Martin in Gatineau Park

Martin in Gatineau Park

Friday, 30 November 2007

Wednesday 21 November 2007 - The Petra Experience

Back to the 7 am reveille, breakfast of pitta bread, jam, cheese, eggs, halva, spices with olive oil, mixed veg, and very sweet tea or coffee, then away by 8 am along a surprisingly entertaining path which at times resembled the Lower Cycle Track (aka Sentiero Osvaldo Orsi) in the Brenta Dolomites above Molveno.
Views stretched out west towards Wadi Araba and the Dead Sea, with the Mediterranean beyond that. But it was cloudy, so we couldn’t actually really see as far as Israel. Goats adorned the hillsides with their Bedouin minders. Some of our party found the path a bit hard, but the rock was firm and Mahmoud helped where necessary. On one of the ledges some enterprising folk, no doubt primed by Mahmoud, had set up a mobile ‘café’ where tea was supplied for 1 Dinar (70 pence).
After about three hours we emerged at Ad-Deir, the Monastery (pictured above), another massive edifice carved into the rock. We clambered inside to explore the 8 metre cube (not much to see there) before heading into the hustle and bustle of modern day Petra – a tourist trap par excellence. It’s supposedly 900 steps down to the main street, but we didn’t count; we were too busy dodging donkeys hauling overweight tourists up the hill, or rushing down to collect more.
Once down, we were allowed a few hours of ‘free time’. Some of us gravitated for lunch on the steps of the only freestanding building in Petra to have survived over 2000 years of earthquakes and floods, the massive Qasr al-Bint temple. Then we visited the recently restored church, where papyrus scrolls from ancient times have been found. It is covered by a tent structure supported by six columns, to protect an ancient mosaic. On Sue’s previous visit 10 years ago this church had hardly been discovered.
By the time we reached the Royal Tombs, which form the eastern boundary of the site, it was a very hot afternoon. We admired the wonderful, if seriously eroded, facades, before embarking on the first of many dashes to the loo for Sue during the course of the next two days.
We saw doves, rose finches, mourning wheatears, winter wrens, etc.
The time flew past, and after a visit to see artefacts in the new museum we reconvened at 2.30 for the stroll back up to camp by a different route to the top, then via an ancient wine press and a reservoir that we had passed on the way down. We were accompanied by the 10 year old son of Mahmoud’s brother-in-law. Allah stuck it out all the way to camp, where his persistence bore fruit and he did a good trade in postcards. Even this 10 year old was happy to accept payment in £, $ or €, as well as Dinars, as was our general experience in Jordan.
Very little beer was consumed tonight due to a bout of loose bowels, but after chicken and rice with the usual accompaniments we did manage to consume all the sweets on offer, and over half of us managed to sustain our battle against the smoke until well after 8 pm, a big improvement on last night!
You could spend many days exploring Petra, so our visit was definitely in the ‘taster’ category - nevertheless very worthwhile; it’s a fascinating place.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Tuesday 20 November 2007 - A Camel Ride

Knowing it was a 5 am start (so much for the ‘routine’ I explained yesterday!), we were awake at 4.45! Only as we were getting dressed did it get light. After we’d quickly breakfasted and packed our bags, the camels arrived at camp. 13 out of the 15 of us then had a couple of hours of fun riding around the mountain we were camped next to, about 5 km back to the road. David and Barbara walked beside us but were pretty knackered by the end as the camels’ stride pattern was longer than theirs! The camels came in various sizes and a couple were white. Some of my preconceptions were found to be wrong. None of them spat at us and their breath was no worse than most other animals I’ve come across. They were in fact rather furry and cute! The padded saddles were comfy and had wooden posts to hang onto and hang your rucksack on; the posts were particularly needed when the camel got up or sat down. The morning was cloudy, with a cool wind.
We joined another private bus after reaching the road. This took us to Petra in about 2 hours. A stop to buy fresh (unwashed) dates may in retrospect have been a mistake, but they were recommended by Mahmoud and were indeed delicious.
Next, a Turkish Bath, opened specially for our group, to most effectively remove the accumulation of dirt from Wadi Rum! Phil, Martin and I went in one way, and seven of the women went the other way. We had one masseur and they had three, but first we steamed, initially quite pleasantly, but as the room hotted up we could hardly see beyond the ends of our arms. It was a relief to gain the respite of a cool marble bench before exfoliation with a rough mitt of the type used to clean the average bath. The masseurs proudly showed us all the grime and dead skin they were removing. I’d never before experienced this, but it was really quite pleasant, as was the subsequent soaping, massage front and back, and massaging hair wash.
After a final showering down it was time to be wrapped in towels and re-hydrate with sweet tea in an ante room.
And so to Petra, a dusty place. Mahmoud got us tickets, as always, using the $120 “local currency” we had each given him at the start of the trip. Then just beyond the entrance we enjoyed a picnic lunch before proceeding down the Siq – the narrow gorge that leads to the ancient city built into the rock some 2200 years ago by the Nabataeans. I won’t bore you with the full history here, but as usual Wikipedia has an informative summary.
We continued down the Siq, with the remains of ancient water conduits on either side, and under an impressive collapsed arch. There were carvings of camels being led up and down the Siq, in the rocks of the gorge. Finally, after 1200 metres, we arrived at the stunning highlight of Petra, the Treasury – a 1st Century BC tomb some 43 metres high, carved into the rock.

In its heyday on a main trade route, the city ‘housed’ some 30,000 people, but later changes in trade routes, and devastating earthquakes, led to its gradual decline. The site was unknown to Europeans after the Middle Ages before being discovered by a Swiss traveller in 1812. Beyond the Treasury are a 4000 seat amphitheatre and a recently excavated colonnaded street. Over hundreds of years nearly all the city’s free standing buildings have been destroyed, and flash floods have resulted in the whole area being covered in deep rubble. Archaeologist Mahmoud believes 90% of the remains of the city remain uncovered.
After this brief introduction to Petra we enjoyed a two hour walk, in the company of pigeons and crows, up a side valley to our new camp. The route passed through a narrow defile with the remains of a high wall. This would have been a pedestrian entrance to the city, camel trains entering and exiting via the Siq.
It was good to relax in our spot sheltered from the cool wind after our long and packed day.
We have a long Bedouin tent as a bedroom, and a second tent split half into the kitchen and half into our dining area. The dining area has mats around the edge with mattresses on top, and a fire in the middle – where a huge juniper log burns smokily in a metal drum buried in the sand. This makes our eyes water somewhat, even after creating a ‘window’ using giant needles. Dinner was soup, then rice and very tender lamb, veg, etc, and the usual ‘Greek-style’ sweets with nuts and honey, to conclude.
Sue headed for bed at 7.15 due to the smoke, whilst four of us stuck it out until 8 pm. For some, blankets were welcome tonight.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Monday 19 November 2007 - Blistering Sand at Wadi Rum

