‘The car has Jordan plates on it, and by law as a visitor you are only supposed to drive a vehicle with tourist plates. So if the police stop you, tell them you work for the Australian Embassy.’ It was really a matter of ‘when’ the police stop you in Jordan rather than ‘if’, so after this advice from the manager of the hire car joint I left with some trepidation. I was out of luck trying to hire a small 4WD in Aqaba (large off-roaders are super expensive), so this ‘private’ rental arrangement was my only option for a self-drive tour of Wadi Rum. On the plus side, instead of the half-arsed, ‘compact SUV’ semi-offroader with automatic transmission I would have taken if available, I got a four-door manual Mitsubishi 4×4 ute for the same cost. Much more appropriate for the conditions.
Wadi Rum is a 720 square kilometre protected area a little over an hour’s drive from Aqaba. it was definitely one of Jordan’s biggest drawcards for me, and I was excited to have four days to explore the place. After picking up sufficient food and water for my trip, I headed north, and soon after leaving town I came across a large army checkpoint. I had decided to go with ‘I borrowed the car from a friend’ rather than risk an international incident by impersonating an embassy staffer, and as I approached the soldiers I practiced the hire manager’s name over and over so there was half a chance it would sound legit. ‘Where are you from sir?’ ‘Australia.’ ‘Oh Australia! Welcome to Jordan’ and I was waved through. So far so good.
Shortly after turning east off the main highway and onto the Wadi Rum road, the scenery begins to take on a grandeur of epic proportions. The mountains rise like islands from the sand and tower ominously above the wadis. Nearing the Wadi Rum Visitor’s Centre, I came upon a police checkpoint. So much for the rental car manager’s assurance that there were no police between Aqaba and Wadi Rum. I slowed to a stop as requested by the signage, and a policeman reluctantly left the shade to come across to the car, where he stood looking at me. I asked if I could go through, he said yes, and on I went. It was weird but at least there was no mention of the plates.
In front of the Visitor’s Centre was a vast, empty carpark. I pulled up next to the buildings, and within seconds of opening the car door a young bloke appeared and started to run me through all the procedures required before entering the area. These included selecting a tour operator and organising accommodation at one of the many tourist camps before entering, and he outlined the touring packages his family could offer.
I had spent a lot of time researching the options at Wadi Rum, and had (after a lot of effort, dead ends, and misinformation) confirmation from a government staffer that I could enter the area in my own car without a guide. I listened respectfully to the local bloke, then wandered over to the ticket office. I paid my entrance fee and the additional fee for taking in my own vehicle, and upon asking for a map of the area was told they didn’t have any. Leaving the ticket office the young bloke said I had to register with the police. Great, more police. I was starting to think the hire car manager had never actually been to Wadi Rum.
With the local bloke in tow I entered the police office, where two cops were seated. I was asked for my name, passport, and Jordanian phone number. ‘Do you live in Jordan?’ asked one of the officers. I began to repeat the rental car managers name over and over again in my head so it would come out fluently if required. ‘No, just visiting.’ ‘You have Jordanian plates on your car.’ ‘Yes, a friend lent me his car so I could visit Wadi Rum.’ The police seemed satisfied with that, and with relief I began to explain that I wanted drive my own car in the Protected Area, and overnight at the places where camping was permitted for hikers (I had an online version of the map which the Visitor’s Centre had run out of).
This is evidently not done very often, and the cops seemed a little perplexed. To be fair they didn’t speak a great deal of English, and the local tour guide had stepped in to the conversation to assist. I informed them that I had my own tent, water, food, GPS, and was used to driving in the desert after living in Central Australia for many years. ‘You have your own tent?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Camp by yourself?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘No guide?’ ‘No guide.’ After some consideration the police agreed to let me enter Wadi Rum alone. They made a note of how many days I would be in the area, and then I quickly left the office before anyone could change their mind.
Relieved that I was free to explore, I drove through the entry gate and into the reserve.
It certainly wasn’t the last time I was reminded of Central Australia as I explored Wadi Rum
Passing through town, I drove off the edge of the asphalt and into the sand. Before me was the most amazing plain, bordered by immense rock stacks. Using the official online map, I made my way towards the nearest of the listed features, Khaz’ali Canyon.
