Half as Old as Time

Red or Dead
Sunday 5th March 2023


After our early night last night we were bright as the daisies this morning. 

Even if we hadn't properly woken up then the busy decoration in the lift would have done the job. The funky swirling sixties inspired pattern was quite the trip!

"This is how I imagine Willy Wonka's glass elevator to be like" said Julie, foretting she already said that the night we arrived.

We were down for breakfast at 7am. My foul this morning was much warmer which made for a more pleasant experience. With a five hour bus journey ahead of us I decided not to eat any egg. Perhaps a large bowl of mushy beans wasn't such a good idea either!

We all gathered together at the front of the hotel where a 20-seater minibus was waiting for us. There was plenty of room for the twelve of us. Musa was also there, which pleased us. After his somewhat anxious introduction last night he seemed far more relaxed this morning.

We were just about to set off when Musa asked "Do we all have our valuables? mobile phones, passports etc" We then heard Darren go "Oh, bloody hell!" and he ran back inside to get his passports and cash from the hotel safe. That was so lucky.

Shortly after 8am we set off, heading West out of the city, the shortest route to the ring road.

Along the way we passed the King Abdullah I Mosque with its beautiful blue mosaic dome. Despite looking like an ancient treasure it was only completed in 1989,  comissioned by the late King Hussein in memory of his grandfather.

I was glad to have seen it even if it was only through the window of the bus.

We soon reached the ring road through the affluent suburbs of Amman. "This is where I live" said Musa before laughing out loud. "No, no, I couldn't afford it. The houses here cost millions of dinars" he went on to explain.

We were now travelling South along the Desert Highway, passing the Queen Alia airport and the road to Madaba before driving across the vast emptiness of the desert.

There wasn't much to see. Every now and then there would be an ugly industrial silos in the distance producing potash, a phosphate fertilizer, one of the country's main exports. Since the embargo on Russia because of the war in Ukraine the demand for fertilizer had gone through the roof.    

The road took us through a few small settlements, many were nothing more than the houses of those who worked at the fertlizer plants.

Two hours after leaving the hotel we reached Hasa a slightly larger town, where we pulled over for a comfort break at the New Jerusalem Resthouse.  

Having used their restroom facilities we felt obliged to at least buy a drink so we ordered a giet coke and a coffee, Turkish style. "Would you like cardamom ?" asked the barrista.

I had never heard of this before, putting cardamom in your coffee?  But I rolled with it.

I took my first sip and was totally blown away by this richness of flavour.  Not only was it the best Turkish coffee I had ever tasted, but the best coffee of any description that I ever had. Seriously.

Of course the New Jerusalem wasn't only a resthouse, it was also a souvenir shop. We browsed all the handicrafts but didn't see anything that caught our eye.

Tiffany on the other hand picked something up. At first we thought it was a rug and wondered how on earth was she going to get that into her luggage but it turned out to be a beautiful prayer mat.

After stocking up on some snacks we returned to the bus for the second leg down the long desert highway.

One of the things we bought was a bottle of strawberry flavoured "drink" with floaty basil seeds. It was my second new beverage experience of the day!

It looked weird, like a bottle of frog spawn but I actually liked it. The seeds had turned gluttenous giving it a soft but lumpy texture, like tapioca, or maybe the trendy bubble tea only without the gelatine.

The landscape continued to be sparse, with not many in the way of towns or villages.  Just after the small village of Hashemeyeh we saw this shell of a mosque in the distance. It looked so eerie, unfinished and adandoned.  

After the relatively large town of Ma'an the landscape began to change. The scenery gradually became more interesting with rocky sandstone outcrops (or "sandystone" as Musa called it) and sandy desert valleys. We were getting closer to the Wadi Rum Protected Area.

Tonight we were going to stay at a Bedouin camp in the heart of desert but first we were to visit Aqaba. I was pleased to see this change in the itinerary from the time we originally booked the trip. There was a connection in Aqaba with T.E. Lawrence or Lawrence of Arabia as he's better known, the British Army Officer who played a part in the Arab Revolt which began with a taking of the fort at Aqaba. 

Almost five hours after leaving Amman we rolled into Aqaba.  Musa pointed West across a lush green land. "That's Eliat, in Israel" he explained. We were only a few miles away from the border.

It was time for lunch. Musa suggested a quick sandwich stop. We pulled up on As-Saadeh street. I was on my own queuing for falafel from a small hole-in-the-wall type place called Falafel-W-Bas whilst Julie and the others walked across the road Tatbileh for the shwarama option.

Alexandra however needed something gluten free so Musa suggested a restaurant called Khubza & Seneya.

It was only a few minutes walk away. By the time we reached there we had all finished eating our wraps. Whilst Ceri and Stuart joined Alex for a civilised sit down meal the rest of us had half an hour to kill. 

The weather was noticably hotter down here in Aqaba so Musa suggested ice cream. 

He took us to a gelateria called Gelato Uno. They had all the flavours you would expect. I went for one described as Arabic pistachio. It wasn't the typical green colour, (they did also have that one) but it was a refreshing plain milky dairy ice cream with crushed pistachio nut mixed through it. 

