The Red Desert of Wadi Rum
Wadi Rum, Jordan
I drove from Petra to Wadi Rum, a rugged desert nature reserve a short drive south. I checked in at the visitor’s center, where I had to pay a 2 JD fee for entry. I gave them the name and phone number of my guide, whom they called and who said he would meet me at the guest house down the road.
The guest house was little restaurant with a few one-man tents out back. I spent my first night in Wadi Rum in one of those tents, and it wasn’t a very happy experience. The temperature dipped below freezing, and a strong wind blew frozen rain through a hole in the top of my tent. But there aren’t any other accommodations in Wadi Rum. Call it trekking or eco-tourism or just “roughing it,” that’s what Wadi Rum is all about.
After the first night, I met my guide, Radi, and started a two-day tour of the desert. Wadi Rum looks like Mars and feels like the ocean. Years ago, I spent a few days in Baya Concepcion in Baja California. It was a big, crescent-shaped bay, fairly shallow and dotted with tiny islands. The islands were only a few hundred meters across and about a kilometer apart from one another. I spent most of the day in a kayak, paddling from one island to the next. Wadi Rum reminded me of that bay. It’s a desert filled with red and yellow sand. And scattered across this desert are small mountains, little islands of rock in a red desert sea. While Radi drove us between the mountains in an ancient Toyota pick-up, I had the same feeling I got when I paddled between the islands in Baya Concepcion.
I got my first taste of rock climbing in Wadi Rum. Radi took me to a stone arch at the east end of the park. It was about fifty meters tall and not very easy to reach. The arch’s sandstone sides were smooth and steep, almost vertical. They didn’t have any obvious hand holds, just small divots a few centimeters deep – big enough to grip with fingers or toes, but not deep enough to plant a whole hand or foot. Radi showed me the easiest climbing path and sent me up. I got up about ten meters before I lost my nerve. I stopped and looked down and thought, if I fall right now, I’m going to die. And it was true. There wasn’t any soft patch of sand beneath me. It was solid rock. Falling ten meters onto a slab of rock doesn’t result in a broken arm. It results in a corpse. That thought became a fact. Then it became a certainty. I couldn’t get it out of my head. So I pressed my body against the rock and crawled back down. I was defeated.
Radi was disappointed. He thought I would make it to the top, but I didn’t even get halfway. He didn’t say anything to me. He just shook his head and walked back to the truck. I looked at him, and I looked at the arch. I looked at the climb path, and I looked at the arch. I looked at myself, and I looked at the arch. And then…god dammit, I didn’t care if I fell anymore. I didn’t care if I fell twice. I wasn’t going to pussy out on what ought to be the greatest physical challenge of my life. Whatever it took, I was going to get to the top of that god damn arch.
So I went back to the arch’s base. I spent a long time just looking at the climb path, mapping out the divots in the rock. I jammed my right hand into one divot, wrapped my left hand around a jutting rock, dug in my feet, and pulled myself up. I slipped a few times. I scraped both my knees and tore some skin off my hands. Step by step, I pulled myself up that mountain. Fifteen minutes later I was standing on the arch and looking out over the whole desert. I was so thrilled that I spent half an hour just staring at it all. In fact, for the whole trip, the only picture I have of myself is at the top of that arch. I wanted to take a picture just to prove I’d been there. By the time I got back to the ground, I was hooked. I climbed up, on and over every boulder, crevice and hill I could find. Rock climbing is my new hobby.
I learned a new word in Wadi Rum – friable. That’s what the brochure says. “Many of the stone formations in Wadi Rum are friable.” I had never heard that word before. I was twenty meters up the side of a mountain when I learned what friable meant. I had my left hand jammed into a large hole and my left foot planted on a thin ledge. My right hand was wrapped around a fist-sized chunk of sandstone that stuck out from the rock face. My right leg was hanging loose and trying to get traction on a small divot about waist high. I couldn’t quite get my right foot into that divot. So with my three other limbs, I heaved and pulled myself higher.
And then the rock broke loose. The rock in my right hand became…friable. It snapped off from the mountain and broke into three pieces in my hand. I dropped the pieces and swung out from the mountain. I had my left hand and foot planted, but the whole right half of my body was swinging in space. I hung that way while the chunks of rock fell fifty meters down and shattered at the base of the mountain.
Friable [adjective] Loose and large-grained in consistency. Easily broken into small fragments or reduced to powder. Ex. 1:”The rock in Wadi Rum is friable.” Ex. 2: “Climbers who don’t pay attention to Ex. 1 may become friable.”
In the afternoon, we went to Radi’s father, Haoud. We would spend the night in Haoud’s tent and finish the tour in the morning. Radi went to get fresh water, Haoud looked after his flock of goats, and the rest of the family started cooking supper. There was a little daylight left, and I had some time to kill.
Haoud’s tent is a big rectangle about twenty feet long and ten feet deep, divided into two rooms – a living/sleeping room and a pantry/kitchen. The walls are black cloths propped up with wooden sticks. The floor is dirt with a few throw rugs arranged around a campfire that burns day and night. There’s a small pen with about twenty goats outside. There’s also a donkey tethered to a post and three guard dogs who bark and howl at the slightest noise. The tent is built on the east side of a high stone hill, so it warms up quickly in the morning and cools off in the afternoon. It wasn’t built by wealthy people, but it has so much dignity to it that, when I stayed there, the word ‘poor’ never crossed my mind.
I had about an hour of daylight left, so I took a hike around the hill. I scrambled up to the top and watched the sun go down behind a distant mountain. With the red sunset and the red mountains and the red sand, the whole world had turned to shades of the same warm color. I climbed back down, hiked back to the tent, and said hello to the animals.
The donkey didn’t like me at all. He was bigger than me and looked ready for a fight, so I left him alone. The goats – well, goats look like mutant sheep and smell like day-old shit. The only time I interact with a goat is when it’s on my dinner plate. That left the dogs. Two of them were friendly but skittish; I couldn’t get within ten feet of them. The third looked and acted like a golden retriever. When I knelt in front of him, he obediently came up for a scratch. I gained his trust with a scratch behind the ear, and he flopped down next to me. So I sat on the red sand, petting a friendly mutt, facing a little southwest. I was watching the mountains, watching the light fade. One of those moments of clarity in Wadi Rum.
I didn’t hear Haoud come outside. I didn’t know he was standing beside me. I just heard the first notes of his prayer. “Allahuaaakbar, Allahuaaakbar, Allahuaaakbar.” It came out of nowhere, but it didn’t startle me. Haoud was facing south, toward Mecca. His prayer was somewhere between a song and a shout. Strong, so God would hear. Lucid, so God would be pleased. I paused in reverence, in respect, in awe. In this open and empty space, in the last of the light, I held my breath while the father of the house gave his sunset prayer to God.
The maghreb prayer lasted about two minutes. Haoud went back inside. The dogs ran off to get supper. The sound of the donkey and the smell of the goats and the rest of the world came back. A little breeze kicked up, and the moment was gone. We’re just not meant to stay trapped in those little moments forever. I think we can only feel at peace for two minutes at a time. But I’ll keep that moment with me. I’ll keep it with me for the rest of my life.