Hiking the ancient historical sites of Jordan: To Petra and beyond
Ancient landscapes both natural and man-made make Jordan truly unique, but visitors can be put off by its location. Undeterred, we set off to discover the beguiling destination
Published: Friday 9th June 2017
"Welcome to my home," 70-year-old Abu Yahya says to me while gesturing at the cave behind him. "This is where I had my ten children; where I lived before the modern world existed. Before Facebook, email and Tinder!" He flashes me a toothless grin. Am I in danger of being swiped right? "This," he spreads his arms and widens his eyes until they are virtually out of his head, "is Dana."
You’d be forgiven for wondering what, where or who Dana is; and that’s exactly the point. I’m standing on a slither of path, in a jumbled, as-far-as-the-eye-can-see mess of giant rocks and spiky bushes. This is Dana in Jordan, a remote nature reserve set deep in the country’s wilderness, and just one of the many off-the-tourist-trail stop-off points on my eight day, hiking-heavy group adventure tour with G Adventures.
I’ve barely managed to take a picture before Abu Yahya is off, his beaten-up Nike Airs speed-walking down the scraggy hillside, his plastic carrier bag swinging by his side. For four hours he squeezes us between rocks, around cliff edges and down holes on a tour of his backyard – its edible plants, its sleepy owls, its stones shaped like elephants (he says) – before signalling for us to sit down on a smooth ledge overlooking his home turf. He stuffs a metal teapot with leaves, boils up the herbal concoction and distributes the sweet brown liquid around the group. Brews – with views – don’t get better than this.
For all of Jordan’s natural, gulp-that-fresh-air-in scenery there’s a built-up city to counter it. Our group meets several days earlier in the capital of Amman, a place where the buildings are grimy-weather grey, the pavements throng with people and the road rules? Forget your ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’ – no one gives a shit.
While the capital’s charms may be subtle (and mostly based around its kebabs), its main draw is its access to Jerash, the largest ancient city outside of Rome.
Sprawled across a clutch of hills 48km to the north of the capital, it’s one of the most staggering collections of crumbling columns, amphitheatres and temples – the remnants of Greek and Roman inhabitants – in existence. Yet the crowds are nowhere to be seen. For Jordan – despite its blinding scenery, its history, its hospitable locals – is cursed by its unfortunate geography. Bordered by Syria, Iraq and Israel/Palestine, the peaceful, culture-rich country’s fortunes have been hindered by risk-averse tourists and a brigade of over-protective mums who’ve banned their adult children from travelling here. It happens. Check the Foreign Office website and it’ll tell you "terrorists are very likely to carry out attacks in Jordan." Scared? They say the same about France and the USA.
Ironically, it’s that lack of crowds that make it all the more inviting. And it’s not just the tourist sites, either. I stand in the shadows of Hadrian’s Arch – gateway to Jerash and gifted to the emperor when the city was built – but despite its dramatic presence, I’m distracted by the rusty playground next door. Its slides have faded from postbox red to salmon, its swings, once 1980s prom dress blue, are now a dull grey. Crisp packets – spicy fried chicken flavour – drift past in the wind. Any children who used to play here got fed up long ago.
Despite its oil-rich Saudi neighbours, it’s clear this country is far from wealthy. "Six years ago tourism made up 20% of our GDP," our guide Ayman tells us while we wander around a goat-filled ancient hippodrome. Now it’s coupled with a population that’s swelled to 9.5 million, a third of which is made up of refugees, and some would argue the country is at breaking point. Yet, despite the pressures on the economy, the country’s king and queen are continually praised for their ‘open door’ policy for their Syrian neighbours. It’s that natural hospitality, and kindness, that defines this country and my trip – from scoffing our bus driver’s homemade fig biscuits, to being taken on an impromptu kebab tour of Amman, the Jordanians just can’t help themselves.
Several amphitheatres later, we head south and are deposited at the foot of our next big hike, the Ibex Trail. We scramble up the sun-scorched gravelly ground, pressing on at a seemingly impossible incline to catch the best views of one of the country’s biggest lures, the Dead Sea. I watch the water frothing at the gravelly banks, its salt forming thick white strips.
