As featured in TTG, written by Gary Noakes
Warring neighbours are doing Jordan no favours, but Gary Noakes discovers a tranquil destination firmly focused on the adventure and ecotourism markets.
The day Parliament votes to bomb Syria, I’m miles away from potential terrorist targets like London, with mostly just a vast sky full of stars for company. The silence is broken only by the odd squeal of an animal somewhere in the wilderness, but everything else seems a world off, although actually I’m within driving distance of Syria in the desert of neighbouring Jordan. Let’s get this out the way first. When I visited, there were advisories to Australians about a “heightened threat of terrorist attack” in London, while the UK government warned of a “general threat of terrorism” in Jordan.
Spot the difference? We broach our fears a few times during my trip but my guide Mahmoud sums it up: “Ah, but you’re not in the Middle East, you’re in Jordan.” Jordan has always been seen as stable country in the region and, as one local told me, any sympathy for Daesh evaporated last February when a captured Jordanian pilot was burned alive. The concerns are, though, understandable and visitor numbers are down – Petra is getting a fifth of the visitors it used to, but I saw all nationalities when I visited, and like them felt secure and enjoyed a genuine welcome.
Back in the desert at Wadi Rum, we leave camp in a truck on a crisp morning and enter the wilderness, passing the odd camel train. We’re dwarfed against sandstone hills streaked by minerals within them. They resemble ice cream sundaes. Wadi Rum has two filmic links; most recently, Matt Damon filmed The Martian here, but more famously the real Lawrence of Arabia set up camp here. At the spot where Lawrence lived with his Bedouin army, we sip cardamom, sage and cinnamon tea and grin politely at the monument to him by one of his troops, a childish representation cut into the rock. Nearby, we find much older rock art depicting animals, including long extinct ostriches, names of gods and hunting scenes dating back to 800BC. At Wadi Rum’s Captain’s Camp, we take more tea with a group of British mountaineers here for a month.
Wadi Rum’s sandstone hills attract experienced climbers the world over, and their mission is to teach locals to an international standard. Once trained, easy climbs will be offered to tourists as part of adventure packages.Jordan’s appeal centres on its history and its eco/adventure tourism, with more emphasis on the latter, as this type of visitor is not as easily put off by world events. The country is, however, most famous for Petra and you shouldn’t need convincing that this is one of life’s must-sees. With visitor numbers as they are, it’s a great time to go. What’s more, even Jordan’s most iconic site can be a mix of both history and adventure – there are eight hiking trails around Petra, some needing a whole day to complete and which will take you high above the city. “You can spend a week trekking here – it’s an archaeological park but I consider it a national park as well,” says Mahmoud as we spot a group dotted on the cliffs above us.
Mahmoud’s newfound passion is canyoning – trekking, wading and rope climbing through a gorge – something Jordan’s dissected landscape is well suited to. Winter flash floods mean this is a summer pursuit, but Jordan’s tourism chiefs are keen on the idea, and later we stop at Mujib, the end of a trail above the Dead Sea. At a new visitor centre, climbers are fixing bolts to a rock face, where soon amateurs will be able to learn basic skills.
Roads to Roman
Whatever they come for, most people begin their trip in the capital Amman, which is worth a couple of nights. Amman was the Roman city of Philadelphia and its 6,000-seat Roman theatre proves its importance, but if it’s Roman you want, it’s an hour’s drive to Jerash. Jerash was a trading post, and while Petra held sway in the south Jerash was the northern powerhouse, as testified by its 15,000-capacity hippodrome and 3,000-seat theatre, plus numerous temples. The Romans came to accept Christianity and the remains of churches, some with beautiful mosaic floors, are found here. Like Petra, an earthquake rocked Jerash and much is yet to be discovered.
Jordan is skilled at preserving ancient urban environments and it’s getting better at caring for the natural environment, as a couple of projects prove. A few hours north of Amman, you begin climbing until you encounter a hilly ancient oak landscape at Ajlun. Amid the reserve is a clutch of government-run cabins, a popular retreat from Amman’s summer heat and as serene as it gets. One of the aims is to involve the locals, and that evening we head to a village house and, cross-legged on the carpet, feast on Musakhan – chicken cooked under a bread lid with olives and caramelised onions. The rain that meant we couldn’t trek through the forest clears next morning and before we leave, we enjoy fabulous views all the way to Lebanon. The drive back down is through villages dotted with grapevines and a reminder that while nature conservation is taken seriously in protected areas, there is a more urgent need to tackle litter and rubbish disposal, particularly plastic.
Even so, strides have been made, none more so than at Feynan Ecolodge in the south. Your clue that Feynan is so different begins with the transfer. This requires a 4×4, but instead of the hotel owning one, it summons a local (one of 80 families employed in some way by the hotel), who transports you in his battered vehicle.Solar power means dinner is by candlelight and vegetarian – there are no fridges. Your room is candlelit too, but there are light bulbs in the bathrooms (electricity usage for the 30-room hotel is the same as a two-bed flat), but with a galaxy of stars above, who wants light pollution?
Feynan sits at the bottom of a gorge and it’s an eight-mile trek to Dana at the top, where another eco lodge is located and where we had watched griffin vultures circle over nervous starlings. We didn’t have time to trek back to Dana, but before dinner we hike to a Bedouin tent to watch our bread being baked, learn the protocol of coffee preparation, the economics of goat herding and slimming the Bedouin way (sitting with one knee against your chest while eating apparently makes you feel full).
The whole experience is magical and summed up by Suleiman, our hotel guide whose family tent we had sipped coffee in. “Sometimes, I wish I felt how people feel when they come here, but I was born here. It is so unique, just surrounded by nature.” On the way back to Amman, we have the obligatory float in the Dead Sea after a night at the huge Kempinski Hotel, which is as big a contrast to Feynan as you could imagine. A sign says that at 400m below sea level – the lowest point on earth – the air contains 15% more oxygen and is so dense that , it filters out more UV than normal. As ecotourism credentials go, you can’t get better than that.