Shaney Hudson finds warm hospitality amid a striking landscape so ancient the occasional fossil is scooped up.
We have just reached our destination when the first drops fall. The desert haze begins to dissipate under the force of the rain, sharpening the landscape into focus. People and animals scatter as the torrent grows heavier; a disgruntled camel snaps its leash and trots off with the owner in pursuit, while a goat herder struggles to move his flock.
As the deluge continues, canyons begin to drain, sending gurgling, yellow fingers of flash flooding towards thirsty crops. The deafening rain drowns out all sound, but the smiles on faces tell the story: the first rain in months has fallen in the desert of Wadi Dana and it's a cause for celebration.
I've been in Jordan for several days, but it's not until I reach Wadi Dana that I find the Middle East I'd always imagined: dramatic landscapes and remote communities, Bedouin camps and, above all else, gracious hospitality.
A friend who frequently travels to the country had encouraged me to visit, insisting I ignore the cookie-cutter five-star hotels on the Dead Sea in favour of Feynan Ecolodge in the Dana Biosphere Reserve, an award-winning eco-lodge setting the standard for green holidays in Jordan.
The privately managed lodge in the village of Feynan is accessible only by four-wheel-drive transfer or on foot. We've chosen to hike in from Dana village, a five-hour, 14-kilometre walk downhill through the Dana Biosphere Reserve.
Perched like a raptor's nest on a rugged cliff top, the 400-year-old village of Dana is filled with Ottoman-era stone houses and is bordered by a small oasis filled with apricot, fig and pomegranate trees. Largely abandoned, a few houses have been restored in the hope of attracting tourists, and a small number of accommodation venues have been established, including Dana Guesthouse, where we spend the night.
After sending our luggage on ahead, we meet our Bedouin guide, Mohammad Daifalla, the next morning. Unlike the gold sunset that filled the wadi with vibrant light, shade and anticipation the night before, today the valley is filled with clouds, washing out the sandstone colours of the landscape. Mohammad, who was born in this wadi, points out the vultures cruising on the lip of canyons, scanning the crags for endangered nubian ibex. Then he picks a handful of wild sage for our tea and identifies the faint outline of paw prints along the track.
The Dana biosphere is home to more than 690 plant and 449 animal species, and includes three major bio-geographical zones and four distinct vegetation zones. But Mohammad puts the heritage of the area in perspective when he hands me a small curved and ridged fossil he's seen lying exposed on the ground. I realise it is a seashell, evidence of the inland sea that once covered the area.
As we descend further into the valley, Mohammad's cheeky sense of humour emerges, too. He expertly climbs a sheer cliff face to snatch at a handful of spindly green and yellow weeds growing there. Back on the ground, he offers a sprig to my partner, who takes a cautious sniff, nibbles at the leaf, then spits it out. "What does it taste like?" Mohammad asks, his face serious.
"Well ..." my partner says hesitantly, not wanting to be rude, "soap?"
"Yep. Soap," Mohammad says, breaking into a grin. With a rock he crushes the leaves into a thick green mush, placing a small dollop of the mixture into our cupped hands before adding a dash of water to our palms. Rubbing our hands together, the mixture begins to lather into silken white foam. Bedouin soap, from nature's recipe.
Eventually the wadi begins to widen and the banks flatten, the trail settling into a dry riverbed. Wadi Dana is said to be one of the oldest continually inhabited areas of Jordan. Neolithic, Nabatean, Roman and Byzantine communities are believed to settled here, leaving behind an archaeological puzzle of copper mines, churches and aqueducts. We pass tents as we enter the valley, some with donkeys, horses and camels tethered outside. At each tent a voice in Arabic calls out, offering tea, but the grey clouds gathering overhead push us on.
