24.11.2019 - 01.12.2019 20 °C
The final chapter in our 11 week journey was an eight day tour of Jordan with travel company Peregrine Adventures. We flew in from Athens, landing around 2.30pm, and were picked up and transported to our hotel in Amman. This is a large, and very busy city which stretches for miles, and has a lot of traffic jams. Consequently our journey from the airport was very slow, much of it spent stationary in a traffic jam, and we didn't check in to our hotel till about 4.30pm. We learnt later on that Amman's population has grown exponentially in recent years, owing to the huge influx of refugees from Palestine, and more recently, Syria.
At 6pm we had a meeting with our tour guide Jasmin, a beautiful young woman wearing a gorgeous brightly -coloured head scarf , which over the course of the week changed every day, with a different colour scheme. We also met the other 10 members of our group; three other Australian couples (Sydney, Perth and Hong Kong), a Colombian couple and a British couple. Jasmin booked a table at the hotel restaurant, and we all ate together, getting to know our travel companions for the next seven days.
The next morning we departed Amman at 9.30am in our small 15 seater bus for the long 5 hour drive to Wadi Rum, down in the south of Jordan. Once we left the busy metropolis of Amman, and passed the airport, the road became the Desert Highway, and we gazed out the window to an endless vista of golden-red sand dunes. I had thought Crete was dry, but this landscape took arid to a whole new level. There were almost no trees, or in fact any vegetation at all. After a brief stop for a light lunch of salad at a roadside cafe, the landscape began to change to large golden-red rock formations, emerging from the desert floor and towering over the landscape. Around 3pm we arrived at the Wadi Rum visitor centre.
A little further down the street, the bus pulled up and out we got to meet our 'lovely Bedouin friends', as Jasmin introduced them, who were accompanied by around 10 camels lying in the sand.
Jasmin demonstrated how to get on and off a camel, emphasising the need to hold on tight to the pommel in front of you, as you are suddenly thrust forward, then backward, as the camel rises to its feet. Then it was our turn. On Jasmin's insistence, I put my handbag and backpack in the back of the ute, thrusting my Ventolin into my pocket, just in case I turned out to be allergic to camels, then made the rather difficult manoeuvre of getting my right leg over the camel's back, so I could sit in the saddle. Once successfully on, I held tightly to the pommel, and up I went, first leaning precariously forward as his back legs went up, then backward as his front legs went up, then finally, relievedly horizontal. All the camels were joined together by ropes, with our Bedouin friends leading around three each, and off we went into the sunset.
There was much calling out of smart comments between our group as we all tried to adjust to this strange ride, and cope with the unpredictable vagaries of our camels. Mine kept seeing a small gap between two of his mates, and wanting to squeeze himself into the gap, forcing me to quickly fold my legs in front of the saddle as Jasmine had demonstrated, which I did not find very comfortable.
WE rode for an hour, with more camels brought along to join the group halfway through, as we were a couple short at the start. In the desert distance we could see a couple of open utes waiting for us - this was our transport to the Wadi Rum Luxury Camp we were staying in overnight. As we bounced along in the 5pm twilight, the desert was lined on both sides with huge rocks. At the base of these, every so often, there would be a sprinkling of tents - another of the many tourist camps spread across this region. Arriving at our camp clarified why it was named the "Luxury Camp'. Walkways lined with small trees, lighting and flower pots led to large tents, each containing its own ensuite.
When we entered our tent, it was like being in a four star hotel; large bed, furniture, heater and equally large ensuite. More 'glamping' than camping!
Dinner was sensational - a buffet with a vast array of fabulous middle eastern salads, roast potatoes, hommus, olives, babaganoush and chicken cooked in the ground, Bedouin-style, along with warm, freshly-cooked flat bread. For dessert there were a range of delicious small pastries; baklava, and many different tiny pastries filled with pistachios, almonds or cashews.
We slept well in our luxurious tent, and woke early, to peer out at another clear blue sky; the rising sun creating a rose tinge on the cliffs surrounding our camp. After a magnificent buffet breakfast with another enormous selection, including omelets cooked to order with your selection of fillings, we set off at 8.30am in our open jeeps to visit a variety of unusual rock formations and enormous sand dunes spread across Wadi Rum.
At one stop one of the local men started hassling Jasmin, our guide. A protracted argument in Arabic ensued, with Jasmin holding her own calmly but firmly. After a while our three male drivers stood by, silently observing the discussion. Eventually one of them rang someone on his mobile phone, and handed his phone to the Bedouin, who spoke to the person on the other end for quite a while. By the end of this conversation the Bedouin was convinced, and Jasmin returned to our jeep and our group was able to leave. When we asked her what it was about, she didn't want to say much, but clearly a female guide in a male dominated culture is quite a rarity, and she often faces interrogation from others in the tourism industry who are suspicious of a woman doing a job that is mostly done by men in this country. Being young and pretty doesn't help either. The women in the group reassured Jasmin that she is not alone in facing this misogyny, and we all admired her resilience in a situation that she said occurs often.
After four hours of being sand blasted in the back of the open jeeps, we returned to our bus and drove to the old, disused Wadi Rum railway station, where the refurbished locomotive invokes the memory of the century-old conflict that helped shape the modern Middle East. In 1916, during World War I, much of the Arabic-speaking world was controlled by the Ottoman Turkish Empire. The Allies sought to force the Turks out of the region, urging the Sharif of Mecca to join the Allies and take up arms against the Ottomans in return for Arab independence. Hussein agreed, and over the course of the next two years, the Arabs assisted in a major war effort to defeat the Turks. Under the leadership of Hussein’s son, Prince Faisal—and with assistance from the illustrious T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia”—the Arabs fought a guerilla-style war by interrupting train passages on the Hejaz Railway.
We continued on, and after a couple of hours the landscape changed from sand dunes to massive rock formations and our bus descended down a steep and windy road until we stopped at a lookout to view the landscape of Petra from above.
From there the bus took us to Little Petra, Jasmine explaining that this was to whet our appetite for the following day when we would visit Petra itself. Little Petra has some beautiful tombs carved into the rock faces that line the canyon as you enter.
All around the rocks you can see rough, uneven stairs carved into the cliffs; some ascending quite steeply to create a very precarious climb, and then suddenly disappearing at a high, narrow ledge. These stairs, Jasmin told us, were not to be climbed as they were dangerous and in the past tourists had fallen to terrible injury or death. As we were returning to the bus, one of the guides was remonstrating angrily with a couple of young men who had climbed such a staircase, and they quickly scrambled back down. This was an ominous precursor to the following day's events....
The next morning we left our beds at the Petra Moon Hotel, had a 6am breakfast and walked the 100m down the hill to the entrance gate. Jasmine purchased our tickets and we went straight in the gate shortly after 6.30am, our early entrance time specified by Jasmine to beat the crowds and make the most of the day so we could see all there was to see at this vast site. We walked down through the Siq, stopping every so often as Jasmin pointed out various features and explained the history of Petra. Petra was once a large, bustling city, established around the 4th century BC as the capital city of the Nabataean Kingdom. The Nabataeans were nomadic Arabs who established Petra as a major regional trading hub. They were masters of engineering, carving palatial chambers into the cliff faces, water channels into the rock and building dams, to build a sustainable water system for the city. The famous Kazneh structure was built in the 1st century AD and is believed to be the mausoleum of Nabataean king Aretas IV. At this time the population of Petra is estimated to have been around 20,000. This building was later known as 'The Treasury', because it was believed that the king's gold and treasures were stored in the urns at the top. Of course we had seen many photos of the Treasury, but the sight of it emerging as we walked through the Siq, just took your breath away.
In 106 AD Petra became part of the Roman Empire, and Roman buildings were added to the city, including a theatre, and later during the Byzantine era, christian churches.
When you reach the Treasury the canyon widens out into an open space, where many people hang out, taking photos. From here you turn right and the path takes you further into Petra, where you can see Roman buildings, Christian churches, and Nabataean tombs and the Monastery, a structure similar to the Treasury, but bigger. Opposite the Treasury was another steep, rough carved staircase, leading up to some ledges and arches, where a few people were climbing to take Instagram selfies; the impact increased by the sheer drops either side of the ledges, and the lack of any guard rails. Jasmin told us these climbs were not safe and not recommended, and she couldn't stop us from climbing them, but if we did so we had to take responsibility for ourselves. We left the Treasury and were following the path toward the Monastery when we saw an ambulance on the dusty road, heading toward the Treasury with lights flashing and sirens going. Shortly after we came across one of our party members who told us that an 18 year old girl had been climbing with some others on one of the staircases opposite the Treasury, and had taken a step backwards and fallen 80 metres. It was not known whether she had survived, but later we saw the ambulance making the return trip; inching its way very slowly along the gravel road. From this we assumed she was still alive, but probably had severe spinal injuries at the very least. Later one of our party asked a policeman how she was and the response was "very bad". A confronting reminder of how easily a life-changing accident can occur, and the need to be careful when travelling.
The Monastery is the furthermost point in Petra, and it is a climb of some 8000 carved stone steps. By the time we were climbing to the Monastery it was warm and sunny. I felt sorry for the donkeys who were hired to carry tourists up to the Monastery; invariably the tourists on their backs all looked as though they would benefit from walking. It was also quite steep in places and would have been quite scary on the back of a donkey, as they often go quite close to the edge of the stairs, beside a steep drop to the canyon floor. Walking along the canyon we occasionally would hear a donkey 'ee-awing'; the sound reverberating through the canyon as it bounced off the high stone walls. It was very loud, and I really understood how "Eey-oore" got his name!
When we reached the Monastery we saw some of our party sitting at a terrace cafe overlooking the famous site, so joined them to take in the view and have a refreshing fresh pomegranate and orange juice, before climbing further again to the lookout.
We headed back down to visit the Byzantine church, with its beautiful mosaic floors.
From there we head to the Royal Tombs, which were built as mausoleums by the Nabataeans.
The highest one is the Urn tomb, reached by climbing a stone staircase. As we climb we can hear a voice calling out "Souvenirs for sale, buy something for your wife, your mistress, your husband, your lover.."
As we reach the top the owner of the voice is revealed, a Bedouin who has set up a mattress right on the edge of the cliff in front of the tomb, from where he calls out his sales pitch. Behind him is a stall containing the usual collection of souvenirs.
People wander over to peruse the merchandise and he calls out the price from his bed. There is a tin provided for the money to be deposited, to save him getting up. One person announces that he needs change. The Bedouin gives a huge groan and slowly hauls himself up from his bed to make a sale and give change. Inside the tomb is a huge square cave, where you can see the rich colours of the rock, swirling across the ceiling and down the walls like an oil painting.
The next day our mini bus driver transported us further north to the Dead Sea, stopping at Shobak castle and Dana village reservation on the way.
Shobak castle is about one hour north of Petra, built in the midst of very arid hills by the Crusaders in 1115.
The Crusaders withstood numerous attacks from the armies of Saladin (Salah ad Din) before succumbing in 1189 when they ran out of food and water after an 18-month siege.
Further north we stopped at the Dana Village, which overlooks the vast Dana Biosphere Reserve - Jordan's largest nature reserve. It was founded in 1989 and comprises 308 square kilometres.
We arrived at our hotel at the Dead Sea around 3.30pm, quickly checking in and changing into our bathers so we could 'do our floating' (as Jasmin called it) in the Dead Sea before the sunset at 5pm. Our hotel was huge, and as we headed down stairways toward the beach, we passed swimming pools of different shapes and sizes, surrounded by sun lounges and beach umbrellas before the path led down toward the pebbly and muddy shoreline of the vast Dead Sea. The swimming area was roped off, and we Aussies joked that it was a shark net, but once I entered the water and breast stroked out toward the rope where other members of our party were, I could see why. The water was very strange to swim in; you could not propel yourself through it easily as it was viscous, like swimming in honey. There were many signs lining the shore saying 'no swimming, only floating, stay near the shore, float on your back', and I quickly understood why. If you went on your front, you risked pitching forward, your face going into the water. The salt and sulphur content was so high that it would sting your eyes and mouth if it entered. So everyone lay on their back, their head and feet sticking straight up out of the water; so buoyant was the water.
By now it was after 4.30pm, and starting to get dark. The Dead Sea has its own micro climate however, so it was still relatively warm; by this time in any other part of Jordan a chill would have been entering the air. I could feel the skin on my arms burning a little, so I got out and had a shower under the open showers on the shore, following the instructions on the signs posted around that you need to wash the sea water from your skin straight away, as the high salt content can cause irritation. Nearby was a well full of mud from the floor of the sea, which supposedly makes your skin soft and smooth. Many people were smearing it on all over their bodies, (and their bathers), then washing it off in the sea. The Dead Sea is reputedly 400m below sea level, although these days it is undoubtedly lower, as the level continues to subside due to the continuing drought in Jordan
We headed back to our room for a shower, then went down to the bar for a drink. In Petra and Wadi Rum there was no alcohol in our hotels, so it seemed very novel to sit and have a glass of wine. Jordan is expensive though, as one Jordanian dinar is worth 2 Australian dollars. The prices on the menu were comparable to prices in Australian dollars, then when you actually paid your bill, the tax and service charge was added, so everything ended up costing more than double the Australian dollar equivalent. This made us realise that our tour with Peregrine was good value, as all breakfasts and most dinners were included. For lunch were were generally just eating flat bread and dip, or a falafel wrap. If we had travelled independently and paid for everything ourselves, it would have been much more expensive. For around $2400 pp for an 8 night tour including most meals, the Jordan Explorer with Peregrine was excellent value, and we were glad we had decided to do this tour, and not travel independently.
Dinner that night was the usual enormous buffet, and there were quite a few other Australians having dinner there. They stood out with their broad ocker accents, and their loud constant ribbing of one another with typical Australian humour. They seemed to be in a very large tour group; no doubt travelling on one of the large buses we had seen in the hotel carpark. WE all commented to one another how glad we were of our small, cozy group, and how much we enjoyed one another's company.
The following day we travelled from 400m below sea level, to about 800m above, to Mt Nebo, where Moses completed his pilgrimage from Jerusalem, and eventually died. At the top of Mt Nebo is a memorial to Moses, a Byzantine church, containing the most beautiful mosaics, and the Brazen Serpent monument.
For many, this is a religious, as well as historical site, and when we were there, a group of American christians were singing in gospel style before the serpent memorial, praising the Lord and uttering many alleluias. Next to this memorial was a lookout with views to Jericho, Jerusalem and the River Jordan. On this day it was a little hazy and hard to make out the panorama before us.
We head back to the hotel in Amman, where our trip to Jordan began. Later in the afternoon six of us head out to walk to town, where there are restaurants and shops. Jasmin recommends a restaurant for our dinner. We walk through the busy traffic- jammed streets, our group of three women and three men, all with grey or blonde hair, all in our sixties (well I'm not quite there but almost). We are the only tourists around; everyone we pass is a Jordanian, and they all stare, some saying 'welcome to Jordan'. Its a very long walk but finally we arrive in the 'downtown' precinct. where we see other tourists, bakeries with huge tantalising displays of baklava, and other almond and cashew -filled pastries. We find the recommended restaurant and it is a very casual, open air restaurant. There is no menu, the waiter brings everyone the same offering of hommus, babaganoush, salad, flat bread and falafels. For drinks there is bottled water. The food is delicious and the bill for the six of us comes to 16 dinar ($32AUD). After dinner we wander around for a while, looking in the souvenir shops. As usual we are all tired by 8pm and ready to head back to the hotel. Inexplicably we have been waking at 5am every morning this week, and by 7.30pm we are done. We need two taxis to get us all back, so we reply 'Yes' to the first Jordanian who asks if we want a taxi. He ropes in a mate to supply the second taxi, and three of us hop into each one. In our taxi there is no sign of a meter, and somehow the taxi driver's friend also seems to be coming with us in the front passenger seat. We haggle about the price most of the way back to the hotel. He wants 10 dinar, and so we offer 5. Once we arrive at the hotel the haggling continues. Eventually we give him 7 dinar and get out, which he accepts. When we tell Jasmin the next day she is horrified, and says we should only pay 4-5 dinar for a taxi from downtown.
Our final day of sight seeing we are driven to Jerash, the archeological park covering a huge area and providing a very clear idea of the original city in its heyday which stretched from about 1AD-500D. On the way to Jerash Jasmin tells us about the huge population growth which has occurred in Jordan, owing to its open borders and welcoming policy toward refugees. She explains that within most Jordanian families there are members from Palestine and/or Syria, and that the prevailing attitude of Jordanians toward refugees is one of a strong community, lending support to people feeling war in their countries, and a sentiment that this could be themselves, and would hope that other countries would welcome them in the same spirit. She asks what is our country's policy on refugees, and the general consensus is 'its complicated'. A discussion ensues, in which some group members try to explain Australia's refugee policy, and others discuss it amongst themselves. Jasmin looks quite disbelieving and horrified that people are imprisoned on remote islands outside of Australia because they tried to arrive by boat. It is interesting how difficult it is to explain such cruelty to someone who lives in a country right next door to war ravaged countries, which accepts without question the fundamental humanity of welcoming and assisting others in desperate situations.
We arrive in Jerash and walk through the obligatory tourist stalls, while locals try to convince us that we need to buy scarves, fridge magnets and other souvenirs. In many ways Jerash is like visiting Pompei or Ephesus, except there is much less protection of the sites. Beautiful mosaics lie bare and exposed to the weather and tourists, and you can wander freely among all the columns, streets, hippodromes and theatres.
We stop in the theatre for a group photo of the 12 of us, plus Jasmin.
We spend about three hours in Jerash; there is much to see and the site covers a huge area.
When we return to the hotel in Amman we farewell Jasmin and thank her for being our friendly tour guide. We make plans for a group dinner that evening at a downtown restaurant. Mark and David organise it all, booking the restaurant, finding out the address, and giving each of us two slips of paper; one with the address in English, the other in Arabic. At 6.30pm we all meet in the hotel lobby and synchronise our booking of three Ubers to get us there. I wish I had thought of booking Ubers for transport earlier on our trip - its so much easier to book and pay for, and cheaper. The only problem is that none of us have local SIM cards, so we have to use to hotel wi fi. We send the rest of the group outside to look for the Ubers arriving, while the three of us who have booked the Ubers stay inside the hotel, tracking each car on our phone. We make it to the restaurant and have a delicious meal of traditional Jordanian food. I have a more Moroccan style dish of lemon chicken tagine, but it is served like a pie, with a covering of balked flat bread. It is amazing! Again, this restaurant is alcohol free, so our livers get another detox.
We have enjoyed a fabulous time in Jordan. It is certainly a place for amazing sights and experiences, but one best negotiated on a tour I think. I would not like to drive in the crazy Amman traffic jams and I think all the logistics of the camel ride and jeep tour in Wadi Rum would be complex to organise yourself.