We contour along cliffs of red sandstone, moving gradually higher as we follow the tilted topography as it cuts in and out of shallow drainages. Looking around at the complicated network of canyons sprawling below, I’m thinking, this could be the Colorado Plateau of Southern Utah, not southern Jordan. But the Bedouin man crouched by a small fire making tea, his red and white keffiyeh, the traditional Arab headdress, tied in the flowing style of the region, reminds me we are most definitely in the Middle East and not Canyonlands.
As we work our way upward, there’s one little fourth-class rock climbing move, easy but exposed, then more sandstone slabs before an elaborate staircase carved in the stone appears before us. It’s a hot day. The storied Khamasin, a wind that originates in North Africa and blows across the deserts of Saudi Arabia, is stirring. Tomorrow will be a scorcher, and already we sweat through our clothes as we ascend the rocky slope.
At the top of the ancient stairs we follow a narrow defile around a sharp bend. Suddenly, we are stopped cold as we emerge into the open. There before us the exquisite carved façade of Al Deir, better known as the Monastery, perhaps Petra’s grandest monument, rises into the blue sky. It’s a stunning sight, made more so by the abruptness of it, and the fact there isn’t a human to be seen. Incredibly, we have Al Deir to ourselves.
“What do you think, Peter?” asks Yamaan, with his big smile and ironic laugh. He and Catherine execute a heartfelt high five to commemorate the end of six days and 50 miles of trekking across some of the wildest terrain in Jordan. Yamaan put together this unique route after months of exploration. He has seen before the astonished looks of disbelief on the faces of hikers as he guided them into Petra by this, the back door.
We all know that not 10 miles from us, at the other end of Petra’s canyon system, a parking lot reverberates with tour bus engines as thousands of tourists stream through the official visitors center into Jordan’s most famous attraction. But to enter Petra as we did, a small party of three at the conclusion of almost a week in the rugged wilds of the Kingdom of Jordan, is a far more satisfying arrival. In a few hours some of those other visitors will work their way up here to the Monastery, but for now it is ours alone.
Dana Biosphere Reserve and Feynan Eco Lodge
It all began a week ago, as Catherine, a videographer with the Jordan Tourism Board, and I arrived in Amman after the long flight from New York. The idea was to experience an epic trek through the varied landscapes of Jordan, to complete a journey entirely on foot and ending at Petra. With Yamaan Safady of Adventure Jordan we drove to our starting point at the Dana Biosphere Reserve. Dana marks one of Jordan’s signature efforts at setting aside remarkable pieces of the Jordanian landscape while establishing a sustainable partnership with the local people in the process.
The Dana Reserve showcases the core mission of Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, an innovative public and private partnership that seeks to protect forever the natural treasures of the country. Here at Dana, where steep canyons—called wadis in the Middle East—lead dramatically down from the ancient village at almost 5,000 feet to desert terrain near sea level at Wadi Araba in Jordan’s Rift Valley, the success of the venture is clear. The sheer size of the Dana reserve—Jordan’s largest at more than 100 square miles—is impressive, big enough to protect significant habitat.
Most adventuresome travelers who come to Dana stay at the guest house perched atop the cliff at the edge of the 2,000 year old village itself, but we have chosen Rummana Camp to spend a final night before the start of our trek. Set amid the distinctive dome-shaped rock formations at the head of Wadi Dana, the permanent camp offers comfortable tent accommodations for sleeping and an elaborate evening buffet of traditional Jordanian food. We met visitors from Switzerland, France and the UK –many of them bird watchers for whom Dana is legend--over plates of salads, olives, humous, kebabs and other regional favorites. All travelers to Jordan quickly discover the delicious food is an unexpected payoff to any visit here.
The extraordinary day that followed took us gradually down through all four of Jordan’s eco-zones. Dana village is cool and alpine, fleece jacket required, but we soon dropped down into the wadi and gradually passed through the layer cake of these bio-diversity zones: through the Mediterranean zone, with local orchards, into the moderate Iranian zone, the warm Sudan zone and finally the scorching Sahara zone as we reached the floor of the Rift Valley. A journey through four distinct kinds of flora and fauna in a single day makes the hike down Wadi Dana unique.
The 12 kilometer hike delivered us to Feynan Eco Lodge, perhaps Jordan’s most interesting accommodation, for a night of relaxed comfort before the camping begins. The candle-lit lodge—there is no electricity here—gives us all some time to absorb the quiet and beauty of the desert before the long trek to Petra. Exquisite vegetarian food served on the open terrace, and a hot shower, prepared us for our days on the trail. After dinner, lodge director Nabil Tarazi took me up to the roof—where some guests actually choose to sleep—for some star gazing and to explain his central objective at Feynan: To expertly integrate the local Bedouin community into the economics of the lodge to make both elements completely symbiotic, and sustainable, while offering visitors an experience unlike any. Feynan is a bold experiment in the world of adventure travel, and an irresistible one to those lucky enough to stay here.
