Trek through the surreal beauty of Jordan to the ancient ‘rose-red’ city of Petra. WORDS: Vicky Baker
I’m standing on a slab of beef with a giant humbug to my left. It may sound like a heat-induced hallucination (and the Jordanian sun does pack a punch), but we’re talking rocks. Rocks like no other: positively jaw dropping, saturated in colour, and with a mind-bending range of textures. Stepping off my red-raw steak – which is disconcertingly realistic for a vegetarian – I move on to what looks like a surrealist painting. Again, on close inspection, the swirling patterns that evoke clouds, fat caterpillars and bulging eyes are also 100% natural. This is Mother Nature staking her claim as the planet’s original, and best, graffiti artist.
Nature’s own Tate Modern lies in Wadi Ghuweir – a canyon in Jordan’s Dana Nature Reserve. Today is the first in a six-day trek to the country’s most famous site, Petra. The elaborate Nabatean city built into the mountainside is legendary among travellers (and fans of Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, in which it had a supporting role), but few people realise such an abundance of natural wonders exist on its doorstep.
Well, not quite its doorstep. We still have more than 130km to walk before we get to the rose-red city. The route we’re taking has been newly developed as a tourist trek and is already being hyped as the new Inca trail – without the altitude problems or crowds.
It’s not every day that a new natural tourism product is developed,” says Mazen Homoud, general manager of the Jordan Tourism Board when the route was unveiled. “We are sure it will, in time, become a ‘must do’ trek and famous throughout the world.”
His confidence is not unfounded. Jordan is hospitable for trekking. Even though desert temperatures can reach 40°C, the dry heat in the peak tourist seasons is neither humid nor uncomfortable. Not that this makes our first day any less exhausting.
Uncharacteristic heavy rains have part-flooded the canyon and so we wade through streams up to our waists. Ropes and careful footwork come into play as we scale mini-waterfalls before dropping to the pools below.
After eight hours on the go, it’s a relief to make it to the Wilderness Lodge, our base for the night. This eco-friendly ‘desert monastery’ opened last autumn and is the first of its kind in Jordan. Standing at the end of an unkempt road in the middle of nowhere, its hopes for survival seem pinned on the success of this trek. For the rest of the trip, our home will be an open-sided Bedouin tent, but tonight the lodge is the ideal retreat for hungry hikers. After feasting on Jordanian mezze, we retire to the flat roof for a cup of sweet tea and the chance to watch the stars in the pollution-free sky.
It’s an early start the next morning. Yella! Yella!” (Let’s go), cries Yamaan, our guide. Yamaan, an engineer turned eco-tour guide, is one of the masterminds behind this new route. By enlisting local Bedouins, and with help from his GPS, he has rediscovered little-known migration routes. “Before you do anything in Jordan, you need to engage the help of the local people,” he says earnestly.
As we trek on, the terrain changes more times than the British weather. After the shady canyons and cool streams of the first day comes a long, pebble-strewn stretch of flat, exposed desert. The next day we’re making our way up craggy mountain paths, crossing rickety bridges made from fallen juniper trees and looking out onto the Rift Valley (“The biggest scar on the face of the planet and visible from space,” says Yamaan). The rocks continue to impress: soft pastel forms one minute, charred black crags the next. Then, when you least expect it, a blossoming Oleander bush lightens up the austerity or the perfect picnic spot appears in the shape of little green oasis.
Of course, this is building to a climax. After eight hours’ hiking a day for five days, we are about to enter the ancient city of Petra through its ‘back door’. On the opposite side of the valley from the main entrance, this is the last point of call for most tourists. If we take advantage of an early morning start, we could have the place to ourselves – the perfect reward for a strenuous week.
Yamaan tells us to slow our pace and keep our eyes to the ground. He wants to get us truly psyched up for our first glimpse. We shuffle along, waiting for his signal. Then we look up and there it is – the Monastery, Petra’s grandest tomb. Lots of awe-induced expletives ensue. It doesn’t matter how many pictures you see or how many times you watch Indiana Jones, the sheer scale of these 2000-year-old, hand-built monuments will blow you away. The Monastery’s doorway is the size of a house. The urn at the top, which looks like a cherry, is seven metres wide.
The Monastery could be considered Petra’s cherry – a definite highlight and yet such a tiny part of this vast city. Petra spans the gaping valley between two mountain ranges and is dotted with numerous less photographed sights, including mosaic-decorated churches, colonnaded streets and Roman-inspired coliseums. Visitors often spend more than three days here discovering countless features that the brochures leave out.
I only have one afternoon, but after five days of trekking, that’s about all my legs can take. ‘What’s better – the journey or the arrival?’ That’s the old travel conundrum. After hiking through some of the most astounding scenery and arriving at one of the man-made wonders of the world, I couldn’t even begin to choose.
• Due to a lack of signposts and decent maps, an experienced guide is essential for trekking in Jordan. Vicky Baker trekked with Walks Worldwide on their new Gorges and Petra route See www.walksworldwide.com or call 01524-242 000. For more information on visiting Jordan, see www.visitjordan.com.