Black Tea and Desert Sand

I have to be honest. I am not a desert person. I’m more of a mountain, beach or someplace-where-things-grow person. My bad attitude stems from a US cross country road trip and a stop to admire the desert in Arizona. Everyone talked about the beauty of the sand, the colors in the rocks and the starkness of the landscape. I was extremely underwhelmed (sorry Arizona..I wanted to love it, I really did) and I mentally ticked off all deserts as being not-for-me.

Wadi Rum  photo by Guillaume Baviere

Wadi Rum photo by Guillaume Baviere

Wadi Rum was an entirely different desert experience and my time there qualifies as one of my most memorable travel experiences. The scenery was spectacular, our experiences were exceptional and the Bedouin hospitality unmatched. My only  disappointment was that I only spent a day and a half in a place that deserved much more of my time.  I guess I’ll just have to go back.

Wadi Rum (Valley of the Moon) is a World Heritage Site located in southern Jordan. Made famous by the epic film, Lawrence of Arabia, the desert is now a protected area encompassing 720 sq kilometers of dramatic granite cliffs, sweeping desert sand and hidden canyons. All expeditions into the desert are guided and travelers interested in jeep tours, camel or horse trekking, climbing, hiking, walking or camping must make a reservation (more information below).  As much as I wanted to camel trek through the desert, our time was limited and a jeep tour was the most efficient way to see the highlights of Wadi Rum.

View across Wadi Rum by Guillaume Baviere

View across Wadi Rum by Guillaume Baviere

We started our day in the desert with Mohammed, one of the local Bedouin Huwaitat tribal members and jeep tour guide extraordinaire.  We met Mohammed at the visitor center and piled into our covered (thankfully!) 4 x 4 and drove off in the direction of the desert. He explained what we were going to see that day and peppered  our conversations with anecdotes about the Bedouin, his family and life in Wadi Rum.  Just before we drove through the visitor center gates, Mohammed said “Hold on!”, pulled a hard left and tore into the desert.  He took great joy in testing the capacity of his vehicle and my sense of adventure by driving up and over the top of the dunes as fast as possible.  It was exhilarating and the views were spectacular at every turn.

Carving and inscription commemorating Lawrence of Arabia's time in Wadi Rum

Carving and inscription commemorating Lawrence of Arabia’s time in Wadi Rum

Petroglyphs dating back to Thamudic times found throughout Wadi Rum

Petroglyphs dating back to Thamudic times found throughout Wadi Rum

Mohammed promised to show us all of the locations featured in the Lawrence of Arabia films as well as locations significant to Bedouin lifestyle and history.

Intro to camels, 101 with Mohammed

Intro to camels with Mohammed

He knew we were obsessed with camels, and stopped periodically to visit with the locals and let us chase the camels around with our cameras.

Running down the dunes with Mohammed

Running down the dunes with Mohammed

Showing Rachel how to wrap the head scarf properly.

Showing Rachel how to wrap the head scarf properly.

Our view from the top of the red dunes.

Our view from the top of the red dunes.

Some of our most magical moments in Wadi Rum were the quiet ones…sitting in absolute serenity on the high dunes, watching the camels or the occasional jeep go by.

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Lest you think we were just sitting about and letting Mohammed do all the work, we did a little scrambling up the rock cliffs.  In the photo above Rachel and I are discussing which one of us will  climb up to rocks to the bridge overhead for the photo.

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I lost (or won, depending on how you look at it).  Mohammed thought this was hilarious.  I’m not pathetic.  I am barefoot, in a skirt and it’s a looonnnggg way down to the desert floor.  So there.

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We ended our day with Mohammed making tea in the shade of the red sandstone cliffs as we lay about, sipping the delicious tea  and soaking in the beautiful sand dunes, mountains and vistas of Wadi Rum.

Things to Know

Desert excursions can be booked at the Wadi Rum Visitor Center.  If you find bargaining and negotiating stressful, you should consider booking ahead online through any number of reputable and local agencies. I personally recommend booking ahead using Jordan Jubilee ‘s suggestions or UTA booking service. . The local Bedouin have embraced the concept of TripAdvisor for ratings and direct contact information.  Do your research before booking.

