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Wadi Rum: Wonder in Lawrence Land

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A hair-raising detour on the return journey from Petra takes travellers on a voyage of discovery and enlightenment.

We are waiting at the base camp of Wadi Rum for Faraaj, our Bedouin guide, to take us into the desert. The gentle afternoon sun plays hide-and-seek with the clouds and the icy desert wind whistles across the valley in perfect merriment. It’s a beautiful day and we are all filled with excitement, envisioning the arrival of the four-wheel drive that will soon transport us to the land made famous by T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia. It was Fuad, our tour guide from Amman, who had suggested the detour to the Wadi while driving us along the King’s Highway on our way back from Petra, describing it as a place “where the mountains and the desert make poetry.” Entranced, we cheerfully accepted his offer, and a few phone calls later he confirmed that a four-wheel drive would be waiting for us at the desert base camp.

For those of us who have grown up on the stories of Lawrence of Arabia, Wadi Rum has become synonymous with enigmatic author T.E. Lawrence, who was based here during the Great Arab Revolt of 1917-18. Before we reach Rum, Fuad tells us that the exploits of Lawrence have become part of local folklore. “Do you want to see the Lawrence footprints or do you want to do a general tour of the Wadi?” he enquires. We opt for the latter, hoping that we will see Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom anyway. Stunning in its natural beauty, with towering rock structures, Wadi Rum is also home to several Bedouin tribes which are scattered throughout the area.

Faraaj arrives an hour later, not in a four-wheel drive, but in a ramshackle stone-age Toyota pick-up van. In his grey-brown dishdasha and white baseball cap, Faraaj looks like a Bedouin who has mainstreamed himself with time. He instructs us to get into his van and we look at each other and then at Fuad as if to say “where’s the four-wheel drive you promised?”

As if he has read our minds, Faraaj immediately assures us in broken English, “Habibi, my car strongest. No problem at all. Get in, get in.” Fuad sits next to him and my husband and I make ourselves comfortable behind them. There is no concept of a seat belt here and we are told that the glass, once rolled up, cannot be rolled down again. The steering wheel has a gaping hole in the centre, and I know exactly what we’re missing. “Fuad, does this car not have a horn?” I ask, thoroughly bewildered. “We won’t need it, Habib’,” comes the reply from Faraaj. “Aiwa (okay)!” I nod and we roar into the desert, blowing clouds of red dust all around us.

Situated in the south of Jordan (almost 250 km south of Amman), Wadi Rum is a protected area covering roughly 720 sq km of dramatic desert wilder¬ness. The Wadi is dotted with sandstone and granite rock formations, which take on various shapes, and many of these still bear ancient scriptures and drawings etched by people who have lived in the desert over the millennia. To protect the unique desert landscape, Wadi Rum was declared a protected area in 1998. In the presence of the stupendous rock structures, our weathered van looks almost like a speck of dust. Faraaj is fearless in the way he pits his vehicle against the desert terrain, and every five minutes I see him checking his cellphone. I ask if he has a GPS, curious at how technology has invaded the lives of the Bedouins and made desert navigation so much easier. “Oh no, he has just got the handset from the local flea market and can’t wait to use it,” Fuad tells us, and I imagine, for a moment, a ringtone that would be so apt for Faraaj —Maurice Jarre’s soundtrack to Lawrence of Arabia.

As we crisscross through the desert where Lawrence once held sway, Faraaj tells us that almost all of the people who live in and around Rum are of Bedouin origin and are largely responsible for developing it as a tourist destination. Several tourist camps at the desert base that we had seen at the beginning of our tour suggested that the place was now being promoted to tourists who came to Jordan with Petra, Dead Sea and Aqaba in mind. One night at the desert camp comes with sleeping facilities in tents (not recommended in winter), a buffet dinner and reasonably good toilets.

We stop for a while in the middle of the desert for a cup of tea, Bedouin style. Faraaj lights the fire and warms a small kettle and we take out some biscuits from our bags. He also brings out the shisha or the “hubbly bubbly,” but we are more interested in the tea. The tea leaves are boiled with the herb maryamiya or sage and tastes out of this world. We sit there for a while savouring the landscape with all its immensity, colour and awe-inspiring shapes, and then, suddenly, it’s time to go back again.

We finally spot Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom on the desert highway, just beside the main road to Wadi Rum. The seven rock structures, which inspired Lawrence to pen his adventures in this region, look haunting in the evening light. Dark, resolute and determined, they bring to mind the enigmatic character of Lawrence — part legend, part myth. Before our van finally comes to a stop, Fuad insists we must at least try a bit of mountain climbing. The nearest rock structure is The Snake Mountain, where two rock formations jut out, resembling the heads of two serpents. My husband takes up the challenge and I follow reluctantly. A few metres later I lose my nerve. Looking down I think I am going to die. There are solid rocks and pebbles beneath me, and one wrong move can result in death. I breathe deeply, press myself against a rock and slowly crawl down. Next to his car, Faraaj chants his prayers. I say a small prayer myself and climb into the car, happy to be alive.