'A rose red city half as old as time' - Dean Burgen
Updated: Jun 6
We arrive in Aqaba, Jordan in the early morning and before long we are permitted to leave the ship. We quickly find our bus and the seats we will cling to for the remainder of the day. As the other buses pull away from the kerb, our bus is left standing for over half-an-hour for reasons unknown. Perhaps someone booked on the tour has overslept, but whatever the problem is, we are running very late.
We have to drive through the Jordanian desert for two hours or more to reach today's destination. Today's desert is different to that we drove through in Egypt. The mountains are of sandstone so wind and water have carved them into fantastical shapes. Black mountains and largely treeless planes provide a moon-like landscape that Neil Armstrong and Charlie Duke would find familiar. I find out later that Jordan is frequently used as the backdrop for 'outer space' scenery in movies and I'm not surprised.
Unfortunately our tour guide is not that good. Despite his excellent grasp of the English language, he has conducted his tour by reading the facts from a book. The result is a long unintelligible mumble, which is a shame. One of the only things I did understand, but thought that I must have been mistaken, was his reference to the shortcut that the bus driver knew about that would make up some of the time we have lost.
The further we drive from Aqaba the more the landscape changes. I'm surprised to see huge paddocks ploughed and used for agriculture. However, I cannot work out whether these crops are an experimental failure or what exactly is being grown in the sparse paddocks. Additionally, there are many Bedouin shepherds walking across the stony ground with small flocks of sheep and goats. Occasionally I see a sheep dog.
The road out of Aqaba is quite good and unlike Egypt, we are not constantly stopped by security guards. I don't like the way the bus overtakes trucks and other cars on bends as we start climbing up through the mountains. The road is just one lane, and I am sure that the driver cannot see around corners. Fortunately, we are appear to be all going in one direction. We drive through a village that feels abandoned, but I realise very quickly that it is not. The driver makes a left turn off the highway onto a narrow road; sand has been dumped by the wind on each side of the road. The bus comes to an abrupt stop. Now, I might as well explain that this is a large coach, not a minibus or a four-wheel-drive. This is important. I peer out the window and see the reason why the bus is now reversing down the road, swinging the back of the bus into the sandy verge as he does a 36-point turn before turning back onto the highway. The reason? Someone has strategically placed large concrete blocks in the middle of the road, leaving an opening large enough for a car, but not a bus. The people have come out to the front of their houses to watch the bus turning back. Did they punch the air in glee as the bus receded down the road? Probably, and quite rightly so.
Our shortcut has cost us more time.
But don't think for a minute that the driver has been thwarted because a few minutes down the road, the bus turns once again. Down a road wide enough for just one vehicle we go, screaming down the straight of a traffic-less but narrow road, hitting the brakes to negotiate bends, speeding up and so on. Apparently there is more than one shortcut and whilst I pray that another bus or a truck doesn't come up against us, I do wonder what the legality of this action actually is. Outside the window I see crops like wheat that are ready for reaping. However, the crops are very short, growing close to the stony ground. A tractor would never get into these fields, so I assume that the crops are cut by hand. We see many Bedouin people, their tents, and their animals dotted across the landscape. None of these bear any resemblance to those who provide a destination experience for tourists. These people are terribly poor and live a very basic life - no electricity or running water. We eventually come back to the highway, but there is no opening for the bus to get to the other side of the road, so our driver sails down the WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD until he finds a gap large enough for him to turn. God knows how much time we have saved, but I now understand perfectly how tourists get killed in these countries. Here is an accident waiting to happen.
Back on the road again for a short time before we turn onto the King's Road - not the one out of Game of Thrones though. We start climbing through mountains again. Wadi Rum is meant to be below us and whilst we make a short stop at a designated toilet stop, there is nowhere to look at the magnificent view below. We are promised another photo stop before we reach our destination - a promise that is broken because we are still running late.
After two hours, we reach the town of Petra. It is much larger than expected and since it is built on the steep sides of a mountain, the houses look as though they are built on top of each other. I can see a line of buses just below us on the main road.
So can the bus driver. And he has to get in front of them, so he takes a left turn and before we know it, we are on a narrow winding road that cuts off the bend that the main road is built upon and takes us at full speed across the top of the hill/mountain. Then, once at the top, it's downhill we go at full speed. I just hope that the brakes are in good condition.
And we beat a couple of those buses as our driver parks the bus in a coveted position outside the hotel where we will later have our lunch.
We have arrived.
Walking downhill for about a kilometre, we eventually arrive at the beginning of the Siq, the entrance to a slot canyon through which we must walk. OK, we could have taken an electric golf cart through, but we choose to walk, with the option to get the golf cart back to the carpark later.
The canyon consists of two impossibly high 'walls'; the path through has been cut by wind and water erosion. The soaring walls are pink and red and has not only been cut by natural erosion, but by ancient people, probably the Nabateans, who were nomadic people that eventually settled in this valley around the 4th century BCE. Every now and then I see a tomb carved into the walls of the rock. They are generally the same style with columns and pediment carved into the stone walls. Water is scarce, but when rain falls here or somewhere else, water can rush through the canyon - a danger in itself. The Nabateans carved channels in the sides of the canyon to direct water into dams they created by building walls where water can be contained.
The sun is directed onto the floor of the canyon and dry heat is warming up the air. We are told that today is a cool day at 21 degrees Celsius. It is far more than 21C down here. Deeper into the canyon, the walls seem to move towards each other as we walk around the bends. I never know what I will see next and there is a buzz of excitement or anticipation as we walk further into the canyon. Every now and then a golf cart carrying passengers up the Siq passes us. And young local men and sometimes boys offer a camel or a pony ride. Whether it is from tectonic uplift or something else, I notice that the stratification of the rock is not always horizontal and I see a magnificent wall of rock with vertical stripes of pink and grey and beige. This place is so good!
And then I see it. Just a peak. I take another step. More is exposed.
We have come to the end of the road. The first image of the Nabatean building known as Al-Khazneh or the Treasury peeps through the two walls of rock. I cannot properly explain how I feel. The walls of the canyon expose the building carved into rock at the end of the Siq; a little more is exposed with every step I take until I come out of the canyon to see the building in its entirety. This was probably never used as a treasury; it is believed to be a temple. With the line of camels lying in front of the building, it is not hard to visualise the Nabateans trading here over two thousand years ago.
Taking a deep breath, I fill my lungs with the mal-odour of the camels and ponies that are waiting for people to hire for the return journey. With the sun beating down on them, it's not too pleasant and we move away towards the Roman amphitheatre, again carved out of the rose-coloured rock of the valley. Sand and the old road built of stone underfoot, it is hard to walk along the path and whilst I have no intention of walking the extra two or more kilometres to the other building of note, the Monastery, we still have to keep an eye on the time. To be honest, the time spent watching the expressions on the faces of those exiting the Siq is something I will take away with me when we leave.
And leave we must as we need to return the same way, have lunch and meet our bus before the 4pm departure. I really don't want us to take any further shortcuts. There is a queue for the electric golf carts and I quickly calculate that it would take two or more hours to get to the head of the queue. So, we start the trek back on foot.
It is hot. It is long. It is thirsty-work and, one step after the other I plod back up to the beginning of the Siq. I am completely exhausted, hot, red in the face.
And then salvation comes along in the form of a nice young man with a fly-blown, smelly donkey offering to take me up to the carpark. I did not hesitate to negotiate with him a highly-inflated price in exchange for relief from the heat. But I am not elegant and I have not ridden a horse before. I think the defining moment was when he told me that he would take care of me as if I was his mother.
I said, 'Son, you have just got yourself a job.'
It was no easy task getting my right leg over the back of the pony and I thank God that Tom didn't bother taking any photos. But before long, I was astride the smelly pony trying to blow the flies out of my face and holding on like grim death as my new 'son' leads me up the hill. We arrive after a harrowing ten minutes and the performance of getting me off the pony must have been a sight for sore eyes. I am sure that there would be a few laughs at the pony club this evening as my 'son' retells the story of the lady and the donkey. But I hold my head high and join the others for lunch even if I do stink of pony!
Today's excursion to visit the UNESCO site at Petra is exhilarating. It's not an easy day by any stretch of the imagination, but it is so worth it.
We leave precisely at the designated time. Nobody is late.
And yet, our bus driver takes the shortcut over the hill. This time going uphill, we slip and slide as he grinds the gears down and I wonder whether we are going to fall off the mountain altogether. He is ridiculous. So I look out the window.
And see nothing.
Where is the view?
It has been obliterated by a sandstorm swirling in the valley below. I am delighted to be in the bus and not out in that mess. This is a blessing for the driver and guide because now they don't have to stop at the top of the mountain for a picture stop. But I'm not really complaining because the sand storm provides a completely different view of the landscape on our return journey - totally unexpected, but an additional element to an already extraordinary day.