Oases in the desert? You bet. Gemma Bowes discovers must-see landscapes between ancient sites.
YELLOW grit, the depressing mesh fences of army barracks and long chains of oil tankers coming in from Saudi Arabia. This was the Middle East as imagined by people who don't know anything about the Middle East. And there had been nothing else in hours.
Road signs said "Iraq ahead". "Don't fall asleep!" laughed our driver, Ahmed. "Maybe I keep going and you wake up in Baghdad!"
At last, something green. Palm trees. Then houses, a mosque and a black-basalt fortress. We had reached the point of the eastern desert of Jordan where the sands turn black with volcanic basalt rock. A trickle of travellers makes it out here - 100 kilometres from Amman and well off the tourist trail between Petra, Wadi Rum and the Dead Sea - to see several desert castles, built in the seventh and eighth centuries by the Umayyads. It's an empire no one remembers, though it was once the biggest in the world, governing 13 million square kilometres from Spain to present-day Pakistan.
What brought us to the desert was the same thing that attracted the Umayyads (and before them the Romans, the Nabateans and the neolithic people): an oasis, the desert's only water source.
The Azraq wetland, an area of pools surrounded by tall grasses, bullrushes and reeds, is one of Jordan's six nature parks, established by the country's Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. One million migratory birds used to stop here every year. But no more. Since the 1980s, the site has been in a state of environmental disaster as the Azraq water basin that feeds it has also been pumped to supply the population. The pools have shrunk to 0.4 per cent of their original area.
Azraq might not be the paradise garden it once was (though the RSCN is fighting to get it back) but it's a fascinating stopoff after the castles. We explored the pools on wooden walkways and spotted ducks, egrets and a cormorant from an adobe hide.
To encourage visitors to discover Azraq, the RSCN has turned a 1940s British field hospital into a lodge decorated with period trunks and black-and-white photographs of Bedouin. The barracks contain stylish tiled bedrooms with flagstone floors and cactus-studded desert views.
This forward-thinking way of combining ecotourism with conservation has been put into practice in all of Jordan's six nature parks, which cover a range of landscapes - forests at Ajloun and Dibeen, the Rift Valley's canyons at Dana Biosphere Reserve, mountains and rivers at Mujib near the Dead Sea coast and desert grassland at Shaumari, near Azraq.
Travellers dashing between the country's main attractions typically pay scant attention to these nature parks but they are one of Jordan's best assets. I made them the focus of a 10-day tour of the country with my mum but because Jordan's so small it was perfectly viable to include the major historic sites, too.
Our first port of call in Amman - before seeing the city's Roman amphitheatres, souks and modern art gallery - was the headquarters of Wild Jordan, the RSCN offshoot responsible for ecotourism and for socio-economic projects that support the rural communities living around the reserves.
The architect-designed building on the edge of the capital's starting-to-be-hip district, Rainbow Street, is also a visitor centre, with a sun terrace affording views of the seven hills to which the city clings and a boutique selling locally made crafts.
Oman has its frankincense, Morocco leather and Saudi gold but Jordan didn't have much in the way of traditional crafts. So Wild Jordan has worked with villagers to develop some, using local, sustainable materials - painted ostrich eggs from Azraq, olive oil soap from Ajloun and Bedouin silverware from Dana.
The director of Wild Jordan, British expat Chris Johnson, met us for a cup of tea and had some exciting news. The government had just agreed to establish nine more protected areas, including three in the Rift Valley, plus two near Wadi Rum and one in Burqu, the black-basalt desert we had seen near Azraq. There will be one in the limestone hills and deciduous forest on the border with Syria, another in a subtropical wetland south of the Rift Valley and one at Jebel Masuda, an "amazing" mountain near Petra from which you can enter the famous site through a back route.
The strategy is to keep tourists in Jordan longer, to explore more of the country. It's easy to do. By early afternoon the next day, we'd left Amman, seen Roman Jerash's dusty amphitheatres and chariot racetracks, walked the dark passageways of Ajloun's crusader castle and were hiking in the fresh sunshine in the Ajloun forest reserve.
It was December, sunny but too cold for safari tents, so we holed up in one of its gorgeous wooden cabins and read under thick blankets until we were called for a delicious dinner of lentil soup, salads and stew. Sadly, there was none of Jordan's lovely red wine, St George - all the ecolodges are alcohol-free.
On our way to the next reserve, we stayed a night in Madaba, to see its famous sixth-century mosaic map of the Holy Land on the floor of St George's Church, and stood the next day on nearby Mount Nebo, where Moses is said to have looked across the Dead Sea to Jericho.
"Just close your eyes for 15 seconds now," Ahmed said from the driver's seat as we headed south across flat, barren land on the King's Highway. "One, two ...," he counted slowly. We hoped he was keeping his own eyes open. "Fifteen! OK!" Before us was the most incredible scene, an immense canyon stretching into the distance. I was dumbstruck. The Mujib is Jordan's answer to the Grand Canyon but I'd never heard of it. Here, Wild Jordan offers stays in eco-chalets, with swimming and canyoning trips along river trails.
