part of the day, and also served as an information centre giving details of the nearest water and similar advice.
Nearby is one of several rock-bridges in Wadi Rum. The easily eroded sandstone has been subject to millennia of scouring winds, boring a tunnel through the rock, leaving a natural bridge above. The next stop, even further into the wadi is another rock bridge — higher, and with a slightly shorter span. For the more adventurous, the lure of scrambling up these bridges and enjoying the unrivalled view and silence is hard to resist.
You now begin to loop back toward the entrance of the wadi. A small, largely ruined, fort nestles up against a huge boulder — this is called Lawrence's Castle, but whether or not he ever used it is questionable. It doesn't look big enough to have served any defensive function. However it does provide you with a great view back up the branch of the wadi you have just descended. On the opposite side of this wadi branch is another collection of Thamudic inscriptions, these showing a lot in common with the rock-art found in north Africa. Animals, hunting scenes and shamanistic depictions are all etched into the rock.
As well as taking in several sights of interest, the other great thing about this tour is that it gets you deep into the wadi, and the thrill of driving through this vast emptiness is hard to match. Your guide will be one of the local Bedouin: they do not act as a guide in the traditional sense; they simply know their way around Wadi Rum and can drive you from place to place. Most of them do not speak English, so there is no describing of the various sights. The vehicles are all 4x4s, and are fairly old as a rule. Most of the Bedouin cannot afford to purchase the latest 4x4 models, and in many cases would not want to: modern 4x4s, like modern cars, have complex engine management systems and when they break down have to go to a dealer to be fixed — not practical for desert-dwelling Bedouin! The older models have little, or no engine management, and are therefore much easier to repair with a bit of know-how and a few simple tools.