Tim Owen travels by camel to Wadi Rum, Jordan.
After a few days in Aqaba, Jordan, we drove to Wadi Rum for our Bedouin excursion. We were met on the outskirts of town and directed to the tourist parking by one of the guides. And by outskirts I mean the first building we came to, as opposed to 4 buildings further on which would have been “the centre of town”. Really more the smelly-jock-strap of town than the outskirts.
We clambered aboard the dilapidated Toyota Land Cruiser parked nearby.
The first observation was made by my rear as it connected roughly with a hard wooden plank where it had anticipated at least a partially cushioned seat. My second observation was that the vehicle had no air conditioning. Instead, all the windows were just kept fully open to let the movement of the 40 degree air against our skin disguise the fact that we were actually being boiled alive like lobsters in a big ugly pot with wheels.
We were still medium-rare when we arrived at the office a minute later, the aforementioned building in the centre of town. Entering the office, a 3 by 4 meter room with whitewashed walls, a zinc roof and a satellite dish, the first thing I noticed was the AWOL back seat from the Land Cruiser. Turns out it wasn’t actually missing, it hadn’t been stolen or thrown out because it had lost all its stuffing (which it had) but had quite logically been redeployed in front of the flat screen HD TV, where comfort is far more essential than whilst bumping along in the blazing desert heat in a glorified go cart.
After further introductions, we were led outside and introduced to our camels. Mine was a tall, dark enigmatic beast with a big scar down the side of his face and a permanently quivering bottom lip. I ignored the nagging feeling that I should ask for a different one. I was told his name was Vay, or at least that’s roughly how my ears perceived the English translation.
As I approached Vay from behind I headed to the right, but the guide indicated quite fervently that I should rather go to the left. I didn’t think much of it, except that it was odd to have a protocol around how to mount your camel. It turns out it had nothing to do with Bedouin etiquette, but more to do with the fact that Vay had a couple of personality quirks, the first one being “a fear of things being on his right,” aka Dextrophobia.
Mounting a camel is a bit like riding a Bucking Bronco in slow motion, and if you are not ready when the animal stands up you are either going to fall off backwards or grind a very sensitive portion of your anatomy against the saddle horn. When a camel stands, he raises his back legs first, propelling you forward and giving you a mouth full of camel flees if you are not ready for it. A moment later he lifts his front legs, flinging you backwards again.
Once we were all mounted, each camel tethered to the one in front of it, our guide, Safiq, pointed us towards the very, very distant horizon, and off we trudged.
Unlike a horse’s saddle, there are no stirrups, so unless you know what to do with your legs they just hang down and flop backwards and forwards with each step, making it difficult to keep your balance. I tried mimicking Safiq, who had one foot hooked casually around the camel’s neck for balance, but that felt even more precarious, especially with my backpack pulling me backwards over the camel’s rump.
It was roughly about this time that the reality of the situation hit me, along with an astringent sense of panic: 5 hours.
That was the length of time it was going to take us to reach our camp. And yes, we had known this from the start. But somehow, planning the trip, sitting next to the pool drinking fresh lemonade on a fragrant summer afternoon, camels seemed like a really exotic, brilliant and excellent idea.
Daring a precarious glance over my shoulder at the others, I was slightly mollified to see varying degrees of distress on their faces as well.
Wadi Rum literally translates to Valley of High Places and is so named because of the flat topped jebels or mountains that jut up from the otherwise barren landscape. They range in colour from a red ochre to not quite black. My panic was probably about half an hour old when we rounded one of these mammoth outcrops and came across the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life: a large, open sided Bedouin tent covered in carpets, and in the shade of the tent, people drinking the customary fragrant tea out of small glasses.
Inside the tent, miniature glasses of tea in hand, we huddled together in whispered conference lest the motorised-transport-travelling tourists should hear us and think we were pussies:
“I can’t feel my legs. And this heat is insane.”
“Whose stupid idea was this?”
“No, it was yours!”
“Is it too late to change our minds?”
“I say we demand a Lobster Pot!”
At that moment one of the other tourists came over to introduce himself, and we all beamed our best, most relaxed and authentic smiles at him. His name was Pierre, and he was a French art student from Paris, and was the only other person in the crowd who was going to the same camp as we were. He spoke enthusiastically about our arrival by camel and seemed genuinely distraught that he had opted to travel by car.
We assured him he was missing out on a grand adventure. Glancing wistfully at Pierre as he clambered up into the lobster-pot-on-wheels, we waded through the thick midday air to our camels. Despite knowing that the Toyota was no more luxurious than our lumpy, moody transports, it had two things I would gleefully have killed a Frenchman for – shade and speed.
The guide, sensing our distress, indicated that we should hook our backpacks onto the saddle horns. And that’s all it took, as without the extra weight destabilizing our centre of gravity, we could get quite comfortable, with a foot hooked over the camel’s neck just like the locals.
