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.

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