We spent the next day at the impressive Karak Crusader castle and by the afternoon we were at the rose-red city of Petra. What I'd underestimated was the staggering beauty of the landscape. We did a steep hike up to the Sacred High Place and afterwards wanted to wash off the dust at a traditional hammam. "There is only a mixed one, if that is OK for you," Ahmed said. We thought it was but then his mates turned up and kept "accidentally" bursting in on us while we got changed and had massages. I read later that Jordanian women would never go to a mixed hammam.
As foreign females, we were generally treated with respect but in Jordan strict boundaries govern the genders. Few women work and they are not expected to make eye contact with male strangers. But Jordan wants to modernise. Queen Rania is pushing for female social development and Wild Jordan is doing its bit, employing women as lodge staff and craft makers.
The Dana Biosphere Reserve - a canyon home to 800 plant varieties, 214 species of bird and 45 types of mammal - runs along the Rift Valley to the desert of Wadi Araba. The Bedouin who lived there were no longer allowed to hunt when it was made a nature park but many were retrained as hotel staff at Dana Guesthouse at the top of the canyon and Feynan Ecolodge at the bottom, or as nature guides.
Dana's lovely lodge had simple rooms with polished-stone floors and iron beds with thick cream bedspreads, as well as Bedouin rugs, but the canyon views are its big attraction. In contrast, the dry desert setting of Feynan Ecolodge on the western edge of the reserve wasn't so beautiful. The lodge was magical - lit by candles and resembling a sandcastle. It is eco to the extreme - solar-powered and vegetarian, with clever water and cooling systems. It is surrounded by archaeological sites dating 10,000 years - Nabatean ruins, Roman copper mines, Byzantine churches, neolithic villages.
We took a tour of Dana village with Hamed, an RSCN guide. "Since the 1980s, tourism has changed life here," he said. "Before, there was no school, no TV and women had to ask permission to leave the house. Now they go to university."
The village had been deserted when people moved to modern homes close to a new road and its old stone-and-juniper wood buildings were crumbling. But the RSCN plans to restore them and is offering free houses, plus jobs in the restaurants, museum and music venue it hopes to create there to entice villagers back.
Our last stop was the Hammamet Ma'In hot springs, where King Herod once bathed. Wild Jordan has a Dead Sea visitors' centre nearby but no lodge, so we stayed at the posh Evason spa hotel.
I asked the manager if they employed local women. "No, women do not work in Jordan," he said, assuring me the towering hotel - with its $1600 suites, Thai masseurs, Western food, shuttle buses and luxury Sri Lankan fabrics - was eco-friendly. Sure, it had its own spring water and an organic vegetable patch but I am certain the lodges in the new Wild Jordan will offer a more authentic experience.
Etihad Airways flies from Sydney to Amman, Jordan, via Abu Dhabi, priced from $2133. 1800 998 995, etihadairways.com.
Emirates flies to Amman via Dubai, priced from $1896. 1300 303 777, emirates.com.
Royal Jordanian Airlines partners with airlines flying from Sydney to Hong Kong or Bangkok. 1300 855 057, rj.com/en.
Wild Jordan recommends itineraries for day, overnight or extended journeys to reserves, with ecolodge stays. rscn.org.jo.
Jordan Tours hosts six-night Wild Exploration expeditions from Amman to Shaumari Reserve and Azraq, Mujib Nature Reserve, the Dead Sea and Dana Nature Reserve, as well as to Petra, Little Petra, Beidha and Wadi Rum. Expeditions include hiking in reserves, staying at Azraq Lodge, accommodation, meals and four-wheel-drive travel. +962 3 215 5200, seejordantours.com.
Peregrine Adventures' 10-day Jordan Explorer includes visits to Azraq, Dana village, the desert castles and Shaumari Reserve, from $2295 a person, twin share. 1300 791 485, peregrineadventures.com.
Three other things to do
1. Aqaba has a thriving beach scene and nightlife. In Roman times, Aqaba linked Damascus to the Red Sea and is remains Jordan's only seaport. Aqaba is a closer base for tours to Petra's tombs and temples and Wadi Rum's extraordinary landscapes (both are about 90 minutes' drive by car).
2. Umm Qais is popular with day trippers from Amman for its views as well as its Greco-Roman ruins. This is border country: behold, Syria; behold the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias) in Israel, the southern end of the Golan Heights and mountains leading to Lebanon. Umm Qais is about 110 kilometres north-west of Amman. Bring your camera; the landscape is stunningly lush.
3. The Jordan National Gallery of Fine Arts (nationalgallery.org) on Muntazah Circle in Amman's Luweibdeh neighbourhood (not far from Wild Jordan's office), exhibits works by artists from across the Arab world. The nearby Darat al-Funun (daratalfunun.org), also known as the "Little House of the Arts", has edgier contemporary exhibits and digital installations.