“When you are travelling in hot countries, the primary rule is always to bring your winter clothes,” wrote the British explorer and diplomat Gertrude Bell while traversing the Middle East in 1900. If only I had paid heed. Heavy sleet slammed Amman the day I arrived, and it was clear my windbreaker was not going to cut it for a hike through the desert. Mercifully, there was an outdoor store on Abdoun Circle, so, armed with a few extra layers, I left the next morning for the Dana Biosphere Reserve, an expansive nature reserve in Jordan’s far west that nudges the Great Rift Valley.
Although sleeping in a tent is not my preferred way to overnight, and the word “trek” fills me with dread, I’ve recently been swayed by the unattributed code of great travelers throughout history: the best way to know a place is to walk across it. Jordan made this an irresistible proposition by inaugurating a path linking the south of the country to the north. Over four days, I would cover a 33-mile section anointed by National Geographic as one of the best trails in the world, affording me the rare opportunity to enter Petra through the back entrance. My journey would finish at the red-sand expanse of Wadi Rum, a small but quintessentially Levantine desert known for its sandstone mesas, natural arches, and dramatic, ethereal light.
“The best way to know a place is to walk across it.”
The small group of adventurers from seven countries—strangers, all of us, and mostly women—was led by an excellent guide named Ayman Abd Alkareem, 31, of Experience Jordan Adventures, who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of botany, Middle Eastern history, and, clearly, the psychology of reluctant outdoorswomen. The air was crystalline and chilly the morning we set forth, skirting and descending a wide gorge. “This is a virgin trail made by shepherds, donkeys, camels, and goats,” explained Ayman. The strain on my muscles became a chronic discomfort, not unlike how I feel after a spin class when my body collides with my will and the latter somehow prevails.
A great heart beats in Amman, said Ayman, but Jordan’s soul is in the desert. As our hike continued, the path evolved into a labyrinth of dried riverbeds known as wadis, which led to iron-rich canyons. The leaves of tamarisk, cypress, and jujube trees painted patches of green along the path, and artemisia—or wormwood, the most infamous ingredient in absinthe—blew a floral scent. The only sounds were the hum of wind and the crunch of our feet over rugged contours of landscape. White sandstone formations reminded me of southern Utah, but here, the canal system was said to be made by Ottomans and is fed by the Sea of Galilee.
The wind began to blow chill straight to my bones. I quickly learned to appreciate my new cold-weather wardrobe, as well as the bandages that protected my blisters. I had stashed a few bags of M&M’s in my pack, but it was hard to beat Ayman’s mix of cumin-seasoned almonds, pistachios, and cashews. We often stopped along the way to rest and nibble.
In the stretch between Dana and Petra, there are dozens of Bedouin families, and at day’s end we passed through a tent village and were met by the sweet faces of a herd of baby goats. Ayman instructed us on how to interact with the conservative Bedouins, respecting their ancient culture while enjoying their famous hospitality.
Just beyond, the mud-brick Feynan Ecolodge seemed to rise organically from the sand. It employs the members of many families in the community, and includes a solar-powered wastewater-treatment facility. The lodge minimizes refrigeration needs by refraining from serving meat, and so our superb dinner included cabbage soup, hummus, and vegetable dishes. Afterward, I retired to my room, which, like the rest of the hotel, was lit only by candles. The sheets were made of crisp Egyptian cotton, and, to-the-core exhausted, I wrapped up in them tightly.
The next morning, I limped to breakfast, and after a Bedouin fortified us with grainy coffee in his tent, our trek began again. There was a spray of raindrops, but it was history that engulfed me most. This was the same trade route trodden by the Nabateans—merchants who settled here beginning in the sixth century B.C., ferrying spices, copper, and sugar. At lunchtime, the hilltop tomb of Moses’s brother, Aaron, was visible across the ridge. Soon, we slipped through an opening into Little Petra, a Silk Road village carved into red sandstone walls. Here, one’s gaze tilts up at the ingenious dwellings, at a ceiling fresco of grapevines, at the ribbon of sky above.
At the campsite, my feet, calves, and hamstrings were too spent to care about comfort, but the delicious dinner was prepared Zarb-style—i.e., Bedouin barbecue, including chicken and vegetables that were roasted in an underground fire pit. Soon, I melted onto my mattress, in my zero-star Coleman tent, fully dressed in tomorrow’s clothes.
A Backwards Approach
While most tourists are bused to Bab el-Siq, the group of monuments that serve as a gateway to Petra, we approached the city backwards. After three and one half miles on foot, the outline of the Monastery urn emerged over a hill. Soon, we spotted the massive façade carved into a mountainside, giving an inexpressible first impression of the ancient settlement. We descended 850 stairs and arrived at Petra proper. Donkeys, camels, and merchants vied for my attention, but I focused on the niches where 30,000 people from this once-humming place lived, gathered, and died. Sun blazed overhead, bestowing shades of orange marmalade onto the edifices and canyons.
At the end of the day, we reached the Treasury, Petra’s showpiece, finally seeing what most travelers experience immediately upon arrival. The dust bore imprimaturs of thousands of wanderers before me, including Gertrude Bell, who left Petra regretfully and wrote that she “longed for another day.” I felt similarly.
After three days and 33 miles, the Jordan Trail was behind us. We still had to climb Jabal Umm ad Dami, the country’s highest mountain, with an elevation of 6,083 feet. Drizzle cooled us off at the summit, where there was a panoramic view of Saudi Arabia and the Red Sea.
The Land of T. E. Lawrence, David Lean, and Matt Damon
Next, we drove by pickup to Wadi Rum, where eternity lingers among the haunting, desolate landscape. The name means “Valley of the Moon,” and though it is arguably lunar, it is definitely otherworldly: Matt Damon’s The Martian was filmed here. As was Lawrence of Arabia, and I imagined the ghost of David Lean setting up a tracking shot of Peter O’Toole on camelback. In the distance were the rusty remains of the Hejaz railway, portions of which once connected Damascus to Medina, and which was partly blown up by T. E. Lawrence, among others, in the uprising against the Turks.
Most of the year, the pink-red sand broils under stagnant summer heat, but not this time. Instead, there was a churn of snowflakes and clatter of hailstones. In the main tent at Milky Way camp, I huddled beside the fire, eating platefuls of hummus with za’atar.
“I imagined the ghost of David Lean setting up a tracking shot of Peter O’Toole on camelback.”
At 4:30 a.m., I slipped out from under a slab of blankets, affixed my headlamp, and wandered around the place Lawrence called “vast and echoing and God-like.” The sky was white with stars. A dozen or so camels announced their presence with a loud racket and passed with bendy struts, close enough for me to see their eyelashes.
Ayman told me that Wadi Rum sand carries a healing electrical charge. What the heck, I thought, as daylight began to reveal the dunes around me. I removed my shoes and socks, digging my feet into the damp red earth. They were a patchwork of bandages and moleskin. Inside, the main tent smelled of cinnamon, cardamom, and sage, the stuff of Bedouin tea. The man stoking the fire looked at my bare feet, grinned, and raised the kettle.
Marcia De Sanctis is a writer based in Litchfield County, Connecticut.