Roadtripping Jordan: The south (1/2)

The first slightly longer trip of 2019 was a 5 day trip I just undertook in Jordan. Jordan consists of 2 main climate zones, the south which is warm and dry, bordering Saudi Arabia and contains mostly barren deserts, including the famous Wadi Rum. In this part of the country you will also find parts of the Dead Sea, the nabatean ruins of Petra, but also the prosperous and relaxed coastal city of Aqaba, at the very tip of the Red Sea, granting Jordan access the oceans.

In the north (next post) you find more green landscapes, with occasional rain and more temperate temperatures. The north contains all the major cities of the country, including the capital Amman, the second and third largest cities of Irbid and Zarqa, but also several other major cities like As-Salt and Madaba. The north is also rich in roman ruins and castles, including the amazing Jerash, Ajloun, Umm Qays, Karak and more.

This post will concern itself with the first part of my trip (day 1-3) which I spent primarily in the south.

Getting there, arrival, car rental

My flight went from Copenhagen to Ammans Queen Alia international through Kiev’s Borispol, in which I had a 4 hour layover. By the time I arrived in Amman, the time was already 1 a.m. I had made a reservation for a rental car prior to going, and the company had confirmed my booking and informed me that a guy from the company would wait for me to hand over the car. Great service – or so I thought. As I left the baggage-claim area and walked out into the arrival hall, there was nobody waiting for me. I waited around for over half an hour, and walked to the rental-car area of the airport, realizing that my company ACE Rental/Eras didn’t have an office in the airport, but is rather located slightly outside the airport. I attempted to call the company, but all the numbers I could find for them weren’t working. Great.

After trying to just book a car with another company but being rejected because all the companies were out of cars, I had to swallow the bitter pill and try my luck and just take a taxi out the office of ACE rental, with hopes of them being open at that time of night, now approaching 2 a.m.

The taxis at the airport has set fares, and the area in which the office was located (6 km from the airport!) cost 19 JOD (26,8 USD) to reach. That was quite shocking, but unfortunately not much to do as the price wasn’t negotiable. As I arrived at the office, luckily it was open. The guy inside didn’t make any apologies for not having picked me up, in fact he had even given my reserved car off to somebody else because I had been late for the pickup. He quickly concocted some solution in which I was given a hybrid car instead, which he claimed was an upgrade. I was just happy to finally be able to hit the road, as I was extremely tired at this point, and still had a 20 minute drive to my hotel in Madaba. Moreover the plan was to get up early the next morning to drive off south to Petra. So this long delay was most unwelcome.

By 3 a.m. I finally arrived at the Pilgrims Guest House in the heart of Madaba, and hit the sack right away. At 6:30 a.m. after just a very few hours of sleep, the alarm rang I got up, ready for a long day of driving and exploration. I had a little bit of breakfast and then checked out. Quickly exchanged some euros to more JOD to accommodate my trip.

Dead Sea, Wadi Musa, Petra

I had planned to drive along the scenic route along the Dead Sea rather than the fast route along the Kings Highway. I decided upon this, because ever since I saw the Dead Sea for the first time (on the Palestinian side back in 2017) I had dreamt of taking a roadtrip along the entire length of this splendid place. The drive down to the Dead Sea was most idyllic, going through beautiful green hills and sheep/goat farms. The route down to the dead sea went through curvy mountains roads, which was extremely fun to drive along. The day was off to a good start. At the shores of the Dead Sea, the smaller mountain roads turned into a highway, which made the trip down the Dead Sea faster, even though you also have to pass through a few police checkpoints, getting your passport checked.

I hoped to take a swim in the sea, but frankly the weather was mild at best, and I was also short on time, as I not just had to get to Wadi Musa (the city surrounding the entrance to Petra) but also explore Petra on this day, so no swim happened. Equally it was not easy to find any area to swim, in which you wouldn’t have to enter a spa resort sadly.

I enjoyed the trip down the sea with splendid views the whole way, and after the sea disappeared behind me, the road turned inwards towards the center of the country, going to Wadi Musa through the mountains. These mountain roads were even more fun to drive through than the ones earlier in the day, and they were almost entirely abandoned. Only when I neared Wadi Musa did people start of appear, picnic-ing in the mountainous terrain. It looked very cozy.

Wadi Musa is a city build upon several hills, and as you approach the city, you see these inhabited hills rise up in front of you. It is a very impressive sight to drive into. The city itself is fairly small and relatively easy to navigate. Beyond Petra, there isn’t much else to do in the city. Because of this, the city is also overflowing with hotels, restaurants and tourists, both domestic and international.

I arrived at my hotel, the Petra Gate Hotel, around 1 p.m., quickly checked in, readied myself for Petra and then set off, to maximize my stay in the complex. There’s a huge free parking space near the entrance, and a equally big paid parking space, so I figured I’d have no problems finding a place to park. But dear lord, the place was entirely full. All the roads in the area were also lined with parked cars. It took a while, but eventually i found a free space a 5 minutes walk from the entrance.

Petra is mostly known for the Treasury, which is the building featured on mostly all photos you ever see of Petra. While the Treasury is indeed very impressive, it is by no means the entirety of Petra – not even close. Petra consists of a giant area spanning over 60 square kilometers in total. The majority of the main sights are however located within an hours walk of the main entrance. It includes beyond the Treasury, several other temples carved into the rock sides, a couple royal tombs, a roman amphitheater etc.

The walk into the main area goes through a beautiful sandstone canyon, in which you’re surrounded by rocks on both sides, and with a view of the sky above. This road is full of tourists, and every now and again a horse drawn carriage will rush by in either direction bringing tourists with them. It can be quite chaotic. Eventually you make the final turn, and the canyon walls opens up to a direct view of the Treasury. The first time you lay your eyes on its delicate carved exterior is special. It is awe-inspiring and massive. Unfortunately, the square outside the Treasury is extremely crowded with tourists and merchants trying to sell all sorts of souvenirs. It ruins the experience a bit.

You cannot actually enter the Treasury, so you’re left to glee at the facade. Eventually you will probably get approached by some of the bedouin climbers, offering you a guided climb up to the “secret” viewpoint in the cliffs high above the Treasury, offering you a remarkable view of the Treasury from above. The climber who approached me offered me the climb for 10 JOD, which he claimed was a special cheap price for me as a solo visitor. It still seemed extremely expensive, but in the end I was keen on getting pictures from above, so I agreed. The climb was slightly difficult, with a non-obvious path, so having the guide was probably necessary. But even then it is still a rather short climb. At the top of the trail, they have a small tea-tent, which you must pay 1 JOD extra to enter, which incidentally is also the only place from where you can get the view of the Treasury from above. So they’re truly using every opportunity to earn money here. The view was spectacular, and it was quite nice enjoying a cup of sweet arabic tea on a rock overlooking the Treasury, so while it was quite expensive, it was also somewhat worth it – it does give an entirely different experience than standing amongst the hordes down below.

After making my way down from the overview, I continued deeper into the Petra area. Making my way past the amphitheater, and the rockside containing several royal tombs. You can climb up to several of these, and so I did. Eventually finding some abandoned paths leading to other tombs with no visitors. That’s the thing about Petra, you’re allowed to just climb and wander mostly everywhere, and as soon as you go slightly off the main paths, you have the place for yourself – this happens as soon as you go past the Treasury actually, then the crowds quickly diminish.

Having spent a little time climbing around the tombs on my own, and backtracking my way down successfully, I decided to climb up to what is called “The High Place of Sacrifice” which is a official path leading up to one of the highest rocks in the immediate area, with a sacrificial pit, that was used in the old days. From up there you have a splendid view of the surrounding area (minus the Treasury). The road up is steep and takes at least 25 minutes of constant moving and climbing stairs. But the view is so worth it. As a testament to just how many souvenir sellers are inside Petra, even along this trail, on some of the most inhospitable cliff sides, there’s still small booths of people selling various tourists. It is really hard to avoid them.

I spent a while at the sacrificial place, enjoying the view and resting after the long climb. At this point it was almost 4 p.m., and it had already been a long day after a very short nights sleep, so it was time to head out. Before I had descended the High Place and walked back out Petra it was already well past 5 p.m.

Back at the hotel I was served dinner, consisting of Maqloube (rice and chicken), falaffel, bread and more. It was very delicious. The Petra Gate Hotel has a roof-top restaurant/common area with big open windows with a splendid view of the hills of Wadi Musa with all the buildings lined up along them. A truly remarkable view.

After dinner I took a small walk around the immediate neighbourhood, finding a small market, getting some snacks and drinks for the rest of the night, and next days continued adventure. Then I went back to the hotel, and crashed in bed before long.