It was just perfect.

After walking up to have a closer look at a fountain and then stocking up on some booze for the two nights in a bedouin tent from one of the several liquor stores, we rejoined the group. 

It was now gone 2pm and we were running a little behind schedule. We had all earlier agreed that we would like to go to a beach resort for the afternoon which unfortunately meant we didn't have time to see much else of Aqaba.

Of all the places we could have seen Musa decided to take us for a walk through the market. I hoped we would perhaps chance across the white mosque of Sharif Hussein bin Ali or continued walking a little further until we reached the historical fort, but after 15 minutes of walking past shops we all piled back into the minibus and drove out of town. 

After driving for about eight miles we came to Berenice Beach Club. A further eight miles South and we would have been at the border with Saudi Arabia.

We paid 13 dinars each to use the facilities which was basically their changing  rooms and a lounger for the afternoon. Everyone else hired snorkeling equipment, we were afterall at the Red Sea, world renowned for its coral & sealife.

Julie and I we opted out. I can't swim and Julie struggles to snorkel. 

We donned our swimming costumes, lay our Welsh dragon towels on the loungers then headed to the bar for some refreshments.

Julie brought out her knitting, I caught up with writting this journal. We had a quick dip in the sea. All in all it was a very pleasant way to spend the afternoon.

Despite missing out on Aqaba's highlights we were glad to have this time to unwind.

Feeling a little peckish and mindful that tonight's supper was probably going to be a traditional Bedouin lamb dish cooked in the ground, we decided it would be a good idea if I had something to eat here.

The "veggie" sandwich was exactly as described, a soft warm baguette filled with a pile of  grilled vegetables. It was tasty enough.

Our two and a half hours of R&R flew by in a flash. At 5:30pm we all regrouped by the exit ready to leave. Whilst we were waiting I had a moment to chat with Musa.

I got talking about Lawrence of Arabia and how he was born in a small town called Tremadoc, in North Wales, a half hour drive from where we live. Julie and I had visited the house, called Gorffwysfa, only last weekend. I showed him a photograph of the plaque commemorating the fact.

His parents backstory is rather complicated. His father was Sir Thomas Chapman, an Irish/English aristrocat who ran away with his family's governess Sarah Junner, who by then went by the surname Lawrence. She was born out of wedlock in Sunderland when her mother was a servant at the Lawrence residence. The son of the household, John Lawrence, is believed to be her father, and why she later used his surname.

Sir Chapman and Miss Lawrence had a child together in Dublin. When the scandal broke they ran away together to Wales where Thomas Edward Lawrence was born in 1888. The family didn't stay there long, finally settling in Oxford when he was eight.

Having made a connection with Musa over El-Lawrence,  I then took the opportunity to ask "are we were heading back through Aqaba? If so, is it possible to stop at the fort for just a few minutes?"

He was happy to oblige. 

We arrived at the fort and peered over the wall to see its low ramparts. It was closed to visitors so this was as near as we could get. To the left of it was this enormous flagpole  which at first looked like it was flying the Jordanian flag but was in fact the flag of the Great Arab Revolt.

The uprising against the Ottoman Empire began in 1916 with both the British and the French supporting the insurgency. Applying the rule that your enemy's enemies are your allies. 

In July 1917 under the advice of the British Army Officer (and accidental Welshman) T.E. Lawrence, who was acting without orders, the Arab forces took Aqaba fort by attacking from the East. Apparently the defensive canons of the fort were fixed in position, pointing out to sea where they assumed from where the threat would come.

Although I don't know if this is fact or fiction as it was a scene from the epic 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia!

Anyway, it was a decisive victory and a turning point in the campaign which ultimately saw the Ottomans driven out of the region. However the one-Arab state which was their main objective and promised by the British, never materialised. Instead France and Britain drew lines in the sand and created Syria as a French protectorate and the British keeping controlling interests in the divided lands now known as Jordan, Iraq, and much of the Gulf states.   

We only had a few minutes to enjoy the little sandstone fort with a big history. Despite the fleeting visit I was incredibly glad to have had the opportunity to have seen it.

I would have been so disappointed to have missed it.  

Before we left, in a plot of land opposite the fort, we all witnessed a moment of ancient irrigation in action. We watched transfixed as this man holding a some kind of garden tool opened up a channel to allow water to flow from one section to another. They were like raised waterlogged beds.  It was fascintaing to watch.

We returned to the bus and headed back North, driving through a check-point that was almost like a border crossing. We hadn't noticed it on the way down. Musa explained that Aqaba was a "free-port" or "Special Economic Zone" to encourage investment by offering tax benefits.

The light was now changing as the sun was setting. Musa had highlighted the granite seams through the "sandystone" this morning but the contrast of the dark rock against the light was even more evident during this golden hour.

The sky was on fire to the West as we pulled into a petrol station to fill up with fuel.

 We took the opportunity to fill up ourselves and got a few snacks. We paid with cash but they didn't have enough change so they traded the half a dinar difference with a pistachio and almond flapjack. And very nice it was too.

Moments later we turned off the Desert Highway and headed East.

