a stravaig across wadi rum
Sat, May 19, 2012
At the beginning of May we headed over to Jordan for a bit a holiday in the heat. As it was Dawn’s 50th it was her holiday really, horse riding across Wadi Rum with Ride World Wide and I was being given my own Bedu guide for some walking and scrambling (Bedouin is the plural of Bedu). I initially asked whether I could follow on the mountain bike but they said the desert wasn’t suitable and how right they were. Also the overnight camps were dependent on the wind direction so they couldn’t give me a GPS track to follow either. I was completely easy though and in the end they arranged a guide, Mahmoud, half my age and fit as a butcher’s dog! A Bedu born in Wadi Rum, he knew the place like the back of his hand and the plan was, near the end of the trip we would be near the border with Saudi Arabia, so we’d go up Jebel Um Adaami, the highest in Jordan, if the valley was open. The army close the area when they’re training and when we arrived at the flea pit hotel in Amman, the word on the streets was the area was closed. Probably due to the ongoing stooshie in Syria giving the Jordanian army some cause for concern. I say flea pit but Liwan was a fairly alright hotel in a shabby suburb of Amman and the food was great. The downsides were the chain smokers in the lobby and the bed bugs which made fair work of one of the group. Another sprayed the bed with deet before she got in!
The next day we were off down the wide highway to Wadi Rum where we met the guides and lazed around in the sun until 4pm. This was the daily pattern. Movement in the early morning, rest up during the afternoon when the sun was brutal, then head out again around 4pm. So the horses disappeared up the wide Khazali canyon while Mahmoud and myself walked across to Rakhabat canyon. A rough footpath at first then full on scrambling on superb grippy rock.
We climbed on a mixture of sandstone as sticky as flypaper and black granite rough to the touch. We padded up slabs, traversed more slabs above deep drops into the bed of the canyon and descended by fantastically eroded columns and pillars into the heart of the canyon where we stopped for a breather. It was hot! It was here I got to know the Bedu way of doing things. They like to joke a lot. We climbed an open corner and wound round to the right to be confronted with a sheer wall of wildly eroded sandstone. ‘We go up.’ said Mahmoud. ‘To the left, then over to the right. Hard part is near the top’. I said ‘ok’ and was wondering what on earth route he was looking at up this vertical 200m wall when he laughed and said ‘I joke!’ and we headed round to the left into another winding passage and wonderful scrambling to the top of the route.
A long descent followed, at one point feeling like a VS move down a smooth wall! back to the bed of the canyon where it opened into sandy desert and we came to the first night’s camp next to the red dunes.
The gear had arrived on one of the jeeps which followed the horses and the amazing sound of middle eastern music reverberated round the canyon walls as our fantastic cook knocked up a culinary delight on his gas burner.
The next day was a desert walk with horses taking a longer route. It was here that I got to know the desert sands and their multitude of hues and their particular requirement for walking. It’s very very tiring walking across desert and it demands a particular style and efficiency of movement. I watched Mahmoud as he seemed to flow over the sand while I teetered and wobbled and could only go at half his pace. Eventually I worked out the secret is to walk as upright as possible as if you walk bent forward you end up just pushing lots of sand out behind you and sinking in deep. Very tiring indeed.
What struck me about the cliffs in Wadi Rum was the sheer verticality and they seemed strangely odd for some reason. Then it occurred to me what was missing. Sculptures! Having spent a week in Egypt at Christmas I was used to seeing giant pharoahs on just about every rock face. Here they were pristine.
We headed off left up a side canyon and descended it for a while before turning right and out onto Wadi Um Ishrin. This was my first experience of real desert. The sun was high and violently hot and we could see nothing but sand in every direction, apart from hazy hills on the horizon. It was bloody hot!
We skirted the hill with the horses visible in the distance and walked across a Martian landscape of red sand and black rocks to the next camp at the south end of Barrah canyon.
