Two adventure-travelling brothers and their mates hit the red-rose, desert highways of Jordan for the road trip of a lifetime!
Story by Jeff Wilson, Photos by Ryan Edwardson
What I was doing was barely legal. Riding along the Desert Highway, northwest of the famed Wadi Rum on a large-bore, high-powered motorcycle was a joy afforded only by Jordanian royalty for nearly four decades. Yet there I was, in a small convoy of riders, steadily increasing speed as much to find some relief from the growing desert heat as it was to cover ground, heading north again toward the Jordanian capital of Amman.
It was only a few years ago that King Abdullah eased restrictions for Jordanian citizens to share in the passion he and his father, the late King Hussein, had for two-wheeled travel—meaning, motorcycling was no longer illegal in the Middle Eastern nation. But until this year, it was virtually impossible for outsiders to ride in the Hashemite Kingdom.
Reasons for the motorcycle prohibition are mixed and vague. The government representative I asked said the official one was public safety: motorcycles are dangerous, and citizens needed to be protected from these certain-death machines. And, I discovered with a bit research back home, it’s believed motorcycles were used in assassination attempts on the elder king’s life during the 1970s.
Dig a bit deeper and you find folks within the Jordanian motorcycling community who theorize the ban was demanded by a high-up government official who lost a son in a motorcycling accident. Whatever the actual reason, it deprived Jordanians and travellers alike from experiencing some of the best adventure riding in the world. And I intend to do just that, while here in Jordan.
Why We Came
Motorcycling has long been associated with rebels and bad asses, thanks to Hollywood portrayals that date back to Brando’s 1953 classic The Wild One. Illegal gangs haven’t done much to soften the biker rep over the years, and for a lot of us, that machismo is at least part of the appeal of riding.
Of course, trying to be cool is a very small and superficial reason to ride, and not at all why I travelled to Jordan. Compared to being caged within the confines of a car, a motorcycle is much more freeing. It’s far easier to feel connected to a landscape on a bike as the sights, sounds and yes, scents, are closer and more encompassing (you’ve not truly smelled roadkill until you’ve ridden past a camel decaying roadside in the desert heat).
A rider is exposed to the elements, for better or for worse, which does, at times, create challenges. Travelling south toward Aqaba the day before, we could see the sky ahead had started to take on an orangey-brown hue, filtering out a surprising amount of sun. Within minutes we were engulfed in a sandstorm, and while it was a mild one by Middle Eastern standards, being exposed to the strong winds and constant grit and dust meant that even inside my full-face helmet my eyes began to itch, and my nose and throat felt chalky and dry.
We paused, briefly, at the side of the Desert Highway, a divided multi-lane affair on the edge of the Wadi Rum desert, bikes lined up inches away from speeding trucks blazing south toward Jordan’s only shipping port at the Sea of Aqaba. My riding buddies—my brother Scott and age-old friend Ryan—and I revelled in the short reprieve from the bikes, having grown weary, gritty and sweaty after hours in the saddle.
The landscape, familiar from movies and photographs, seemed more surreal in actuality, especially with the sunset mostly filtered through the dust. Day one of our ride was nearly complete, and the sun was quickly setting, reminding us it was time to press on further down into Aqaba for the night.
Despite my love of travel on two wheels, the sheer focus and concentration required for survival can make it difficult to absorb the scenery, especially at speed. Our dinner was at a touristy place amid the affluence of Aqaba’s marina. We sat on a patio where the meal itself was a forgettable component of an exceptional evening of sharing each other’s recollections of our day on the road. I once again found myself in awe of where I was, looking out across the water to the sparkling lights in Israel on one side of the Gulf of Aqaba and Saudi Arabia on the other. It’s these experiences that make for great memories and better stories, rejuvenating our spirits so that by night’s end, we were eager to hit the road the next morning.
We’ve covered Jordan’s best-known attractions in Outpost before. Bedouin life in Wadi Rum, the resort-town feel of Aqaba, and the vibrant spice bazaars of Amman are all worthy of any visitor’s time. Yet despite its modest size, there’s so much more geographic and cultural diversity in Jordan to be enjoyed, and accessing it by motorcycle is a brilliant way to do it.
On arriving in Jordan we chose to stave off the jetlag before saddling up by getting a feel for the urban culture. Just west of Amman, the hillside city of As-Salt features the well-worn traditional Haman Street market, with vendors proudly displaying wares that ranged from ripe produce to knockoff brand-name clothing, to anything produced from goats. Easing my gut into things, I savoured a lunch that consisted of one of every type of traditional pastry that a local sweet shop produced, and a thick, cardamom-infused coffee that makes espresso seem weak-kneed—all to reset my internal clock.
Later that day, in Amman, I was struck by how cosmopolitan the city is. I suppose I shouldn’t have been—it is, after all, a modern major city, and the skyline is rapidly changing by the rise of luxury hotels and towers. And because there’s no such thing as too much coffee, we ducked into another coffee shop only to find a scene that could’ve been plucked from any contemporary city where young adults flock to plug into their music or laptop, and to have cup of Joe surrounded by trendy decor. It is truly becoming a universal symbol of modern urban life.
Due to a massive influx of Iraqi, Palestinian and Syrian refugees in recent years, new challenges have arisen in the job market and infrastructure, and continue to create challenges to daily life in Amman. Jordan has received more than 750,000 refugees in recent years, the majority from neighbouring war-torn Syria. In fact, according to the UN Refugee Agency data portal, as of July 2018, there are 668,123 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan. And of all its refugees, the UN reports that about 85 percent live below the poverty line and more than half are children or elderly.
Whatever resentment, if any, toward the newcomers that may exist by Jordanians was kept quiet, from my observation. And despite Jordan’s “noisy neighbours” (as Jordanians themselves can refer to war-torn bordering nations), the general air among citizens I met is one of positivity, which helped put me at ease for being there in spite of regional tensions.
On the other hand, observing Amman’s traffic caused me considerable worry! Accustomed to riding in North America, the posted stop signs and lane markings in Amman appeared to be mere suggestions, as the traffic ebbed and flowed in seemingly chaotic fashion. Visions of impatient motorists running two-wheeled interlopers off the road were only compounded when I saw the bikes provided to us.
With a 35-inch seat height and plenty of power, the KTM 1190 Adventure motorcycle is beastly, especially for someone with a 31-inch inseam like me. No big deal when at speed, but trying to put a foot down in traffic, or move the tall, heavy bike on sand or gravel can be a hair-raising experience, even for seasoned riders.
I needn’t have worried, since the bikes proved surprisingly manageable even at slow speed, and more importantly, they could be navigated between lanes, around trucks and buses, and even once or twice along the shoulder or over the sidewalk, if need be. Bypassing traffic congestion had never been easier, and it wasn’t long before I was leaving the urban chaos and descending toward the Dead Sea.
I’ve found the best road trips are the ones that go off the beaten path to show you the unexpected, or rarely seen. In reaching out to some avid motorcyclists in Jordan, we were fortunate to get to ride some of their preferred routes. Less than an hour’s ride west of Amman, we left the highway and turned onto a paved two-lane road that began to wind back up to higher ground, past Mount Nebo—the place Moses is said to have looked out over the promised land.
Aside from the odd goat herder or dodgy-looking commercial truck, the roadway was virtually empty. This proved to be the case for much of the afternoon’s journey south, too, with the stretch of Hammamat Ma’in Road, southwest of Madaba, being a breathtaking highlight.
Rarely have I encountered such perfect riding conditions as these anywhere I’ve travelled. For more than 50 kilometres we wound up and down through the mountains at a torrid pace, with a near-endless inventory of switchbacks and stunning vistas, seldom seeing another soul, stopping periodically just to catch our breath and let our brains—and nerves—catch up.
All this and lunch was still hours away in the shadow of 12th-century Montreal Crusader Castle near Shoubak. Occasionally during our ride, I’d remember that an “off” out here would be catastrophic. Not only are the jagged cliff-faces steep, they’re also close to the road’s edge in many places, and the nearest ambulance would take a hell of a long time to reach these remote locales. In light of that, the stony “marbles”—fallen rocks and sand that could be washed across the road on any corner—kept all of the riders on high alert. (We riders may convince ourselves we’re rebellious, but we try not to be careless.)
Riding into the towns and villages throughout our journey around Jordan never ceased to amuse me. Children and adults alike would stop what they were doing and come into the streets to wave and greet our motley group as we rumbled through town, making us feel more like celebrities than hellraising badasses. Motorcycles—particularly big ones—are a rarity reserved for the wealthy in rural Jordan, and more than a few folks had likely hoped to catch a glimpse of important dignitaries, perhaps even royalty, riding though.
Without the oil money of neighbouring Saudi Arabia or Iraq, many of Jordan’s more rural towns and villages exhibit the challenges of life in a limited-natural-resources nation. Out here it’s dusty and hot, and survival depends on resourcefulness and modest expectations. Thankfully, only one wayward youngster threw a rock at me in protest—upon discovering our posse consisted of common-folk, rather than resent our good fortune, many people wanted to talk about or straddle our bikes for a photo op, which we were all-too-pleased to oblige. (We bikers love to talk about our steeds.)
Most folks seem to understand the importance of tourism to the Jordanian economy—near Petra, we spotted a resort that consisted of pod-like hotel rooms designed to simulate the settlements on Mars seen in movies, and locals can be found peddling souvenirs near the most touristy spots. Yet it can also be an opportunity to experience true local culture, if you know where to look. The remnants of the massive and stunning crusader Karak Castle are a significant draw, but the region is also known for its production of the finest jameed, a hardened goat’s milk yogurt that’s left to dry and ferment.
Jameed is also the basis of the broth used to make mansaf, Jordan’s national dish, comprised of pieces of stewed lamb mixed with rice and almonds. Mansaf is a celebratory meal for weddings, holidays or for special guests, steeped in traditions still exercised when sharing the dish today. Being the first Westerners to ride in Jordan was cause enough for a celebration, and we were asked to join our Jordanian riding friends to stand around a large dish with our left hand behind our back. With three fingers from our right hand, we rolled small balls of the food, popping it into our mouths.
We were told that the mansaf prepared at the Falcon Rock Hotel overlooking the castle was the best there was, and while I have nothing to compare it to, I can say it was far more delicious than I had expected. And even our group of very hungry riders barely made a dent in the enormous meal.
Our Final Day: Almost Better Than Our First
There’s a strong sense of national pride in Jordan, and rightly so. Jordanians should be proud of the country’s ability to remain safe and stable despite the chaos erupting around it, and even just past its borders. And while sizable Muslim and Christian populations coexist in Jordan, there was a prevailing open-mindedness among the people we met, which helped us feel welcome.
One such example is the thriving Carakale Brewing Company. Although Muslim traditions prohibit the consumption of alcohol, the Christian Jordanians who started the brewery have received very little domestic resistance. And where historically beer has had very much a fringe following in Jordan, what relative demand existed was largely fulfilled by beers like Amstel. Carakale has partnered with a few key American brewers to offer some powerfully flavourful brews like porters and stouts that are helping create new beer lovers here.
Still, there were plenty of reminders of the political challenges in the region, mostly due to consistent road checkpoints manned by heavily armed officers. An interesting benefit to riding: dressed in riding gear and wearing full-face helmets meant it wasn’t easy to be identified as an outsider or tourist, which meant we were usually waved through at speed.
Our final day on the bikes started off just as my favourite riding days do back home: with breakfast at a small locally-owned shop, and a good cup of coffee. There’s a genuine kinship that forms among bikers, and now several hundred kilometres into our journey alongside a few Jordanian riders, we were all friends. Watching as the local riders talked their way into the kitchen and rolled up their sleeves to cook up a pre-ride feast of shakshuka, laughing and teasing each other, it was clear camaraderie among motorcyclists is an international affair.
The route took us north of Amman with terrain that climbed and fell, but one that’s far more lush and fertile than arid parts of Jordan we had seen previously. Olive groves are plentiful, but vineyards are growing in popularity, with a burgeoning wine industry too; again, a tribute to the open spirit of the Muslim community and a need to build Jordan’s economy.
We made a short stop at Tell Mar Elias, the site of church ruins that date back nearly 1,400 years, and the place where, biblically, the prophet Elijah was said to have resided. I don’t consider myself an overly spiritual person, but being able to explore a place that has for hundreds of generations been a holy place was cathartic amid our torrid pace.
Jordan is great that way, enabling a quiet awe afforded by a place of historic and cultural significance that is accessible to experience without the constant watch of armed security. Even a crypt and mosaics are simply open to behold. Efforts have been made in recent years to help Jordanian families who might’ve been struggling financially to find ways to profit from tourism, and in Umm Qais I saw how successfully this can be applied. Beit Al Baraka is a private home that’s been opened to guests that offers an authentic northern Jordanian experience. A short walk away, a woman has turned the front room of her home into a cozy restaurant, where she served us an elaborate multi-course meal, prepared in her own kitchen.
Nearby, the 2,000-year-old city of Gadara offered up glimpses of life here as a key centre on the trade routes, with an impressive section of Roman road still in great shape among the available ruins. Plus, the view toward the Sea of Galilee, Israel and the Golan Heights in Syria is humbling for the historic and current political significance. Exploring a new place on two wheels is the foundation for a great, immersive adventure in most cases. But to be among the first to rediscover such a richly rewarding place as Jordan by motorcycle is exceptional, and an experience I plan to repeat someday. There’s still so much to see, so much culture to absorb.
Motorcycle tour operators are working on offering trips like the one I’ve just enjoyed, which means those who are law-abiding adventure-seekers could soon get the chance to do so. Jordan offers everything needed for an unforgettable riding adventure—whether you’re a rebel or not. **
The Royal Motorcycle Club of Jordan
If you’re interested in exploring Jordan by motorbike, you might start with The Royal Motorcycle Club of Jordan in Amman. A non-profit information and advocacy organization, the RMCJ is dedicated to promoting safe and responsible motorcycling in general, but also to riding as a viable tourism option specifically. It’s the leading motorcycle authority in the country, is associated with the International Motorcycling Federation (FIM), and can tell you about the country’s restrictions and licensing requirements as either a rider or an owner taking your bike in country. It also offers a certifying riders’ training program in Amman for beginners and refreshers alike, and has lots of great info on routes and roadways to consider for a road trip across the Hashemite Kingdom. For more info on the club go to www.rmcj.jo.
And here’s something cool—every year since 2013 Jordan has hosted the Jordan Riders Rally, which sees (so far) hundreds of riders from across the region and soon the world amass for a goodwill, non-competitive multiday road trip. Its put on by the Jordan Riders Group, the FIM and RMCJ. For info about next year’s rally FB message @JordanRidersRally or email to [email protected].