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The wonders of Jordan

Dead Sea

Covered in the sticky black Dead Sea mud applied 15 minutes previously, I tiptoe carefully along the wooden platform and ease myself gently into the syrupy waters of the largest salt lake on earth.  “This is the coolest experience ever,” I hear one of my fellow guests exclaim as he bobs like a boat and floats away from the shore.  I can’t help but agree; the buoyancy offered by the saline lake gives a sensation of weightlessness – and slight instability.

Already at 427 metres below sea level, the level of the Dead Sea apparently continues to fall at the rate of a metre a year.  Evidence of this are the shiny new blocks of steps leading down to its waters from my hotel.  At one time positioned right on the shores, the Kempinski Ishtar Hotel has gradually increased its beach area to accommodate the falling levels and clearly has had to add extra steps as the years have gone by to enable its guests to reach the sea easily.  The Dead Sea area continues to be a popular destination for those in search of an oxygen-filled spa experience.  Apparently ozone levels here are also higher than normal; but I’m not taking any chances and my factor 40 sun screen still accompanies me to the beach…

I am on a (too) short visit to this beautiful country, and am taking the opportunity to re-familiarise myself with some of its iconic sites.  Having explored the un-matchable Nabataean expanse of Petra a number of years previously, this time I am spending a few days unwinding at the Dead Sea before heading off to re-discover the red sand desert of the Wadi Rum.

The temperature gauge in the car reads 32⁰C as our driver starts the slow drive up from the Dead Sea basin.  By the time we reach the Wadi Rum, it will have dropped to a comfortable 23⁰C.  The journey to the desert will take us around four hours; the route would have been quicker along the Desert Highway via Aqabah, but we want to take the traditional Kings Road up into the highlands, through the Dana Nature Reserve and the village of Wadi Musa, home to Petra.  10 minutes after leaving the Dead Sea resort, we come to our first police check point where a serious-looking officer asks our driver which country we’re from.  I rummage in my bag for my passport hoping I hadn’t inadvertently left it in the suitcase now locked securely in the boot, but before I have a chance to hand it over, the policeman gives a cheery “thumbs up”, poking his head through the window.  “Manchester United” he smiles and proffers a hard boiled sweet.

The approach to the Wadi Rum is stunning, the red dunes rising out of the desert landscape like camel humps.  The Jordanian Tourist Board describe this area as the Valley of the Moon; more like Mars I would say, as the dusty red sand swirls around our wheels.  No wonder this was chosen as the location for Ridley Scott’s 2015 film The Martian.

According to UNESCO, this 74,200-hectare Protected Area has evidence of 12,000 years of human occupation in the form of rock carvings, inscriptions and 154 archaeological sites.  More recently it is famed for its connections to T. E. Lawrence, whose actions here during the Arab Revolt of 1917-1918 were described in his 1926 book Seven Pillars of Wisdom and later in David Lean’s 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia.

We are staying at the Bait Ali camp, on the outskirts of the Protected Area itself.  The rooms are clean and simple, with their own ensuite facilities, and our hosts provide a daily feast of barbecued meats and delicious flat breads and Arabic dips.  There are many tourist camps now in the Wadi Rum, ranging from basic to high-end luxury accommodation.  All excursions in to the desert must be taken with an official guide from the visitor’s centre a few minutes’ drive along the road.  Trips are available by jeep which transport tourists in to the desert past towering sandstone monoliths and curious natural arches, stopping at Lawrence’s spring, and its nearby ancient inscriptions.  The drive is bumpy, sandy, exhilarating and utterly spell-binding.

That evening we are back at the camp, and after a quick splash in the outdoor pool, we decide to follow the stone steps hewn from the cliff side that rise up behind the camp.  After 10 minutes the climb turns in to more of a scramble as the steps run out and we reach the stony gravel of the sandstone hill top.  The view from the top is awe-inspiring.  I can see the dunes stretching for miles and the tracks of camels on the plain in front of me.  The sun is gentling sinking in to the horizon, casting a red hue over the already ochre sandscape.  This is sheer bliss.  I love the desert.

 

Caroline travelled to Jordan in June 2016.

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