Rough Guide: Surreal mirages in the sands of the Bedouin

From snowy peak to shimmering, sunken sea, Matthew Teller, author of 'The Rough Guide to Jordan' explores a Biblical land

Best discovery

The ancient rock-carved city of Petra is endlessly touted as being the marvel of Jordan, and I knew that tourism to the place had been consistently growing since my first visit in 1993. It was a relief to discover that the site can swallow thousands of visitors a day and still lose none of its power to thrill. Petra itself is hidden behind a barrier range of mountains, and the modern town that has grown up at the single trailhead between the peaks is unreservedly hideous. However, it takes only a few minutes' walk off the path to find yourself alone amidst dramatic sandstone cliffs carved with hundreds of classical facades.

Favourite hotel

Dana is a tiny mountain village of stone cottages at the edge of Jordan's biggest and most diverse nature reserve, run by the highly active Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature. On several visits, I have never managed to do more than scratch the surface of the reserve, which rises from well below sea-level to 1500m above and features habitats as varied as sandy desert, mountain slopes, woodlands and well-watered fields. Professional nature guides can lead individuals or parties by day or by night, with optional overnight camping stops. Perched on a cliff-edge beside Dana village, the new RSCN-run Guesthouse has nine simple rooms, most with their own balcony overlooking the plunging Dana Canyon; add majestic silence and a much-needed roaring fire in winter, and this is by far the most memorable place to stay in Jordan.

Most bizarre meeting

I was driving through barren desert to visit Lot's Cave, where Abraham's nephew took shelter from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. I'd only seen two other cars all morning and we'd been playing leapfrog with each other for the last 200km. I worked my way up the rocky hillside track in first gear, tailed by the other two. As we arrived, pink faces peered out at me. I got out and said hello, and they introduced themselves as an English bird- watching group. We stood on the steep slopes overlooking the Dead Sea, kicked the yellow dust underfoot and started complaining about the weather.

Best view

Umm Qais is the site of a Roman city, perched on a windswept plateau in the far north, where Jesus banished demons from two madmen into a herd of swine. The ruins were resettled during Ottoman times and one of the stone houses was recently renovated as a low-key restaurant, the terrace of which gives breathtaking panoramas of the Golan Heights rising from the Jordan Valley and pointing the way north to the snow-capped Jabal ash Shaykh (Mt Hermon) on the Lebanese border. Capping the drama is the Sea of Galilee, shimmering 600m below Umm Qais.

Most memorable meal

During a bouncing jeep ride through the Wadi Rum desert, my driver leaned over and shouted that his cousin was getting married and did I want to come? It turned out that the happy couple had been wed three days before, but the celebrations were continuing in an extra-large tent set up in the deep desert, well away from prying eyes. It took us a brain- scrambling half hour to drive to what looked like a surreal version of the car-park at Ascot: dozens of pickups were neatly lined up in the sand with elegantly robed Bedouin leaning on the bonnets exchanging news. I was ushered to the men's half of the tent and the entire assembly stood to shake my hand. With true Jordanian dignity, the men sat down again cross-legged in two long rows, quietly sipping tea. I'd have given anything to adopt a cloak of femininity to check out the riotous music, shouting, singing and clapping that was drifting over from the women's half of the tent. The food was the traditional feast-dish of mensaf - chunks of boiled lamb on a bed of fatty rice with tart yoghurt. Platter after platter of the stuff was presented as the sky turned sunset purple. The cuisine would have won no prizes, but the setting was unforgettable.

Essential phrases

Aside from offering the universal greeting assalaamu alaykoom (peace be upon you), nothing will endear you more to people than one or two of the formalised responses used in Arabic. There are about a thousand ways to ask "how are you", most of which can be answered with il-hamdulillah (thank God). Almost any query or expression of doubt can be answered with insha'allah (if God wills it); I once asked a bus driver in my best Arabic whether his bus went to Amman, and he replied, in all seriousness, "insha'allah".

FACT FILE

jordan

Getting there

Non-stop flights to Amman go only from Heathrow on Royal Jordanian (0171- 878 6400; weekday fare pounds 305) and British Mediterranean (0345 222 111; current offer pounds 279). From other UK airports, KLM (0990 750 9001) via Amsterdam has the best connections.

Where to stay

Admission to Petra costs pounds 17 for 1 day, pounds 21 for 2 days, or pounds 25 for up to 4 days. Dana is off the road between Tafileh and Shawbak; a taxi from either is pounds 4. At the Guesthouse a double room with half-board is pounds 32 a night; reserve by fax on 00 9623 368 499. Contact the RSCN's Qusay Ahmad (email: rscn@nets.com.jo) for information on Jordan's other nature reserves. Lot's Cave is off the Dead Sea road near Safi, 150km southwest of Amman. The Umm Qais Resthouse (02 217 555) is open 10am to sunset, but dinner under the stars can be booked. The Umm Qais Hotel is the only one in the village (fax 00 9622 242 313).

Getting around

Buses run to Wadi Rum from Petra and Aqaba for pounds 2.50. The Resthouse (fax 00 9623 201 4240) can organise jeep and camel trips into the desert.

Suggested Topics
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?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

    £14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

    Recruitment Genius: Network Executive - Adrenalin Sports - OTE £21,000

    £19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for an exciting...

    Guru Careers: Product Manager / Product Marketing Manager / Product Owner

    COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Product Manager / Product Owner is required to jo...

    Guru Careers: Carpenter / Maintenance Operator

    £25k plus Benefits: Guru Careers: A Carpenter and Maintenance Operator is need...

    Day In a Page

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
    Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

    Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

    While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
    Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

    With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

    Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

    Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

    What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

    Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
    Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

    Are you a 50-center?

    Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
    The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

    Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

    The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
    Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

    Hollywood's new diet trends

    Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
    6 best recipe files

    6 best recipe files

    Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
    Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

    Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk