The majestic mountains and desert landscape of Wadi Rum once enchanted T.E. Lawrence. Putri Zanina finds it an unforgettable experience
THE afternoon sun is merciless on this cloudless summer day. The heat sears the skin, the dry and dusty air bungs up the lungs. Yet we are all eager-eyed as we climb into the jeep and the Bedouin driver revs it up. Almost 50 other jeeps — each with four to five passengers on board — are similarly revved up. It’s as if a race is about to begin. You can almost taste the excitement, like the sand that swirls with the gush of exhaust fumes.
Then, just when we wonder how long more we’ll have to wait (like how we had waited the past hour to get everyone rallied around), we hear the screech of tyres as the jeeps roared ahead to leave a dusty trail. Our jeep coughs and sputters before it jerks forward to join the convoy headed for one of the world’s most spectacular deserts — Wadi Rum.
It was just two hours before that we left Petra — one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. If this jewel of Jordan’s historical marvel with its intriguing rock-hewn city can leave you feeling deeply mystified, the stunning Wadi Rum — with its natural orange-red sand and towering rock walls — leaves you speechless.
The walls of rock soar so high and close that at certain stretches along the sandy trail, the sky vanishes from view. You’ll feel as if you’ve been swallowed by the sandstone cliffs. And the bumpy ride on the rickety old jeep will remind you of riders galloping on camels or horses past a thick swirl of dust and gravel, much like a scene from the critically acclaimed Hollywood film, Lawrence Of Arabia. The 1962 Oscar-winning film, starring Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif, was shot partly in Wadi Rum, making it even more famous worldwide.
The real T.E. Lawrence, British intelligence officer and military strategist, was a hero in his time for his involvement in the British-inspired Arab revolt against the Turks of the Ottoman Empire during World War I (1914-1918). Having spent a significant time in the rugged Wadi Rum, he “immortalised” his exploits in his book, The Seven Pillars Of Wisdom (published 1927). Lawrence was so enamoured by Wadi Rum that he called it “my private resort”.
“This place,” he wrote, “is vast, echoing and Godlike, and it stifled laughter and enforced humility.” Yes, you’ll indeed feel so “small” in this vast sea of sand and rocks. The giant rock formations that rise from the sandy floor will move you the way they have moved so many travellers to this land for centuries. If in his memoir, Lawrence put it as being “shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars,” I feel as if I have been cast a spell by the splendour of Wadi Rum that brings me not only into a state of humility but also one of deep contemplation of how great God’s creation is.
Many of the outstanding rock formations can be seen along the route that stretches for about 130km. There are valleys too in the undulating landscape, punctuated in many parts by jabals (mountains). Erosion over some 50 million years ago caused some of the jabals to turn into mounds of soft sandstone. The central valley is dominated by Jabal Rum (1,754m). Jordan’s highest peak, Jabal Umm Adaami (1,832m) stands in the south near the Saudi border. Wadi Rum became a protected area 14 years ago and came under the Aqaba Special Economic Authority.
Our convoy travels for more than an hour before we stop at a gently sloping floor of the now familiar orange-red sand. It’s a relief to get down after a roller-coaster-like ride and walk towards Jabal Khaz’ali, a narrow canyon. Forming a single line, we scale the stone path to see ancient Nabatean writing on the face of the rock. There are also carvings of people and animals.
The early Arab tribe of Nabatean settled in Wadi Rum in 4th Century BC. The Nabateans built temples, one of which can be seen behind the rest house in the small village of Rum. The Nabateans also made numerous inscriptions on rocks in the area, which was inhabited between 800 and 600 BC. Today, the village comprises only a few concrete houses and shops, a school and the headquarters of the Desert Patrol Corps. Some 5,000 people live here, mostly Bedouin, many of whom earn a living from tourism-related activities, including taking tourists to the heart of Wadi Rum. If you crave for more adventurous activities, trek deep into the desert — walk or ride a camel, and climb those towering rocks. If weather permits, paraglide or ride hot air balloons that’ll take you to a dizzying height for a truly breathtaking view of the desert.
