Wadi Rum

The Wadi Rum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Coming from Wadi meaning valley and Rum meaning high place, it forms a unique and wondrous biome in southern Jordan.  The red dunes and towering sandstone cliffs have played pivotal roles in movies such as Lawrence of Arabia, Red Planet, Prometheus, the Martian, and many more.

Even though there were camels, sheep, rabbits, birds, and foxes tracks everywhere, it was obvious that this was a difficult environment to survive.

We spent two days, two nights at a Bedouin Camp exploring the area by jeep and foot.

Camel riding was a popular tourist option in Wadi Rum

After the Wadi Rum village, the pavement disappeared and there was only sand.  Jeep, camel, and food traffic only.

Heading out into the desert in our jeep.

Camp

Our camp was nestled against a giant (300 foot according to Kylie’s mathematical estimate) mountain, which gave it shade until noon.

There were several brick structures – A kitchen, and bathroom.  Each tented area had a small cemented stone foundation, tile floor, and canvass walls wrapped once on the outside, and the inside walls and roof were colorful carpeting.  Our host Aaliyah, told us that women made these by hand.

Helping in the kitchen
Bedouin women hand sew the carpeted walls of tents.

The silence of the desert was absolute.  From time to time a rock pigeon could be heard cooing in cliffs.  Small larks, finches, or sometimes even a raven could be heard, but there were no babbling creeks, crashing waves, hum of traffic, or even the how of wind, rustling of bushes.  Just silence.

I was looking forward to a starry night; however the glow from Aqaba to the West and Ma’an to the north provided some light pollution keeping the starry night from being as amazing as the Flores Islands.  It was beautiful, just cold!

The cold was heavy and oppressive.  During our stay the temperature hovered around 1-2C in the evenings and early mornings.  Day temperatures climbed to 5.  However, the numbers don’t describe how cold it was.  At sunset the chill would creep through our shoes, then socks, then slowly chill our feet.  In minutes, I was shivering.

Even though the wind was not strong, its steady stream washed all warmth from our ears and hands and within a few minutes our bones ached from being so cold.  We would emerge from the cold of the shade and hit the sun, then withing minutes be too hot for a blanket or jacket.

Armed for a cold start in the jeep

Atiq

Atiq and I in Wadi Rum

Atiq grew up moving with his father from place to place within Wadi Rum every 10-12 days.  He shared his knowledge of the desert with us and guided us to many of the special locations within the area.  He routinely pointed out old Bedouin camps and talked about being a child in the Rum.  He was enthusiastic and even at times giddy showing us places.  This was not just a source of income for him, he genuinely loved his home and loved sharing it with others.

Atiq explains how old Bedouin used sun dials to determine when to pray.

“In the old days there no watches, Bedouin still pray.”  In order to meet their religious obligations they would take a stick as long as their fore arm and plant it in the sand to use as a sun dial.  From there Atiq showed the location of the sun and shadow and when the praying times would be based upon how many hands or fingers in length the shadow was.

After guiding us up an uncommon path, he pointed us in a direction and told us to hike.  While we hiked he harvested Zafra plant for tea.

Zafra plant used for Bedouin tea.

He took care to find a great lunch spot for us.  Our favorite was the spot below.

A secluded picnic area

Part of what made lunch so great was Atiq was a phenomenal cook.  He collected twigs and made a small fire.  Threw two egg plants in.  He chopped tomatoes, peppers, garlic and stirred in a pot with canned legumes and tomato paste.  Viola, instant stew.    Need salt?  No problem, this whole area used to be the bottom of an ancient ocean. Atiq when over to the cliff wall: “Look Salt”.  He chipped away and removed a small pinch of ancient salt.  The eggplants were cut open and their hot pulp squeezed into a bowl, some tahini sauce and lemon added for some delicious baba ghanoush.

Pita bread warms on a lunchtime fire

During lunch we ate well!  We asked him how he ate when he was a kid. “No vegetables then, just goat and camel milk, and their meat.  Sometimes vegetable if trading in town.”

Historical Sites

Anfashieh Inscriptions (Ancient Writing).  In some of the petroglyphs camel caravans were painted.  Atiq explained that this was a major route between Petra and Mecca.  Some of the petroglyphs portrayed warnings of snakes, and difficult camels.  There was also a map to a spring.

