Travel: Caravan trail to the oasis

The Bedouin have departed in Toyotas, and lorries now thunder down the old route to Azraq. By Magnus Mills
The last thing I expected to find at an oasis was a blue swimming pool. Especially an empty one. I went into the eastern desert of Jordan with the vague idea that when I got to Azraq there would be a watering hole, some palm trees, and maybe a few Bedouin tents. Oh yes, and a hotel.

It wasn't until I stood next to the redundant diving-board that reality sank in. If you expect to find a hotel in the desert, a hotel with telephones and a fax machine, then you must also expect to find a swimming pool. And, if you arrive out of season, the swimming pool will have been emptied.

I considered none of these things as I flogged along the road to Iraq. All I knew was that at the end of my journey there would be an oasis, something to look forward to. In the meantime there was only a huge black cloud in the east. And I was driving towards it. I have never seen a more desolate road than the one to Iraq. I suppose that's the appeal of a fly- drive holiday. You go whichever way you want.

After all, I could have taken the other road to Iraq. The smooth new highway that comes up from the south, the one that takes you back past the outskirts of Amman and down to the sparkling Gulf of Aqaba. But I took the northern road instead.

It turns more or less parallel to the Syrian border and hasn't been resurfaced for years. Furthermore, it is frequented by sanctions-busting truck drivers who don't really care about rules. They use the part of the road that is least uncomfortable to drive on, and if this happens to be the left (wrong) side, and you're coming the other way ... well, it's best to be ready.

It's odd how these guys will try to run you off the road and then give you a cheery wave as they go past, just to show there's nothing personal in it. It's a hard life being a truck driver bound for Iraq, with only the desert ahead. And, on this occasion, that looming black cloud seemed to reach all the way to Baghdad.

It was a relief to arrive at As-Safawi, the junction where I could turn back towards the oasis. As I said, it wasn't quite what I expected. The town of Azraq has the only water in this part of the desert, and stands on what was once a major caravan route towards Saudi Arabia. Successive empires have felt a need to control the areas and maintain links with the Bedouin tribes, which explains the presence of a large black fort at the side of the road.

Bits of it were built by the Romans, the Omayyads (from Damascus) and the Ottoman Turks. In 1917, TE Lawrence set up his headquarters here, during the Arab Revolt. The caretaker is the son of one of Lawrence's Arab officers. He showed me round while yet more lorries thundered past outside the ancient walls.

Here were stables with stone mangers and tethering blocks. Here was a giant door made from a single slab of basalt, and which still opens and shuts (if you're strong enough).

The oasis itself is not what it used to be. Once it consisted of pools and swamps extending 10 square kilometres, and was visited by many birds migrating between Africa and Europe. The establishment of wells to pump drinking water to Amman has led to a severe depletion of the wetlands. The oasis still supports water buffalo and other wildlife, but the scale has been reduced. Also, the birds are less likely to stop here than before.

Standing by the roadside, I could see where the marshes used to be. The palm trees were still there, presumably because their roots went deep enough to reach the water table. But from what I could gather, life had changed a great deal. And all the Bedouins had gone off in their Toyota pick-ups.

Jasmin Tours (01628 531121) offers an eight-day trip around Jordan for pounds 856, which includes flights, airport taxes and accommodation (half-board). During the summer the company also has a six-night package to Aqabar for pounds 390, including flights and B&B.