The Rum run

It's searingly hot and dry, and the Jordanian desert landforms seem strangely familiar.

I'm bouncing over the red sands of the Jordanian desert in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, trying not to bump my head on its roof, when my driver points out the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. A gigantic promontory thrust up from the level desert floor, its red rock is creased by multiple vertical folds, giving the illusion of craggy columns.

When T.E. Lawrence, later renowned as Lawrence of Arabia, rode through here on a camel during the First World War, he remarked on the “gorgeous ... sunset colour; the cliffs as red as the clouds in the west.”

Wadi Rum is still starkly impressive. Covering more than 700 square kilometres, it's a sensational mix of sandy desert, narrow canyons, and lofty mountains of granite and sandstone.

The area is so hot and dry that on first impression it seems unlikely to support life; but there are hyenas, ibexes and Syrian wolves in this wilderness, along with smaller animals. There are also nomadic Bedouin tribes, many of whose members now make a living driving visitors through the desert.

They may have swapped camels for jeeps, but our drivers don't believe in keeping things too tame. As we tear across the desert in convoy, with some passengers perched on seating on the vehicles' open trays, they zigzag from one sandy track to another. Both speed and excitement builds, as new vistas open up around us.

Strangely, these vast rocky mounds seem familiar, and then I realise why – I'm being incongruously reminded of the backdrops of classic Hollywood westerns.

At least they had cactuses. Here, aside from feeble clumps of brush, there's sand and stone as far as I can see. It's also extraordinarily hot, so it's good to reach our first refreshment break, a set of traditional tents set in the sand. Nearby are more reminders that humans have conquered even these harsh spaces. The Alameleh inscriptions, high up on a rock wall, are ancient drawings depicting camels and other wildlife. At ground level is the real thing, dromedaries which can be hired for a plod across the sands.

Some of the group take to camelback for the next stage of the journey, but I stick with Ali, my demon driver, and reach the next stop before them. This time the tents are pitched within a well of cool shade created by two soaring formations which meet at an angle.

Walking away from the camp, I stand alone in the harsh sunlight for a moment and peer up at the stony walls. Curving and pitted, they seem shaped by some unseen hand, chipping away at their surfaces for millennia. Lawrence described Wadi Rum as “vast and echoing and godlike,” and time hasn't yet worn away that particular pillar of wisdom. 

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Tim Richards travelled courtesy of the Jordan Tourism Board.

THE FACTS

FLY Etihad (1300 532 215, etihad.com) flies from Melbourne to Amman, Jordan, from $1200 economy return.

TOUR The $6.75 Wadi Rum admission fee is paid at the Wadi Rum Visitor Centre, 50 kilometres  north-east of Aqaba, Jordan. The centre can arrange 4WD tours from about $50 a vehicle. Alternatively, book a tour from Aqaba via Above & Below.

STAY Captain's Desert Camp, Wadi Rum. Movenpick Resort, King Hussein Street, Aqaba.

EAT Rum Gate Restaurant, Wadi Rum Visitor Centre (captains-jo.com).

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