Team Outpost travels to the red-rose land of a thousand lights and discovers a hot-spot for adventure: from desert trekking to desert lodging, Petra to Wadi Rum, snorkelling to mountain biking, and beyond!
Story by Simon Vaughan, Photos by Sergio David Spadavecchia
Jordan has long attracted the world’s travellers. For millennia it has been a crossroads for nomads and explorers and traders, for pilgrims on the Hajj and any number of adventurers alike. One of the oldest places of human civilization, its lands have been trodden by the Egyptians and Babylonians, by the Romans and the Persians and the Ottomans. Immortalized in the writings of T. E. Lawrence, the legendary Lawrence of Arabia, as well as Gertrude Bell, and even by the escapades of a certain Indiana Jones, it is an oasis of magic and allure. But—were its ancient, swirling sands ready for the likes of Team Outpost?
As our team—David, Andrew and I—packed cameras and keffiyehs, woolen undies and phrasebooks, sunscreen and swimming trunks, I could barely contain my excitement. This was to be an odyssey rich in history and histrionics—the latter by me, as I noticed that carefully hidden between visits to Jordan’s cultural and natural wonders, my fellow Team Outposters had pencilled in the sort of adrenaline-pumping activities I hide behind the couch to avoid at home: trekking, canyoning, rock climbing, mountain biking, snorkelling, ballooning and even a little horse racing.
Whatever happened to good old-fashioned sightseeing, I wondered, as we set off to explore this indomitable little country, opXpeditions style.
After exploring the bustling markets, spice bazaars and perfumeries of Amman on our first day of Adventure Jordan, we (Team Outpost) stopped at Jordan’s Royal Stables on the capital’s outskirts. We’d been invited to visit the stables just ahead of the famed International Wadi Rum Endurance (Horse) Race, a competition that harkens back to ancient Bedouin contests, and one in which the Royal Stables’ horses were set to compete.
The race horses had already left for the desert, but manager Erik Dorssers invited us to join their team the following week to witness the race. We hardily agreed—I had heard much about the legendary desert horse marathon of Jordan, and could not believe my luck at being in country for the event! And, as it turned out, touring the Royal Stables proved fortuitous—but for now, dear reader, I will leave it at that…and say only I like to think Team Outpost brought a touch of magic to the fore.
The next day we took to the King’s Highway: the legendary route that winds its way through some of the Middle East’s most spectacular scenery. For thousands of years this route has transported people from one end of Jordan to the other, and beyond. The Romans called it Via Traiana Nova, but for opXpeditions Jordan it was our route to adventure. Our first spectacular view came at Wadi Mujib, a fantastic gorge that runs into the Dead Sea. Sometimes referred to as Jordan’s Grand Canyon, the gorge has depths that seem to undulate like a rising and setting sun: at its highest point it is 900 metres above sea level; at its lowest, 410 metres below it.
We perched on the edge, awestruck by the sweeping vista and ear-ringing silence. By late afternoon we had reached the dramatic Dana Biosphere Reserve, Jordan’s largest nature reserve. The sky was magically overcast, with enormous white and lavender clouds battling for attention, while flocks of birds coasted on boisterous winds.
“There’s a hiking trail you can follow down through the reserve and all the way to the Feynan Ecolodge, where we’ll be staying tonight,” our guide Mahmoud said, as we perched on a lookout. “It takes the better part of the day, but it’s very scenic and there’s lots of wildlife along the way, including herds of ibex. It’s one of the best treks in Jordan.” Back on the road we descended from Dana towards the Dead Sea, the final eight kilometres covered in two Bedouin pickup trucks used to keep vehicular trespass to a minimum.
Jordan by Desert Ecolodge
The Feynan is like a cross between a Beau Geste Foreign Legion outpost and the swanky desert home of an environmentally-conscious interior designer. It exists completely off the grid. “We have solar panels to generate the little electricity that we use, and we draw water from two local sources,” explained Nabil Tarazi of the Feynan, as he showed me to my room. The door was opened to reveal a bed shrouded by billowing mosquito nets and illuminated only by flickering candles. The thick stone walls and small windows kept the room cool, even in oppressive heat. We were beat, and falling asleep to the quiet desert hum was so effortless I almost thought I was in a dream.