Wadi Rum

The next morning the alarm rang early again. I had to depart Wadi Musa and drive further south to the famous UNESCO listed desert of Wadi Rum. It is famous for it’s red sand, and piles of rocks protruding out of the desert floor. Wadi Rum has some extremely unique landscapes, and it has become very popular to not just tour the desert in a jeep, but also stay overnight in a bedouin tent camp. There’s in fact multiple of these camps spread out all around the Wadi.

The drive down to Wadi Rum is about 80 km, and on your way out of Wadi Musa you drive far above the Petra area, giving good views much of the area – which grantedly consists of a labyrinth of rocks and canyons.

Along the way, I passed a souvenir shop/cafe at one of the overlooks, and I decided to pick up a keffiyeh scarf to wrap myself up in. It cost 5 JOD and was a very good purchase, helping to protect against the sun out in the desert, even if it also made me look like a horrible tourist.

Further onwards along the road, I made a stop at a small flock of camels, wanting to take some pictures. I hadn’t noticed that there was also a camel herder there. But he invited me over, for a cup of tea and some bread. He didn’t speak much english and I didnt speak arabic, so the interactions were few, but it was still nice to be invited to sit down with this man out there in the middle of no where, and observe his camels for a bit.

Before too long all vegetation disappears from the landscape around you, as you go further south and read sand and big rocks starts appearing instead. Sooner or later you arrive at the Wadi Rum Village, in which the different camps pick up their guests and drive them off into the desert.

Some of the locals directed me to the home of my camps leader, where I was placed in a common room for a bit, waiting for the other campers that would join me in the camp that night. I was of course offered more tea during the wait. After a bit, more people arrived and we were served lunch – more Maqloube – before we were taken out to the campsite. My fellow campers had already been out on their jeep tour in the morning and so after we arrived in the camp and had dropped off the others, I was taken out on the jeep tour alone (along with the driver obviously). Sitting on the back of a 4×4 roadster, speeding through the desert. It was an incredibly fun and exciting experience, and the landscapes you see are mindblowing. The only slight downside was that we actually got stuck in the sand at one point, and it took the driver a little while to get us out again.

The sights we stopped at included 2 rock bridges going between chasms high above the desert floor. A narrow canyon. A big red sand dune, which was extremely rough to climb, but extremely fun to run down. Lawrence House and more. Most of these locations included a bit of climbing, which was fun. I quickly became used to climbing on some sketchy paths, and while most of the other tourists at these places were excessively careful, I found myself just jumping around without much care.

At Lawrence house I was however much more focused on a pack of wild camels roaming around nearby than the actual sight. A flock of camels were grazing nearby. A group with a guide had approached the main group of them, so I went out to photograph a lesser group of 3 camels. One of the camels, a adolescent one, quickly noticed my presence and seemed just as curious as me. It slowly walked up to me, and eventually stood with its head right in my face. I wasn’t (still aren’t) sure if camels are actually dangerous and capable of attacking humans, so I backed away cautiously, but it followed and just seemed playful rather than threatening in any way. So eventually I mustered some courage and patted the camel on its back/hump. It barely responded and so I kept at it, until the camel became bored and started walking off again. It was a very special experience, and I’m glad I mustered the courage to not just run away right away.

Each destination that we stopped at, did have big groups of tourists at them. Even out here you’re never alone. Similarly, as you drive through the desert, there’ll at any point mostly be other jeeps zipping by somewhere around you.

After about 3 hours of jeep touring we finished and returned to the camp. Here there’s several small tent houses, each equipped with 2 beds, each tent also having electricity supplied by sun-cells, and there being common toilet showers with warm water. For a tent-camp, it is fairly high levels of comfort. Before dinner, I decided to take a small walk around the immediate surroundings of the camp, wanting to climb a rock-stack. I found on nearby that looked climbable, and after trying for a bit I did manage to find my way to the top, giving good views of my tent camp and the surrounding area. I sad up there taking it all in for a while before climbing back down again and returning to camp.

It was almost time for sunset at that time, and so I and some of my fellow campers, that I had met earlier in the day, set out together to another nearby rock stack, with the best possible view of the sunset in the immediate vicinity. We made it in time, and watched the sun set in the horizon, and the already red-tinted desert be swept in a dark red light. It was magical, no other way to describe it.

It being the desert, however, also means that temperatures plummet fast after sunset. So we hurried back to camp, where the dinner was ready to be served in the large dining hall. Here we met the other guests in the camp, and shared travel stories over the dinner, consisting of various meals, breads and stews prepared on-site by the local bedouin family. It was extremely cozy.

