Grand canyons at the Dana Nature Reserve

Thanks to careful planning and education, Jordan is leading the Middle East in eco-tourism- and Dana Nature Reserve is at the vanguard. Just go easy on the trekking, warns Matthew Teller

Do you want to go to Shag ar-Reesh?" What an offer. "Shag: canyon. Reesh: feathers. The Canyon of the Feathers. It's that way." Chris - wiry, enthusiastic, English - pointed over my shoulder into the cool blackness beyond the terrace railing, where the bats were wheeling. It sounded very Indiana Jones. A nightjar began its churring call nearby.

I've been coming to the Dana Nature Reserve, in the mountains of southern Jordan, for 10 years, and it never fails to amaze. The reserve encompasses a sizeable chunk of land, from 1,500m above sea level at the Dana Guesthouse - where Chris and I were sitting, perched over the dramatic Dana Valley - down to the scorching deserts of Wadi Araba. We watched the sunset illuminate the west-facing valley all the way to the horizon. Lights twinkled in Israeli towns across the border, perhaps 50km away. A foxy bark rose from the twilit valley below us. Dana is breathtaking, and one of my favourite places in the whole world.

Sitting on the same balcony the next day, watching the rays of the morning sun light up the valley, Chris and I drank tea - served sweet and milkless in little glasses - with Raed, the reserve manager, and caught up on some Dana gossip.

You don't immediately think of the Middle East as a destination for ecologically minded tourists. The region is an environmental disaster, characterised by poverty, general ignorance and poor legislative safeguards. Palestinians and Israelis, it might fairly be said, have had other things on their minds. But the countless discarded plastic bags blowing across the Syrian desert and the degradation of Egypt's Red Sea coral reefs testify to a depressing unwillingness on the part of governments to tackle environmental issues.

Jordan, to its credit, is quietly working wonders. Grassroots environmental education - led, in the main, by the visionary Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) - has led to the establishment of new reserves, and unprecedented legislative controls are now in place. Investment is flowing into public transport and recycling projects, and Dana has hit the headlines as an example of environmentally sound sustainable development.

As we finished our tea, Ali, a sunny young chap who worked in the guesthouse, bustled up to clear our glasses. With a combination of hand signals and winks (he is deaf and mute), Ali joshed that Raed was a devious character not to be trusted, which got a laugh from Raed, who then let loose a stream of gestures and silent mouthings. Ali vanished, reappearing with the twinkle-eyed Abu Yahya, our guide for the walk to Shag ar-Reesh.

To be honest, I'm not much of a walker, but even I was captivated by the setting. We set off amid flower-filled meadows, surrounded by the rock domes that characterise the Dana heights, following a zigzag trail coiling down from the ridge.

As we reached a col and began to climb into the Canyon of the Feathers, Abu Yahya explained why the place was so named: not for the raptors that soared overhead, but for the sharp pinnacles of rock that flank the gorge, feather-like. The summit, dotted with evidence of settlement by the Nabateans - the people who built Petra, just 40km to the south - offered a spectacular panorama.

Chris and I stayed another night at the guesthouse, taking our balcony seats for a repeat performance of that jaw-dropping sunset. The next morning, amid much hand-shaking and complex gesture-jokes from Ali, we left to go our separate ways. I was heading north, to hook up with a small tour group; we were going to be hiking on the fringes of the RSCN's Wadi Mujib reserve.

Mujib is one of the many canyon systems that cut through the mountainous eastern flank of the Dead Sea. Our target was the Wadi Zarqa Ma'in, just outside the northern boundary of the reserve and renowned for its warm waters. Several thermal springs rise near the spa resort of Hammamat Ma'in, from where a high, narrow gorge is passable on foot for the 8kms to the Dead Sea.

We set off in a jovial mood. The trail was of moderate difficulty, perhaps two-and-a-half hours of rough walking on the rocky stream bed. Very familiar with the dangers of dehydration (with the kidney stones to prove it), I drank plenty of water at breakfast. I filled my belly to sloshing-point just before setting off and carried three litres with me.

