Star trekking

Sue Williams takes a camel ride in the tracks of Lawrence of Arabia.

LOPING on my camel across the burning red sands of a Middle Eastern desert, soaring cliffs either side and a couple of Bedouin tribesmen in billowing white robes ahead, the only thing missing from the scene is the majestic swell of the overture to the seven-Oscar-winning movie Lawrence of Arabia.

It's astonishing but, nearly 50 years on from the film's release and 95 years after the World War I battles against the Ottoman Empire it depicts, it really doesn't feel as if anything here has changed. At all. The deep-rose sands of one of the most picturesque deserts in the world, Jordan's Wadi Rum, are timeless, as are the majestic jebels, or craggy mountains, that form its magnificent spine. The camels are the same ungainly beasts of burden that seem to spend as much time eating, peeing and evacuating their bowels as actually moving forward.

And the Bedouin? Well, today they might all carry BlackBerries and have email addresses and 4WDs to help them about their daily business but many still return regularly to the desert to commune with their ancestral spirits.

"Why wouldn't we?" asks my Bedouin guide for this camel trek, Obied Naser Al-Amamreh. "It is our home. No one can take that away. It has always been our home and it always will be." He looks out towards the far distant horizon, a misty line of sand shimmering in the midday heat before turning to us and grinning. "Pretty good, huh?"

The three of us on this trip nod our agreement enthusiastically. I've ridden camels in Egypt before, in outback Queensland and in Broome, but this really is something else. I couldn't imagine a more atmospheric setting than this vast, stunning wilderness, complete with Obeid, a strikingly handsome Omar Sharif (in his younger days) lookalike, even down to the gap between his front teeth.

To be honest, I've never really liked camels much and riding them even less - as a kid I spent most of my time falling off bikes and roller skates. But here, now, there's nothing else in the world I'd rather do. Yes, you do get saddle-sore, your hips do become numb and you do worry you'll be bow-legged for the rest of your life, but the experience is magic in so many other ways.

You're free to get off and walk your camel whenever you like and the meals, one night a ragout of meat and vegetables cooked in an underground oven buried in the sand rather like a New Zealand hangi, are delicious. Sleeping in a Bedouin tent, on a soft mattress between crisp white sheets - now that's one thing that will have changed in the past century - is surprisingly comfortable, too.

"We don't say it's one- or two- or three- or four-star accommodation," says Obeid, who has his own camp at Wadi Rum, an hour and a half's drive from the World Heritage archaeological site of Petra. "We say it's a million stars." Corny but true. The nights are wondrous, clear and still, lit up by a Milky Way that you feel you can see past infinity.

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One evening, Obeid's son, nephew and uncle come along and the three play music on a Middle Eastern guitar, sing and dance for us, then encourage us to join in. Other nights we listen to his stories and swap jokes.

During the day, there's riding the camels, walking and then frequent stops to explore. You can climb up some of the jebels for expansive views across the desert. One day we come across a group of archaeologists on an expedition from a British museum, each one dressed in spotless safari suits.

On our third day, we make the trip to the small cairn carved with a likeness of T.E. Lawrence, to which everyone, visitors and locals alike, come to pay their respects. "Lawrence of Arabia," Obeid says reverently. "Can't you just feel him here?" We don't need to say anything.

Trip notes

Getting there

Etihad Airways flies form Sydney to Amman, Jordan via Abu Dhabi, (02) 8024 7200, etihadairways.com.

Touring there: Wadirumtrips, wadirumtrips.net.

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