The last time I was on a bike I still believed in Santa Claus—and mountain bikes, for me, are something altogether new. But here at the Feynan they encourage travellers to explore the surrounding desert by two-wheel express—and David (adventure photographer for Team Outpost), who is an avid and experienced cyclist, was determined to drag me along. As I straddled the unfamiliar beast, with its sturdy frame and heavy-duty tires, I felt confident and in control…until I looked at the gears. I don’t remember my tricycle ever having gears. As Nabil, David and our Bedouin guide Mohammed set off at breakneck speed, I was left wobbling my front tire from side to side and setting a wavy course through the boulders, until I gained some speed, found my balance—then promptly hit a large rock. Mountain biking has exploded in popularity over the past few decades, with trails beckoning pedallers all over the world—but few places can match Jordan for its combination of scenery, history and culture. As we crested a hill, the terrain looked positively lunar-like, with rolling hills littered with jagged rocks and the Shara Mountains rising in the background. “We have a number of trails from the lodge,” Nabil said. “We provide bikes and guides, or guests can head off by themselves. They can go for a few hours or a whole day. Anything’s possible.” “This is a copper mine,” Mohammed announced, as we arrived at an opening carved into a hillside. The mine was narrow with a low ceiling and huge veins of green streaked across the stone. Bats clung everywhere and swooped by our heads. “This was one of the first places in the world where copper was found,” said Nabil. “When the Romans occupied the area they used Christian slaves [to mine it], and not far away there is a pilgrimage site and the ruins of early Byzantine churches.” Emerging back into the daylight, we saddled up on our bikes and headed into the desert. Where else on the planet could you mountain bike 5,000 years back in time, I thought? “Try this,” Mohammed said, handing me a flaky white substance that he had removed from a cliff. “It’s salt. We’ll use it with our lunch.” A short while later, he dug a hole in the ground and started a fire. He took out some flour and water and began to make dough, buried it in the sand and placed the embers on top, flipping it midway through. When finished, he whacked the flat bread on a boulder to remove the dirt, took a small kettle off the fire, and handed us each a glass of tea and some bread. “Tastes like focaccia,” exclaimed David, quite approvingly, referring to the iconic flat-baked Italian bread. How can food cooked literally in dirt taste so clean and good, I thought—an example, I guess, of how this ancient way of life has evolved and been shaped by circumstances of geography, climate and so many other factors, and of how a people adapt and thrive in their environment.
On the way back to the lodge we stopped at a Bedouin tent—and yes, I know how casual I make that sound. That’s likely as it felt so effortless, so appropriately local, almost like stopping at a roadside diner. From behind closed flaps I could see women peering curiously, while men gestured for us to remove our shoes and sit on the carpets and cushions available. “He wants to know who’s getting the kohl,” Nabil said. “It’s the traditional Bedouin eye makeup that you see the men wearing. It makes their eyes pop—and is considered very attractive.” Apparently, kohl was used to either protect eyes from sun glare, sandstorms or evil—maybe all three. I thought it was a no-brainer that David be our volunteer (as a rather fashionista Italian), or maybe our other Team Outposter Andrew, who is blue-eyed and six-foot-four and often mistaken for a model. Alas, I was wrong. “I would,” stammered David, “but I have to take the photos.” Me too, pipes in Andrew (as adventure videographer), rather too quickly, I thought. Before I could object, big, vice-like Bedouin hands were grasping my head and Nabil was translating “Don’t move,” as if I had a choice. The kohl was prepared over a fire. A piece of cloth was soaked in oil and covered with a large, up-turned pan. The pan was removed and the greasy black soot that had gathered underneath was scraped together with the blunt end of a matchstick. “Don’t blink,” said Nabil, as the sooty matchstick was gouged into my eyeball (OK, I’m exaggerating). I know there’s a price to pay for vanity, but when my vision started to blur I will confess to becoming slightly alarmed, though I maintained a culturally-sensitive smile throughout. “Done,” said my makeup maestro. I could tell I looked ravishing by the loud giggling of the hidden women. A small Bedouin boy whispered something to Nabil that I was sure meant something akin to “I want to be as manly as him when I grow up,” but was later translated as “There’s no way I’m ever wearing makeup!” We bid farewell to our gracious hosts and headed back to the lodge. I walked in bow-legged, saddle-sore, sunburnt, red-eyed and even mascara’d—and had loved every minute of my first-ever mountain biking experience. Except maybe for the kohl, traces of which were still present days later. OK, I’m probably exaggerating.
