At first they appear in ones and twos, until finally the orbs fill the entire view of my mask with their pulsing neon lights. I duck-dive deeper, the galaxy of jellyfish opening like a black hole, granting me access to their eerie Cnidarian world.
I resurface, taking in the views across the Gulf of Aqaba to Jordan, Israel and Egypt before plunging back under, eager for the rest of the performance. Choreographed by the currents, these tiny dancers pirouette in purple tutus, their billowing hoops back lit by the sun's rays.
"Ballerinas?" says a fellow guest, once we're back on-board our day cruiser. "Blobs of slime more like it."
While half our group trusted the Jordanian captain when he told us the Red Sea jellies wouldn't sting, the other half had opted to stay dry, reclining on the wide, open deck and sipping sweet tea. Everyone enjoys the barbecued lunch of fragrant chicken, hummus and flatbread, and the cruise back to Aqaba, Jordan's only coastal city. It's day five of Bunnik Tours' 25-day Egypt and Jordan in-depth tour and, as we're discovering, the well-planned itinerary is providing a good balance between adventure, luxury, organised activities and free time.
We'd started in the Jordanian capital of Amman, driving south along the King's Highway, wheeling through a brittle landscape stripped of colour, but strewn with oddities. There's a fighter jet parked at a roundabout, and a roadside meat market displaying goat carcasses festooned with flowers. Children herd sheep at busy intersections and crumbling crusader castles loom against the sky like fortresses in a fantasy film.
We stop at Mt Nebo, where our Jordanian guide Ahmad Hussein leads us to the hilltop where Moses was granted a view of the Promised Land. Another detour brings us to Madaba, with its sixth-century mosaic floor map of the Middle East, said to be the world's oldest map of the Holy Land. This is one of the delights of Bunnik Tours' leisurely itinerary, the chance to slip on and off the tourist trail, to sample the big-ticket items as well as the small.
The Dead Sea arrives in a rush of blue, as abrupt as an ink stain on a cream carpet. At 420 metres below sea level it is the lowest bit of land on earth, and one of the most salty. From our base at the Movenpick Resort and Spa, we spend an afternoon bobbing like corks in the briny water, plastering ourselves in mud and, finally, watching the setting sun spin the water into pink fairy floss.
The next morning we head further south, edging the Dead Sea and gazing down on bleached and crystallised cliffs that drip into the water like melted frosting. "The Dead Sea is dropping by more than a metre a year," says Hussein, "Dams in Jordan, Israel and even Syria are to blame." We learn that without intervention (such as a $10 billion pipeline) the lake might be dry by 2050.
We push on, ducking and weaving across the spine of the Great Rift Valley through countryside that has changed little since Moses was a boy. Every so often Hussein stops to show us something – one time it's a pillar of salt said to be Lot's wife mentioned in the book of Genesis, another it's Wadi al-Mujib, the Grand Canyon of Jordan. With a four-year degree in archaeology from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, Hussein is the perfect guide for our group of 16 Australians, all keen to understand the nuances of Jordan's convoluted history.
We pick up the Kings Highway again, once one of the most important north-south trade routes of ancient times, long trammelled by traders and crusaders, kings and pilgrims. Today, Bedouins continue to take advantage of the natural springs and valleys, their canvas tents billowing like sails anchored to a heaving desert.
It is late afternoon when we turn off the Desert Highway and enter Wadi Rum, a 720-square-kilometre valley crisscrossed by mountains in the shape of stone giants. "Vast, echoing and godlike," was how T.E. Lawrence described it in his memoir, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Soon, in a moment akin to falling down Alice's rabbit hole, we are plodding through it, having been invited by the local Zalabia Bedouins to join them on a camel trek. It was here that Lawrence successfully united and led the diverse Arab tribes during World War I in order to fight the Ottoman Turks. Gaining almost mythical status the story was told (inaccurately) in David Lean's famous 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. More recently Wadi Rum doubled as Mars in Ridley Scott's The Martian, starring Matt Damon.
We stop just as the sun is about to set, sitting in circles as our guides roll out their prayer mats, each of us quietly giving thanks in our own private way. No words, movies or photographs can do justice to the haunting stillness of Wadi Rum, surely, one of the most magnificent sights on earth. Back at our desert camp we feast on steaming lamb and potatoes cooked in a drum under the sand, before joining our Bedouin hosts for a rousing folk dance beneath the soaring cliffs. As we spin and twirl under a limitless sky the wind drops and the moon rises, the stars so bright and close I could reach out and pluck one. Later, heading back to my small canvas tent, I too feel "shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars", as T.E. Lawrence wrote in his memoir.
An early start and we are soon sliding through the sands in the back of a 4WD, barrelling through a maze of mesas, alongside natural arches and through narrow canyons. Inscribed by UNESCO as a mixed natural and cultural site, the scarlet wilderness is home to 25,000 petroglyphs (ancient rock carvings), 20,000 inscriptions and 154 archaeological sites testifying to 12,000 years of human occupation. Today, the nomadic Zalabia and Zawaideh tribes still call the desert home.
We take to the sands on foot and Hussein's keen eyes pick up things we may have missed – thin green plants used by the Zalabia to make soap, a poisonous watermelon-like fruit used to treat arthritis, even a newborn camel, all lips, legs and long eyelashes. It's on a flat expanse of canyon wall that we meet the hunters, a spear of excitement stabbing at my soul. This is what I've travelled for – to see for myself, and not in National Geographic magazines – Jordan's ancient petroglyphs.
There's a hunter on horseback, his bow and arrow trained on an ibex, another rides a camel, swinging a mallet-shaped weapon high above his head. All tell the story of survival in a harsh climate. Elsewhere, Thamudic, Nabataean and Arabic inscriptions testify to the widespread literacy among these early pastoral societies.
In the days ahead we'll travel more of the King's Highway, visiting the rose city of Petra and neighbouring Little Petra, we'll swim with purple jellyfish in the Red Sea and storm crusader castles. But for now I'm content to ponder the petroglyphs, visual storyboards of an ancient land relaying messages through time from wanderers long past.
Kerry van der Jagt travelled as a guest of Bunnik Tours.
Emirates Airlines flies to Dubai daily from Melbourne and Sydney, with onward connections to Amman in Jordan. See emirates.com
Bunnik Tours' 25-day Egypt and Jordan in-depth tour includes nine nights in Jordan visiting Petra, Amman, Jerash, the Dead Sea, Wadi Rum and Aqaba from $9895 per person, including international airfares. See bunniktours.com