Wadi Rum, Jordan…. There is an overwhelming amount of things to know, and it is largely circumstance whether you have stumbled across one fact or another. Fortunately, travel is a remarkable avenue for plugging gaps where missing knowledge is relevant and/or astounding. All you need is a dose of inspiration from an enticing destination to begin opening doors, and so it was when I found myself captured by Petra. Petra would reveal numerous gems in Jordan, including Wadi Rum, where I was able to experience incomparable beauty and receive a bonus learning experience.
I knew virtually nothing about Jordan prior to Petra, but this marvel motivated several sessions of surfing the internet to identify opportunities. The range of my ignorance became evident when I stumbled upon Lawrence of Arabia. Do you know who Lawrence of Arabia was? Prior to Petra, the single fact I could have shared was that he was portrayed by Peter O’Toole in a movie I never saw, and couldn’t have hazarded whether he was fact or fiction. I must have leaned towards fiction because I was astonished by all the offers to shadow routes he followed in advertisements for camel trekking in Wadi Rum!
So he was obviously a real person and without travel, I would have remained oblivious to a fascinating life. In the years before World War I, Lawrence was a college student touring Syria to research a thesis that contradicted the popular belief that Middle Eastern castles had been influenced by Europeans. Lawrence pointed out that it was quite the opposite, with returning Crusaders bringing Arabian influence back home.
Then came the First World War, and being a stupid American, I was unaware of the second theater during this conflict. The United States never declared war against the Ottoman Empire and my countries’ exposure was limited to Europe despite the significant conflict in Arabia. But here was a second front that Lawrence participated in.
Charged with supporting the ‘Arab Irregulars’ – a contingent of Arab tribes encouraged to rebel against centuries of domination by the Ottomans – Lawrence roamed the region to assist the revolt. His key accomplishment was a notion to sack the port village of Aqaba by venturing 600 miles across deserts and attack the fortress by land (all of the armaments pointed towards the sea). Lawrence’s subsequent thrusts were intentionally non-life threatening and he preferred to blow up railways and disturb the foe’s supply chain rather than plot direct confrontations which would cost lives. A riveting saga revealed by the attractions of Wadi Rum.
Lawrence of Arabia persists in Wadi Rum somewhat like Che Guevara in Cuba and I was quickly intoxicated by pictures of a sandy setting studded with reddish mountains. There was no alternative but add this protected desert wilderness (a few hours south of Petra by car) to the itinerary and explore. We reserved a tent for several nights at a desert camp which proudly announced the “only swimming pool in Wadi Rum.”
Our introduction was at the well-presented Visitor’s Center along the northern entrance to Wadi Rum. The site consists of a small cluster of buildings blending splendidly with the stark desert landscape and offers a restaurant, museum and several tasteful shops. Shopping is near the bottom of my priority list, but I was impressed by a gallery’s whimsical hieroglyphic renderings called ‘Rum Art’ and purchased a piece for my wife.
We arranged a three-hour jeep tour for the following day and roared off after being picked up by Mohammed, our young driver. Plunging into the sand, progress was initially slow until falling into grooves worn by countless jeep tours before us. Our first stop was a large dune of rich, red sand affording spectacular views of mesas shimmering in the early morning light. Continuing on, we would occasionally stop and Mohammad would get out, beckoning us to follow. Mohammad spoke no English, so we would follow him like puppies until he pointed, usually at a rock wall. The first several times his finger led our sight to fanciful figures etched into the rock.
At first, I was skeptical – the figures looked like they could have been carved very recently. Suddenly it dawned on me this was the inspiration for the splendid ‘Rum Art’ I had been so attracted to yesterday! We enjoyed further sightings and eventually reached some of the famed rock arches of Wadi Rum. The panoramas we savored during this brief excursion were stunning, as much for the grandeur as for the diversity.
After returning we hastened to the museum at the Visitor’s Center, where I consulted the displays on local pictographs noticed yesterday. The information was sketchy, but identified the etchings as Thamudic inscriptions, enabling research afterward. I learned there are five distinct variations scattered throughout the Arabian Peninsula, with the excellently preserved ones here contributing to Wadi Rum’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Next up was a hike around Jebel Rum, but the heat was stifling and we spontaneously decided to drive to Aqaba and go swimming in the Red Sea. It’s nice to have options and our inspiration resulted from overhearing fellow guests remark it was an easy 45-minute drive. The village Lawrence captured is now a resort town, Jordan’s only presence on the Red Sea, and fabled as a snorkeling and diving hot spot. To promote Aqaba, the Jordanian government has made this a special “enterprise free zone” with vastly reduced tariffs. Thus you get stopped before entering to make sure you aren’t smuggling anything in and then depart from Aqaba’s duty-free airport.
At the gate, we had only to utter the magic words “United States” and show passports to quickly get beyond the machine-gun-toting guards. Then it was into the town, jam-packed because Friday is akin to a Sunday in Western culture. Our first stop was the public beach, and it was crowded beyond belief. There didn’t appear any spot in the water that was unoccupied, let alone on the beach! So back to the car and downtown to locate a private beach.
By the private beach, I mean the shoreline in front of a hotel where you pay to get in. We entered one where the ‘beach’ was actually a concrete pier, but not crowded and the water refreshing. The Red Sea was a marvelous shade of blue and we could see quite a few fish. I have no doubt the snorkeling would be terrific here. It was a needed respite where we could enjoy looking at Israel and Egypt in the distance. Afterward, our return to camp was delayed because we arrived at the gate during the evening call to prayer, requiring a brief wait for the guards to complete devotions.
The next morning was the last day of the Jordan adventure, so we set off early to hike before the temperature could reach scorching levels. The Jebel Rum trail was supposed to lead past Nabatean ruins to an oasis teeming with mint. After proceeding along the trail a bit with nary a sight of Nabatean ruins, we came across a local family who had driven down in their 4WD to enjoy a picnic brunch. Though they didn’t speak English, we expressed ‘Nabatean’ after exchanging greetings and the husband motioned for us to follow him. He led us to a boulder that had etched characters similar to those we had seen in Petra (clearly not Thamudic inscriptions). He patted one at the top and uttered “here”. Then he worked his way down the boulder, patting each character and exclaiming “here” over and over. There was one last “here” as he got to the bottom, whereupon he patted the ground and loudly exclaimed “GOLD!” and grinned ear to ear. It was a very funny moment and one that will stay with me as a reminder of how friendly everyone was. We returned to the trail and followed it back to the mint oasis, chasing lizards and butterflies on our way. Mint filled the air and was tremendously energizing, but already we could sense the heat returning with a vengeance and doubled back to conclude our Jordanian experience.
If anything makes me a travel fan, it is the way each adventure seems to pack along more miracles than the original one you were expecting. The beauty of Petra led to the beauty of Wadi Rum and then on to Lawrence of Arabia. And at the end of the day, Wadi Rum underscored this notion of multiple marvels with wonderful symmetry – as the sun exchanges horizons here, shades of yellow are traded for red and vice versa: from a single perspective, the traveler is rewarded with a spectacular range of palettes.