The Smiles of Jordan, by S. David Spadavecchia
The beauty of Jordan is intoxicating: the flavours, the smells, the landscape, the people are what make it so special. My first days here were simply incredible. After taking some stunning photos of the Grand Husseini Mosque in Amman, Mahmoud, our guide, brought us to what has to be the best falafel shop in the whole country. The place is so popular that I’m told even King Abdullah II comes to it often with his family. As Mahmoud put in our order, we sat down at a table. Just as I was putting down my camera equipment, a little girl waved at me—she wants a photo, I could tell, but is too shy to pose for one. I ask her mother if I can take her picture and she readily agrees, but the girl is still too shy. Suddenly, her mother looks up and smiles right at me—and it’s mesmerizing—so I ask if I can take a picture of her instead. She agrees, and I quickly ready the camera, just as her face lights up again like a thousand candles, and the smile she wears seems to spread around her like a firefly’s glow. Here is the photo—what do you think?
Petra Beyond Cultural Imagination’s Delight
The next day opXpeditions continued south to Petra, cork-screwing through the mountains on precarious gravel back roads. As we approached the main entrance, David was momentarily sidetracked by a small shop selling Indiana Jones merchandise. “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade!” he stammered, almost in a haze, as he tried on a reproduction of that iconic brown hat and attempted to crack a whip. “I can’t believe I’m actually in the place where the movie was filmed!” Though I already knew this he was right—it was both familiar and strange simultaneously. The walk through the Siq—that famous cleft in the rock through which every image of Petra’s iconic and famed Treasury is framed—just increased the suspense, and with each turn we held our collective breaths, awaiting that first glimpse.
No description of the ancient city of Petra can ever properly capture its magnificence, and while the facade of the Treasury may be its face, it is but the tip of this rose-red iceberg. The site covers more than 264 square kilometres, of which less than 20 percent has been excavated. At its peak it was home to more than 30,000 people, and after having our first initial view from the classic perspective of the Siq, a park warden led us on a hike away from the beaten path and into the surrounding hills. We climbed the time-smoothed sandstone, peppered with caves once home to the Nabateans, and scrambled down into narrow chasms barely an arm’s length wide. All the while our guide kept an eye on the clouds. “If it rains there,” he said, pointing to the cloud-shrouded mountain tops, “the water will be channelled here and we could have a flash flood.” Finally, after climbing up ancient steps and scrambling down sheer boulders, we reached a dead end. We ventured to the edge and there below us, in stunning view, was the Treasury, possibly even more spectacular at this angle than from ground level. “Did Harrison Ford come up here?” David asked, almost longingly.
Wadi Rum by Hot Air Balloon—Almost!
During the Great Arab Revolt of 1916-1918, the legendary T. E. Lawrence spent time in Wadi Rum, and when, 44 years later, David Lean came to make his epic movie Lawrence of Arabia, he returned to the same spot. Today, Team Outpost was slated to follow in these famed footsteps. We arrived at Wadi Rum just as the barest splinter of light speared across the horizon—yet still so deep a yellow that it splayed over the sand as if it was melting gold. Located in southern Jordan just east of Aqaba, Wadi Rum is a vast indentation of land made up of sandstone and rock, and is one of Jordan’s most iconic places. Often referred to as the Valley of the Moon, it is a trekker’s paradise and a mountaineer’s delight, with rockscapes that dot and rise out of the land almost like city skyscrapers. As we crossed the Hejaz Railway, our headlights captured an enormous balloon being unfurled on the desert floor. The burners were lit and the envelope slowly filled with hot air as the roaring flame illuminated the darkness. Gradually, the balloon righted itself, until it towered high overhead. We clambered into the basket while the crew tied an anchor rope to the front of a pickup. The balloon rose from the desert, the rope grew taut and the truck was pulled, almost bouncing, toward us.
