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Petra and Wadi Rum
Flight to Jordan
After a late afternoon flight with Royal Jordanian from London we arrived in Amman just after midnight for our first night in Jordan.
Amman and Jerash
Having arrived in the dark our first real impression of Jordan came the following morning as we headed north to Jerash. Travelling further from the city along the highway, modern Jordan quickly blended into a more traditional way of life with Bedouin settlements set amidst the rolling hills and herds of goats and sheep roaming the barren landscape. Travelling in September the heat of the sun was still high and it was difficult to believe that with the spring rains the landscape quickly turned to green fields.
At first sight it’s hard to appreciate the scale of the Roman Jerash site which is one of the largest and best preserved Roman cities in the world. On a hot day like we had, it is definitely worth buying one of the many scarf’s or hats you’ll be offered as you make your way to the entrance and you also need to stock up on water as it’s a good 2-3 hours to get round the site.
Entering under the huge monumental arch, the first building we passed was the Hippodrome which is still used now to stage mock battles and chariot races. As we made our way through the site we passed the South Gate and a large paved oval plaza before reaching the South Theatre where we were entertained by a small band with bagpipes and drums whilst sitting on the terraced seats stretching up into the sky with views from the top terrace over the rest of the city and beyond to the new town of Jerash.
Making our way along the main street, we found shade in the shadows of the colonnades as we learnt about the history of life in the Roman city, as we past the amazing structures of the imposing Temple of Artemis, Cathedral and the northern theatre, stepping carefully along the cobbles and grooves in the pathway from the chariots. As we started to make our way back to the entrance the midday calls of the local muezzins dotted around the surrounding hills combined to remind us of modern day Jordan and the fact it was lunch time.
After resting at the hotel, we set out for dinner in a local restaurant joining what seemed to be the whole population of Amman out to celebrate the end of Ramadam and the festival of Eid which made for an interesting drive through the traffic and fantastic meal of mezze and mixed grill, washed down with what was to become the drink of the trip – fresh lemon and mint.
Heading out of Amman on the King’s Highway our first stop was the small town of Madaba, famous for the Byzantine mosaic map of the Holy Land, situated in the Greek Orthodox church of St George.
We continued on to Mount Nebo which is the most important biblical site in Jordan, where Moses finally saw the ‘Promised Land’ after crossing the desert and is now also famous for giving its name to Jordan`s wine. The Memorial Church here was under renovation; however there were a number of large mosaics to view and spectacular views over towards the Dead Sea, with Jerusalem on the horizon. Back on the road again we travelled through Wadi Mujib, Jordan’s Grand Canyon, to Karak. Dominating the hillside Karak Castle is an imposing site with many of the rooms and passage ways still intact which we were able to explore having stopped and refuelled for lunch before entering the castle ruins.
Our final drive of the day was towards the Dana Nature reserve taking us through the Shara Mountains, and Wadi Hasa arriving just before sunset. The Dana guesthouse has simple but comfortable accommodation with shared toilets/showers and is operated by the RSCN, we had time to find our rooms, before taking in the view from the terrace as the changing light from the setting sun spread across the reserve before dinner was served. Sitting on the terrace after our meal with a glass of hot spiced tea we were struck by how quiet it was in direct contrast to our time in Amman and how dark the night sky was giving great views of the Milky Way and shooting stars before we settled down for an early night.
Dana nature reserve
Awaking with dawn and the sound of the birds across the reserve, we had a simple breakfast with flat bread dipped into olive oil and thyme, boiled eggs and fruit. We then set off for a nature trail along the tracks which run around the perimeter of the reserve with our expert local guide who has lived in the village all his life, he treated us to fresh figs and pomegranate from the trees as we made our way out of the village, stopping to point out fossils in the rocks and porcupine needles which were scattered on the ground where it had slept.
Our walk which lasted just over 3 hours took us around the reserve to a point opposite the village where we had stayed, although it wasn’t too strenuous the ground was quite uneven and we had to climb over a few boulders along the way but the changing views over the valley below were stunning distracting us from the effort. We were also rewarded at the half way point with a cup of fresh mint tea made by the guide in a pot over a makeshift fire. Just after midday we reached our destination and boarded our bus again (pleased for the chance to rest after our walk) setting off on the short drive to the much anticipated city of Petra.
