Monday, December 13, 2010

Jordan: Timeless sands of Wadi Rum

 “V  a  s  t,  e  c  h  o  i  n  g,  a n d  g o d-l i k e”

There are deserts, and there are gargantuan rocks. Then there is Wadi Rum, a desert of silken-smooth sand studded with monolithic rocks soaring from open valleys, both elements coalescing to such stupendous effect that it almost appears to be an incredible piece of installation art. In a way it has to be, and should rank amongst the line-up of special works, it is sculpted by the Master artist, after all.  
Wadi Rum lies in the Aqaba Governorate, which is the southern tip of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Geographically, though, it belongs to the sweeping expanse of the Arabian Desert stretching through Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Jordan.
From amongst the assorted landscapes in the kingdom, it’s Wadi Rum or ‘valley of the moon’ that comes across as timeless for many a traveller. In no sense does it reflect the desert definition of being a hostile and potentially-perilous environment not fit for survival. On the contrary, it’s welcoming and has a sort of tranquil magnetism, almost spiritual, that draws you towards it. During a recent tour of Jordan, I intuitively joined the clique of those utterly enthralled by it and would put it down as a site not to be given the miss during an excursion in the kingdom.  
The most arresting aspect in this desert canvas are the monoliths of sandstone and granite rising to heights of around 1,750 mt and bearing the most fantastic features. These expressive rock faces are the happy outcome of constant exposure to erosion. Adding further contrast and irrefutable allure to the panoramic landscape are red-ochre dunes and endless miles of powdery sand in blended hues.
One of the most famous expressions to describe Wadi Rum has emerged from TE Lawrence, popularly known as the Lawrence of Arabia, who in his autobiography Seven Pillars of Wisdom described it as “vast, echoing, and god-like”. It is a quote splashed across all forms of information on Wadi Rum, and strangely so, despite being oft-heard it doesn’t sound hackneyed. The words penned in 1922 are just so apt even today reinforcing the eternal nature of Wadi Rum.

Explore and shop
Ways of exploring Wadi Rum include a jeep drive or better still a camel safari lead by a Zalabia Bedouin—one of the few tribes inhabiting this desert. That apart, those with an adventure bone can opt for camping, trekking, hiking or rock climbing. Hot air ballooning is a fairly recent addition that’s drawing the crowds, predictably so. The paucity of time had me scrambling into a 4x4 (most of these are run-down versions) for my tryst with the sands of time. 
Before setting out on a safari, tourists are supposed to register at the elegant Wadi Rum visitor centre and avail the option of seeing a brilliant documentary on this ecosphere, highlighting its flora, fauna and geological aspects. There are a few souvenir shops too, largely retailing replicas of ancient hunting petroglyphs discovered on rocks here, dating back to a millennium-plus and providing vital anthropology leads. Brochures also don’t forget to mention movies filmed here, such as the classic Lawrence of Arabia which singly catapulted Wadi Rum to the tourism stratosphere, Red Planet and Passion in the Desert

Jeep Safari
My two-hour jeep tour kick-started from one of the most photographed rock formations, Mount Rum, popularly called ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’, so titled by Lawrence. Driving around the dunes and on fields of sand was a new experience, after having driven on Jordan’s faultless highways. The monolithic rocks were definitely the jewels in the crown, some of these being so mystically alive that I felt they would speak any moment. Some shapes were unique, as the arched Jebel Burdah, which had trekkers scaling its height. One of the scheduled mid-way halts during the safari is at a Bedouin tent where black-tea flavoured with locally grown sage and cardamom is offered. It’s delicious. Sipping tea in the company of camels and friendly locals attired in thobe (gown)-keffiyeh (head gear) adds enduring charm to the desert experience.  
This terrain required time but we were racing against the clock, with guide Ali making sure we didn’t miss the all-important sunset seen best from atop a monolith fringed by cascading reddish-orange sand. We had to scramble up to the summit, a tough task indeed, to get the best views. And it was worth it. The amber glow of sunset altered the desertscape, silhouetting the rocks dramatically. Shade and light created an unusual eco-system. As the sun set the land appeared to get even quieter, and as we watched night engulf the desert it seemed a city had turned off its lights. A few hours later when daylight would creep in the desert would once again transform and life would blossom. 

Golden triangles
Apart from Wadi Rum, most popular sites of Jordan are found in its fertile crescent. In the southern-end, coastal Aqaba, Petra — the rock cut kingdom of the ancient Nabatean tribe that’s been declared the new wonder of the world, and Wadi Rum form a doable triangle. In the north, capital Amman, the Dead Sea, and Madaba, which is considered the centre of Byzantine mosaic art, is the other triangle. The Desert Highway and the more scenic King’s Highway link the kingdom and ensure you zip through the countryside at ease while exploring it.

Quick facts: 
Air: Royal Jordanian has daily flights from Delhi and Mumbai
Distance monitor: Wadi Rum to Aqaba (50 km/1 hr); Aqaba to Amman (367 km/3.5 hrs/ daily internal flights between the two destinations)
Currency: 1 Jordanian Dinar (JD) = Rs 65 appx
Accommodation: There is ample choice in the semi-premium category, where the tariff is upwards JD 120 (Rs 7,500-plus).

Published, Jetwings December 2010

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