Wadi Araba and the Sharah Mountains
The next three days are the heart of Yamaan’s trek. He spent months exploring the region to find a route that traverses not just a varied landscape of mountains, springs and deserts, but a route that showcases the cultural heritage of Jordan with it’s millennia of human habitation. As we hiked day after day along easy shepherds’ paths, Bedouin migration routes, and rugged, barely discernable poachers tracks, I saw Neolithic village sites, prehistoric copper mines and even the ruins of Byzantine churches. Even without the historic elements, the hiking terrain itself was engaging: more than 6,000 feet of elevation gain in just 30 miles through constantly changing terrain in Jordan’s Sharah Mountains.
From the lodge we hiked into the stony desert of Wadi Araba, directly beside mines once worked by Christians enslaved by Romans, and explored a standing arch that remains from a third century church. We’re pushing our luck a bit to be doing the route in early May, as September through April is generally considered the best season for this 50 mile trek. Conditions were moderate at the start, however, and the occasional acacia tree offered sufficient if welcome shade for making tea at our infrequent stops. Our route took us south over the rock-strewn desert floor, with the Sharah mountains rising steeply on our left, and Wadi Araba and the Rift Valley to our right.
By afternoon we reached the mouth of a slot canyon emerging from the mountain wall. This was Wadi Barwas, where Yamaan had arranged a surprise for Catherine and me. Instead of backpacking tents, the Adventure Jordan crew had erected an elaborate, roomy Bedouin style tent. Rugs laid end to end created a floor on which cushions and pillows lay in the shade of the tent. This was serious comfort. Hamad brought us hot, sweet tea, the customary welcoming drink of Jordan. As I removed my pack and sat down to lounge against the pillows, I was thinking: this is a style of backpacking to which I could grow accustomed.
And that was just the beginning. After exploring the narrow basalt canyon of Wadi Barwas, I returned to find our backcountry chefs, Rafak and Abu Suleiman, have put on an elaborate meal of lentil soup, salads, humous and flat bread, with the main course of chicken and rice--a traditional Jordanian dish known as maglobeh-- to come. With this kind of support, trekking with Adventure Jordan was akin to the pleasures of trekking in Nepal. Yamaan told me he does sometimes do an unsupported hike to Petra through these mountains, a more pure form of backpacking, but not this late in the year.
The following day took us straight up into the mountains on a good, switch-backing Bedouin migration route that climbed more than 2,500 feet through several broad gullies to a high pass in the Sharah Mountains. From here we looked down into the lush green valley of an oasis, Ras el Feid, and actually traced the course of our route for the next two days toward Petra. We descended to the spring, where Yamaan brewed tea as we took a break in the shade of the greenery. Just as we got comfortable, two men with guns appeared, riding toward us on donkeys.
“No worries,” Yamaan told me, “they are hunters. Remember, Jordan is a quiet house in a noisy neighborhood. We have nothing to fear here. In fact, if we were to run into difficulties, these are the people who would render assistance.” Yamaan exchanged greetings with the men-- salaam alaykum, or peace be with you--and we were soon off through the pink flowers of the oleander bushes to our second camp.
Our 50 mile trek to Petra required six basically moderate days, with the longest and most strenuous being the fourth, a 12 mile day with significant off-trail travel that penetrates deeply into the Jordanian backcountry. We saw no one as we climbed high into the Sharah Mountains for a close up view at Abu Mahmoud, the highest peak in the range, and a glimpse back down into Wadi Araba, now far below us to the west. We traversed open hillsides for two hours before climbing steeply up under a sandstone escarpment. From the high point, we could see the greenery of another spring, and soon dropped down to Hudus, as the oasis is named, before working up rugged Wadi Hudus to camp. The weather was definitely warming up, and I found that today one had to pay attention to hydration: four liters of water, and another liter of electrolytes was prudent consumption for a long hike on a late spring day in southern Jordan.
At the bizarre rock formations near Shkaret Mseid we missed our rendezvous with our camp crew, just enough of a hitch to remind us that despite the creature comforts, we were traveling alone in a desert environment and utterly dependent on the water and gear we carried. But Yamaan was prepared with his satellite phone to remedy the situation and we were soon in camp, lounging in the shade of our big Bedouin tent, wondering about yet another traditional Jordan feast Rafak and his team had promised us--a lamb and yogurt dish called mansaf.