The routine for the rest of the week:
Get up at 7 am, breakfast, leave at 8 am, day’s activities, evening meal at 6.30 – 7 pm.
This is TE Lawrence country. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom are nearby but sadly are not on our itinerary. I know very little about Lawrence (no more than is in the above link), but I do associate this area with Tony Howard and Di Taylor, whose many articles in Adventure Travel and other magazines I have enjoyed reading over the years. Interestingly, under their ‘n.o.m.a.d.s.’ (New Opportunities for Mountaineering Adventure and Desert Sports) banner, Tony and Di have produced the flier that Mahmoud handed to us last night. Here’s the map of the area. We are camped just north east of the Alameh Inscriptions at point 7.
We left for our desert walk at 8.15, having been told by Mahmood to wear boots. For me, this was not good, but I’ll report on that ‘gear’ issue next week.
The ancient inscriptions were admired, then we headed across the wide expanse of sand to a narrow canyon to the east of a high summit, Um Ishrin (we are at about 1000 metres, the summits are around 1700 metres). Then back across the wider canyon, past the camp at the northern tip of Anfashieh, before lunch in the shade to the east of that mountain. It was basically a plod through squidgy sand, guided by Mahmoud who strolled ahead like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn. He is bored after a season of doing the same trip. We have been allowed to wear ‘t-shirts and t-trousers’ today (one has to be careful about such things in these parts) and given 30C+ temperatures that’s a good thing.
There are lots of sea onion plants, small lizards, blackbirds (Tristram’s Grackle), Desert Larks, Rose Finches, the black and white Mourning Wheatear, African Rock Martins, Kestrels and Buzzards. I’ve since discovered that Mahmoud didn’t really know about the birds, many of which he referred to as ‘Flycatchers’. Whilst that may be what they do, it is inaccurate nomenclature. I’m really impressed by this account by Duncan Dine, who spotted 147 species of birds on his trip to Jordan in October 2005!
We also came across a selection of beetles, including the curiously long-legged Blaps Beetle. There are apparently several types of scorpion, long-legged gerbils, etc, rarely seen during the day. For those of us who later required nocturnal wanderings, the noises from the desert indicated much activity out there in the moonlight.
From the lunch spot it was a two hour plod north, back past the Inscriptions to reach camp at about 3 pm, giving us our first proper relaxation time of the trip, before dinner under the overhang – pitta bread, tomatoes, cucumber, vegetables, houmous, meat and rice – the fare that became usual for the trip. All this is eaten with a spoon, there being no other cutlery. Sue and I bragged about our ‘folding sporks’, recently acquired for forthcoming backpacking trips.
We walked for about 5 hours today, covering around 10 km.
Sunset wasn’t quite as good as last night’s; the moon was up, and Sue and I enjoyed another deep sleep despite the desert noises (a fox was seen in camp).
This is not a remote place. We are on the edge of the Wadi Rum area, and jeep tracks criss-cross the desert where we have been walking. There are locals out with camels (and accompanying tourists) and more tourists pass nearby in the back of open jeeps on their brief tours before they return to the Fleshpots of Rum Village, for belly dancing and boozing.
We also get beer, at £2 a can.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Sunday 18 November 2007 - The Desert Highway to Wadi Rum

Here’s a map of where we are going on this trip:

We rose to a clear blue sky at 8am and breakfasted with the group in the hotel restaurant, where we met Julie. She is the 15th member of the group and has been working as an anaesthetist in Amman hospitals for a charity for a couple of weeks before coming on this tour. I never cease to be amazed by the generosity of people who donate their valuable free time to charitable activities such as this. Julie is one of two non-British members of the group and hails from Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The rest of the group comprises a mix of Brits, and a Belgian called Barbara, who seems as English as most of us and is married to David.
So we are:
Phreerunner Martin and Sue the Dishy Pharmacist.
Accountant Phil and Sue who works for the YHA.
Building project manager Martin and planner Vicky (or Victoria, as the Explore rep calls her!)
Traveller Julia (the last of the 7 of us who knew each other were going – the 8th (‘Notchy’ Andrew) having had to drop out due to a family bereavement.
Lucinda, who works in the famous RHS Glasshouses at Wisley, and who just happens to know Julia from a previous trip.
Banking accountant David and Barbara from a language recruitment agency.
Terry – a retired nurse, Sally – another accountant, Katie – who renovates houses, and Sandra who is heavily into Law Enforcement but has aspirations to run a ‘beyond youth’ hostel.
And finally, Julie the Canadian doctor.
[If any of the above read this and wish me to edit it, just let me know.]
It’s a happy band of travellers that board our private bus for the 4 hour journey all the way down to Wadi Rum, the furthest south we venture on this trip. Our guide for the week, Mahmoud, has now joined us. He is from an indigenous Bedouin family from Petra, and was born in a cave there. With 9 brothers and 5 sisters, he has just ‘moved house’ and last night had a party in Petra for 150 people. So he’s pretty shattered. He has an archaeology degree and promises to be very informative. His commentary on Jordan, its life and times and towns, starts as we motor through Amman in heavy traffic, passing the Blue Mosque, Parliament Buildings, and the site of a huge new shopping complex. Many new buildings are going up or have been completed. The population of this safe haven in the Middle East is rapidly increasing due to huge numbers of incoming Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, and this brings obvious challenges that the government is keen to address effectively (says Mahmoud).
Amman has been called ‘Casa Blanca’ because of the white buildings of local limestone.
Once out of the city, the land either side of the road is desert. We are on the ‘Desert Highway’ that runs nearly 500 km down to Aqaba by the Red Sea. Alongside us is a section of the 1300 km narrow gauge Hejaz railway line from Damascus in Syria to Medina in Saudi Arabia. This was built between 1900 and 1908 and was intended to lead a further 400 km to Mecca. It was damaged by TE Lawrence’s guerrilla forces during WW1 (The Arab Revolt) and never re-opened beyond the Jordan-Saudi border after the subsequent break-up of the Ottoman Empire. Attempts to re-open the line in the 1960s were foiled by the Six Day War in 1967. Today certain sections of the line are open, including the section beside us from phosphate mines near Ma'an to the Gulf of Aqaba, known now as the "Aqaba Railway."
A phosphate mine bellows white smoke into the blue sky.
After a while we stop for mint tea and try to learn more names of the rest of the group. Canaries squawk in cages.
Then we continue along the highway, which shimmers far into the distance. Trucks plough up and down between Amman and Aqaba. Numerous speed bumps keep our pace down through settlements. We enjoy ice creams at another 10 minute break, then head off on the last leg, descending from around 1700 metres back down to around 1000 metres, with fine views of the mountains of Wadi Rum ahead.
Now the desert areas are sand, not scrub. Entrance tickets for Wadi Rum, a carefully controlled area, are collected from the Visitor Centre, but we don’t leave the bus.
There are two languages in use here – it’s a bit like being in Wales! – Arabic and English. Many, if not most, signs are in both scripts, and virtually all the Jordanians we met (albeit not a very representative cross section) could communicate in English, and seemed happy to do so – they were friendly and welcoming.
10 minutes later we left the bus, transferred our bags to a 4WD and changed into boots for a stroll to nearby rocks in the desert, for lunch. On the way we crossed this branch line, built in the 1980s to serve local mining requirements.
We enjoyed pitta bread with tuna, tomatos, veg, cheese, etc in the shade before heading on to camp, which was an hour’s walk away.
After all the travelling it was great to stretch out, though at a gentle pace due to the heat (32C in the sun, 23C in the shade). The camp is a Bedouin tent, set up exclusively for Explore trips, in which the whole group is to sleep. Meals will be taken on these mattresses under an overhanging rock.
There’s far more space than in an Alpine hut.
A somewhat incongruous brick built toilet with a sink lingers nearby.
After a serving of tea (sugared during production, so we’ll have to get used to that and the lack of milk) some of us climb a huge sand dune next to the camp, then clamber onto abutting rocks for magnificent views over the desert and the rest of the group below.
Sunset at 4.40 was followed by a lovely red sky, by when we had run gleefully down the dune – like scree running but softer and safer and sandier. Then it was back to camp for welcome beers and a relaxing evening eating (meats and rice cooked in an oven dug into the sand, with various salads), chatting and playing daft games around a roaring fire.

Saturday 17 November 2007 (part 2) - Fifteen Hours ‘On the Road’

The Dishy Pharmacist and I usually avoid organised ‘tours’, preferring the unpredictable excitement of organising our own. But when Phil and Sue told us they had booked onto Explore’s ‘Spice Trails of Petra’ tour we were enticed by the itinerary (this link may soon expire) and booked onto it ourselves, together with a few other friends.
For us the journey started in Manchester at 8.30 and was long but largely uneventful:
- “You’ll get sandburn” said the man from Purple Parking.
- Sue and Phil running around the check-in at Heathrow (surprisingly otherwise deserted) having checked in but failed to acquire boarding passes.
- The Heathrow Shopping Experience. Actually a few of us got reading material for the trip – in Phil and Martin’s cases, the same book.
- The 5 hour journey with a rather grumpy Royal Jordanian crew suddenly lengthens by 2 hours as we put our watches forward.
- The Explore rep in Amman smoothly sorts out visas as 14 out of 15 clients gather after the flight (the 15th will join us tomorrow).
- A 45 minute bus ride past fast food joints such as ‘Biggly Wiggly’, as well as more familiar names leads to the Toledo Hotel, where we arrive at 1.15 am and take to our beds.
The photo is a view from room 505.