Friday, December 6, 2013

The astounding landscape of Wadi Rum

Traveling south from Petra our first stop was an old Turkish railway station, part of the Hejaz railway system, that connected Aqaba to Damascus and Medina. There was a single narrow gauge track with a lovely old intact train. We climbed up into the engine and then back through the officers' car with lovely, lush red upholstery, over the flat car that once held the guns into the last two carriages with quite uncomfortable wooden seats. Lawrence of Arabia gained much satisfaction from attacking these Turkish trains with his Arab army but this one had escaped unblemished.

There were a couple men dressed as Turkish soldiers manning the building as well as another two looking after their camels. Two World War I Turkish armoured vehicles looked menacingly on. But it was all in good fun providing lots of picture taking opportunities.

The trip became more exciting as we traced Lawrence's footsteps turning off the main highway towards Wadi Rum, through rocky, sandy countryside. You may picture the desert as nothing but lots of sand dunes but only ten percent of the desert is made up of sand dunes. Before we transferred to 4x4s, we wrapped our heads in shemags as protection from the sand and intense heat. Towering over us were the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, seven pinnacles of rock named after Lawrence's book of the same name. Lawrence never described this mountain but took the name from the Book of Proverbs (9:1): "Wisdom has built a house, she has hewn out of her seven pillars."

Wadi Rum is an amazing, timeless place, virtually untouched by humanity and its destructive forces. Here, it is the weather and winds that have carved the imposing landscape, described by T.E. Lawrence as “vast, echoing and God-like..." A maze of monolithic rockscapes rise up from the desert floor to heights of 1,750m.

Wadi Rum is also known as ‘The Valley of the Moon’. It is the place where Prince Faisal and T.E. Lawrence based their headquarters during the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans in World War I, their exploits  woven into the history of the area.

We stopped at the base of a giant dune. It was a challenge to climb as your feet sank so far into the soft sand, but those who made it were rewarded with a spectacular view over the orange and golden sands and the small, green, mesquite type bushes. From here you could really begin to grasp the vastness of the boundless, empty spaces.

Our next stop was a high, narrow, rock canyon overlooking the desert as far as the eye could see. In his autobiography Lawrence described riding his camel through here singing the nineteenth century music hall song, "The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo," listening to the echo coming back to him; I could well imagine it.

We admired ancient petroglyphs carved into the stone and then a Bedouin and his camel joined us. We learned from our guide that the camel is all important to the Bedouin for transportation, food and even health. We were told Bedouins don't suffer from stomach or skin cancer, which has been attributed to their drinking camels' milk. Apparently it is also good to rub onto your face. In times of starvation the nomads have been known to make a small nick in a camel's throat to drink it's blood. As well camel meat is part of the diet.

Here are some facts about camels that you might not know: Camels store fat for food and energy in their hump; Their super long eyelashes and sealable nostrils evolved to combat sand; A camel’s body has a totally unique water usage system for cooling the animal, circulating blood cells and ensuring it can’t actually over-hydrate.

It was lovely watching the Bedouin ride their camels with a slow, rolling rhythm leading a few tourists further into the desert. At a Bedouin encampment we learned how to make coffee. First beans are placed in a large, flat spoon with holes and placed over a fire to roast. Next they are placed in a huge mortar and pestle and ground along with a combination of cinnamon, cardamom and hazelnuts before being heated in a cafetiere. This coffee, Bedouin style, was delicious.

We had  lots of salad and a barbecue of chicken, lamb or a tasty, flat spicy beef sausage meat for lunch, in a traditional Bedouin tent. Now as Lawrence said, "On to Aqaba."

Since Aqaba is a duty free zone, you have to pass through a customs stop. This was more laid back than we were used to with the officer asking us, good humouredly, if we were Madrid or Barca fans. With much laughter, we were on our way.

Now we were at the most southern part of Jordan, that lies on the most northern tip of the Red Sea. On a clear day you can see Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. This was not the small, fishing village that Lawrence first visited before WWI. An economic 'Free Zone' was established in Aqaba in August 2000. It covers one million square metres. Goods traded in the Free Zone are exempt of duty. The roads were full of trucks and we passed many industrial buildings as we headed into town. It wasn't terribly attractive.

At our hotel, we quickly donned our bathing suits and headed for the beach for our first swim in the Red Sea. It was a different experience for us swimming with ocean going ships not too far away but it was still exciting looking over at the nearby Israeli town of Eilat. Once we were out of the water we discovered that we didn't have swathes of salt covering us as we would in the Mediterranean. That's why the swimming took a little more effort, less salt.

After dinner it was still very hot as we strolled along the promenade by the beach, where the locals had come to make their dinner. There were lots of little fires and barbecues, children playing, horses milling and people smoking hubbly bubbly pipes. What an interesting glimpse into local life.

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