Almost another half an hour later we reached the Wadi Rum Visitor Centre and gateway to the protected area. In theory every visitor must come through here. We stayed in the bus whilst Musa took care of the formatlities.

When it was all done we drove through the entrance and immediately pulled over. The journey from here to the camp was taken care of by the local Bedouins.  

It was all rather confusing and made even more chaotic as it was now getting dark. I was instructed to get in the front of this beaten up Toyota Landcruiser. The driver had to open the door for me as the handle didn't work from the outside. Julie then got in the back. Stuart joined us. One of the back doors wouldn't open, full stop, whichever handle used, so Julie had to shuffle across to let him in.

We set off around 7:30pm into the pitch black darkness of the desert.

We were the last in the convoy, trailing in the dust cloud of the cars in front. Thankfully they knew where they were going, despite only having nothing more than dirt tracks to follow. There weren't any visible landmarks.

The journey was stressing Julie out. There was a strong smell of diesel in the car. What if there was a fire? We couldn't open the doors!  Whilst this may have been her worst-case anxiety kicking in but in this case she had just cause. Not only the facts but she was involved in a vehicle fire when she was young where the driver suffered severe burns.

She was very relieved when we finally turned up at the camp. It was called Benourama or the Panorama Bedouin Camp.

We all fell out of the vehicles, collected our luggage and after a debrief by Musa we set off to take our pick of the tents.

They were all identical but at least they were all numbered. That would make it easier to identify your tent when returning from visiting the toilets in the middle of the night!

 Julie made a b-line for No.5, the corner tent. Her logic was we only had immediate neighbours to one side of us.

The tents were basic. Glamping they certainly were not. They was no larger than a garden shed with walls lined with a burgundy and cream striped fabric that would induce a migrane if you stared at it for too long.  

Two single beds were made on opposite sides of the tent so the first thing we did was to push them together to create a double bed. The bedding was colourful to say the least, from chocolate brown to electric blue.  At the bottom of the beds were heavy velor blankets. It can reach sub-zero temperatures out in the desert but tonight wasn't going to be one of those evenings. It was a very comfortable 16C.

We had a call to say that supper was ready and we should all gather to witness its unveiling. A young lad began to shovel away a mound of sand until he reached a pair of metal handles.

This method of cooking was known as Zarb, and very traditionally Bedouin technique.  A hole is dug into the sand and a barrel casing placed into it. Sand is then filled back around it.

Hot coals from a woodfire is then dropped into the pit. A two or three tiered iron rack is prepared with marinated meat on the lower shelf, sometimes some rice on a middle shelf and the vegetables on the top. They would all be wrapped in palm leaves, although these days kitchen foil is used. This is then lowered into the hole. 

Finally a lid is placed on top, covered with sand and left for several hours to slowly cook.  

The young lad, traditionally dressed and his sidekick wearing a long sleeved Arsenal training top, counted "1-2-3" then lifted the two-tiered rack from the ground. Musa explained that it was chicken on the bottom and vegetarians were on the top.

I had been worrying a little that I would have to be polite and eat some of the meat infused vegetables but I needn't have worried. When we moved into the large tent there was more food available than just the zarb meat and vegetables.

There were two types of fresh chopped salads, a lentil soup and a meat-free vegetable stew with boiled rice. I'm sure I was the only vegetarian in the house so I filled my plate and went back for seconds without feeling guilty. There was plenty of food on offer.

They then brought the zarb food through and tipped the chicken into serving tray, then the roasted potatoes, onion, carrots and courgettes in another tray.  Julie enjoyed the veg but the chicken was overcooked. She didn't blame the chef. We were late arriving at camp and part of the experience was to see them dig up supper up. They had to wait for us.

The group naturally split into two groups as the family of six sat around one table and the rest of us around the other.  Ceri and Alex were very entertaining as they recalled how they met on an Intrepid trip across Indonesia. 

Whilst we traded travel stories the staff were busy setting up a camp fire and arranging cushions for us to continue the evening outside. It was a very pleasant evening making seeping beneath the stars a real possibility, an experience known as bivouac.

There was a wonderful full moon but as Musa explained, it was making the sky too bright to really appreciate the stars. "It's best here during a new moon" he added "that's when you can often see the Milky Way."

I noticed that Stuart was getting quite excited as he looked at his phone. There wasn't enough of a signal to get any internet coverage, but text messages were finding their way through. He then forgot himself and let out a chuckle. He was receving score updates from a friend about the Liverpool v Manchester United game.

It turned out that Stuart was a Liverpool supporter and they had just beaten United 7-0!

I couldn't believe it! That was our queue to go to bed.

Most of the "youngsters" decided to stay out all night.  Adam and Laurie, Ceri, Alex and Stuart opted for the desert floor instead of a perfectly good bed.

Those with more sense also called it a night.

Before bed it was time to visit the toilets, something we had been putting off. To be honest we expected really basic facilities, like the latrine style toilets at a music festival but they turned out to be the standard of a 5 star hotel! We were most impressed!

Back to our room, lights out by 10pm.

  Next Day >>>  

ęCopyright 2000 - 2022  Colin Owen