Just before arriving at camp we lucked out and got a close look at the elusive blue Sinai lizard, so brilliant in hue as to defy belief. These agama lizards are not necessarily rare, but it's good karma to see one. Earlier, we caught a glimpse of the truly rare lesser kestrel, a reminder why birders come here from around the globe. Birdsong was the sound track to our wilderness wanderings, and we awoke most mornings to the comic song of the laughing dove, whose distinctive "koo-roo" is said by the locals to be Arabic for "mention God." Throughout our passage through the Sharah range we had kept a vigilant lookout but had not been so lucky to see a desert ibex.
We bid our camp crew a fond farewell, they had become our friends, as we set out early on the fifth day over a slick-rock wilderness that is reminiscent of the American southwest. Our transition from mountains to canyon country was abrupt as we scrambled up steep gullies to gain the smooth sandstone plateau. Yamaan stopped us here to point out a small white dot atop a distant mountain: Aaron's tomb, built high above Petra. Here was our first sign that we approached the fabled Rose Red City itself, which is nestled out of sight in its canyons. But we did see our first set of stairs carved by the ancient Nabateans, the people who first built Petra, so we know we are getting close. From the plateau we gradually descended to the outskirts of the small town of Beidha, crossed small pastures and wheat fields, and finaly arrived at our accommodations for the night: the Ammarin camp. This was an authentic Bedouin experience that comes not just with the expected Jordanian feasts, but with some welcome luxuries: private tents and hot showers, even electricity for the camera batteries.
The ancient site of Little Petra is here, a cluster of carved stone facades much smaller in scale than Petra proper, but ancient and mysterious nonetheless, and they whet our appetites for what is to come. After an al fresco breakfast by the fire in the courtyard of the camp, we said goodbye to our Bedouin hosts and set out on our sixth and final day. It took us only a couple of hours to reach the Monastery, and from they we spend the day exploring Petra. The two most impressive monuments here are at opposite ends of the city: The Monastery, at the north end, where we entered, and the Treasury (Al Khazneh) at the east end, where the dramatic slot canyon known as the Siq, or shaft, exits Petra via the main visitors' center.
But in between are many wonders: the Great Temple, currently being excavated by Brown University, the dramatic theater, the Royal Nabatean tombs, and the Roman colonnaded street. Petra was inhabitied from the sixth century BC through the Roman period, and the city shows cultural elements from all these epochs. Some of the quieter places here can be the most rewarding, such as the Place of High Sacrifice up on the canyon rim, or the mosaics from the fifth century AD church. In my opinion, Petra is a place that should be explored at leisure following extensive prelimnary research.
Catherine, Yamaan and I stopped by the fancy Basin Restaurant near the center of Petra to celebrate the end of our amazing journey with a cold beer before setting off on our own to see the sights of Petra. Looking back over our six day trek, it was frankly difficult to believe the variety of terrain we had crossed to get here. "Let me show you my world," the passionate Yamaan had said that first day, and that's what we had seen: a landscape like no other. After nearly a week on our own, it was not an easy adjustment from the solitary nature of our small band and our quiet conversation to the noisy crowds we encountered here in busy Petra. But the method of our arrival had put our pilgrimage to Petra in a beautiful, even moving, context.
A Visit to Jordan
While Petra, since 1985 a UNESCO World Heritage site, is Jordan's best known attraction, there is much more to see here. (Watch Catherine Porterfield's video of the trek and some of the other highlights of a visit to Jordan.)
I spent a total of three weeks in the kingdom and managed to hit most of the important sites. Jerash, perhaps the best preserved Roman provincial city in the world, can be as impressive as Petra itself. I had a chance to relax at the Dead Sea, a seaside resort to rival any, and to do some hiking in the beautiful desert of Wadi Rum, and snorkeling at the Red Sea port of Aqaba. A few days in cosmopolitan Amman should not be missed. (See a gallery of images from photographer Mary Beth Kratsas.)
I wish I had had more time, to visit the Eastern Desert and some of the ancient Crusader fortresses there, to do some canyoneering in spectacular Wadi Mujib Nature Reserve, and to explore the Azlaq Wetland Reserve. Nabil Tarazi told me he's uncovered a a canyon with 12 waterfalls near the Feynan Lodge
. But I simply consider all those missed opportunities as good reasons to come back. Any trip to Jordan should start with a visit to the national tourism website, visitjordan.com
, which can make trip planning much easier.
The expedition to Petra described here was sponsored jointly by Ex Officio, the Jordan Tourism Board , the Jordan Economic & Commerce Bureau, Wildland Adventures, Adventure Jordan and GreatOutdoors.com,