Now that we were coping better, Safiq untethered the camels from each other and handed us the guide ropes. For a while this arrangement worked well and I felt a small sense of glee at the false reality that I was actually in charge here.
For a while, everything was cool. The soothing, rocking motion and the surreal landscape edging past lulled me into a contented daze. Until a subtle change in the terrain brought with it small tufts of grass scattered at large intervals. This is when I discovered Vay’s second personality quirk: perpetual hunger. Although I suspect it may have been nothing more than him asserting his authority.
Very few of these Camelus Snackus appeared in our direct path, but Vay insisted on sampling all of them. Soon, the others way ahead, Vay was still meandering from left to right, leaving no tuft uneaten. The guide rope in my hand was obviously faulty.
For the first time in my life, despite being of Catholic descent, I found myself using the phrase “Oi! Vay!” in a completely appropriate context, urging him on gently with my heels against his flank, not too convincingly mind you cos I had no delusions about who the boss was. Safiq came trotting back and confiscated the guide rope, tying it back to his own camel.
Back on track, with Vay eyeing the passing delicacies wistfully, we made it to the next pit stop 45 minutes later. It was a 100m tall, vertical jebel with a sand dune flung up against it by the wind. As unbearably hot as it was, I felt I needed to redeem myself after my dismal performance with the camel, and set about climbing the wall of sand, a decision I regretted ten minutes later when I was still not at the top.
I finally made it to the top, where I dropped down in a bit of shade and waited for my will to live to return. I may have napped.
I then clambered up to the highest point, the heat from the rock melting the soles of my shoes.
I took in the 360 degree vista, my brain not quite grasping the vastness of what I was seeing. I saw a tiny puff of sand in the distance where our new French friend was hurtling to his next POI in the Land Cruiser.
Seeing the defined line on the ground where the sand changes from yellow to red, and the crimson rock of another jebel meeting the azure sky, I had one of those moments where you forget everything; the sore muscles, the sunburned ears, the need to pee, and was just in awe.
I wished I had a flag.
I had conquered this huge chunk of rock in the blazing desert heat and felt I needed to let it know. I didn’t have a flag, but I had something better – a full bladder. I needed to pee, I didn’t have a flag and somehow it just seemed like the right thing to do.
I scrambled back down, managing to fill my shoes and underwear with sand, to find the others well rested and eager to go.
Stopping at a few more POI’s along the way, we arrived at the camp in 4 hours, despite Vay’s mulish attitude. We oozed out of the saddles and shuffled to some benches under a large canvas canopy. Tea was pressed into our lifeless hands.
From their website, I had expected a typical Bedouin camp, with just some tents and a lot of carpets scattered around, maybe the odd goat or two and some dancing girls. Essentially, that’s what we got as even though there was an ablution block, the showers looked like they had been neither used nor cleaned since Moses read the writing on the wall, the basins appeared to have doubled up as camel drinking bowls, and the toilets had no water so whatever was deposited into them stayed right where it was dumped.
Ablution non grata. I was ecstatic. The advert had said authentic Bedouin experience, and that’s what we got. Not everybody shared my enthusiasm.
By 7pm the ground had cooled and we walked barefoot to a small dune a short distance away to watch the sun set. As it dipped behind one of the rocky outcrops, the air turned the colour of rust as the light reflected off the red mountains all around us. We lay on our backs enjoying the serenity, me content with the tranquillity, Dean listening to Dessert Rose on his i-pod, chuffed at finding the perfect song for the occasion.
The peacefulness was shattered by the sound of the local Bedouin kids rushing towards us with a soccer ball, but even that added to the surreal mood as we watched the boyish Pierre kick a ball around with the locals.
After supper, with nothing else to do, we grabbed our mattresses from our tents and dragged them into a group on the still warm sand in the centre of the camp. Getting ready for bed didn’t take long; there was no showering, no pesky tooth brushing, no pyjamas, just the addition of a jersey to the clothes we already had on to counter the slight evening chill. I did sneak a moment of privacy away from the camp to shake the remnants of the sand dune out of my underwear. We settled down under some hygienically questionable hunks of material with the ground around luminous from the billion stars.
We were awoken at 8am with the usual glass of tea; a transparent ploy to get us out of bed as the crew had already eaten breakfast and were ready to go. As we boarded the Toyota for the return journey, we were all thinking the same thing: 20 minutes versus 4 hours. But what a fantastic 4 hours!
In hindsight, yeah it was HOT, my groin has known happier times, my ears are peeling so badly I’m wondering if I have leprosy, and worst of all, I had to toss out a pair of my favourite undies.
Would I recommend the experience? Oi vey! You’d be a fool not to do it.
Visit http://www.wadirumsunset.com/tours or Google Wadi Rum sunset tours.