Six of us are bouncing around the back of an ancient Toyota ute while our driver, Mahmoud, is waving and screaming through the window at a truck 200 metres in front.

He must be doing 50mph on the soft sand, pounding the horn, rolling over dunes and through bushes like a man possessed.

I figure something really serious has got to be going on – maybe we’re running out of fuel or perhaps these guys want to kill each other over some ancient Bedouin blood feud. 

The vehicle ahead of us finally stops and Mahmoud swings open the door and tears across the sand with Ibrahim, our Jordanian guide, in tow.

Ibrahim’s tribe is from near Wadi Rum, although since he’s sporting a German football shirt and flip-flops, you wouldn’t know it.

Mahmoud, like the two Bedouins who now emerge from the other truck smiling and shouting greetings, is wearing traditional robes and a keffiyeh headscarf.

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The four men take each other by the hands, pecking each other on the cheeks and chatting softly in Arabic.

After a few minutes, they amble back over the sand to us, looking relaxed. “What was that about?” one of our party asks.

“That’s the sheikh of this part of Wadi Rum,” Ibrahim explains, with obvious reverence. Mahmoud beams, “We just wanted to say hello.”

It is the first of many displays of stop-at-nothing Bedouin warmth that we are to see during our time in Jordan.

It has been almost 100 years since the legendary British army officer and adventurer TE Lawrence marched an Arab army over this epic desert, but the Welsh-born soldier’s shadow looms large – and not just as a way of selling package tours to European tour groups like us.

This year is the 50th anniversary of Lawrence Of Arabia, the 1963 Oscar-winning film classic about his life and time fighting alongside Arab irregular troops in the First World War.

Our trip will retrace some of his steps across the deserts of southern Jordan.

Today, Wadi Rum is crowded with American and German tourists wielding SLR cameras and ubiquitous trucks full of sunburned Brits trying a bit too hard in their local Bedouin garb, but that doesn’t diminish the historical significance of the site.

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Many of the guides working here can proudly trace their lineage back to the time of TE Lawrence – in fact, Mahmoud’s great-grandfather was a tribal sheikh who fought alongside the British liaison to the Arab Revolt.

Our detour complete, we set off again in the truck, clinging to its open sides as Mahmoud roars across the desert.

Lawrence may have done this on a camel – usually on the run from heavily armed Turks – but as the midday sun beats down and sand fills our noses and mouths, we can’t imagine the setting has changed much in the past 80 years – or, in fact, since the dawn of time.

The valley of colossal rocks strikes me as appearing primeval, with its unearthly palette of pinks, reds and oranges striking against the bright blue sky.

Then, in the distance, we see a smattering of tents and a pick-up truck, with two young men in white robes sitting around a shisha pipe.

 This turns out to be our lunch destination, right by the iconic Burdah Rock Bridge, a narrow ledge joining two 30ft-high rock formations.


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Before we can eat anything, however, Mahmoud challenges the group to an impromptu climbing race.

No one seems keen, but I think of Peter O’Toole’s character in Lawrence Of Arabia, who refuses to drink water during a trek across the desert in solidarity with his guide. The message was clear: do as your hosts do.

So I decide to take him up on his offer.

A second later and Mahmoud has kicked away his flip-flops and is off, charging barefoot up the 45-degree jagged rock.

I take off after him, determined not to be beaten, barely looking ahead as I run up the rapidly steepening slope.

He’s already waiting halfway up, though, screaming “yallah”, Arabic for “come on”, and laughing as I stop, double over and gasp for air.

He entertains the onlookersby jumping up and down on the narrow rock bridge high above them. I laugh to try and mask my terror of heights.

I learn quickly that Mahmoud is typical of young Bedouins in this area – on one hand boisterous and macho, on the other knowledgeable and urbane after a generation of contact with international tourists.

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As we climb down together he even invites me to connect on Facebook.

The desert sun beats down on the tent as we sit in a circle around a vast plate of chicken and rice, eating with our hands and fighting off flies.

Ibrahim is telling a story that has everyone’s attention – clearly his favourite situation to be in – about the time he fought off a hyena in Wadi Rum.

He’d seen nothing but its green eyes, staring up from the foot of his sleeping bag, and he’d grabbed a handgun and fired it in the air.

“You’re allowed to carry guns in Jordan?” one of his audience interjects. “Of course, everyone has a gun,” Ibrahim says. He turns to the camp owner, a boy of no more than 17, and says, “Show them your gun.”

The boy looks nervous and shakes his head. “Come on,” Ibrahim taunts, “show them!”

“It’s OK,” I say, “we don’t need to see it.” The boy looks relieved. “I do have one, though,” he adds, sheepishly.

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After lunch we drive on to Captain’s Desert Camp, a traditional – albeit touristy – Bedouin camp on the fringes of the desert where we’re to spend the night. It’s thankfully a little more comfortable than our basic, fly-plagued lunch venue, but only a little.

A collection of camel hair tents with open fronts set around a courtyard, Captain’s is basic.

Cold showers, no phones, no internet – although surprisingly clean toilets. But after a day spent barefoot climbing, sweating and inhaling sand in Wadi Rum, it feels perfect.

