“Yalla, Habibis!” Those words come to mind instantly when I think about Jordan, even now, after trekking through the country’s beautifully diverse landscape.
This endearing bit of Arabic slang, loosely translated as “Hurry up, my loves,” became our Trek Jordan group’s daily refrain as tour leader Usama uttered the phrase often. (Seriously, if we had group t-shirts, they would say “Yalla, Habibis!”)
It wasn’t that our group was unfit or unconditioned – every single traveller had trekking experience to match their eagerness to immerse themselves in places one step at a time. Yet, it became clear, we simply couldn’t be rushed. And, truth be told, we tended to distract easily, jumping off trail, getting lost, sharing story after story and piling on laughter.
We embraced a rare kind of slow travel, which allowed us not only to see Jordan, but to feel the country through sand-tinged eyelids and faces covered in sweat, savoring every step, even those that challenged us and caused our feet to ache.
Though there’s nothing technical about any of the routes we took, different landscapes presented unique individual tests. Some of us gleefully attacked climbs while others hit their stride going downhill. A few of us barely noticed the heat’s intensity – my husband Matt and I grew up in sweltering Alabama, after all – while others struggled in the midday sun.
Regardless of hurdles, every morning, we laced our trekking shoes and summoned our perseverance, ready to hit the trail and discover what lay ahead.
Before setting out, another ritual attempted to set our intentions. Over coffee – that thick and foamy cardamom-tinged Arabic coffee that never fails to deliver jolts – Usama would unveil the day’s itinerary and distances, along with average group times. “Today’s trek will be approximately X kilometers and should take X hours,” he would say. By day three, it would be difficult for him to finish that statement without laughing.
At our own pace, here’s what we experienced:
Descending to Earth’s lowest point
I don’t think anyone knew what to expect on day one of trekking. Over an early morning breakfast of falafel and hummus at Amman’s bustling 24-hour hotspot Hashem, Usama detailed the route ahead, yet the terrain’s steepness seemed incomprehensible. And, how could it not?
We would soon descend nearly 4,500 feet, beginning from ancient Machaerus, the hilltop fortress of Herod the Great, perched at 3,500 feet above sea level, down, down, down to the Dead Sea at 1,412 feet below sea level. Yet, instead of fretting the route, marked with loose rocks and blistering sun, we chose to obsess on other trekking “vitals.”
What’s for lunch? Should we take snacks in our day packs? Does the hotel have a bar? What’s for dinner?
Within an hour of trekking along the isolated shepherd’s trail, a Biblical-times-like route exclusive to Intrepid, a few revelations became clear. Shade is a premium in this barren landscape. Temperatures seem to rise with every step downward. Thoughts of food wash away as more truly vital concerns come in focus.
Do we have enough water? What about sunscreen?
We quickly learned the value of headscarves as Usama gave wrapping demonstrations. We learned never to pass up rock formations offering shaded rest spots underneath the ledges. And, we learned how deceptive descents can be and how easy it is to slip and fall (tip: trekking poles aid stability). Along the way, we took in panoramic views of the entire Jordan Valley and began to grasp the sheer scale of this landscape where three of the world’s most important and defining religions originated.
At some point, a fellow trekker became dizzy with the heat, so we took an extra rest break, huddling together in the shade until she felt well. Later, another trekker went out ahead and took the wrong trail, prompting everyone to eagerly await his return. The day’s four-hour benchmark passed us by.
Though with the first sighting of palm trees – a sure indicator a beach was ahead – our pace quickened. By the time we reached the Dead Sea, even the famously-salty and warm water felt gloriously refreshing. We had earned that plunge – actually, more like a float, but…regardless, we had arrived through our own foot power and fortitude and that is an incredible feeling.
Ascending to Petra’s best view
For those of us – my hand is in the air on this one – whining about 4+ hours of straight descents to the Dead Sea, scrambling up the sandstone cliffs of Petra would deliver a healthy dose of medicine. The lost city of the Nabateans, famed for architectural wonders carved directly into rock, features an astonishingly-varied landscape.
With not another tour group – or tourist, for that matter – in sight, we began the trek from Little Petra on what’s referred to as the “back trail,” to the UNESCO site’s famous seven-story sandstone marvel The Monastery.
As we trekked through the sandy plateau, mysterious caves and hidden staircases appeared, what seemed like every few steps, prompting irresistible temptation to explore. If there was an ancient dwelling, tomb, rock carving, or goat herd along the way, you can bet our group stopped to inspect. As was becoming habit, Usama had to be crafty to keep our ever-curious group on track.
“There’s a tea break ahead,” he said. Soon, we discovered another joy of Petra, one that would provide endless opportunities for distraction. Would you believe there exists a string of high-altitude, alfresco cafes along the trail? Under lean-to shelters of shade, local traders serve small cups of potently sweet tea to weary travellers, a ritual that has played out and repeated over centuries. From this perch, as you gaze out across the vast expanse, the serenity comes as delicious surprise.
As each step took us nearer to the heart of Petra, we watched another world materialize down on the valley floor. Caravans of donkeys, horses, carriages and people weaving along the narrow path through make-shift shops and galleries. I’ll admit, at first, I was put off by the commotion and crowds. “This is a UNESCO site. How can these souvenir stalls be allowed?” By the end of the day, as we fully immersed in the bustle, my perspective shifted with the sand.
Somewhere along the 20-kilometre hike, I realised that just as travellers of an ancient world, we were experiencing Petra as rich trading post and living, bustling city.
As we reached the Monastery, the day’s official trekking route was accomplished. Though we were behind schedule (surely, you aren’t surprised?), Usama pointed out the path to the Royal Tombs and Petra’s “1st best view” over the iconic Treasury – an optional route which would add two hours to our day. There was no hesitation. Up, we scrambled to find what was indeed the “1st best view” and worth every extra step!
Losing all sense of time and distance in these desert sands
Riding in 4x4s through the desert to reach the Bedouin camp where we would spend the next two nights, it was hard to imagine trekking through this expanse often referred to as “The Valley of the Moon.” How could anyone, even an experienced guide, avoid getting lost here?
That sense of disorientation only increased as our feet touched, then sank, in fine sands. Before we knew it, we were exploring legendary sites like the famous Seven Pillars of Wisdom and prehistoric petroglyphs etched into stone. We oohed-and-ahhed at one fantastical rock formation after another, including precarious stone bridges connecting massive desert skyscrapers.
We also quickly discovered the age-old yearning for oasis, as our Bedouin hosts sprawled out mats in the shade, offering refreshment and unrivaled hospitality, just when needed. And above all, we discovered the sheer joy of running up and down giant dunes of orange sands, frolicking like kids at the beach.
Maybe it was the vastness of these Bedouin lands. Perhaps it was the realisation that our trekking days were almost complete. Or, maybe it was the anticipation of an epic sunset, followed by a campfire dinner underneath a blanket of stars. Whatever the reason, the 12-kilometre trek through Wadi Rum is the only day we hit “average group time.”
Ready to embark on a trek through incredible Jordan? Check out Intrepid Travel’s Hiking in Jordan: Petra and Wadi Rum adventure.
(All images courtesy of Jessica Simpson and taken on Hiking in Jordan: Petra and Wadi Rum.)