What is truly surprising about Petra is the scale and diversity of the site, which once past the Treasury opens up into the valley and what must once have been an impressive town and stopping place for the caravans. Walking along the Siq anticipating the first view of the treasury around each corner the shapes and colours of the rock walls are an impressive sight in themselves, but the Treasury is certainly an imposing view at the end ,despite the large numbers of tourist already there.
We carried on through the valley passing numerous temples, tombs, caves, an amphitheatre picking up a packed lunch from one of the restaurants along the way. Having refuelled we then set off up the 800 steps which wound their way up between the valley walls to the Monastery, it took us about an hour with a few stops for shade along the way or to let the mules and donkeys past which carry up supplies and those not able to make it on 2 feet. (We learnt quickly to rest with our backs to the wall having had a near miss at the edge of a cliff with 2 escaped mules careering down the path). Just as impressive as the treasury the climb was definitely worth it but we declined the option to then do another 300 steps to see the holy place of sacrifice as there was still a long walk back to the entrance to complete.
Having viewed Petra by day it was a must to see it by night, so we once again made our way along the Siq but this time by candle light and yet again the view of the Treasury did not disappoint, slightly illuminated by a ‘field’ of candles on the ground casting shadows around the surrounding rock walls. We picked our way through those already seated on rugs and were entertained by a short performance by a local storey teller, string instrument and a haunting flautist whilst sipping a miniature cup of mint tea.
Having explored the main sights of Petra the day before we all opted to visit Little Petra, a small settlement once used as a stop off point for the Caravans and many of the caves showed signs of being used as dining rooms, one of which houses a recently discovered fresco decorating the roof .
Late morning we then set off back to the highway and onto the Wadi Rum visitor centre and it was amazing how the temperature had change in such a short distance reaching what must have been about 35/40 degrees, here we boarded our 4WD vehicles with a backdrop of the ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom' and set out into the desert, where our scarves purchased in Petra really came into their own against the sun and wind as we bounced along the sand.
The vastness of Wadi Rum is amazing and with Bedouin settlements scattered around the area, we stopped at one for coffee and so they could dress 2 of our group up in the local fashion. The change in light during the afternoon was also spectacular and as we neared sunset with the redness of the rocks and sand softening and deepening, we ended the tour with a cup of mint tea perched on one of the rocks watching the sun set over the mountains – brilliant. We then made our way to the camp for the evening and were treated to a Bedouin celebratory meal with the tenderest lamb I have tasted, having been roasting in a pit oven for most of the day.
Leaving the desert behind us we headed back onto the highway down to the town of Aqaba. As Jordan’s major port, shipping potash predominantly to Asia, it was surprising how big the town is and not like the usual beach resort you’d see in neighbouring Egypt which is visible across the Red Sea, along with views to Israel’s resort of Eilat with is surprisingly close.
Our hotel was round the coast in an up and coming tourist area for both international and local tourist’s, home to many of the larger beach hotels. Some the group headed out on a glass bottom boat but a lazy afternoon relaxing by the pool was a welcome change after the previous day’s adventures in the desert and exploring Petra. We did venture down to the beach for a quick paddle so we could at least say we had been in the Red Sea, but the beach bar and a cold beer in a frozen glass was calling as the novelty of the enforced detox was starting to wear off !
Our final day and the longest drive of the trip took us back up the desert highway to the Dead Sea. On the way we passed close to the Israel border and through more stunning desert landscapes until after about 4 hours we caught sight of the Dead Sea and its shoreline of white encrusted salt. It is allegedly the only place on earth you can sunbathe without sunscreen due to all of the harmful UV rays being blocked out, it may also have something to do with covering yourself in the thick black mud, said to have enriching properties for your skin when washed off in the dead sea. Floating in the sea is certainly an odd experience and trying to swim is certainly not recommended, as getting the water in your mouth is not something you’ll do twice as it tastes disgusting! That said your skin does feel really soft when you emerge and floating is a nice relaxing way to end the trip.
Jordan as a country is very safe for a western traveller and at no time did we experience some of the hassle you can experience elsewhere in the region, but you do need to be respectful of the local traditions and dress codes, even by the pool in the Red Sea the local women remained fully covered in wetsuit styled swimwear. All in all it was a fantastic week with a perfect blend of history, culture, nature, adventure and relaxation time.
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