I squint my eyes, blink and then once more readjust the focal to the dry arid surrounds. This is where the legendary Wadi Rum, the Jordanian valley of the moon, starts. After travelling good distance from the Dead Sea area in a comfortable van, we have made this stop to change vehicles. Only a 4×4 can match what the ship of the desert has been managing in the past many a centuries. I look around, the place is a fuel station. For the first time, I see so many men dressed in traditional Bedouin attire. Of women there really is no sign…
My guide from the Jordan Tourism Board, Hani Heyasat, gives us the last quick set of instructions before we change our vehicles: Freshen up before you set out; refresh your sunscreen; cover up and keep yourself hydrated. No, there is no urgency in his voice, just years of experience guiding the uninitiated into an unknown territory. “You’ll also get to see some amazing sights nature has created and enjoy the hospitality of some really amazing and warm people — the original inhabitants of this place — the Bedouins,” he says, as I pull out my scarf and make the last ditch effort to tuck in my hair neatly. It is particularly windy and any effort to cover up my face is proving to be a futile effort.
“Let me teach you how we wear our headgear here,” laughs a young man who helps me climb onto the rear of his open truck. This is Mahmoud, who is supposed to drive us to our retreat for the night — Captain’s Desert Camp — after a safari and sunset view in the yellow-red vale. And in quick (and easy) three-step technique, I find my face covered and hair neatly tucked in, a la Bedouin style. My group mates, too, opt for the Bedouin cover-up. It really is very neat.
Valley of the Moon
If there is anything that would describe my first impression of the Wadi, I would say it’s deceptive. Within minutes we are driving past the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the iconic rock formation that gets its name from TE Lawrence, famously known as Lawrence of Arabia, while he was serving as a liaison officer with rebel forces during the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks between 1916 and 1918. The Wadi owes a lot to this Englishman for making it famous — first with his role in history and second, the depiction of the same in the flick by the same name. I relate more to the latter. Much of the epic Lawrence of Arabia, starring Peter O’Toole, was filmed here in the early 1960s, Heyasat tells me, adding: “We shall be visiting the site soon.”
I look at the amazing rock formations around em. Standing amid pastel-coloured stretches of sandy desert are these jebels — as these rock formations are called — that have been forged by wind and other geological erosion (and evolution) that has taken place over millions of years. It’s a marvel how nature plays God here, more strongly than any other place that I have seen so far, with absolutely no help from the humans.
We drive up and down some dunes and scale others on foot to get the perfect ‘sighting’ during our safari. The desert of Wadi Rum makes for some of the most stunning landscapes on the surface of this earth. We traverse dry terrain to touch upon the networks of canyons and dry ravines and naturally-formed rock bridges. “These offer great opportunities for various adventure activities,” shares Heyasat. “Other than seemingly simple scrambling, you can do some serious rock climbing and trekking,” he adds.
Lawrence of Arabia
Nestled between two gigantic rock surfaces, there now exists a camp. It really is like any other that I have seen in India. We make our way into the ‘living’, the heart of the campsite. I notice the tents are made of a thick woven fabric. “Goat hair,” answers Heyasat. “You’d find all camps in the area are made of the same fabric. It is known to withstand the harsh winds and clime of the place. It keeps you cool during the day and warm at night,” he tells me.
Strains of live music catch up to us as we move closer to the camp. Inside, there is a group of men transiting from Saudi Arabia. It’s a happy group. There is a lot of chatter happening over cups of tea/coffee and hubbly-bubbly or hookah as we like to call it. It’s a Bedouin tradition to serve at least three cups of coffee without keeping the cup down. Hospitality is a great virtue here. There is so much camaraderie that it is infectious. Soon, we are all drawn into the ring. And we get the first taste of Bedouin hospitality.
Inside a Bedouin Tent
My ears are still ringing with music when our jeep pulls up to the next halt — a Bedouin tent. There are actually two, both made out of fabric woven out of goat hair. We enter the main tent and are greeted warmly by the owner. Within minutes we are served lovely hot tea. This tea is milk-less and brewed with a special spice mix. The dominating flavour is star anise and cinnamon. “We get our spices from India,” warms up the host.
In a corner, the hearth is well lit up with copper pots boiling water in them and brewing tea. A sizable area of the tent is covered with Bedouin wares on sale. These are mainly trinkets made by the women folk, scarves and exotic belly dancer outfits studded with sequins and beads. The shopaholic in me is absolutely excited. I pick up a couple of stone-studded earrings for myself. It’s a happy state.
A Bedouin home in Wadi Rum is a perfect showcase of a culture and life led by the semi-nomads of the desert. “The Bedouins are extremely warm and hospitable people who are grounded and lead a simple life. And they would not give up their tents, no matter how rich they get or whichever city they choose to live in. Their livestock is very dear to them,” Heyasat tells me. He shares several examples of influential Bedouins who are known to sleep and even greet dignitaries in their special tents set up inside their mansions in big cities like Amman!
Camping in Wadi Rum
Mahmoud motions it is time for us to move. It is nearing sunset, and we must reach the special point to get the best view. The sunset point in a big rock that has the vantage of height. The sun rolls down majestically behind a set of jebels ahead of us, the horizon changing colour. I can sense a drop in temperature, and a sense of calm envelopes me. And I get this urge to be alone. This is my ‘me’ moment and I don’t wish to share it with anyone. Suddenly Lawrence’s description of Wadi Rum comes alive: “Vast, Echoing, God-like.” Wadi is all of that at this moment. I veer away from the rest and revel in solitude. I don’t even know what I am thinking at this moment and whether I am thinking at all. It is indeed beautiful…
The magic of the moment is broken many minutes after the sunset, when other people start breaking the groups to head back home. We move too, but to our shelter for the night. This is Captain’s Desert Camp. It lies hidden behind two big boulders that make for the dead-end. The camp is lined with palm trees, almost as if it were an oasis amid a thick desert. The tents are comfortable, made of thick cloth, again woven out of goat hair. There are no zippers or locks, yet one feels so safe. We are cut off from the rest of the world.
Camp mates offer a warm welcome with a round of hot tea and hubbly-bubbly. Incidentally, the entire area is a no-alcohol zone, in keeping with the culture of the place. Hot food comprising of mezze and barbecue is being served for hungry guests. It is indeed wholesome. We exchange pleasantries with other guests. One group is that of holy men travelling to Turkey. There is chill in the air now and we all huddle close to the camp fire. The guests offer to sing verses from the Quran. We are more than happy to listen. Clear voices fill the air with beautiful sound as they read out portions telling the man about compassion and love for being. There is something very beautiful about the night.
Later, as I take a stroll under the clear starlit sky, I reflect upon the beautiful day that it has been. Just then Heyasat shares his little secret: “You know, for some strange reason, in as many times that I have visited the Wadi, I have found it difficult to sleep at night. A lot many others have had the same problem. There is something about the place.” His words stay in my mind for a long time after I retire. Could this be the discomfort stemming out the fact that desert can never be a peaceful resting place for many a souls? Thankfully, fatigue takes over and I slip into a quiet, peaceful slumber. The Wadi plays a perfect host.
— This article was first published in Exotica magazine.