These petroglyphs appear on the caravan highway between Mecca and Petra

Other sites, like Khazali Canyon, showed writing that predated Arabic.  Some petroglyphs showed gazelles and others show the birth of a child.  It made me wonder about what we leave behind.  What event in our lives would be so important that we would immortalize in stone?  If we could write one sentence and draw one picture what would it be?

Petoglyphs in Khazali canyon

Four types of writing could be found in the canyon:

  • South Safaitic: 4th century BC to 1st century BC
  • Thamudic E: 200 BC
  • Hismaic: Old Arabic dating back to 1st century AD
  • Kufic Arabic: Preferred script for the Koran

The Kufic script referenced a verse in the Koran.  The Thamudic E script was someone who wrote their name.  There was a glyph of a woman giving birth, gazelles, and a pair of feet.

Just outside the Wadi Rum village we visited an ancient mountain spring (Ain Shalaaleh). It was a short hike up the mountain. However, its history was what was captivating.  This was the spring where T.E. Lawrence and Faisal watered their camels while preparing for their attack on Aqaba fort.  This was a real piece of history (Source).  We also visited “Lawerence’s House” which was depicted in the movie, but he never actually spent time there.

Hiking to a Ain Shalaaleh mountain spring

Nearby at the foot of Rum Mountain lie an ancient Nabatean temple.  It was built on the ruins of an older temple.  Later the front was re-purposed into a Bedouin cemetery.  All of this was old.  The Nabatean temple was built by King Aretas IV to worship the goddess ALLAT.  However, it was built on the ruins of Allat temple of AAD Tribe.

Adventure

The dunes in much of Wadi Rum are dark red.  Atiq stopped at a giant dune and gave us a snow board.  “You go like this.”  He squatted on the board and demonstrated a surfing position.  Excited to proceed, the girls ran to the dune.  About a fourth of the way up they stopped, panting, “This is hard to climb.”  In deed walking in deep sand was hard enough.  Walking uphill on freezing cold sand was particularly hard.  For every step, our feet would sink in and slide down half a step.  Progress was slow.  Regardless, we made it and we tried our luck at sand boarding

Kylie couldn’t rip her shoes off fast enough and ran towards the dunes.  To her, this whole area was one big beach.

There was plenty of adventure to be had here.  Kylie couldn’t get enough of this.  Whether rock scrambling to a hidden spring, traversing narrow Siqs over desert pools, squeezing through narrow passages and under boulders, or just scaling steep sandstone walls, she was in her element.  No nook and cranny went unexplored.

Alyssa’s first run at dune boarding.  She did amazingly and didn’t crash on the first run. (It was the second one where she bit the dust and ate sand).
Fearless as usual, she wanted to go a little higher than Alyssa.  She made it most of the way down, then crashed and got red sand EVERYWHERE!  Sand never tasted this good.
Navigating a trail in Khalai Canyon.  These pools were hand carved by ancient Bedouin to collect and preserve water.  Now they just posed an obstacle for people like us who wanted to hike a trail.
Proud of making it through, without getting wet (oops we celebrated too soon).
Rocks, Sand, Climbing, Building…..was there anything she didn’t love here?

There were several rock bridges to explore.  We made it to Um Furth and another that was unnamed.  Atiq showed us the starting point for the Burdah rock bridge: “It is at least 2 hour hike from here.”  However he drove us to another canyon around the way and said: “This is another way to the rock bridge.  Maybe 1 hour for adults, hard for children.”  We went nearly half way up and spent most of our time looking at rocks.  Nana had trained us to look at pebbles well!  One of the highlights of this trail was smashing sandstone.  Atiq said: “Hurry hurry, this way look” and he heaved a giant white sandstone clod at a boulder below.  A satisfying POOF and a white cloud of sand emerged.  Alyssa and Kylie were especially fond of this destructive activity.

Bravely crossing a rock bridge
Um Furth: “Hey we just climbed that!”
At the top of Um Furth
A leap of faith over a crevasse.  Alyssa showed mom how to do it!

Desert Beauty

A 270 degree view.  This might as well be Mars.

The desert shifted from red to yellow to gold sands depending on the location and the time of day.  The vistas were awe inspiring and unnerving.  From a vantage point looking over this vast land, it mystified me how anyone could survive here.  I was having enough trouble with the temperature and I didn’t even have to worry about food or water.

The view from a mountain spring shows how foreboding the desert is.  A lone tree stands against the dryness of the desert.  Up by the spring there are two fig trees that Atiq said produced the sweetest figs.

The fantastic beautify was not limited to the sweeping views, but also in the small things. Small flowers and interesting formations were everywhere.