My eyes adjust to the hazy sky – the water seems to go on forever – but its setting, in one of the world’s five most water-short countries, means its lifetime is limited. "In 50 years all of this will be gone," Ayman tells me, before launching into an explanation of receding water levels, pumps and salt content that’s up to eight times
more than last year’s lilo-based holiday in the Med. I make the time for a swim – hell, I may never see this again – and bob about in the water with a handful of other tourists. The Dead Sea, like Jerash, is all ours.
Back on the road we’re moving on to our next night’s kip. While Jordan may be dotted with spectacular sights, the roads in between are far from pretty. We rumble past sparse dusty flats that only come alive during the sporadic camel racing events ("Jordanian camels are slow and shit," Ayman tells me, "those big Saudi camels always win") and swap our minibus for something more desert-appropriate: a bruised Mitsubishi pick-up pimped with a dismal paint job. Bags lobbed into the back, scarves draped like balaclavas, we start careering through the sun-drenched sand, past weather-beaten rock and bushes with parsley-like leaves that are fed to the camels to speed up their milk production rates. "For camel food it’s OK," Ayman tells me, making me give the bush a sniff, "and if you drink the milk you will feel the strongest you’ve ever felt. Invicible! But first you’ll be sick straight away," he looks troubled, "the rest of the night with diarrhoea."
This is no place for it. Our camp, set deep in the vast desert of Wadi Rum, is a basic ensemble of canvas tents, a giant central bonfire and bizarre interior touches (think FC Bayern Munich duvet covers). At 10pm we abandon its relative comfort, switch off our torches (Ayman’s orders) and go on a midnight walk through the pitch-black desert. It’s silent, serene and hypnotic as hell. Twenty minutes of silent shuffling later, the peace is broken by the Canadian at the front of the group. "I thought I tripped over a massive rock" he wails. "It was just a dead camel," Ayman finishes.
Rotting corpses aside, it’s special stuff. But of course we’re yet to experience Jordan’s trump card: its Hollywood-worthy, pink-hued ‘must do’. And boy do we do it. While most people would visit the sprawling ancient site of Petra in half a day, taking a 30-minute wander along the Siq, a 1.2km-long canyon which was made into a sacred path by the Nabataeans, Ayman’s got us on a much sweatier mission. "The goat trail!" he exclaims. I fear we’re in for some hills.
It’s a gentle start at sunrise, with a peaceful wander through empty meadows. All very romantic. All very easy. The next part, though, is where the effort comes in: 800 steps, vertiginous cliff-side paths and massive drops, before we reach the monastery, a towering ensemble of pillars and openings carved into rust-red rock.
Hand-painted signs with arrows pointing in all directions claim to offer the ‘best view in Jordan’, and I abandon the group to follow the steep donkey-trodden trail for a monastery-from-above picture.
It’s just for starters. The next morning we gather at Petra’s Siq and follow the path past snoozing stray dogs towards the treasury. The narrow rift eventually opens up to a vast space with the treasury – made (most) famous by Indiana Jones – looming in front of us in the eerie, tourist-free silence. "A Swiss traveller discovered this in 1812 and told the world about its existence," Ayman whispers. Some holiday bragging rights.
It stuns me into a dazed trance, but of course Ayman has bigger ideas. Truly terrifying ones. We take a lesser-known trail through Petra, and start scrambling up and along a steep path, squashed by donkeys, nudged by goats, before we reach a tiny ledge. "Have a look," Ayman orders me. My legs immediately wobble, where’s my rope? I need a rope! I creep to the edge, gulp, and gaze down for a fresh, 100m-high perspective on a tourism hotspot.
In many ways it’s just like Dana: a place where people lived before the modern world existed. But – I’m sorry Abu Yahya, because you and Dana were rather charming – the historical scenes stretching out beneath my feet are dramatic, iconic and for the final stop on the tour, much more climactic.
G Adventures offers a seven-night Jordan multisport trip from £1,099pp. Price includes accommodation, breakfasts, some meals, private transportation and an excellent guide. Price does not include flights. For more information or to book, call 0344 272 2040 or visit gadventures.co.uk