The desert is a wonderful environment. It draws all sorts of wonderful characters like Isabelle Eberhardt who’s diaries I was reading on the trip not to mention the man himself, T.E Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, in who’s footsteps we were partly following. My overriding memory of the desert, apart from the heat, is the complete lack of sound. It’s a wonderfully soundless environment. On the way to camp 2 stopped for a break in the side canyon and the complete lack of sound heightened all the other senses such that stones took on a life of their own as I felt their rough surface on my fingers and looking closely at them their scale disappeared and I could have been a giant looking on the surface of an asteroid. A plant grew poker straight from the sand to end in faded yellow flowers and it was achingly detailed in the sound vacuum around me. It was a wonderful experience. Another feature of the desert seemed to be animal parts, especially goat parts. A leg here, a torso there and over there, a head! All perfectly preserved in the dry heat. Even death itself was muted in this place. The carcasses didn’t have that pitiable look the deer or sheep have in the highlands. Dead animals lying in freezing cold bog, lashed by rain and hidden in scudding mists. A sad and lonely place to end life. In the desert the lack of sound connects one place with another in your senses and there’s a strange feeling of connectedness among everything there. A single dead goat is not single at all. It’s part of all the dead goats you see on the way and they’re all clean and pristine and slowly being subsumed into the sand. You get the feeling life is reborn here. The desert truly is a wonderful place to walk.
Now there are cliffs and there are cliffs but this cliff at the southern entrance to Barrah canyon takes your breath away. I optimistcally walked up to the foot of it but it was completely blank, devoid of holds but the rocks at its foot sheltered desert foxes which were quite tame compared with our highland ones. They come into camp at night and I was woken on the second night by the acrid stench of one rummaging around the tent. I suppose they eat the darkling beatles that abound in the desert. The beetles come out as the sun goes down and the heat of the day dissipates and they can really swarm in places. They’re really quite funny little things and you get used to them pretty quickly as they go about their business in the cool evening sand. I went for a wander with Dawn in the morning and spotted this beautiful little desert fox having a nap. The camera was on full x16 zoom and I didn’t expect the picture to come out but it’s one of the best pictures I’ve ever taken and I just love it to bits.
It was then up Barrah canyon to the next camp. A short 2 hour walk through one of the most spectacular places in Wadi Rum.
We got a bit of a shock at camp 3. Big tents and showers!
We lazed around as usual until 4pm and the horses headed out again while Mahmoud drove me through the desert to the Burdah rock bridge. I have to say, it’s rather exciting being driven at 70mph through the desert! Frightening even! I took the video on a slower section though!
We parked at another Bedouin camp and began the climb to the bridge. And it was a climb. Mahmoud had placed a bolt here and there for when he needed to rope clients up but I didn’t need it and indeed he hadn’t brought one anyway. It was about VDiff in places and relied almost exclusively on friction, being slabs most of the way. Once over the inital smooth bulge with a helping hand from Mahmoud (felt more like hard severe!), we traversed slabs to the bottom of a fantastic crack system that split the face and took us to within sight of the bridge.
The rock was fantastically grippy and a delight to climb. Just as well as it was around the Moderate grade. Dubh’s Ridge type scrambling but in sunshine! As it was about 5pm the temperature was just perfect with a light breeze and at one point Mahmoud stopped and pointed to a small dark stain on the rock. A raindrop! The only one of the trip it turned out! As we came into sight of the bridge Mahmoud turned to me and said, ‘with one person, it normally take one hour to here. You, it take… 25mins!. You are fastest man to the bridge!’, although he prolly says that to all his clients! I was rather chuffed though considering the grade of climbing I was soloing. The crux was then a vertical section up the side of a gully, step across onto a narrow ledge on the opposite wall with a short section of fixed rope and up to a spacious ledge and the final slab to the bridge.
The views were stunning. Hot desert and mountains as far as the eye could see. It knocked me into stunned silence.
A sand storm whirled across the landscape below and combined with the dark red of the sand it looked like we were on the edge of a vast lava lake belching clouds of steam. We then descended the way we came up which was rather exciting, meeting a party who had come up an easier route with their barefoot Bedu guide.
but we took a different route at the bottom rather than tackle the bulging slab in descent. Instead we squeezed through giant boulders covered in pure white eroded sandstone sand and back on the desert floor I looked up at the route. Yes there is a route up there!