Small desert beauty

Atiq showed Kylie how to use the colorful sandstone to create paint and makeup.  She was in creative heaven.

Different colored sandstone can be mixed with water to create coloring for make up or nails.
Using the sandstone to create hand paint

The sunsets were amazing.  Instead of the sky lighting up with the oranges and reds, the entire landscape exploded with deep rich color.

Our last sunset in Wadi Rum
The sunset against the sandstone provided marvelous coloring

Bedouin

There was evidence of Bedoin lifestyle all around in Wadi Rum. We drove past a man herding camels.  While Atiq talked to the herder (as they obviously knew each other), Kylie made a friend.

Kylie makes a friend

I certainly had my preconceptions about the Bedouin, but I was glad to spend time talking with Atiq, Aaliyah, and Saleh (Aaliya’s husband).

I learned that their lifestyle was disappearing.  Many of the families have settled into housing in the village.  They have a house of brick for most of the year, and then they have a tent camp.  Many rent these out to tourists like us to supplement their income.

“I started by giving camel rides to tourists.  I then earned enough money for a jeep.  After a while I earned enough to add some permanent tents for renting,” Saleh explained with pride at his self-made status.

“In the summer we take our goats to graze near our tents.” Aaliya said.

However, the valley is changing. “There are only 10 families that still live full time in the desert.  There is no longer enough grass because less rain.  People cannot pay too much to feed their sheep,” Saleh was explaining one effect of Climate Change in the area.  Even though he and his brother Atiq did not go to school, they explained very well what was happening in the area.  Less rain over their lifetime meant less grass.  Less grass meant less grazing area for sheep.  Less grazing meant it was no longer possible for many families to depend on the natural processes to provide what has been provided for centuries.  A combination of tourism and climate changes has redirected their trajectory.

wadi_rum15
A goat that succumbed to the dessert.

“My daughter, she goes to University next year, she will not live off the desert.” Saleh stated flatly.

Tourism was also a mixed blessing.  While it provided income, it also was a cost. “Some families buy tents from China and glass balls and charge a lot of money.  The government has seen this, now we all have to pay money to government.”

The modern camp is blamed by Saleh for attracting government attention and increasing taxes in the area.

I was still confused about what exactly Bedouin were, especially after a side comment Saleh made: “The people living in Petra are not Bedouin, they are gypsies.”

“How do you identify a Bedouin?”

Aaliya claimed: “We are nice and welcoming. We can look and see if we doing nice things.” Saleh’s definition was slightly different. “My father lived in the desert, so I am Bedouin.”

Changes are happening in the area.  As modern pressures and climate change push the nomadic lifestyle out of existence, more and more will adapt, and the definition of Bedouin may continue to change.

Young boys enjoy some swing time on a day off from school

As we exited Wadi Rum, Sharleen looked down at Kylie’s pants that were filthy.

“I’m glad your pants are so dirty, it means you lived life well and had a lot of fun.”

7 comments

  1. Have loved all your posts, but really really loved this one. Cool insights and sharing. The pics of girls jumping over the crevices and natural bridges gives me anxiety just through the computer screen. I need to get over my anxiety of this. My hubbie and girls are always ready to push to edge…I need to toughen up. Thanks for showing you all encouraging your girls to go for it. Loved the flower in the desert and the swing set image. You closing line rocked. And, you are starting to look very thin….yes??? Thanks for sharing and keep sending you all safe adventure!

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    • Thank you for the comment! It was an amazing time packed with so much. I’d love to say I had anything to do with it. In reality, my better half found out about the place and found the family to book with. Atiq deserves a lot of the credit as he took us everywhere and found stuff that was right for our family! He was a great guy! As for being thin….I’m still 10-15kg overweight according to my biometrics. Cheers -Dan

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  2. Danny – This was such a treat to read. I have a good friend in CO who spent time in Wadi Rum and loved it so much that when he started a band (he’s a phenomenal musician), he named his band WadiRum, and I believe he titled his first album, “Bedouin.” I am forwarding this post to him. I knew the place held special significance to him, and after reading about your experience there, I can certainly see why. It looks incredibly beautiful and magical. Thank you so much for sharing your adventures with us! I love you!

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    • That is so cool! I’d love to hear some of his music. We watched a pair of climbers climb Rum (The highest peak in Wadi Rum), from a Nabatean temple. I thought of you and Jim. Give my love to your Family.

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