Vast, Echoing and God-like
Wadi Rum, Jordan
In Jordan everything begins with colour. Each day in the desert is like looking through a kaleidoscope of colours. Each day brings forth new wonders and new feelings. Each day I watch the sunrise in awe and wonder if Freda Kohl could have done better with her desert paint box. Today was no different…
It was still cold and dark when I crawled out from under the multiple duvets and covers that I had nested in and scrambled up the rocks behind our little camp to my solitary eyrie. The sky was still sprinkled with the stars under which I had lain the previous night patiently waiting to see my first ever shooting star and the first shades of dawn had yet to colour the horizon. I sat down on the cold rock, pulled my scarf tightly around me and waited patiently for the sun to rise.
Slowly in the east the velvety blackness gave way to the deep inky blue of dirty indigo. Then as the sun struggled higher this became the blue of a new born baby’s eyes, then a pinky-blue, which I described in my diary that morning as cold-pig, then a softer pink which brought back memories of fluttering silks in a Bombay market, and finally as the sun began to climb majestically over the mountains which shimmered on the horizon – the deep red of traditional Chinese lanterns. A few minutes later the sky turned the colour of freshly picked oranges and a few white wispy clouds skitted nervously across the horizon. The first true golden rays of the sun cascaded over the desert floor a hundred feet below me, turning the frost covered sand into a sea of fiery diamonds.
I sat and watched the rays chase away the last remnants of night-time and a new day of life begin in Wadi Rum. The sunrise had been unmistakably beautiful and awe-inspiring. I wanted to shout and let my joy ring around the valleys but the light looked crystalline and fragile and I didn’t want this magical moment to shatter around me. As I drifted back to the camp for tea I recalled a snatch of Balzac, long since forgotten:
‘In the desert, … there is everything, and there is nothing …. It is God without man.‘
And then, because my mind was whirling:
‘There is no doubt that the desert has mystical qualities. Deserts, traditionally, are the wombs of religion.‘
It’s not often that everything comes together. I have often found myself in beautiful places, but surrounded by loud or ignorant people; with wonderfully warm people but in a horrible place or more often than not in a bad place with bad people. But in Jordan, and in particular, Wadi Rum, everything for me came together – wonderful people, amazing scenery and a serenity I had never felt on the road less travelled. If I could drop everything now and return I would – such is the impression that my trip there made on me.
Weeks later, whilst snowbound in Helsinki I came across the following quote about life in Wadi Rum, again taken from Lawrence’s seminal work:
‘No man can live this life and emerge unchanged. He will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad; and he will have within him the yearning to return, weak or insistent according to his nature. For this cruel land can cast a spell which no temperate clime can match.’
I had arrived in Wadi Rum the previous day. My diary hints at the excitement I was feeling:
‘The road was glinting with ice as we left the hotel and drove towards Wadi Rum. We stopped once to gaze down on Petra which was glinting in the soft early morning light. Even from our lofty vantage point it enthralled me. We took a few wind chiselled photos and headed on towards Wadi Rum. I don’t know how the others felt as we rolled across the dawn-saturated landscape and in a way it didn’t matter. Just to be there, free-wheeling with like minded people across such a landscape was all that was needed. From the front Dr Travel joked: Money can buy most things, but for a real experience you need Dr Travel’s unique and holistic travel services. I laughed and tried to capture the mood forever. Such moments are golden.’
I had met Fayez, or Dr Travel, as he became known, through the internet. I had been posting questions about Jordan on a discussion board and he had been as kind as to reply to me and give me the inside fast-track to his wonderful country. He had given me a room in his hotel, arranged my travel itinerary, shown me the highs and lows of a New Year’s Eve in Amman (oh, my soul for just one more pink gin and lime) and had helped me book a hotel in Petra. Of course, I could have done all this myself, but Dr Travel wouldn’t let me as he wanted to make sure I really enjoyed his country. Jordanians have to be some of the nicest folk on the planet and Wadi Rum is just one of its many spectacular gems. According to the Jordanian Ministry of Antiquities, Wadi Rum is:
‘Stunning in its natural beauty… it epitomizes the romance of the desert… moonscape of ancient valleys and towering sandstone mountains rising out of the sand… sheer granite and sandstone cliffs… hikers enjoy its vast empty spaces… best known because of its connection with the enigmatic British officer T.E. Lawrence, who was based here during the Great Arab Revolt of 1917-18. Much of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia was filmed in Wadi Rum.’
However, to those of a less poetic disposition, such as myself, it is simply one of the world’s most picturesque and inspirational deserts. Even the venerable Lawrence of Arabia was moved by its haunting charm:
‘Our little caravan grew self-conscious, and fell dead quiet, afraid and ashamed to flaunt its smallness in the presence of the stupendous hills’.
He also captured the feeling of the place more eloquently than the countless romantics, poets and travellers who have passed through since when he described Wadi Rum as, ‘vast, echoing and God-like’.