Feynan Ecolodge is a distinctive, two-storey adobe building that blends in with the desert, despite having dozens of solar panels lining its roof. Just as we reach it, the rain begins. We shelter inside, sipping a concoction of citrus, cardamom and cloves and chatting with a young Bedouin worker named Suleiman. He invites us to have coffee at his father's tent once the rain stops. "No business," he smiles, "just pleasure."
When the rain stops, we set out on the hotel's mountain bikes towards a cluster of black tents in the distance, fresh mud flecking our clothes. One tent we enter is slightly damp, but the tightly woven goats-hair fabric, made by hand, has kept the water out. We take off our shoes and pad across the rugs laid on the ground, curling our feet underneath us.
To take tea is tradition in Jordan, but to have coffee in a Bedouin tent is special. The beans are roasted on a black cast-iron ladle, alongside fat, aromatic cardamon seeds. When they change colour, Suleiman tips the beans into a thick gold mortar. Using a large wooden pestle, each time he grinds the beans it lets off a ringing sound. Like a kettle's whistle, it's a signal to the neighbours that coffee is soon to be served.
While it brews over a wood fire, Suleiman introduces us to his father. Whereas Suleiman is dressed in a polo short and baseball cap, his father wears a traditional kufiya on his head and long robes. Feynan Ecolodge is integrated with the local community, offering guests an authentic experience among rural Bedouin families. Furniture in lodge rooms and the hundreds of candles that light the hotel at night are made in workshops on-site. In the kitchen, chefs prepare vegetarian meals from food sourced as locally as possible. A local woman makes the shraak bread for the lodge, providing an income for her family. Lodge transfers over the bumpy desert terrain take place in locally owned 4WDs and are a source of income for drivers.
Later, back at the lodge, where candles flicker in mirrored niches built into the walls and white netting hangs above beds in our room, we shower in water warmed by solar power before heading downstairs to sip sweet tea with lodge staff, share stories of our homes, and make new friends.
Shaney Hudson travelled with the assistance of Visit Jordan.
ECO AND EXCHANGE
Jordan is developing community-based, ecologically sensitive tourism ventures. Among the best known are those run by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature in protected areas of the country. See rscn.org.jo.
SHE EcoPark offers workshops, hiking and camping travel in a rehabilitated area of the Jordan River valley. See jordanecopark.com.
The Al Ayoun Trail in the country's north is a community-based program that includes visits to local villages. See abrahampath.org/jordan.php.
The Zikra Initiative focuses on exchange tourism, offering hiking and cooking classes, with proceeds used to fund development in poor communities. See zikrainitiative.org.
Getting there Emirates has a fare to Amman, Jordan, from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2085 low-season return, including taxes. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr), then Amman (3hr 40min). See emirates.com.
Feynan Ecolodge's reception area is about 215 kilometres (a 2½-hour drive) south of Amman. It takes an additional 30-minute four-wheel-drive transfer on unsealed roads to reach the village. The ecolodge can arrange transfers from Amman. Dana is about 190 kilometres (a three-hour drive) from Amman. Although Dana and the Feynan Ecolodge are just 14 kilometres apart as the crow flies, it takes two hours to travel by road between them.
Staying there Feynan Ecolodge has 26 rooms, priced from 66.96 dinars ($92) a night, low season, to 119 dinars a night in the high season. The cost includes breakfast. Meals cost from 12 dinars; hikes and excursions from 7 dinars. It's best to pay in cash as, although credit cards are accepted, lodge staff are often unable to make a telco connection to process payments. See feynan.com.
Dana Guesthouse has nine rooms with shared facilities, from 45 dinars a night. See rscn.org.jo.
More information Entry to the Dana Biosphere Reserve costs 7 dinars. Hiking from Dana village to Feynan requires a good degree of fitness and a guide, which can be arranged through Feynan Ecolodge. Shorter walks and excursions are available from both Dana village and Feynan Ecolodge. See visitjordan.com.
Recommended reading Matthew Teller's Rough Guide to Jordan (fifth edition, 2013) RRP: $29.99.