“This is not good,” said Captain Khaled. “The wind is so strong that we’re turning and dragging the truck. We’ll have to come down.” We landed and climbed out. We had reached perhaps 50 feet and the views of Wadi Rum had already been great, but the weather was conspiring against us and we were denied the best of aerial vantage points. Later we all agreed that a full hot air balloon ride above Wadi Rum is now a bucket-list must. “In the summer they offer skydiving here,” Mahmoud said as we drove away. “There’s also micro-lighting. But you can’t do any of it if the weather isn’t cooperating. So we’ll just have to see Wadi Rum the way Lawrence himself did: from the ground.” A desert is not all rolling orange sand dunes—it is also rock fields, jagged outcrops and anvil-shaped mountains. We swapped our vehicle for a more rugged pickup and climbed in the back. “If you want to stop you bang on the roof,” said our driver. “If you want to go fast, you yell ‘yallah!’ If you want to go really fast, you yell ‘yallah, yallah!’ But only if you’re holding on tight.” ‘Yallah!’ we shouted, and off we shot into Wadi Rum, hanging on for dear life. If Petra had exceeded my expectations, the Rum simply blew me away. My old mate Lawrence had famously described it as “vast, echoing and God-like,” and a more accurate description I doubt I could’ve found.
Apart from spectacular scenery and great history, Wadi Rum also has some of the region’s best rock climbing, and as we sought a good spot for lunch we encountered two Italian mountaineers. Offering everything from brief treks to full-day climbs—with the highest peak, Mount Um Dami, at 1,840 metres—the Rum has spectacular views of the Red Sea. The Italians were headed for Jebel Burdah, an impressive natural rock bridge more than 300 metres high. Andrew joined them as they headed for the top. We watched them scale the steep slopes, relaying their ropes as they went, until they disappeared from sight—at which point we turned our attention to something more strenuous: lunch. With stomachs full we sprawled on cushions, and, lulled by the faint hiss of gentle breezes carving sandy rivulets, soon dozed off. That evening we stayed in a Bedouin camp located in a narrow V-shaped wedge at the end of a small canyon. We were each given traditional Bedouin tents, presented with a superb feast and even entertained with songs—until we decided it was high time to get some rest for the next day’s adventure.
Once in a Lifetime On the Sidelines of Jordan’s Famed Horse Marathon
For once we didn’t have to get up early in the morning…because it was clearly still the night before when my alarm sounded. It was bitterly cold as we climbed into the back of our pickup, gazing skyward at an almost continual shower of shooting stars. Today was the long anticipated International Wadi Rum Endurance (Horse) Race, and we were slated to spectate! Arabian horses have been important to the Bedouin since the beginning of time, not merely for survival but also for pride, and to engage in tests of horsemanship. The desert race is a continuation of that tradition, and given its history and location quite possibly one of the greatest littlest known annual sporting events in the world. The Royal Stables had set up camp at Bait Ali. By the time we arrived, the horses had been led from their enclosures and were being saddled, their breath illuminated by headlights. There was a palpable tension in the air. “The horses know what’s going on,” Erik said, after welcoming us. “We’ve brought other horses, retired racers, down to keep the competitors calm. Even the retired ones know what’s going on.” The horses were walked through the pitch darkness to the race compound, while we drove ahead. The start/finish spot was marked by a long line of flags and the compound was full of tents, 4WDs and trailers. Trainers and riders made last minute preparations, while officials walked around clutching clipboards. A horn sounded, and suddenly it was literally off to the race! The horses charged into the desert, a convoy of 4WDs in hot pursuit. We watched the competitors and their support teams disappear into the darkness. Princess Alia bint Al Hussein, daughter of Jordan’s late King Hussein (and known more informally as Princess Alia) explained to us that though the race was gruelling, the well-being of the horses was paramount. The race was comprised of several loops. The first few were the longest, the last ones the shortest. Together they totalled 120 kilometres. At the end of each circuit the horses returned to the compound, where they were cooled, watered, fed and examined by the race veterinarians. Only once the vets had cleared a horse was it allowed to continue. Back in our pickup, we set off to watch the event from the desert. By now t he field was spread out, and we passed Bedouin families gathered on dunes to watch the spectacle.