The tour vehicles used in Wadi Rum are purpose built vehicles.  They are old, but reliable and easily repaired with whatever is on hand. Some are fully enclosed, some are pickup trucks with benches in the back.  Make sure you know what you are getting.

Bring your own water, snacks and other necessities with you into Wadi Rum.  There are one or two small shops on the outskirts of the desert and none within the boundaries. Be prepared.

Dress appropriately.  Temperature is dependent on time of day and season.  The summer is oppressively hot (over 34C) and winter is cold.  Daytime and nighttime temperatures vary as well.  Best to check here before you go.

Stay longer.  We had just enough time for our jeep safari and an amazing night under the stars during our one night stay.

We stayed at the Milky Way Ecolodge, situated within the Wadi Rum protected area.  Owned and managed locally, the camp offers visitors a comfortable and ecologically sensitive way to enjoy all the desert has to offer.  The raised tents sleep  1 to 6 people in comfortable (real!) beds, complete with bedding, duvets, pillows and linens.  The camp also provides full (and solar-powered) bathroom facilities…showers, toilets, sinks and running water. Meals are served communally in the gathering tent where guests can sit, drink tea and socialize with other “campers”  after dinner.  You can read my review here and/or here

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“Why Do You Sleep in the Road?” A Night in the Wadi Rum

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Mohammed dropped us off at Milky Way Camp and drove off in a cloud of desert sand. Our camp host showed us to our tent and invited us for a cup of tea, which we gladly accepted.   It had been a long day and we were exhausted. I don’t know why we were so tired…jeep trekking, tea-drinking and dune-running in the Wadi Rum desert all day?  Perhaps.

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As much as we wanted to sit in the tent and drink tea for hours, it was getting late and we had to scramble if we wanted to watch the sun set across Wadi Rum. Rachel and I set down our tea cups, grabbed our cameras and set out across the valley. We saw a hill in the distance and decided the top of that hill would be the best place to catch the last rays of sun.  We walked for 20 minutes and decided to sit down for a minute to rest.

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We sat silently for a long time, enveloped by the incredible beauty of  Wadi Rum. We watched a herd of goats heading home, a pair of camels wandering across the sand and the last rays of sun dropping behind the mountains.  It was absolutely silent and so….peaceful.

I heard the engine before I saw the jeep.  I screamed for Rachel to wake up.

It seemed our “sitting for a minute to rest” had turned into “tipping over and falling dead asleep in the sand” 500 feet from camp. I turned to see the jeep idling 20 feet from us.  The driver was a young-ish man, traditionally dressed in a shemagh and white robe. He looked at me through the windscreen.  I looked at him.  We stared at each other for a minute or so before he stuck his head out the window…

Man:  “You from the camp?”

Me: “Yes!”

Long awkward pause.   He grinned.

Man:  “Why do you sleep in the road?!”

What road?  How was I to know the weed-less part of the sand is considered the road?  I told him we were walking to take pictures of the sunset and got tired.  He laughed hysterically.

Man: “You like the Bedouin…you tired, you sleep… you awake, you go.  Come.  I will give you a ride to see the sunset.”

Rachel and I piled into the front seat of  the truck and barreled across the desert with our new friend, Abdullah (also manager of the tourist camps in Wadi Rum) just in time to see the sun sink behind the mountains.   Another instance of  Arabic hospitality.  Shokran Jazeelan, Abdallah. It was a beautiful sunset.

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Things To Know:

Milky Way Ecolodge is situated within the Wadi Rum protected area of Southern Jordan.  Owned and managed locally, the camp offers visitors a comfortable and ecologically sensitive way to enjoy all the desert has to offer.  The raised tents sleep  1 to 6 people in comfortable (real!) beds, complete with bedding, duvets, pillows and linens.  The camp also provides full (and solar-powered) bathroom facilities…showers, toilets, sinks and running water. Meals are served communally in the gathering tent where guests can sit, drink tea and socialize with other “campers”  after dinner,

Candles provide lighting at night in the tents and at dinner, but it’s a good idea to bring a flashlight/torch/headlamp.

Children are warmly welcomed!

The accommodations were lovely, the food was good, the company exceptional.  Sitting in the silent desert watching the Milky Way spread out across a pitch-black night sky while listening to Abdullah tell stories about growing up in Wadi Rum was magical, at least for these city girls.  Go.  

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions about our stay in Milky Way Camp!