Listen!” said Yamaan our guide. “All you can hear is silence.”
Just silence. And my heartbeat thudding like a drum inside my head. We’d climbed 700 metres, scrambling over huge boulders and round ancient juniper trees and my temples were throbbing. But what a view. Huge dusty valleys spread out before us, a panorama of pockmarked brown crags interspersed with sudden upright slabs of shiny black volcanic rock. Somewhere behind that range was Petra – our lost city. But for now I was looking at my feet; we were about to start the long, knee-clattering stumble down into the next valley.
The problem with lost cities is invariably everyone else is there too.
Even the Inca Trail is so full they now limit the numbers. If only you could take the other tourists away and discover a centuries-old civilisation for yourself; just like the explorers of old? Until a few months ago Petra, Jordan’s ancient rose-city with its temples hewn from the rock face, could only be reached by air-con coach. One of the Middle East’s most mystical places, even on a quiet day the narrow gulley that leads to it is busy with people, horse-drawn carriages and camels. But now you can walk five days across desert, through gorges and over mountain passes and arrive dust spattered and sweaty on the far side of the complex with hardly another soul around. You feel like Indiana Jones himself.
The trek starts at Jordan’s Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature’s eco-lodge at Wadi Feynan. It’s a great example of the work the RSCN is doing to protect the natural environment whilst benefiting the local population, combining 21st century design with eons-old building techniques. Its 26 comfortable mud-plaster rooms are lit by candles and have solar-powered showers; luxury with an eco-friendly edge. We dined on fava bean stew, couscous, flat bread, fat olives and creamy yoghurt prepared by the Bedouins who run the lodge and after dinner we lay on mattresses on the roof, the Milky Way stretched above us like a wisp of celestial cloud. It was wonderfully tranquil, but tomorrow the walk would begin. I decided on an early night.
We rose early to get going before the sun got hot. Yamaan introduced us to Farhan and various brothers and cousins who would form our support team. Each day they drove ahead with rucksacks, food and tent to set up camp. Stepping out in my new walking boots with the five other walkers on the trek, four litres of water sloshing in my rucksack, face plastered in sun cream, I wondered whether I was up to the challenge of the Jordanian desert. That first day was a rough stumble across igneous rocks and scrub, occasional lizards darting away in front of our toes. We tramped past wily old acacia trees with blankets lodged in their branches. Yamann explained that these were Bedouin winter residences; a complete tent stored there ready to be pitched when the family came down from the hills.
I’d had enough of stumbling by the time we reached camp.
Farhan and the team had already pitched our long Bedouin tent, home for the next three nights. The heat had gone out of the sun. I was tired, a little footsore and covered in dust. God, what I’d have given for a hot shower. But that was not an option. I settled for dousing my face and head in water and judicious use of wet wipes. ‘Technical facilities’ as Yamaan referred to them were a hole in the ground surrounded by canvas on three sides and a flap door. Farhan and the gang had a fire crackling and tea on the go. Dinner was magloobeh, a stock-rich mix of rice and chicken, perfect for hungry hikers.
Next morning we were up at 6. The dawn air was chilly.
I gulped sweet mint tea and crammed down flat bread and zahtar a tangy powder of crushed wild herbs which you mix with a little olive oil and scoop up on your bread. We climbed swiftly, zigzagging up slopes of scree. Black and white finches flitted between the rocks. As we climbed, the desert spread out behind us, and further back, the Dead Sea was brought sparkling to life by the morning sun. We crossed a col and descended into a narrow river valley. Lunch, several hours later was in the shade of a small oasis – a sudden flurry of green on all levels – bulrushes, shrubs and trees and the bright pink of oleander flowers crammed into the tightest of spaces. I was fantasising about a dip in a river, but this was a mere stream so I sat in the shade and dozed to the polyphonic humming of the insects.
We camped that night on a plateau halfway up a mountain, the valley laid out below. I’d had enough of grit and grime and, equipped with a jug of water and soap, showered behind a boulder. It was spectacularly good, liberating. The fire crackled, the odours from the pot were fat and sweet. Our Bedouin team sang evening prayers together, their voices ebbing and flowing, echoing around the valley. Maybe camping wasn’t so bad, even if one of my companions did snore rather. After dinner Yamaan fired up his sheesha water pipe and showed us how to puff its scented smoke. The long bubbling draft was surprisingly mild. I drifted off to sleep to the gurgle of the pipe and the morse code of crickets.
We tramped on through the dry river valleys, high above us buzzards and eagles wafted along on the warm thermals. The rock became redder, swirls of different shades bleeding through it. Yamaan showed me how to make fire. Dry rattan palm needles catch in a moment. I’d taken to sniffing every shrub that crossed my path. Their pungency was amazing. Spearmint, wild sage, wild thyme; any of them shoved inside Yamaan’s blackened tea pot with a handful of tea and a dollop of sugar produced the most life-enhancing brew.
On the morning of day four we said goodbye to Farhan and his team. He’s been walking this area 40 years and knows every stone. Yamaan spent weeks with him camping rough to learn these trails. I expected Farhan to find it odd that foreigners pay to come and sleep in a goat hair tent, but instead he said, “Surely this is the most beautiful scenery a man can see. He would walk a lifetime to find it,” a smile beaming across his dark, lined face.
Next day we were up early. Today we would find our ancient city.
We marched on, blisters forgotten, through sentry fields of quill stalks, their pod-laden heads exploding with seeds as we brushed past. Soon the wilderness returned and we climbed high, scrambling at times, shuffling along ledges, bodies pressed close to the rock. We chanced upon Petra without realising it. Yamaan detracted our gaze with a non-existent lizard. We scrambled around a clump of rock and there it was: The Treasury, Petra’s largest temple rising vast from the rock face. It was 9.30am. The early sunlight provided the perfect aura, making the temple resonate gentle gold. A swathe of softer rock across its middle worn smoother by wind looked like scar tissue from a badly healed wound. We sat in a small café and sipped cardamom-coffee, drinking in the scene. After five days and 50 kilometres we’d reached our goal. There were just three other tourists there. I felt a definite sense of moral superiority. No coaches and donkeys for us, we’d tramped thorough the desert to reach this place – we had the blisters and the dust-caked boots to prove it.
We spent the rest of the day wandering our ancient city – these ruins of Nabatean superstar houses – vast pediments and perfect columns chiselled into the rock. In places the wind has rutted these contours so they look almost molten. And the stone is a kaleidoscope of hues – chocolate, cream, raspberry and vanilla, like an untouched tub of ripple ice cream. Usually the first sight visitors see, we came to the famous Treasury last. The boldness of the craftsmanship and the scale of its pillars and plinths are made all the more striking by the steep rock faces that closet it. It was now I realised how completely tired I was. It’s a long tramp to the main entrance and a shocking return to the souvenir-shop chaos of civilisation. Without hesitation, we marched into the plush Movenpick hotel all tinkling fountains and comfortable sofas. No one batted an eyelid at this band of scruffy trekkers. Here I drank the coldest, sharpest beer I’ve quaffed in years. It was nectar. Sometimes a bit of civilisation isn’t such a bad thing.
Fancy trekking to Petra?
Do The Tour: Try it for yourself with Walks Worldwide.
Find Out More: The Jordan Tourist Board website.