A taxi dropped us off a few minutes before midday at the Yitzchak Rabin border crossing, just to the north of Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city. There we joined a long queue waiting to have their documents checked. Ahead of us was a large Arab family, a group of young American backpackers, and a lone German man in hi-tech trekking gear.
It took almost forty-five minutes before we were standing in front of the extremely bored-looking border official. He glanced at our passports for a few seconds, asked a few perfunctory questions, and waved us on.
Next we were ushered through a body scanner, our bags were x-rayed, and we were funneled down a narrow corridor, between two sheets of corrugated white metal. After which there was a last check of our passports by a young Israeli soldier, we passed through a high barb-wire topped barrier, and finally we emerged into blistering sunshine, on a long, barren strip of paved concrete.
About 200 meters ahead of us was a big white arch. Spanning the top of it in big green letters were the words: “Welcome to Jordan”. Only the “W” and the “C” in the word “Welcome” had fallen off, making it look not like we had arrived at a new country, but rather at the front gate of a slightly rundown, old-fashioned carnival. Below the sign I could just make out the small, indistinct shape of two Jordanian border guards.
I looked back. There was a similar sign behind us, only this one had the words “Welcome to Israel” written across the top of it – all letters intact. The Israeli soldier who had checked our passports was now leaning up against a wall, speaking on her mobile phone. Having passed into No Man’s Land, our ongoing existence was evidently of no further relevance to her.
Between the two signs there was nothing: just the two of us, our four battered suitcases, and the strip of sun-scorched road. A small blue sign pointed the way – “To Jordan” – and a white line was painted on the ground for us to follow. We marched forward, sweating from the exertion, our luggage making a terrible noise as it dragged along behind.
The whole experience – of crossing from Israel to Jordan on foot – had a distinctly Cold War kind of feel to it. But never mind: I was beyond excited. Because after many years of wishing for it, I was finally on my way; heading to a long-awaited date with some of my biggest, most enduring childhood fantasies.
One of the very first movies I can recall seeing was Lawrence of Arabia.
I was probably around 10 years old when I rented it from our local video store (in those days, movies came on Betamax cassettes!). So I was way too young to understand the history, politics and adult themes of David Lean’s masterpiece.
Still, I was certainly old enough to appreciate the incredible cinematography, image after image of sweeping landscapes in the Jordanian desert, a place that appeared dangerous, exotic and romantic, all at the same time. So much so that I remember running out into our neat suburban garden immediately after watching the film, wrapping my head in a white dish towel, and proceeding to host mock battles between myself and an imaginary camel-mounted army.
Then, in 1989 (when I was 17 years old) the third film in the Indiana Jones trilogy – The Last Crusade – was released. I watched the iconic scene near the end of the film in awe; the one in which Indy and his dad make their way through a magnificent narrow gorge, the “Canyon of the Crescent Moon”. From which they emerge in front of a massive temple, spectacularly carved into a sheer rock face (in the film this being the entryway to the final resting place of the Holy Grail).
Back then, as a young lad in Sydney Australia, I did not believe a place as fantastical as that could possibly exist. So as soon as the movie ended I raced off and did some research (not so easy in the pre-internet days). And thus I learned, to my great joy, that the scenes in question were not filmed on a Hollywood set, but were in fact shot on location in a real place – Petra, Jordan.
I immediately resolved to visit Jordan one day, and ever since, a trip to that country has hovered near the top of my personal bucket list. Although as a part-Israeli, it was not an option until the two countries entered into a formal peace treaty, in 1994. And even after that, given the history, it still always felt slightly weird to me, if not totally “out there”, to contemplate going. Plus the timing was never right, there were always other priorities, and logistics were always just a little bit too complex.
This year, however, I was in Israel, taking my children to visit my parents who live near Tel Aviv. I had a week free between when the kids left Israel and when I next needed to show up in London, for work. I had been casting around for something to fill that gap: Malta, Cyprus, Greece, or perhaps even a quick exploration of southern Turkey.
Until I looked at the map, and realized the answer was right there in front of me. I had the time available. Israel was peaceful; Jordan was peaceful. The weather was good, and the season was right. With little more effort than a few online bookings, a short drive, and a walk across the border, I could finally be in Jordan.
So, I did it: carpe diem, and all that jazz.
Wadi Rum – or in English, “the Valley of the Moon” – is a desert valley in the deep south Jordan, roughly an hour’s drive from the Jordan-Israel border where we had arrived in the country.
It was in Wadi Rum that British officer T.E. Lawrence earned his stripes during the Arab revolt of 1917-1918. And it was in the same place that many of the desert scenes in the movie about his life were filmed, almost 60 years later.
So of course I was expecting a lot from Wadi Rum. I was hoping for a rendezvous with all things classically Middle-East desert: rolling sand dunes, weathered Bedouin tents, and herds of roaming camels. Of which there were plenty, I am pleased to report, so no disappointment at all on that score.
But, what I most definitely was not expecting from Wadi Rum was a quick unscheduled trip to Mars, and a sort-of-appearance on Jordanian TV, all at the same time.
Perhaps, let me explain.
The local Bedouin tribes of Wadi Rum, no longer the nomads they once were, nowadays make a living mainly from hosting tourists. Thus scattered all over the desert are clutches of their distinctive black and white striped tents, arranged into small hotel-like camps – apparently about 40 of these in total, ranging from the basic to the glamorous.
Although no matter the standard, these Bedouin camps are always plonked down in the most jaw-dropping natural settings you could possibly imagine. And they all peddle the same basic wares: desert experiences, and the opportunity to enjoy traditional Bedouin hospitality for a night or two.
