Desert hiking in Jordan: explore Bedouin trails, climb Wadi Rum and have some unforgettable nights under the stars
No wonder Lawrence of Arabia was enraptured by Wadi Rum. Its spectacular landscape of towering sandstone cliffs, sublime rock formations and silent, sandy dunes will appeal to anyone who enjoys breathtaking scenery
I find myself wondering how many tones of red there are as I sit on a rock watching the steep cliffs of Wadi Rum, a sandstone valley in the desert of southern Jordan, change colours as the sun sets. Starting with a brownish earthy tone, the cliffs slowly change to a glowing red followed by deep ruby, before darkness falls in the valley.
Vast, echoing, God-like – these are the words that T.E. Lawrence, the adventurer and writer better known as Lawrence of Arabia, used to describe this place. Lawrence passed through Wadi Rum on many occasions during the Arab Revolt of 1916-18 and later detailed his wartime adventures in the book Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
It feels more like Mars to me, with the colours and the steep cliffs towering over silent, sandy dunes. I am not surprised to learn that the 2015 Ridley Scott film The Martian was filmed here.
My wife and I have travelled here to explore some of the old Bedouin hiking trails. As the last rays of sun pass, we hear the evening sounds of Rum Village in the distance, a tiny settlement perched between the steep rocks.
Ancient cultures have inhabited this area for centuries, most famously the Nabataeans – an Arabic tribe that built a trade empire on the Arab peninsula before it fell to the Romans.
The best known relic from those times are the ruins of Petra, a mysterious city carved into the sandstone of a deep canyon. But traces of Nabataean influence can also be found in the deep rock gorges all around, in rock paintings where centuries of travellers have left their mark.
It took us three hours in a taxi to get from Amman, Jordan’s capital, to Wadi Rum. At the entrance of the valley, guards in front of a newly restored sandstone tower checked our documents. Wadi Rum was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2011 and the protection it has received from the government has helped to maintain its unique culture and beauty.
The local infrastructure is still owned by Bedouins, a nomadic tribe that has historically lived along the deserts of Northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Most have retreated to a semi-nomadic or settled lifestyle centred on villages like Rum.
When we arrive at a small, single-storey whitewashed concrete building, Atayek, the owner of a guest house and desert camp, comes to meet us, wearing a white robe and a red-and-white checkered headscarf. His six daughters run around in the courtyard.
His house is our base for the next couple of days while we explore the extensive surroundings. Steep sandstone walls arise to the east and west of Rum Village and some of them contain extremely adventurous hiking trails.
For our first outing we pick the “Goats Canyon”. We pass some Bedouin tents, glad to see that the formidable looking guard dogs are chained. Camels, now mostly used for guided tours, are resting in the morning sun. We scramble over increasingly large boulders and soon we are deep inside the canyon.
Parts of the path are quite exposed. Moving on a narrow ledge, barely a metre wide, I hold myself on the rock wall to not get dizzy looking into the canyon below.
It is hard to stay focused, however, as the rock formations here are sublime, like rows of tiny houses with melted roofs. Rare, but intense, rain showers have shaped this landscape over millennia.
It is fascinating that the Bedouins have found these trails, marked by little rock cairns, most likely on their hunting trips. But the attention of visitors is not just caught by hiking, camel safaris and unforgettable sunsets. Recently, Wadi Rum also established itself as a secret spot for sandstone climbing, and on the towers around town some of the world’s best climbers can been found.
After a few hours we emerge from the canyon, back into the open valley of Rum. Soon we are sitting back at Atayek’s home sipping on the local brew: black tea with a significant amount of sugar.
In the distance we hear music. It is a wedding and, curious, we head over to see it after dinner.
We find a tent glowing in the darkness of the night. Musicians play enchanting tunes on an Arabic guitar – the music echoes across the steep mountain walls.
We are later told that the women have a different party of their own, in the afternoon. An elderly man, dressed in his best gowns, invites us to sit and drink tea, though my teeth still ache from the earlier cup.
Another man walks onto the dance stage, points an assault rifle into the sky and fires to the rhythm of the music. Young children run around, collecting the used shells.
“Wait until you have slept in the desert – that’s when you will experience the true spirit of Wadi Rum,” Atayek says when he wakes us the next morning.
He drives us out into the nearby Barrah canyon, a deep valley bordered by steep sandstone walls to either side and an excellent base for hiking.
We can barely suppress our anticipation. After a bumpy, almost hour-long off-road drive, the shaky Land Cruiser comes to an abrupt stop in a small cave. “Are you OK with this spot? It’s nice and protected,” says our host, with a polite firmness that makes it clear there is no point in contradicting him.
We fetch two dusty mattresses from the back and a few minutes later sit on our backpacks, watching him drive off. The silence engulfs us.
We explore the surrounding area of steep walls and magical rock arches and use the boulders around camp to test our climbing skills. Wadi Rum is a mecca for sports climbers, with several hundred routes having been explored in the last 20 years; the sandstone provides excellent friction and ascending the steep faces surrounded by the breathtaking scenery is an extraordinary experience.
Once the sun has set, we use some dry wood to build a small campfire. It will be the only spot of light in the whole canyon – at least until Atayek returns to bring us dinner to our remote desert hideout. His wife has made us a chicken stew followed by sweet, honey-glazed baklava. Desert cuisine is basic but delicious – especially when you can dream of an adventurous day ahead.
We do not have a tent, so our night is spent open air staring at the sky. The dry desert night makes for a breathtaking view: an endless milky way arching above the dark shadow of the mountains. I’m reluctant to close my eyes and am fascinated by the star formations that move slowly overhead.
My mind drifts to faraway places and I cannot help but long for more moments like these: of solitude, silence and satisfaction. This is a magical place and it has cast a spell on us.
When a silver line on the horizon signals the break of dawn, another quote from Seven Pillars of Wisdom comes to mind: “This creed of the desert seemed inexpressible in words, and indeed in thought.”
Getting there: There are direct flights from Hong Kong to Amman, Jordan with Royal Jordanian.
Where to stay: The best place to stay is open air in the desert (Atayek can arrange it: facebook.com/atayek.alzalabeh). For more luxury there is a wide range of desert camps available, including the recently built Full of Stars Hotel (wadirumnight.com), which features see-through tent ceilings so you can observe the night sky from your bed.
What to do: Sunset drives and camel safaris are very popular, but Wadi Rum also sports some excellent hiking opportunities. Bring appropriate footwear.