If you listen, closely, can you hear the trajectory of a shooting star as it streaks across the sky?
This question, along with a multitude of others – some deep and philosophical in nature, others not so much – dances around my brain as we lay underneath a vast blanket of stars on our first night in the desert.
Have I ever seen so many stars in one night’s sky? Did Lawrence of Arabia feel this same sense of awe as he gazed up from these sands? What if a scorpion crawls in my shoe? Will I crave cardamom in my coffee after we leave Jordan? How can this group of strangers feel like family after only a few days?
On this night of Intrepid’s Trek Jordan trip, the fourteen of us – eleven travelers from all over the world, our Jordanian guide Usama, and two Bedouin hosts – sprawl on mats outside the dinner tent, with bellies full and ears actively listening through utter silence. As constellations flicker, we fall into rhythm of quiet contemplation interspersed with stories and laughter.
In hushed tones, Usama weaves tales of people who have called this desert home for centuries, illuminating their daily lives and culture, along with insight into his own tribe and family. His colorful descriptions of courtship rituals and wedding traditions inspire question after question and his hilarious remembrances of ceremonial dances gone awry have us rolling with laughter, until we fall back into that comfortable and delicious silence.
For hours, we stay here like this, together, in the vast openness of Wadi Rum.
Nothing in life can prepare you for the harsh beauty and disorientation of Wadi Rum.
Like reading a good book you can’t put down even when your eyelids will barely stay open, I don’t want those campfire stories to end. Yet, Usama’s gentle reminder of our 7am camp departure – this is a trekking trip, after all – send each traveler into cozy tents and dreamscapes of our own.
In the morning, as my no-longer-heavy eyelids flicker open, I turn to take in the view from our window. Have I mentioned that this camp, in the sands of nowhere, verges on glamping? In addition to windows, tents feature solar-powered lights and charging outlets, plus two comfy single beds. My husband says, “You may never go back to ‘traditional’ camping,” and he’s right, but, for now, let’s return to the view…that otherworldly view.
Red sands, glowing with morning’s first light, soar and peak atop dunes as far as my eyes can see. Wind-shaped rock sculptures punctuate the vista, serving as open-air climbing gyms and skyscraper observation decks. It’s time to get out and play!
Behind us, there have been dozens of miles of trail under our feet this week. From steep paths descending to the Dead Sea to stone stairs opening to epic vistas over Petra, this 8-day Trek Jordan itinerary has taken us through the country’s diverse terrain, one step in front of another.
Today, we walk upwards of 12 kilometers through this new-to-us ancient landscape. We scramble up dunes for views described by T.E. Lawrence, a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia, in his literary masterpiece Seven Pillars of Wisdom as “vast, echoing and God-like.” We learn history of this land’s inhabitation since Neolithic times and examine rock inscriptions dating back over 4,000 years. We experience how millennia of wind and water erosion have created this Mars-like landscape, shaping rocks into natural bridges and bizarre formations like candles dripping with wax.
And, with each step forward, the concept of space seems more an illusion. Even given Usama’s expertise, I can’t help but feel lost in this boundless place. But as the midday sun blisters and adds to the sense of disorientation, our caravan spots a welcoming sight.
Like a mirage, we see our Bedouin hosts who’ve gone ahead, now seated on mats underneath the shade of a particularly fantastical rock formation. They wait for us with tea and a tradition of hospitality we could have never imagined. And, just as sands shift, the feeling of lostness is replaced with a deep, replenishing sense of connection.
We arrive back to camp with enough time to rest and prepare for Wadi Rum’s most spectacular show. Together, we climb the tallest peak in sight and take our positions on the rock’s ledge. As we wait, discussion turns to the path we’ve trekked and expectations we each carried.
Before arriving in Jordan, I wondered how reality would match my childhood dreams. As a little girl, I had spent hours lost in the pages of my grandmother’s National Geographic, the “Petra” issue. I’m happy to say, the lost city of the Nabataeans did not disappoint. Trekking through the dizzying kaleidoscope of ancient temples, modern-day merchants, caravans and camels – was that just two days ago? – Petra was everything I dreamed, then some; yet, the experience left all senses in overload.
After that whirlwind, the desert serenity is profoundly surprising, as is the vastness of Bedouin hospitality. In these harshest of conditions, sharing what you have – whether that’s shelter, nourishment, or simply good humor – is revered tradition.
As our guides lavish us with food, stories and song, and, most especially kindness, our group has taken the tribal sentiment to heart, looking after each other and making sure each person has enough of what they need – sunscreen, snacks, water, encouragement, and, naturally, sunset portraits to remember the moment.
As pink light spreads across the sands, the whole world seems to glow. I look to the people around me, fellow trekkers and guides, and realize that for a fleeting moment, like a setting sun or shooting star, we have become our own desert tribe.
5 things to know before you go:
5. Desert sun is unrelenting
Pack a wide-bream hat, light-weight layers of clothing, including a long-sleeve shirt for covering arms in late afternoon, and scarf for covering head and neck when needed. Travel with ample sunscreen. Don’t wear short shorts or tank tops (yes, people – men and women – do this, and not only does it increase your risk of sunburn, it’s also disrespectful of local culture).
4. Luxury is relative
Intrepid describes these desert accommodations as “basic,” yet we were pleasantly surprised by the camp’s comfort. Bath houses have Western-style toilets and individual shower stalls. And, hello, there’s solar-heated water! To me, it’s just the right mix of simplicity and comfort while respecting the environment and desert traditions.
3. Desert meals are comfort food
Our first night in camp, the chef led us outside the dining tent and, as we stood in a circle in the sand, he uncovered a buried “earthen” oven where a lamb and vegetable feast slowly cooked. That set the stage and expectations for the simple yet expertly-prepared meals to come, always complete with rice, salad, fatoush, and pita bread.
2. Stay focused on hydration
Your guide will urge you to carry and drink water as needed; still, it’s easy to get dehydrated in these conditions. Have electrolyte or rehydration tablets on ready.
1. An open mind and heart are the most important travel essentials
With every step in Wadi Rum, you will be immersed in desert culture. For the open and curious, an education in Middle Eastern history, religion, geology and art awaits, along with an experience you will surely remember all your days.
Ready for your own adventure in Wadi Rum? Check out Intrepid Travel’s range of small group tours in Jordan.
(All images courtesy of Jess Simpson, and taken on Intrepid’s Trek Jordan trip.)