Valley of the Moon
Wadi Rum, known also as the Valley of the Moon, is a valley cut into sandstone and granite rock, a combination making for some startling scenery. It is the largest wadi (valley) in Jordan. Prior to my wife’s investigations, Wadi Rum was not on my travel radar. I’m glad it was on hers.
Wadi Rum is the background for a number of movies including “The Martian“. When it came out, despite the lead actor being Jason Bourne reincarnated into an astronaut, I had absolutely no desire to watch the movie. That attitude has changed with our visit to the otherworldly Wadi Rum. I now want to see how they used the scenery to simulate a Mars experience.
Glamping @ Wadi Rum
Our domed bubble tent was situated on the periphery of the Al Zawaideh Desert Camp, the furthest possible point from the mayhem of campground central. With our reservation, came buffet meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Decent, filling, not spectacular. At night, we opted to not partake of singing and hookah time, instead sat on our elevated porch in the provided sturdy wicker chairs contemplating rock and sky with an unobstructed view. And a friendly orange/white cat.
The temperature was comfortable requiring nothing more than a light covering. We nibbled chocolates and nuts as the silence gradually enveloped us and the cares of the world left behind melted away. The only missing piece of elegance was a nice wine, a commodity not always readily available in Jordan.
Glamping in Wadi Rum awakened – reawakened – in me the desire to return to camping. I found myself fantasizing about venturing into the backcountry and sleeping beneath the ocean of stars serenaded by the night denizens. And I recalled the night I was sleeping beneath a red overhang in The Needles to be awakened by a deer mouse perched on my sleeping bag, inches from my face, staring intently into my eyes.
Jeep Tour In A Toyota Truck
Wadi Rum is vast. Walking to see the highlights was not possible nor was driving our two-wheeled sedan through the unmarked (except for jeep tracks) and sand laden landscape. Jeep tours were offered in 2, 3, and 4-hour increments. We opted for the four hour, private tour. The jeep tour is actually a pickup tour, most we saw were Toyotas outfitted with large tires. We sat in the truck bed where bench seats were built in. Thankfully, our truck had a cloth top to shield us from the sun as we cruised the backcountry on the cloudless, sunny day enjoying the refreshing wind in our hair.
We started early by local standards adding the luxury of stopping at some places before a slew of others invaded. Is invasion the right word? Irene and I much prefer exploring in mostly silence. We tend to speak in hushed tones so as not to assault the ambiance. And for me personally, photographs are so much better when they are unpeopled or contain only us. There are exceptions to the no people rule such as the time we visited Varanasi during a holy day. There the 10 lakh (1 million) people on the ghats were the ambiance. This does not hold for natural places particularly deserts which, by their nature, are austere.
Stop one was fairly close to our kicking off point. The first pic in the Wadi Rum gallery, the only pic in the gallery featuring me, was where we learned the locale was the stage for the movie Martian. From our vantage point, there was no vegetation, only red rock, red sand, extreme landscape. It has become my defacto vision for a Martian landscape. Whether or not there is any validity to this understanding, I cannot say. I have no current plans to visit Mars to compare and contrast. However, it is now the visual definition imprinted in my psyche.
We next landed at the sand dunes. The night breezes had erased footprints from the previous day allowing our feet to savage the pristine surface this morning. I find sand dunes interesting from a photographic perspective. I love the abstract images created when the low sun is caught on ethereal edges casting angled shadows composing a texture of light and dark. The beauty is enhanced with certain sand colors. My favorites are terra cotta and pure, gypsum white.
For my wife, sand dunes seem to emit a spiritual vibe. I can’t explain her affinity with dunes only that it does exist and they have a magnetic pull on her soul. The first we visited by happenstance during a tour of Death Valley. The second was a planned two nighter in the heart of the Sahara, dunes I barely saw on account of becoming severely ill. If there is a dune within 100 miles of our travels, we make a beeline to visit. Our bookshelf at home is decorated with small glass vials each containing a sand memory. She can identify each by color and texture without needing a label. The arrival of additional jeeps signaled to us it was time to exit stage left and push further into the backcountry hopefully keeping ahead of the tourist wave. She collected a few sand samples at Wadi. One was not enough to capture the colors varying from yellow to deep red.
Other highlights included visiting a 2000 year old pictograph panel. I felt a strong pull to touch them, to connect physically with the thought visions of the ancients. But they were too high on the wall for my reach. There was a climbing point but it required a leap of faith rendering it a bit too risky for middle age David. I had the physical capability long before I had the cash to spend exploring. Now that I the means to explore, my mind lacks the ability to believe my body can achieve. The dichotomy of growing older.
We stopped at a field containing 100s of rock cairns. Cairns are used for navigating trails. The markers are guiding stars of a land journey especially useful on grounds where walking does not create visible trails. Stand at one cairn and sight off one in the distance for the next stage of a journey. Here they were simply a field of stacked rocks. Some quite elaborate in their structure. Rock art in a fine form. Irene created one herself inside a small nook. It will exist long after we leave, possibly outlive both of us. Simple permanence.
The land bridge we climbed aroused nostalgia in my soul. It felt incongruous with the rest of Wadi Rum. Mostly, Wadi is flat sands punctuated with isolated, sheer wall, rock islands. The bridge looks like a wall with the centered eroded away. It reminded me of my favorite place (so far) on Earth. The photo of us standing atop the wall, reached after an easy climb, is one of the only pictures from our entire trip where both Irene and I are in the frame.
As with any guided tour, the downside is balancing our desire to linger with the time boundaries. For this reason and this reason alone, I prefer, when possible, to make my own way. I, we, prefer traveling at our own rhythms.
Camels are a way of life and a tourist attraction in Jordan. They exist in books, camel crossing signs on the road including the major arteries, tended herds browsing in the barren countryside, and as mini caravans in Wadi Rum. We scheduled a ride while in Morroco’s Sahara but I became extremely sick and bedridden so was not physically capable of climbing aboard the beast. Irene enjoyed the sunrise ride without me and later raved about the experience. I was not going to miss out while in Jordan. We chose, along with thirty of our closest friends, the sunset tour caravan.
Most challenging in camel riding is the animal moving from laying to standing or standing to laying. They don’t just flow smoothly down like water finding equilibrium. The transition is a two step process. The rider mounts while they are down. Getting up, the hind legs go first pitching the rider forward before the front legs push off into standing position. Getting down, the reverse. Front legs first, pitch forward, back legs drop, and dismount.
The sunset tour covered nary a mile round trip. The caravan mounted and we meandered at a human’s walking pace, camel owners on foot in the lead pulling the rope of the forward most animal. Those behind are roped to the animal in front forming a string of camels. At one point, the walking leader gave me his rope and went to talk to one of his camel leading pals. My camel followed the crowd for a short way before deciding for camel reasons to circle back and head toward our starting point. I had no control over the animal and could not course correct. The owner ran back, took hold of the rope, and righted the train.
At the 1/2 mile point, we arrived at a gap in the stone walls to watch the sun set. The camel owners smoked. It seems everyone smokes in Jordan, some near continuously. And the cigarette of choice is Marlboro. Clouds were sparse to nonexistent so picture joy came from shooting camels in the warm light. My favorite picture of the whole trip, the one that will grace a photobook, if I can overcome inertia and make one, will have the picture of Irene on the camel taken from behind them. I call it my Indiana Jones shot.
Wadi Rum Closing
Wadi Rum is truly an extraordinary landscape. I understand why it was chosen as a backdrop for the film, The Martian. It is red, the landscape is bizarre, and there is no need to remove vegetation. I imagine though, they had to remove the trash. Plastic bags, bottles, cans were half-buried or laying ontop the ground including in the remotest parts of our Jeep tour.
We took a short walk from our bubble dome tent and were unable to escape the detritus coming to broken glass along a rock wall and a dozen or so discarded tires some partially buried. They obviously were there for a long time. We also found a desiccated dog carcass with a green wire tied to a hind leg. It looked like someone tied it up and, neglected or forgotten. Unable to escape the green wire bondage, it succumbed to the environment leaving a dried up and flatted bag of fur-covered bones.
The trashiness cast a pall over my soul, a cloud I found difficult to escape. I love open spaces especially alien looking landscapes. But trash tainting otherwise pristine wilderness offends my Western sensibilities. First world problems, I guess. It wasn’t until arriving at our hotel on the Northern shore of the Red Sea that the cloud finally lifted.
The Red Sea
The drive from Wadi Rum to Aqaba took a little over an hour. The driving in the city proper was the most challenging but no where near the challenge of India. It is doable but requires focus for anomalies such as the drivers who signal right but turn left. Also, if you are not comfortable with roundabouts, you will be stressed. They are the most common form of intersection control.
Our hotel in Aqaba was Al Manara. We were only going to be in Aqaba for one night and wanted to minimize the friction of visiting the Red Sea. We chose AL Manara because it is situated on the Red Sea shore with access to both a lagoon and the sea itself. All we had to do was walk out of our hotel and the salty water was at our beck and call. We figured the premium we paid would be well worth reducing the hassle of moving between living quarters and water.
We pulled up to the entrance where they unloaded our luggage and took our car. Inside, instead of waiting in a line, we were ushered to a desk, offered a complimentary beverage and checked in while sitting comfortably.
“Are you a Marriott Bonvoy member?” I was asked.
“Yes, I am.” Pricey hotel equals lots of points I surmised quickly shifting in thought to what other destination I would spend these points. I read the number from my phone.
“I see you are a silver member. Would you like a free upgrade to a suite?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“Ok. And I will add in a 20% discount on all food.”
“Is that enough pampering?”
“Yes, thank you very much!”
Thus began our one night stay in the nicest hotel I’ve ever experienced.
Our suite was two rooms, two bathrooms, and two balconies overlooking the water. After a day of Irene frolicking in the water while I sat on a lounge chair in the shade of an umbrella, the water was too cold for me, including lunch on the beach, we showered, it was a large head shower simulating rain, retired to our balcony and drank a bottle of wine while watching the sun drop tangerine behind silhouetted Israeli mountains.
The next morning, we asked for and were granted a late check out giving us time to return to the Sea for a couple of hours and take another shower before, completely rejuvenated, driving out to our next Jordanian destination, Petra, two hours to the north. If there was a downside to Al Manara, it was that we were not there for multiple luxurious nights AND it spoiled us for all future hotels.