The next day I nicknamed ‘The Crossing of the Nefud!” from the scenes in Lawrence of Arabia when they do just that, cross the Nefud. But the Nefud is in Saudi Arabia and I was in Wadi Rum, so what gives? I crossed real desert. In real desert heat. Four hours, three of them non stop. I was overjoyed my old bones could still do the job. We initially left the camp and headed straight into the desert then entered a narrow beautiful canyon with wonderful shade from some trees. When we popped out the other end through a very narrow scramble the desert opened out once more.
The more we walked the further from the mountains we went and into the open desert. Way over on the left, Bedouin camps shimmered in the heat and the sand turned from red to almost white.
The sun beat relentlessly on my left side and my arm began to swell and sweat profusely but we were walking at around 4km/h and I was used to sand walking so we made good progress. It was deathly silent as usual and we didn’t talk much in the heat. Just walked and walked and walked. Over in the distance a faint plume of dust betrayed the horses. I began to dream of ice cold beer. A lizard darted into a scrub bush. My brain began to cook but my body took over and went into ‘efficiency of movement’ mode. It was unbelievably hot. About half an hour from camp we reached an uphill section with a thin crust of dark sand overlying the softer stuff underneath and I had to weave around the increased number of scrub bushes. Eventually, after four hours in the heat and desert I stumbled into camp having crossed The Nefud! I’d drunk two of my four litre Camelbak which was pretty good going I thought. We lunched and lazed again but this time I was driven in the jeep to the next camp as it was quite far. Into a completely different landscape from the desert. We entered a red walled canyon and pulled up under a fantastically eroded cliff face for the night.
I amused myself for a while by climbing some of the side gullies until I couldn’t go any higher, then walked across the canyon and attempted the fairytale ridge on the other side, scoured by the sand laden wind into fantastic shapes. It led to a mountain that seemed impregnable with the final ascent up what looked like a violently exposed and blank wall. It looked superlative and I salivated and drooled but stopped where the ridge abutted the bottom of the face.
I had a confab with Mahmoud that night round the camp fire. I was for climbing Jebel Um Adaami, the highest in Jordan. That was ok with him but he suggested an alternative, Jebel Al Hash (hash is a flat place). It was on the edge of the desert and had good views of Um Adaami and was more in keeping with Wadi Rum. The other Bedouin were quite keen on Al Hash too, saying Adaami was just a straight up and down. I got the impression he didn’t really want to go that far. It was a horse riding holiday and I was only tagging along, going where my guide could take me and I was enjoying immensely being in Wadi Rum, so we agreed on Al Hash for the morrow.
So the next day we jumped in a newer jeep and sped across the desert, somewhere! We were about 30km from the Saudi Arabian border and we drove across wide open sands towards the mountains. In the distance we spotted a convoy of three jeeps and Mahmoud put the foot down to catch them up, the tail jeep belching out black smoke as we came up behind it, careering and swinging its way through a narrow sandy gorge, Saudi music wailing from our stereo. The other jeeps eventually stopped and Mahmoud jumped out to greet the drivers. Everyone knows everyone else here. Some western tourists emerged and were transferred to two camels and their Bedu handler who had been waiting in what seemed like the middle of nowhere for them. We continued into the mountains and pulled up at the end of the sandy ‘road’.
We headed up the dune and into a rocky landscape following a faint path with eventually disappeared. Scrambling above a narrow gorge we emerged into a more open upper section and Mahmoud weaved around the various obstacles until we reached some slabs and popped out on the summit that gave Al Hash its name as it was completely flat. And right on the edge of the desert.
In the distance we could see Jebel Um Adaami across a vast expanse of sand and the longer I looked, the more subtle the colours became in the vast bowl of aridness. What seemed like a dried up river cut through the landscape below us.
A chain of dust dry mountains marked the border with Saudi Arabia and Mahmoud said ‘no-one go there’. I immediately wanted to go there!