I soon discovered that although the map looked pretty, it was also pretty useless when it came to navigation. That, and the fact that there are no signs within the Protected Area, meant I had to do some more research. I drove up to a rock shelter within line of sight of Rum Village, and set about trying to find as many GPS points for the major features as I could.
Whilst searching for the locations, and having a snack, I heard a whistle from nearby. It was that classic three note whistle that you use to get someone’s attention. There was a small cluster of tents some distance away – there are many such tent camps set up for tourism in Wadi Rum – and I assumed it was one of the locals who had noticed me. I looked around, but couldn’t see a soul. Then the whistle came again, and I looked around a second time but couldn’t see anyone for the life of me. I waited for the person to appear, but no-one did. When I heard the whistle again I realised it was a bird calling. It was so human-whistle-like it was uncanny. I felt like a bit of a dickhead, and found out later it had been Tristram’s starling that was playing funny buggers.
After chasing up all the GPS points I could find I was ready to head off. I spent the next four days exploring the Protected Area, and had a fantastic time. I have to say I felt very much at home at Wadi Rum, and no disrespect meant to the Bedouin owners. It wasn’t just driving around the desert in a ute that felt familiar, it was the fact that at times Wadi Rum looked so much like Central Australia it was freaky. Red sand, similar vegetation, rock formations that looked a lot like Kata Tjuta and mountains that reminded me of the West McDonald Ranges.
Figs grow in the watercourses amongst the rocks
There were familiar tracks in the sand, too. One morning, I was lying in the bivvy bag enjoying the cool of the pre-dawn. I heard movement near the car, so poked my head out to investigate.
Tracks of 4×4 vehicles, old and new
‘Mate I see you opted for the Mitsubishi. Does it go alright?
The camels clearly belonged to someone, and had been turned out to graze. Being curious creatures, they seemed particularly interested in the ute. I saw a many camels during my stay at Wadi Rum, and it was great to see them in their natural habitat, rather than wild in Australia where they are a pest species. There were quite a few calves around too, wobbling around on their stick legs.
Mum’s just finishing munching on the carrot I fed her
It felt great to be back in the desert, exploring, hiking and camping. I had certainly missed the space and the peace and quiet. Apart from the occasional Bedouin car, and three other tourists, I had the place to myself.
The walk to the Burdah Rock Bridge, one of the famous landmarks at Wadi Rum, turned into a bit of a mission. I found the start of the track via the GPS, and had read that you walk a fair way in before you actually see the bridge. I also read that there are arrows scratched onto the rocks that mark the trail. I started in the heat of the day, which wasn’t ideal, but had plenty of water and some food with me. The track was a real scramble, and the arrows, which took several forms, were a challenge to find at times. Someone had also built rock cairns beside the track, but these weren’t enough to save me from losing the track for about forty minutes. Still, I had a bloody good view to look at whilst I tried to relocate it.
I eventually made it to the top, and more spectacular views.
As well as being a place of striking natural beauty, Wadi Rum also has a fascinating cultural history. There are several sites within the Protected Area that visitors are encouraged to visit. Within Khaz’ali Gorge, petroglyphs depicting animals and prayer script testify to the importance of Wadi Rum as an historic staging point for traders and pilgrims.
A massive sheet of smooth rock, located on a sheer face of eroding sandstone, provides the medium for the engravings at Anfashieh. Depictions of camels dominate the gallery, doubtless due to the critical importance of the animal to cultures living and traveling within the desert. These petroglyphs are believed to be around 2000 years old.
Another of Wadi Rum’s rock art sites features riders with spears, along with ibex and oryx. Both these species were hunted to extinction in Jordan, and it is only through reintroduction projects that they have returned, albeit in small numbers within intensively managed reserves.
The legacy of human habitation in Wadi Rum isn’t all ancient. Thomas Laurence, better known as Laurence of Arabia, spent time in Wadi Rum whilst encouraging and advising the Arab Revolt against the Turks during WWI. You can see the remains of ‘Laurence’s House’, set in the sand beneath a towering rock face. The building might have been Tom’s, just as likely wasn’t, but regardless it’s a good story and a dramatic place to visit.
Late on my final day, I came across a broken down Hilux ute parked atop a sand dune. Little did I know that I was about to have one of the most fascinating experiences of my visit to Wadi Rum.
To visit the Wadi Rum Protected Area official site click here
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