By mid-afternoon we heard shouting and car horns emanating across the sand. We spied one solitary horse and rider surrounded by an entourage of vehicles, their lights flashing and arms waving out of windows. The rider dismounted and the saddle was removed. The horse was gently walked, watered, massaged and led over to officials. The vet examined it carefully while the team looked on anxiously. Finally, he gave the thumbs up. It was the first time in several years the Royal Stables had won the race, and the joy was palpable and immense. Whooping and hollering in what felt like an atmosphere of unexpected surprise and delight. We had met the team at the beginning of our adventure in Jordan, long prior to the race—to see them now, replete with delight in the race’s afterglow, was almost like sharing in their victory. It was the perfect ending to a perfect day that none of us will ever forget. With the sands of the Rum in crevices that we clearly didn’t know we had, we bid farewell to the Royal Stables and headed west to Aqaba, and our next adventure.
Sweet Aqaba by the Sea
Aqaba is Jordan’s only port, hemmed in by mountains, desert and the blue, blue waters of the Red Sea. Popular with tourists seeking sun’n’surf, or as a base to explore Petra or Wadi Rum, it’s also an adventure destination in its own right—and today we were going to try snorkelling. “If you’re lucky you might see whale sharks,” said our dive master, as we donned masks while being driven slightly out to sea. “It’s their migration season.” In fact, whale sharks are only one of the many species of marine life found in the Gulf of Aqaba—barracuda, rays, dolphins and sharks are others. We slipped off the stern and into the warm waters, a gentle breeze creating a slight chop. Not far from the boat we encountered a coral reef, brilliantly bright and colourful and teeming with fish. Back on board we had a barbecue lunch, and watched the azure waters of the Red Sea lap against the arid, sepia hills that marked the shoreline. Operators in Aqaba offer snorkelling and scuba diving and fishing excursions, all while surrounded by stark desert—and though I’ve been all over the planet and seen many an amazing thing, I’m still awestruck by this kind of contrast.
Canyons that Call Adventure
Canyoning is a relatively new activity for Jordan, but already the country has proven itself to be a world class venue for the sport. Around the Dead Sea there are more than 30 canyons of varying length and depth. Some have well marked trails; others are virtually unexplored. But all offer the sort of spectacular scenery we had come to expect. With waterfalls, natural chutes and torrents channelled through narrow gorges, there are canyoning opportunities for everyone, from complete novice to seasoned pro. Today we were to get our feet wet with a full day trek through Wadi Mujib, the huge canyon we had crossed earlier in our travels. A good traveller takes disruptions in his or her stride. I prefer to stomp my feet, hold my breath and scream until I get what I want. Unfortunately, the rains that had worried us at Petra had coursed down from the mountains and charged into the canyons. “It’s just too dangerous,” Mahmoud finally explained, as we were weighing options. “They’ve closed Wadi Mujib to hikers, but we’ll get a taste of what it is like in a smaller canyon I know.”
We followed the shoreline of the Dead Sea before turning down a dirt track and past a tethered donkey. The canyon Mahmoud had in mind was postcard-worthy, with towering walls and even its own rock bridge. If this was what a small canyon was like, I could only imagine what Wadi Mujib would have offered. The canyon twisted and turned, and we were soon wading through knee-deep water rushing down from the mountains. “In Mujib you are often up to your chest,” said Mahmoud, “and sometimes you have to swim. You must come back when the weather is better.” We trekked for a couple of hours, traversing boulders and scrambling up the narrow canyon sides, and apart from one picnicking family we encountered at the entrance, we had the entire canyon to ourselves.
Jordan’s Hidden Adventures
People are drawn to Jordan by its archaeological gems and iconic culture—and with good reason—but opXpeditions had discovered an almost unknown adventure wonderland. Surrounded by immensely warm people and nurtured by culinary delights at almost every turn, we had biked and climbed, hiked and trekked, swam and (almost) soared through some of the most spectacular scenery and oldest civilizations on Planet Earth. But perhaps more important: we had a chance—no, several chances—to indulge in what we came to view as quite possibly the best darn hummus we had collectively ever had!