Petra is the hot attraction, but elsewhere Jordan has a warm welcome, as Neil Geraghty found when he stopped for tea
A word of advice; never drop by for tea with the Bedouin wearing your best polo shirt. On a baking summer afternoon I was lying on a mattress outside a brown woollen tent in the starkly beautiful Dana Biosphere Reserve in southern Jordan. I’d been enjoying a mountain hike with Ahmed, a guide from the nearby Feynan Eco Lodge, when he suggested that we stop at his friend Suleiman’s for a break.
Our arrival caused a flurry of excitement and I was immediately surrounded by five children with toothy grins, all eager to practise their English. Hot on their heels, an adorable kid goat with wobbly legs appeared and gently began head-butting my shoulder before playing a game of tug of war with my shoelaces. Distracted by his antics I hadn’t noticed his sibling creep up behind me and start happily munching away at my Fred Perry collar.
The Dana Biosphere Reserve is one of dozens of reserves that dot this small but scenically diverse country. The Great Rift Valley slices through the length of Jordan, tearing the mountain ranges apart like a wishbone. The effect is especially impressive at Wadi Rum in the extreme south where sandstone peaks, weathered by the elements form twisted pinnacles and turrets.
The mountains were used as a hideout by Lawrence of Arabia during the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans in the First World War and the 280 square mile national park is full of reminders of his exploits.
A vintage locomotive attached to several carriages lies marooned on a lonely stretch of railway track. The line was once part of the Hejaz railway that was constructed by the Ottomans to carry Muslim pilgrims from Damascus to Mecca, but due to constant raids by Lawrence and the Arab rebels, it was never finished.
The train is used for re-enactments of the attacks in which dozens of Bedouin tribesmen mounted on camels swooped down on the train rowdily brandishing rifles.
Inside the national park I checked into Captain’s Camp, one of several that offer visitors the chance to sleep in Bedouin tents. After a siesta, I hopped on to the back of a rattling Toyota pickup for a tour of Wadi Rum’s highlights. At Alameh we stopped at a rock face covered in ancient petroglyphs of desert animals, some of which look uncannily like dinosaurs.
In the late afternoon sun, shadows play tricks on the splintered cliffs and giant human shapes seem to morph out of the rock. From Egyptian pharaohs to ancient Greek colossi these optical illusions cast a mysterious aura over the magical landscape and I could fully understand why Lawrence in his memoirs described Wadi Rum as “vast, echoing and God-like”.
The drive from Wadi Rum to Petra takes you along the King’s Highway, an ancient trade route mentioned in the Bible, that once stretched from Egypt to the Euphrates. The quiet road weaves its way through undulating mountains and offers fascinating glimpses of Bedouin life.
This time of year is haymaking season and as I drove by, shepherds wearing the grey traditional long robes of the Bedouin, were building tall beehive-shaped haystacks for their flocks. It was a suitably Biblical scene befitting an approach to Petra, but as the famous rose-hued mountains came into view, I felt apprehensive.
In 2007, Petra was chosen as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World by 100 million voters worldwide and I felt sure that this well-meaning accolade had transformed the site into an overcrowded tourist scrum.
I needn’t have worried; Petra covers an enormous area and comfortably absorbs the large number of day trippers from the nearby Red Sea resorts. It’s easy to get off the beaten track and from the ticket office I headed along a donkey trail to approach the famous ruins from a quieter direction.
The beautiful two-mile hike took me through deserted ravines, strewn with giant red boulders. The silence was punctuated by the mournful screeches of birds of prey and a haunting flute melody in the distance. The trail led up to an ancient High Place of Sacrifice. Here I sat down breathlessly to take in the spectacular view of ruined palaces and classical tomb facades carved into the cliffs below me. At that moment I almost jumped out of my skin when a Bedouin lady dressed in blood red robes popped out from behind a nearby rock and with a whoop of laughter gave me a dramatic throat cutting gesture.
“Here sacrifice,” she said pointing to a stone altar. “I sacrifice you”, she laughed. Spotting a flash of silver in her hand I had a moment of panic but soon relaxed when I realised that she was the mystery flautist. Lifting the small flute to her mouth she played a cheerful tune and invited me to come and look at a small table covered with trinkets.
Many Bedouin still live in Petra and supplement their income selling souvenirs. Hospitable and good-humoured they enjoy chatting and joking with tourists and rarely hassle you to make a purchase.
Back at Suleiman’s family camp in Dana I experienced more Bedouin hospitality. Suleiman offered me a piece of jameed, a rock hard cheese made from sun-dried goat’s milk. Dubiously I took a nibble and was surprised to find it tasted like vintage Parmesan and went perfectly with the sweet herb-infused tea.
It’s always polite to accept three glasses of tea or coffee from your Bedouin hosts and after our third, Ahmed and I said our goodbyes and headed to a local beauty spot to enjoy a desert sunset. There, a colleague of his was brewing yet more tea. “Welcome to the best brew in Jordan,” he said proudly offering me a glass.
As the sun slipped beneath the jagged mountains and the crescent moon appeared they told me childhood tales of wily wolves and jackals who came down from the slopes to snatch their goats. It was a magical evening and as we walked back along the dusty track towards the lodge, I swear I could hear a wolf howling in the distance.
Royal Jordanian (www.rj.com, 08719 112 112) flies daily from London Heathrow to Amman. Prices start from £228 each way. It costs £50pp for a full day at Petra. You can hire a guide from Petra visitor centre for 15JD for two and a half hours, which includes the major sites.
Stay at the Mövenpick, Petra for £129, B&B, per room, per night, www.moevenpick-hotels.com
Accommodation at Captain’s Camp, Wadi Rum costs £70 per tent, per night; 4x4 jeep tours cost £20.
For more information on Jordan, see uk.visitjordan.com