We spent quite a while on the summit as I just sat and gazed out over the desert. When it was time to go I turned round and wondered where on earth the route was! The landscape is so rocky that everywhere looks the same as everywhere else and a guide is a good idea. Luckily Mahmoud knows these mountains like the back of his hand.
We headed back to the jeep and to the strains of Saudi violins sped across the desert to the last camp, tucked in under an overhang on a sand eroded smooth lump of rock.
Back at camp I again amused myself by exploring the vicinity on my own. Given the complexity of the ground I soon learned to navigate on the shattered tops that surround the desert camps. On one small peak I decided I’d try and get to the top so I walked up the sandy canyon and circled the lower slopes until I found a weakness, a short crack in a steep slab. Once up, I looked down and memorised the look of it as all cracks look the same from above! Then off to the right on a wide flat ledge that led back round to the other side of the peak and I could gain a steep ramp formed by whitish rocks. White rocks I said to myself. At the top of the ramp I again looked back to memorise the route down, then headed over to the left across a flatter area which had a distinct lip of small black rocks. A good place for a bivvy I thought. No danger of rolling off past that lip! The lip I said to myself. Then up broken ground to a huge boulder that had fallen into a deep fissure and I was confronted with the summit block. No easy way. An overhanging though short, pumpy climb and I thought the better of it. So I turned round and everything looked completely different! But I’d noticed on the way up that the route was entirely to the right of the column that abutted the face on the other side of the canyon so I knew if I was on the left of that I was off route. Back to the sunken boulder. Down further and I spotted the lip. From there it looked vertical below me and my heart missed a few beats. Had I lost the route? I was a good 200m above the floor of the canyon and it all looked sheer beneath my feet. But I knew to look for the white rocks and sure enough there was the steep ramp that took me back to the wide ledge. Round to the right and there was the crack. Back down to the sand. Phew!
I walked back down the canyon on the other side and climbed a nice ridge that ended where it met the steeper wall of the mountain. Lots of loose eroded sandy rock and bird guano so I sat for a while and looked out across the canyon. I then crossed some open desert to a low ridge I fancied climbing. I could see the route was much easier though, formed by a spider’s web of eroded ledges. Most interesting.
Again I played the memory game up the contorted rock faces and onto the ridge which stretched over three small rises and gave superb views of the desert.
On the way back to camp I detoured over a much smaller outcrop which I gained round the back up a dune which abutted the face. It was then a nice bimble across the sand just as the horses came in from the desert.
I’d really enjoyed my solitary stravaig and was thoroughly impressed with the desert rock architecture, sculpted as it is by the sand laden winds. Wonderful.
Our last day in Wadi Rum dawned brilliantly clear again as the sun rose over the camp and we stirred early. We had to be back in Rum village fairly early as the cars were coming at 2pm to take us to Wadi Mussa, our base for the next two days while we explored Petra. So I wasn’t doing any walking today but was in the jeep following the horses.
I did manage to get out now and then as we waited for them to catch up and we visited the well on Jebel Qattar which was a rather impressive mountain.
Being in the jeep gave me the perfect opportunity to film the horses though.
I arrived in Rum village ahead of the horses who came in with a distressing tale of a local man, naked and chained in the desert just outside the village. The guides said he was the ‘village idiot’ and they’d given him clothes but he just kept taking them off. Quite why he was chained in the open no-one knew. I thought this was rather at odds with their initial distaste at the western way of treating the old, by putting them in an old folks home. It seemed their way of dealing with the mentally ill was just as suspect. Who knows, perhaps a few of the correct type of pills and some ‘care in the community’ might have sorted the poor bloke. Another interesting thing that emerged was their distaste of alcohol. When two of the group produced a bottle of whisky (no, they weren’t Scottish!) the guides asked them not to use the tea glasses otherwise they wouldn’t be able to drink from them. Fair enough and respect other cultures but they told us later they drink alcohol in the winter to keep them warm!
And thus ended our 6 days in Wadi Rum. Next up was Petra, the Red Rose Shopping Mall and the smokers’ paradise of the Dead Sea but that’s another story.