Wadi Rum. Jordan.
Just the name evokes images of grand deserts and endless dunes, the hot blistering sun, and bedouin roaming on camel trains. It is the biblical desert, Lawrence of Arabia’s desert, and a worthy rival to the Sahara. When I was planning my trip to Jordan, Wadi Rum was foremost on my mind. Even more than Petra. But it was also the part of the trip I had least planned for. Once in Jordan the hope was to ask around and arrange transport to Wadi Rum, and if I’m lucky, get to camp out there for at least a night. In the unplanned moments, some of the best travel happens. And Wadi Rum delivered in spades.
After having been in Amman for a couple of days, I settled on a driver that came highly recommended by my hotel (the Toledo) to cart me around Jordan. On a day trip to explore Petra I brought up the topic of Wadi Rum and how best to experience it. He seemed a bit surprised that I wanted to stay overnight there, and even more so when I told him that the typical tour groups and their camp sites weren’t exactly what I wanted.
This is when he told me about an area of Wadi Rum that is just outside the national reserve, equally as beautiful but less frequented by travelers. His good friend who happened to be a Bedouin had a camp out there, where local Jordanians usually tend to go to experience the desert. Now that sounded much more like it. So we settled on a date to drive out to the edge of the desert and then venture further in to the Bedouin camp site with his friend.
As we drove north from Amman into the desert region of Jordan and reached the outskirts of Wadi Rum, a little train station came into view in the distance with a steam engine stopped on the tracks. We drove in for a closer look and there it was – the very train seen in the Lawrence of Arabia film. It was introduced into service in 1916, and although it doesn’t haul passengers any more, it still runs into Saudia Arabia carrying mining materials apparently. My fascination for trains quickly kicked my shot clicking into high gear as I tried to capture this site from every angle, delaying our meeting with the Bedouin by a good hour.
Onwards we drove from the train station, the landscapes and unique natural formations of Wadi Rum now coming into view all around us. The whole area was under an ancient ocean millions of years ago and now exposed above sea level, it has undergone further wind and rain erosion to become the mystically beautiful place it is today.
We finally met with my driver’s friend who then drove us to the campsite in his 4×4. Unlike yesteryear, the 4×4 is the modern day camel of the desert – there was not a single camel in sight much to my disappointment.
The Bedouin welcomed us into their main tent and told us refreshments would be on their way soon. That was certainly music to my ears, as it was blindingly hot under the midday sun. I was confused however when they served me a small glass of hot Arabian coffee, and the driver picked up on my hesitation to drink it. He explained that hot coffee is a traditional desert drink. Drinking something hot makes you sweat more, thereby cooling your body down faster. Well that totally made sense. Chalk it up to another useful tip learned on travels.
After lunch and a little nap in my open tent, one of the other Bedouin said it was time to go explore the surrounding desert and catch the sunset as I had requested. Cameras in hand, I eagerly jumped in his 4×4 and off we went. The landscapes I saw speak for themselves. It is safe to say that my jaw was mostly not where it was supposed to be as we soaked in vista after vista.
After we got to talking about his life in the desert, and mine in Toronto, the driver cranked up some music and we started bashing the sand dunes with our 4×4. He even let me have a go at it.
First it was some Arabic music which I quite liked. Things turned a bit more eerie when he popped in his Reggaeton CD. There’s something to be said however, about driving around in the Arabian desert while Latin Reggae tunes are pumped out of your 4×4 in generous decibels. Eventually we found a high spot to climb up and catch the sun setting over the beautiful desert expanse.
As evening rolled in, the treats kept coming.. A BBQ with lamb and chicken, followed by song and dance. By now a large group of local Ammanians had come to the camp site for their overnight stay in the desert. There was a great atmosphere building up, as was the flow of local alcohol.
I was only allowed to photograph the males dancing, and even then I wanted to be careful and not overdo it. When it comes to photographing people in foreign lands, sometimes it is best to politely ask first.
As things quieted down and as the night sky started to light up, I started to get excited to finally see and capture what I had really looked forward to the most: gazing at the stars, in one of the least light polluted places on earth.
It took some convincing for the Bedouin and my driver to finally agree that I should walk out alone into the desert as I really wanted to escape the light from the campsite. They gave me an old torchlight and told me to watch my step, and to never lose sight of the camp’s lights behind me. Sound advice.
After walking some distance, I could finally see the sky in all it’s glory, and the Milky Way starting to take shape as a hazy stripe of dense stars across the sky. After setting up the tripod and taking some long exposure shots, I gasped as I looked at my camera’s screen. The center of the Milky Way, the details of the dense clusters of stars around it, fully captured in a view that can only be seen via long exposure in a place as remote as this. All that was right above me! Literally looking back into time thousands of years ago.
That’s when you realize all the trouble is worth it.
Standing out here in the middle of the desert, hearing the ethereal hum of a flute from a distant camp, the gleaming stars above you, wind blowing sand all around you. It was worth the few tumbles I took when trekking the desert in pitch black darkness. It was worth the little lizards that scurried over my feet while setting up the camera and tripod carefully (while I tried to convince myself that reptiles of the longer slithery kind are not chasing said lizards). It was worth the difficult trek from the comforts of Amman. It was worth all of that.
I was here in Wadi Rum, and it was time to let go of the camera and stare into the magical beauty around me with my own naked eyes.