CLAIMING A SPOT
It’s another hour’s drive to Al Ghuroub to catch the dramatic colours of sunset in Wadi Rum. The day is becoming slightly cool with the changing angle of the sun that now seems to touch the jagged edge of the mountain peak. Still cloudless, the greyish blue sky with a tinge of russet is the perfect backdrop for the glowing ball of orange. It’s a spectacular sight that colours the rhythm of rugged desert life. It pays to linger the evening away at this spot in the desert, surrounded by the rolling hills.
Waiting for us is a campfire meal with Arabian music and dance, and the bubbling, aromatic shisha at Jabal Rum Camp, a Bedouin-like tent on the fringe of the desert. It promises a night of fun under the galaxy of stars as we join in the dance and enjoy an all-you-can-eat buffet of barbecued lamb and chicken, pita bread and hummus, and the excellent traditional Bedouin zarb — lamb and chicken slowly cooked for one to two hours in underground sealed fire pits.
But for now, all these can wait, as I watch the setting sun. I have found my own private spot at the vast wind-seared Al Ghuroub. Lying down on the sand, I “listen” to the wind, its echo humming across the towering canyons that rise from the arc of orange-red sand. Now, I understand why Lawrence called Wadi Rum “vast, echoing and Godlike”. Yes, I am claiming this very spot as my own piece of the desert where I completely surrender to its immense majesty.
Royal Jordanian Airlines flies thrice weekly (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays) from Kuala Lumpur International Airport to Amman, the capital of Jordan. Wadi Rum is about a 30km detour from the Desert Highway between Amman and Aqaba. It’s about 240km from Amman and 40km from Aqaba. Petra is 84km or about 1½-hour’s drive from Wadi Rum. A side road from the Desert Highway leads to the Wadi Rum Visitors Centre where you must register before entering Wadi Rum. Entrance fee is JD5 (RM22) per person. Wadi Rum safari tour: From JD55 per person depending on the guide and the length of the trip (three to five hours or overnight). Admission to Wadi Rum is strictly controlled and must be arranged with the approval of the visitors centre.
BEST TIME TO GO
The best months to visit are early spring (March and April) and late autumn (October to November). It does rain in winter (December to February), and snow can sometimes be seen on the mountains. Night-time temperatures can fall to 0°C, so come prepared with winter clothing. May to September is hot with daytime temperatures often soaring to 40°C or higher but can drop to 16°C or lower at night.
Wildlife and plants
Wadi Rum comes alive in spring when the sandy, rocky landscape will be dotted with wild plants and flowers, including poppies, red anemones and the exquisite black iris, which is the national flower of Jordan.
Birds, such as Griffon vulture and Bonelli’s eagle can be spotted all year round. Grey wolf, Blandford’s fox, sand cat and ibex also claim their territories in Wadi Rum.
Sites you must see
1. Burdah Rock Bridge: View this from a distance or climb it if you are fit.
2. Um Frouth Rock Bridge: Scramble onto this low rock bridge.
3. Sand Dunes Area: Sloping dunes are quite tough to climb but fun to slide down.
4. Jabal Khaz’ali: See numerous Nabataean rock carvings of people and animals.
5. Nabataean Temple: Find it near the Rest House in Rum Village and see Thamudic and Kufic rock art.
6. Anfashieh Inscriptions: The mountain near the sand dunes area has ancient drawing of a camel caravan from the Nabatean and Thamudic period.
7. Seven Pillars of Wisdom: An impressive rock formation near the visitors centre named after Lawrence’s book.
8. Lawrence’s House: It’s not certain whether it was Lawrence’s house but locals tell stories of him staying and/or storing weapons here. The current structure is just a bunch of rubble.
9. Lawrence’s Spring: It’s a stagnant puddle 2km south-west of the village of Rum against a stunning view of the desert.