The first half-hour was fun, paddling down the steep-sided gorge ankle-deep in warm water, passing lush grottoes of ferns and palms, brightly green against the dun-coloured cliffs. Our guide, Ali, led the way; I let the fitter folk stay with him while I stuck nearer the back with Kamel, the tour group's guide.

We'd negotiated one small waterfall by rope, and were taking a break, when I started to feel strange. I was sweating, but not, I thought, excessively. With the combination of the warm water underfoot and the sun climbing higher above the breezeless gorge, it was certainly hot, but I wasn't struggling. Just as I was sitting back, entertaining thoughts of how lovely it would be to stay here for a while, Ali called us onwards.

I don't remember much about the next four hours. I have a mental picture of myself at one point hunched in a hot little cave in the cliffs, my clothes saturated with sweat and warm river water, with an oddly calm sense of resignation; I simply knew I wouldn't be able to stand up again, let alone walk another step. I could have happily fallen asleep. I called out to Kamel, but he didn't respond. I did this, I think, three or four times before I realised I had been speaking Hebrew instead of Arabic.

When he came over with David, one of the group, I mumbled, "I'll just stay here for now. You come back for me later." When they demurred, I was filled with certainty at the most logical course of action. "Well, can you call the air force, then? A helicopter can come and lift me out."

After less than one hour's walking I'd gone from capable and reasonably intelligent to confused and incoherent. Twenty-odd years of experience in hot climates counted for nothing: I had become seriously dehydrated.

Between them, David and Kamel somehow talked me into getting up and putting one foot in front of the other. I finished all my own water and several people in the group gave me swigs of their supplies, too; someone handed me a chocolate bar, someone else some nuts and fruit. I consumed the lot; but although I must have appeared exhausted, my energy levels weren't low. Physically, I was strong enough to do the walk; mentally, I was feeble as a child.

For much of the rest of the way, Kamel volunteered to be a leaning-post: he supported my weight, told me where to step and cajoled me onwards with chat I couldn't return and jokes I couldn't raise a smile at. In a funny kind of a way, he saved my life.

A day or two afterwards, fully recovered, I was with the same group at Rummana, a campsite in the Dana hills. Several people wanted to tackle the three-hour trail around the head of the valley back to the guesthouse, a walk I'd done myself six years previously. I figured I'd already ruined one day for these poor folk and ducked out.

Kamel and I loaded the truck with their gear, drove the long way back to the guesthouse and headed straight for that wonderful balcony, with its mesmeric views. Ali greeted me like a long-lost brother and brought a pot of tea. As we sat there, under Dana's spell again, I realised how much I loved Jordan's countryside - and how much I'd underestimated it.

Matthew Teller is the author of 'The Rough Guide to Jordan' (updated third edition out in January, £13.99)

Traveller'S Guide

Getting There

Royal Jordanian (020-7878 6300; www.rj.com) and the BA franchisee BMed (0870 850 9850; www.flybmed.com) fly direct from Heathrow to Amman. Turkish Airlines (020-7766 9300; w ww.turkishairlines.com) flies from Manchester via Istanbul.

Visiting There

Apart from Dana and Mujib, the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature's (00 962 6 461 6523; www.rscn.org.jo) reserves include Ajloun (Mediterranean woodland), Azraq (a wetland oasis), Shaumari (stony desert, home to oryx and ostrich) and Dibbeen (virgin pine and oak forests).

Staying There

Dana Guesthouse (00 962 3 227 0498). Doubles start at JD43 (£35), room only.

All RSCN lodges and camps can be booked through the Tourism Unit (see above).

Red Tape & Further Information

British passport-holders require a visa to visit Jordan. One-month visas can be obtained on arrival at any port of entry, costing JD10 (£9).

The Foreign Office (0845 850 2829; www.fco.gov.uk) advises, "There is a high threat from terrorism in Jordan. Terrorists continue to issue statements threatening to carry out attacks on Westerners and places associated with Westerners in the region." Refer to the FCO website for further travel advice for the region.

Jordan Tourism Board (020-7371 6496; www.visitjordan.com/uk).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
    Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

    The end of an era across the continent

    It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
    Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

    'Focus on killing American people'

    Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
    Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

    Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

    The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
    Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

    Same-sex marriage

    As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
    The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

    The Mafia is going freelance

    Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable