After a night in the busy costal town of Aqaba, we made our way north to the desert of Wadi Rum. Now, if you were as confused by the name as I was, let me enlighten you - "Wadi" is apparently the Arabic word for "valley" - of which there are many in these parts. And "Rum" is the word for... ummm yeah, I don't know about that part. You'll have to do with half the answer like me. Anyway, Wadi Rum just happens to be the biggest such desert valley in Jordan.
Any fans of the film "Lawrence of Arabia" may find some of these settings familiar. T.E. Lawrence was based here during the Arab Revolt around 1917, and this desert served as the backdrop of the movie. And for you geeks out there that have seen "Red Planet" with Val Kilmer, they actually used Wadi Rum as a stand-in for the Martian landscape.
Our destination was an actual Bedouin camp in the heart of the desert, which we were to stay a night at, soaking in culture and such. Again, much like the Nubian village visit in Egypt, I got a little nervous about food, trying to run through my list of excuses as to not embarrass myself or our hosts when they brought out a plate of beetles. Fortunately though, as we pulled up to the "camp", I was pleasantly surprised. It was a pretty modern establishment, quite a few poured concrete floors, real toilets and real showers. The "tents" were indeed outside, but had thick cloth coverings and real beds with mattresses, making them actually fairly comfortable in the heat of the sun. I also found out dinner would consist of a fairly large barbeque consisting of pork, chicken, rice, etc., which made my stomach utter a Homer-esque, barely audible "Hooray!"
Around 3:30 (yup, pretty much in the heat of the day), we hopped into the back of a small, old and extremely well-used Toyota pickup. The bed was fitted with some crude metal bench seats running the length of either side. The "upholstery" was a little suspect - the padding and cloth had obviously seen a few too many moons - something which my butt was already telling me would become fairly uncomfortable after four hours. At the end of the day though, who the hell cares? I'm about to jump in the back of a truck to go on a four hour drive through the Jordanian desert! Padding, schmadding.
We set off, crossing the main highway, and then turning north into the open, unmarked desert. No more signs, buildings or pavement. It's funny though, I was about to use the word "barren", but it's actually pretty far from it. Tall, dark rock formations were scattered across the entire horizon, some tall and jagged, some long and low. There was obviously a lot of sand, but it was broken by a fairly liberal sprinkling of small, green bushes with small leaves and thin branches. Many of these were dead, leaving crooked, spidery tendrils sticking out of the sand like tiny skeletons.
We made several stops during our four hour tour, with the goal of ending up in a place ideal for watching the sunset. I realize there's only so many times you can say "amazing" or "incredible". So to save the English language from any further abuse, as well as to spare you from the same, I'll simply provide a rough outline and let the pictures do most of the story telling.
The first stop was at the site of an ancient map for the wanderers of the time was posted on a rock face. Ages of earthquakes and erosion have forced it down from its original place, and you have to climb through a few narrow gaps to get a look at it - which turns out to be under your feet. Even though it consisted of little more than a few holes and lines, it was still pretty impressive.
Our second stop was at a "panoramic" site, which gave a fairly decent view of a range of rock formations, and an open expanse of untouched desert. The wind and the sand worked to form ripples across the flat areas, broken now and again by the small, hardy plants which had taken root long ago. Interesting shadows played across the desert floor from their spindly arms.
It was about this time when I got to wondering about my own fortitude. Could I have made it back then? Could I have handled weeks of wandering around in the desert with little more than a few camels, a wagon and the desire to push on? Yeah, I doubt it too.
As we hopped back into the truck and started out again, I was struck by the shape and size of the rocks protruding from the desert floor. Most of the larger formations looked as though they'd been underwater for years and years. Smooth, graceful curves dotted with holes and openings. Some of them reminded me of melting wax, or icing dripping down the sides of a cake which is still warm. For those of you who have been to Barcelona, it was as if Antonio Gaudi had a chance to design a desert.
Our guide shouted from his spot in the passenger's seat that our next stop was at a pair of rock bridges. I didn't really realize what he was talking about - what the hell is a rock bridge? I found out soon enough.
As with everything in the desert, the sheer scale of the formations was deeply impressive. These, however were even a level above what we'd seen already. How nature created something like this is simply beyond me. Years and years of erosion in just the right way, at the right pressure, at the right time... The great thing about this particular trip was the ability to hop out and go climbing. As soon as we stopped, I hopped out and ran up the side of the rock like a four-year-old. It was a lot of fun.
Next on the agenda was a large sand dune which had formed against a large plateau. Interestingly, it's shaped in a way that makes it semi-easy to climb. Again, we took the opportunity to hop out and do some exploring. Once at the top, it afforded some pretty amazing views of the desert floor.
The downside of the climb being the addition of about ten pounds of sand in my shoes. If you've seen Spider-man 3, think about the scene after Spidey's first encounter with the Sandman.
A well which we were told was created 200 years BC was our next destination. Much to my surprise, as we rounded the large rock wall, we saw a truck already parked in front of the well with a family of Bedouins pulling out water with buckets. Even after all this time, the well is still full, requiring a rope of only about ten feet or so. Pretty impressive. We couldn't take any pictures of these guys though. Bad form I guess.
We then sped across the desert to find a good place for the sunset. It turns out our driver was pretty confident in his desert cruising skills. I'm not sure what the recommended speed through acres of loose, blowing sand is, but my internal speedometer was showing a good 10-15 miles an hour above "confident-we-won't-die", especially when sitting in the back of a pickup on hand-built bench seats.
We obviously survived, and ended up with a view I'll never forget. Sunset in the Jordanian desert is something I wish you all could experience.