We are served possibly the best food I have ever eaten – juicy lamb skewers, hot flatbreads, bowls of hummus, fresh salads and strong Arabic coffee – around a roaring camp fire.

One by one people slink off to bed, while blankets are brought out and others fall asleep under a sky littered with stars.

The only sound is the bubbling of our hosts’ shisha pipe as they stand guard over the fire.

Having retreated to my tent after some noisy tourists arrived at camp and disturbed our idyllic night, I wake at dawn, gasping for air in a baking hot tent.

The fire is still smouldering, the water is still cold and after some bread, cheese and instant coffee, we’re soon on the road again.

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“Wadi Rum was only the beginning of the adventure,” Ibrahim bellows over the top of booming Arab pop music.

Today we head to Feynan, an area of mountains and canyons on the Jordan Valley’s edge, which Ibrahim says is rarely visited, but among the country’s most exhilarating spots.

When we arrive we find Feynan as quiet and empty of tourists as Ibrahim promised.

We’re staying in a remote ecolodge, and as night falls we clamber onto the roof of the building to enjoy the night, passing round a hip flask of whiskey and chatting.

It’s an especially clear evening and there’s no light pollution whatsoever – it seems only appropriate to lay back, gradually fall silent and gaze up at Jupiter glowing brightly among the rest of the stars.

At only 9pm – it feels much later – Ibrahim and a few hardy others bed down for the night right here on the roof, where a cool breeze keeps the flies at bay.

Since our accommodation prides itself on being eco-friendly there’s no power-sapping air conditioning, and with Jordan Valley being one of the lowest areas on earth, the high roof is a far better bet than sweltering, stuffy rooms.

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But the peace and wilderness of Feynan isn’t the only reason we’re here.

We’re set to learn the daredevil art of canyoning. Ibrahim has given us fair warning that this will not be easy and when I ask if I can bring my camera, he is bemused.

”Anything you bring, you will lose,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief. “I don’t think you understand, this is pretty difficult.”

Ibrahim isn’t kidding. Canyoning turns out to be among the hardest things that anyone in our group has ever done.

It begins with a deceptively leisurely paddle through ankle-deep water, before getting really wild – think white water rafting, but going against the current, on foot, uphill.

At some points we’re reduced to tears, partly through the exertion and partly from sheer panic; at others, we’re inspired into wild and reckless feats of daring.

I take the rope between my legs and use it to haul myself up from one slippery boulder to another, as water sprays over the edge of the canyon into my face.

My legs give way and I’m forced to haul myself up with my arms.

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“Take my hand!” Ibrahim bellows like it’s a Nineties disaster movie. He drags me to the top, with my eyes streaming and a real sense of terror in his.

After what feels like hours and soaked to the skin, we emerge from the canyon slapping each other on the backs and sharing tales like warriors.

Our driver, Mohammed, pops open tins of tuna to have with bread, ripe Jordanian tomatoes and date cakes.

To those walking past we must look like primitive man as we get stuck in with our hands, but the adrenaline is still pumping and I’ve never been so hungry.

After three days of deserts and canyons, treks and near-death experiences, I remember a line from Lawrence Of Arabia.

Leader of the revolt Prince Faisal, on seeing how the hero has fallen for the arid, rugged landscape, sternly tells him: “There is nothing in the desert – and no man needs nothing.”

But after seeing just a little of this wilderness, I have to agree with Lawrence. I’d take nothing any day

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Best of the rest: Adventures in Jordan

Hot Air Ballooning over Wadi Rum

A beautiful way to take in the spectacular desertscape of Wadi Rum.

The hot air balloons take up to 16 people and leave at sunrise, with rides lasting for up to an hour – depending on the weather. It’s a great way to appreciate the immense scale of the region for about £115pp.

Riding the Hejaz Railway

The Hejaz Railway is the line that once connected Damascus to Mecca via Amman, Wadi Rum and Aqaba, and was famously bombed by TE Lawrence’s troops during the Arab Revolt of 1916-18.

It’s not easy to get a ticket, as you have to pick one of the few days of the year when the train is running – keep an eye on the website below for details.

You can charter the whole train for yourself, but the whopping cost of £2650 may be a bit of a stretch.

Visiting Petra

The ancient city of Petra appears on the must-do list of most travellers to Jordan.

Choose one of the cooler months to visit and admire the magnificent buildings that are carved out of the reddish rocks.

It’s a long, sticky walk past all the main sights such as the Treasury and the Monastery, so take a horse or camel ride on your way back out of the city.


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Getting there

Fly easyJet from London Gatwick to Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport from £108pp return. 

When to go

The best time to visit Jordan is September to March, to avoid the worst of the heat and most of the European school holiday crowds.

Currency: £1= JOD 1.13 (Jordanian Dinar)

Accommodation: Captain’s Desert Camp, Wadi Rum (, costs £25pppn, with three meals included.

Most flights from London arrive in Amman.

Stay at the Abbasi Palace for £14pn.

The owners of this excellent hostel can organise tours to anywhere in Jordan.



Photos: Orlando Crowcroft, Thinkstock, Getty, TNT