We had booked to stay a night in one of these camps, where we got exactly that.
Starting with an afternoon of all those iconic activities you would expect from any self-respecting desert. Like a camel ride (distinctly touristy), a four-wheel jeep tour through the dunes (much more authentic, given the Bedouin have largely abandoned camels in favor of jeeps these days), and watching a desert sunset from a scenic rocky ledge, while sipping a cup of sage tea that our guide had whipped up over an outdoor campfire (#TotesInstaWorthy).
Later, we feasted on a dinner of lamb, cooked for eight hours in an underground pit, before retiring to sip strong brewed coffee and smoke a traditional water pipe around a bonfire. One of the local waiters performed acrobatic dance moves with a tray and forty cups of hot tea balanced precariously on his head. Our hosts broke out some guitars, and pretty soon it was a riot, of raucous singing and dancing, the party continuing until late. All of this happening under a canopy of a billion twinkling stars, mind you, the Milky Way visible like in the finest of National Geographic pictures.
Not to mention waking the following morning to a sunrise balloon ride, where we were able to watch silently from above, while the desert slowly awoke to a new day. As travel experiences go, that one was completely unforgettable, ethereal, breathtaking, and all the other adjectives the glossy tourist brochures had promised.
But here’s the thing: for all of the anticipation, and all of the hype, no brochure, photo or film had properly conveyed to me the true nature of Wadi Rum. To get that I needed to see it – or more precisely feel it – in person.
Because unlike with most other deserts, which tend to be mostly flat and fairly desolate, in Wadi Rum the plains of red and gold sand are punctuated by massive mountains, extraordinary rock formations and towering cliffs. These cast fabulous shadows, which lengthen and shorten quite dramatically as the day progresses.
So in Wadi Rum the landscape appears to be in perpetual motion, changing from minute to minute as the sun arcs across the sky. Which in turn gave me the most extraordinary sensation – something I could never have got from a photo – a feeling as if the very ground beneath me was constantly shifting. No, even more than that: a feeling like the whole desert was alive; a living, breathing, moving organism which I had magically become a part of.
All of which meant that Wadi Rum turned out be like nowhere I had ever been before. And most definitely like nothing I had ever experienced before – an otherworldly, almost alien kind of feeling, in an otherworldly, almost alien kind of place.
Perhaps also explaining why a goodly number of recent sci-fi films – in need of an otherworldly and almost alien kind of setting – have been filmed on location there. Because whether it be a desert battlefield between warring alien beings (Transformers), an imagined world in a galaxy far away (Prometheus, Rogue One), or good old neighboring Mars (The Red Planet, Mission to Mars, and The Last Days on Mars), Wadi Rum is apparently as close to not being on earth as you can get without the use of a rocket.
Now, it so happens that one of Wadi Rum’s most recent cinematic appearance was a starring role, as Mars, in Ridley Scott’s 2015 award-winning blockbuster, The Martian. This was where most of that film’s unforgettable exterior scenes of the Red Planet – the endless pans across red dust with baked red mountains in the background – were shot.
Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity to cash in, the enterprising Bedouin camp we were staying in had recently upped its own Mars-iness. That is, two weeks before our arrival a group of custom-made metal and carbon-fiber geodesic dome huts had been installed, in an area off to the side of the more traditional goat-hair Bedouin tents.
These domes were fairly accurate replicas of the pod in which Matt Damon had made a life for himself on Mars. Only with various additional creature comforts added on the inside: a comfy bed, a mini-bar, a marble bathroom, an air-conditioner, and a floor-to-ceiling glass front, allowing unobstructed viewing of the magnificent desert-scape out front. And, lest we were in any doubt as to what was intended, each pod was also rather imaginatively named: Martian 1, Martian 2, etc.
We were apparently the first people to be staying in our particular geo-dome, and as we were checking in, we were approached by the camp’s resident manager. The recent installation of “the Martians” was, supposedly, a first in Jordan, and had attracted considerable local media interest. A film crew from the Jordanian nightly news had thus arrived that afternoon, to take some promotional shots. And, so the manager said, they wanted to interview some of the guests.
We agreed – why not? – and as the crew began setting up, I began prepping for my Jordanian TV debut. Although it quickly became clear that their main interest was not in me, but rather in my travel partner. Which was fair, I suppose: a blonde, blue-eyed American lady would probably be of far more interest to a Jordanian TV audience than a swarthy, Middle-Eastern looking guy, of indistinct but possibly questionable origins …
In any case, all of this serves to explain how it came to be that on my recent visit to Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert, I found myself seated outside one afternoon, in the sunshine, on a white leather beanbag, on the wooden deck of “Martian 5”.
In my hand was a glass of ice-cold arak, watered down with fresh squeezed orange juice. The sky was bright blue, and the air completely still – so motionless and quiet I could feel my heart beating. Behind me was the dome-shaped silhouette of my space-age tent. On one side of me was a low table, holding a small cup of sweet mint tea. To the other side of me was a makeshift TV set – camera, sound boom, lighting and crew – on which my travel partner was giving an impromptu interview.
And laid out in front of me, like a postcard from Mars miraculously brought to life, was a sweeping vista of sand and dunes, racing away to a ridge of high craggy mountains, and the horizon beyond that.
It was a scene so wonderful, and so deliciously absurd, I couldn’t help but to laugh out loud.
[Next week: Adventures in Jordan (Part II) – Petra, Amman, and the Dead Sea]