After dinner, we went out star gazing. The sky out here is entirely clear, and far from any light pollution so there’s an abundance of stars visible. Sadly the perfect night sky lasted only shortly until the full moon rose and drowned out most of the stars with its bright light.

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I decided to head out to climb that same rock stack that I climbed earlier in the evening alone once again, just in the dark this time, only lit up by the full moon and my phones flash light. It was quite the adventure, but once again there were no issues.

Then I went back to my camp and crawled into bed, being not at all ready for how cold the night out here would be. I went to sleep fully clothed, and wrapping my self in the 2 blankets in the tent, and yet I still froze a lot throughout the night. The tents are in no way insulated, so the cold of the desert grips you hard. I was unprepared for this, and so it was a long and cold night. In spite of this, and everybody else having had the same experience over the night, we were all in high moods when we gathered again for the breakfast in the dining hall. We were all in agreement that his camping experience had been absolutely splendid and unique.

After breakfast some of us was returned back to the Wadi Rum village, to continue our individual journeys.

Aqaba & back North through the desert, Karak and Wadi Mujib

My journey would now continue onwards south to the Red Sea town of Aqaba, which is in furthest southern point of Jordan, right on the border with Saudi Arabia. It is also bordering Israel, and list right across from the Israeli bathing-city of Eilat. Aqaba is equally a bathing city, full of foreign tourists just taking in the sun and swimming around in the Red Sea. The city is the largest and most developed in the southern part of the country, and it even has it’s own airport. I took a dip into the Red Sea, which had a very nice temperature of about 20 degrees. It was very refreshing after days in the arid desert landscapes.

But Aqaba is also clearly a very touristy town, and it didn’t appeal to me much, so it was only a relatively short stay here. Maybe 2 hours in total. Now I would have to return to Madaba, over 300 km in the north. It would be a long long drive. No time to waste, so I set out.

Once again I had opted for the more scenic route than the fast route, so I decided to drive through the Negev desert on the Jordanian side of the border with Israel. It has a high way stretching for over 160 km through an entirely flat and desolate landscape, only interrupted by the odd small village, or military checkpoints. You can definitely tell that you’re close to Israel, going through all these checkpoints.

I quickly became bored of this drive, but unfortunately there was no way out, only continuing straight ahead. Eventually I did leave the desert, and with more road options, headed inland through the now greener areas. As I went inland the weather also turned more and more cloudy and stormy. As I made a stop in the old castle town of Karak, there was effectively a full storm blowing outside. Yet I still went up to the old castle, which is very well preserved, and offers spectacular views of the surrounding area. It was a very cold and stormy tour around the castle grounds. After the castle tour, I sat down in a small cafe outside for a pit stop, and some warm tea and snacks. Then I headed out on the roads again.

Continuing north along the interior and several small cities and villages, I eventually found myself driving into a deep canyon. It was a fun drive, but one that I was unprepared for – I had not planned for this place at all. At he bottom of the canyon was a big water reservoir with a big dam, that I drove across (also a first for me, yay?) It turned out that I had stumbled upon the mighty Wadi Mujib canyon. It is also called the Grand Canyon of Jordan, and it is absolutely massive. And I had no idea it existed until I was in the middle of it. What a lucky coincidence.

It was however getting dark now and I still had some distance back to Madaba, so there wasn’t much time to enjoy the sight.

The remainder of the drive back home took me through another smaller canyon, various mountain roads overlooking the dead sea – offering splendid views of the West Bank lightening up in the distance – and more. While it was fun, it was also scary driving these sharp curves in complete darkness.

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Curvy mountain road in the dark. The dead sea lies between the mountains and the palestinian towns in the West bank lightening up in the distance.

And I was getting really hungry at this point, not having eaten much since the breakfast out in Wadi Rum earlier that day. It around 9:30 p.m. when finally arrived in Madaba, and I feared that I wouldn’t be able to find any open restaurants at this time, but luckily there were plenty. I went to Haret Jdoudna, one of the more popular and known restaurants of Madaba, located near the heart of the city – and near my hostel (Moab Land Hotel). Here I had a delicious serving of bbq-skewers of lamb, chicken and beef, and some fried cheese. Afterwards I went to a small cafe next to my hotel for some of the traditional palestinian dessert kanafe, which is heavenly delicious.

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Then it was also time to hit the hay. The journey through the south of the country was now over, and the next day my grand tour of the north would commence.

 

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