The Sands of Time

 

by Neal Friedenthal

 

I opened my eyes and saw that the brown canvas of our little “A” tent was aglow with the first light of the new dawn. The camp was stirring as the other adventurers were awakening in their tents. The smells of breakfast being prepared greeted me as I emerged into the cool morning air. The cliffs surrounding our little semi-circle of tents and Rovers were as weird looking as they had been at sunset the evening before, although not quite as red. Natalie (our hostess and tour organizer), Heshem (her local assistant), and Sultan (our tour guide) were sitting and talking by the campfire. Natalie had a large iron kettle boiling for her morning tea, and Heshem was teasing her about the crazy English. Today we would tour the fantastic landscape of Wadi Rum in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Yesterday morning when our little caravan of Land Rovers, two Range Rovers and six Discoveries along with a couple of support vehicles, left Ahman we could not have imagined the sights we were to see on that day's drive. The day before we had taken a trip north to the ruins of the ancient city of Jerash with its colonnaded streets,

Roman temples and Byzantine churches, but that had not prepared us for this. We proceeded west from Ahman along the road to Iraq for several miles until we came to the ruins of the castle of Qasr al-Kharaneh where we stopped for some sightseeing and a cup of tea with the local Bedouin merchants.

From here we would leave the tarmac and drive across some of the most inhospitable landscape I had ever seen: broad flat plains covered with flint and dust only occasionally cut by a small wadi (dry stream bed) or low hill. A couple of times we crossed areas that were devoid of even flint and were very dusty, a dry lake bed I supposed. Nothing broke the monotonous landscape, no plants, no hills, for miles nothing but dust and flint.

As the sun rose higher in the sky and hunger began to gnaw at our bellies, as if on cue, a large ruin appeared out of the desert: Qash al-Tubo an ancient caliph's desert get away. Here we stopped and had our picnic lunch in one of the still standing vaulted rooms. Norman, our Land Rover tech, repaired a flat tire on one of the two Range Rovers. It turned out to be the only flat that we had on the expedition. We also got some individual instruction on desert driving from Ken James (our Host), John Carter (Land Rover driving instructor), and Mustafa, our veteran Bedouin guide and "human GPS" as John called him.

Back on the trek we headed further south for now on tarmac roads. After a stop for rest and refueling we went off road again the landscape was changing now, becoming more vertical as we approached Wadi Rum. Passing the Seven Pillars of Wisdom we entered the Wadi with its red sandstone cliffs towering thousands of feet above the sandy desert floor. Here is where T. E. Lawrence found shelter for his Arab army as they mounted their raids on the Turkish railroads and garrisons during the Arab revolt and the first World War. Here, too, the movie about his exploits “Lawrence of Arabia” was filmed. Mustafa worked on the film as a guide, driver, and extra in his younger days and was able to point out the locations of several scenes in the film. We arrived at our camp just in time to see the Wadi blaze red in the setting sun. A sumptuous Bedoe feast was laid out for us while we were entertained by Bedouin folk singers, musicians and dancers. We all retired to our tents for a much deserved night's rest in preparation for the adventures that lay ahead.

After rising and breakfast, we readied ourselves for this day's trek through Wadi Rum. We switched vehicles, as we did each morning, and were off to romp through the weird landscape of sand and rock formations that make up the wadi. John Carter demonstrated the capabilities of these vehicles on the rocks, then we all gave it a try.

With a full morning in the desert behind us we headed out of Wadi Rum and made for the target of one of Lawrence’s most famous raids: Aqaba and the Red Sea. Here in this ancient city we could shop, take a dip in the pool, or go for a snorkeling excursion on the coral reefs of the red sea, a definite change from the deserts of Wadi Rum and the previous days. From the vantage point of our luxury hotel, we could look into four countries, Jordan, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Our brief respite in Aqaba over, we were again off to explore the wonders of Jordan. We traveled northward now, toward the rose red city of Petra. First, however, we made a short detour to another “Lawrence of Arabia” site. This time to Ali’s well, the place where Lawrence (the movie Lawrence that is) first meets Sheriff Ali (played by Omar Sharif). Mustafa pointed out several locations at this site where different scenes of the film were shot. After this brief stop we were again on the trail to Petra traveling on a newly cut military road through the mountains. This route provided us with some of the steepest driving that would be encountered during our adventure as well as some of the most spectacular views of this rugged terrain. With a hard day's drive behind us, it was a relief to reach our hotel for our two night stay in Petra. And what a hotel it was. Taybet Zaman, an old village that was taken over and converted into a five star resort hotel, complete with restaurant, bars, shops and a pool. Yet, it still retained the charm of the old town.

The next morning we convoyed to the entrance of the siq which leads to the city of Petra. The siq is a winding narrow cut through the sandstone about 3/4 of a mile long at the end of which stands the Treasury Building, made famous in the film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. Carved out of the face of the shear cliff, it is the most famous of several such buildings in ancient Petra. The morning was spent exploring this site before we met for lunch at a local hotel and returned to our “village”. This evening we gathered for cocktails and dinner at our hotel for our last night away from Ahman. After our meal, a Bedouin Sheik and one of his beautiful wives visited us. As the Sheik led in the camel bearing his “wife”, I was struck by her crystal blue eyes, the only part of her that was visible, and realized that she was, in fact, our tour organizer Natalie. Her “husband” was our desert guide Mustafa. Several of us went for camel rides as we enjoyed our last evening together away from the “civilization” of Ahman.

The last morning of our adventure dawned bright as we left Petra and continued on our northward heading, now toward the Dead Sea. We traveled constantly downward, through the hills that hid Petra from the outside world and across a dune covered plain. Here we were able to get in some experience driving the dunes. I got stuck right off and was embarrassed when John came over and easily drove my Disco out of its predicament. At long last we saw the blue waters of the Dead Sea, at more than 1300 feet below sea level, the lowest spot on earth. We stopped at a resort at the northern end of the sea for lunch, and the chance to partake of the resort’s spa, or take a dip in the mineral rich waters of the Dead Sea. If you ever get the chance to go for a float in the Dead Sea don’t miss it, this is truly one of the most indescribable feelings that one can experience. You float in this water like a cork due to its high salt content of nine times that of the ocean. Just don’t get it in you eyes, mouth or an open wound.

Our time at the Dead Sea over, we headed out this time to the purported site where Christ was baptized by John the Baptist. The site is on a tributary to the River Jordan and was recently recognized as the correct site of the Baptism by Pope John Paul II. There are, however at least two other sites that lay claim to being the true place of the Baptism. This was the end of our adventure. We drove out of the Jordan river valley and back to Ahman.

At our hotel in Ahman our group of adventurers gathered one last time to say good-bye to Ken, Natalie, John, Sultan, Mustafa, Hesham and Norman and thank them for the wonderful time and adventure we all shared. Natalie was presented with a bouquet of flowers and the undying love of us all. Tomorrow we would begin our journeys home, 6 to Australia, 2 to Columbia, 6 to the USA, and 1 to Scotland. About a week earlier we met as strangers with but one thing in common: our Land Rovers. Now we parted as friends who had shared a truly unique experience. Our staff from Land Rover, both British and Jordanian, were also now friends, some of whom would stay on to lead another group of intrepid adventurers, while others would return home to plan still more adventures. Our thanks to Land Rover and to King Abdula II and the people of Jordan for a memorable and wonderful journey through “The Sands of Time”.

 

The author is the proprietor of J & F Safari Ltd.