Its subtle colours, chocolate-iced-cake rock formations, crystalline air and rich red sand give it an unworldly, yet serene charm. It’s the kind of place where you are forced to talk in whispers for fear of your voice shattering the fragile tranquillity. Locals know this area as the Valley of the Moon and even the most casual of visitors cannot fail but to be enthralled. I too was enthralled and entered Wadi Rum, like so many other visitors, along the shimmering main Desert Highway road.
As we entered Wadi Rum proper the desert scenery became more intense and the Biblical landscape outside my window became both majestic and seductive. The famous Seven Pillars of Wisdom, ageless rugged granite pillars, stood defiantly against an egg-shell blue sky which was covered with the thinnest veneer of powdery lattice-work clouds. We trundled past the decaying government rest house, swerved down a side track and came to a juddering halt outside Dr Travel’s friend house. Tea was already brewing and a camel was busily chewing the cud.
After drinking sufficient cups of sweet tea to please our hosts we loaded our gear into the back of a pick-up truck under the watchful gaze of Ally, our driver, and after he had let the tires down to account for our unreasonable bulk we sped off into the desert. I was hard pressed not to be jumping with joy. Even the dull ebbing cold which had begin to seep into my bones couldn’t dull the thrill of driving around the desert whilst hanging onto the back of a pick-up truck for dear life.
We soon pulled to a stop at the foot of a massive sculptured dune and after leaving our cameras with Dr Travel were instructed to climb it for that obligatory Lawrence of Arabia cum Indiana Jones desert dune shot. It was incredibly hard work and in the end the pictures were blurred because Dr Travel was laughing too much at our panting and sweating. For an encore he made us scramble, goat-like, up another sheer rock face to look out over the desert (it came as no surprise that Dr Travel later confessed of being something of a climber and had scaled all the peaks in the area, whilst I later confessed to spending too much time watching TV, eating cake and planning to go to the gym tomorrow). When I finally reached the top and had regained my breath I was forced to rescind my threats of grievous bodily harm to the good doctor as the view more than made up the effort exerted.
The view stretched forever and was coloured every shade of the spectrum from red to deep, deep blue. Despite the desolation of the scene and the scarcity of vegetation – only a few spiny trees seemed to thrive on the desert floor – it was a truly beautiful view. It calmed me, inspired me and I felt at one with the large eagle which soared high above us. Both of us soared – the eagle on unseen thermals, me on the view.
We spent the next hour or so pottering around in the many canyons of Wadi Rum looking for inscriptions from across all of history. Many of the rocks and cliffs looked like they had been carved from molten chocolate cake, one was a huge pile of profiteroles, another was a huge birthday cake dripping fondant icing, whist another was a Maiden Aunt’s Victoria sponge with just a touch too much strawberry jam. It was an incredible landscape and even now, a year later, I only need to close my eyes and I am back there once again, speechless in wonder.
Later we took lunch sitting in the shade of the mammoth cleaved cliff face of a giant wedding cake rock. Ally had prepared tea, boiled eggs and sandwiches. It was simple food, yet it tasted better than most of the five star places where I had spent the previous few months wining and dining clients for work. It gave us enough energy for an afternoon of light rock-climbing, pick-up truck pushing and serious off-road driving. At one point we stopped to climb up the Small Bridge for another camera shattering view. Ally, our shy yet personable driver, whipped off his sandals and scaled the sheer rock-face like he was part goat. As he reached the summit a beam of sunlight illuminated his long white tunic and he raised a defiant hand to the sky: Yes, I imagined him cry, “I am indeed King of all the World.” And, indeed he was.
By the time we had arrived at our camp the shadows were long and the heat had leached out of the day. The Bedouin whose camp we were staying at had already lit a roaring fire and sweet coffee with cardamom pods was brewing. Drinking the coffee was of secondary importance compared to the ritual of the preparation and offering: Today, you are my brother and I can feed and water you. Perhaps tomorrow I will need this from you – for we all brothers in the desert. Three thimble sized cups were taken by everyone present but the true meaning of this was lost to me as I felt my head become heavy and I curled closer to the fire.
Dinner that night was simple food. Chicken, salad rice and bread. Sweet tea was served continuously and the conversation flowed genially. Slowly, after the food was cleared people made their excuses and drifted out into the desert. I found a quiet spot, laid out my scarf and laid back stargazing waiting for my first shooting star. As I watched it streak across the night sky I wished for a safe journey home and to return here one day with my family. A strange feeling of serenity passed over and I slowly made my way back to the tent, the fire and a night of tall tales. Wrapped around me was a cloak of Wadi Rum serenity. I still draw on its strength today.
About the Author
Philip has written close to 75 articles, guides and tales for BootsnAll. He is a regular contributor to several travel magazines. When not travelling he can be found at home in a quaint little village just west of Cambridge, UK, where he lives with his beautiful golden-haired girlfriend (GHG) and their incredibly cute son. Philip’s pet hates are KLM, Air Portugal and getting up at silly o’clock for meetings in Copenhagen. He promises to answer all correspondence except those asking the predictably dull question of, “How easy is it to get laid in Brasil?” Email: nihon_news at yahoo.com