Travel

Discovering the otherworldly Israeli and Jordanian deserts

by Howard Richler and Carol Broderick

At the beginning of March, we were waiting to board a bus in Eilat that would take us back to Jerusalem — our base for a six-week stay in Israel — when a couple noticed my Canadian hockey T-shirt.

We discovered this couple resided on Marlowe in NDG. As we shared details of our travels, they were surprised to hear we were fresh off a trip to Jordan and inquired how we were received there. Had we felt safe? History has not always placed Jordanians and Israelis on the same side, to say the least, and 2016 saw several troubling incidents in pro-Western Jordan that gave us pause for thought before venturing there.

In November, a lone sniper killed three U.S. military personnel on a training mission and as late as mid-December, a retired Newfoundland teacher was killed in an incident involving four gunmen being chased down by Jordanian security forces. Nevertheless, the Canadian government’s travel advisory for Jordan was the same as that for Israel – “Exercise a high degree of caution (with regional advisories)” – at the time of our trip.

Not being fearless, before we ventured into Jordan we did our research and chose a small private group tour with Desert Eco Tours, an Israeli company recommended to us.

Based in Eilat, they arranged everything for our three-day trip from the door of our hosts’ home in Arnona, a suburb of Jerusalem, to the bus station in Eilat.

Zion, our guide for the first day, proved within minutes of collecting us in Arnona that we’d made a great choice. Extremely friendly and knowledgeable, he put us at ease immediately, informing us of a multitude of facts regarding the neighbourhood we’d made our home for the last month even as he navigated Jerusalem’s byzantine early morning traffic to pick up the route to our first designated stop, the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve.

With fascinating commentary along the way, and via Zion’s carefully planned pit stop at Qumran National Park, site of the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, we arrived at Ein Gedi mid-morning. First, Zion made sure we were equipped (sunscreen on/heads covered/water bottles in hand) for the short hike to David’s Waterfall just one of the historically significant sites of this 5,000-year old oasis.

 

An easy walk out of Wadi David gave us amazing views of the Dead Sea and Judean Desert. Then, it was on to Masada, the sprawling, elevated (we took the cable car) site of King Herod’s Palace and the mass suicide of the Jews who made a last stand against Roman invaders here in 73 A.D rather than be taken as prisoners by the Romans.

We ended our day with the obligatory float in the Dead Sea. By sundown, Zion had driven us to the border and handed us over to another Desert Eco Tours representative at the Yitzhak Rabin Crossing, who gave us all the necessary paperwork and instructions for traversing the no-man’s land to the Jordanian side.

We have to admit to feeling nervous at this point and the 80m or so walk leaving Israel and entering Jordan was jarring compared to the easy companionship we’d enjoyed during the day.

Still, happily, and maybe surprisingly, there were no reasons to be concerned and once our documents had been checked and our luggage cleared security, we were in the capable hands of another of the tour group’s reps who whisked us off to our overnight hotel in Aqaba, Jordan.

The next morning, our guide, Ali, collected us at our hotel for the second day of our tour – the ancient city of Petra.

Over two thousand years old and the site of several empires, Petra was a prosperous city on a lucrative trade route leaving its magnificent coloured rock ruins to today’s tourists.

Each twist and turn in the route that leads through a soaring narrow gorge into the ancient settlement unveils more “aahs” and “wows” as rose-red temples, burial monuments, tombs, cave dwellings, and even a theatre and market place suddenly come into view.


The thrills are not only static; vocal Bedouin selling souvenirs line the route through the ancient city and Arabian stallion horse riders, along with owners of donkey carts and camels tear past trying to persuade you to hop on! Perhaps their efforts are magnified by the fact that tourism, according to our guide, has been drastically hit by concerns over safety even in this exceptional World Heritage Site, and the setting for the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Desert Eco Tours upgraded us to the impressive Petra Gate Hotel for our overnight stay, which was tinged with drama as the wind howled alarmingly into the early hours. The weather didn’t prevent our guide from arriving on time to whisk us off on the climax of our trip – a one-day jeep ride through Wadi Rum, the other-worldly desert inhabited by the Bedouin.

No surprises around the next corner here, the sites were far from hidden as Ali expertly drove us through vast tracts of open land that seemed to have no discernible routes. As in Petra, the rich red hues of the rocks were startling, but the landforms that the elements had fashioned out of rock and sand were the real scene-stealers.

In addition to the awe-inspiring landscape, the Bedouin tea tent, supposedly frequented by Matt Damon when shooting The Martian here, was a welcome stop, although the young Bedouin man serving us wasn’t able to tell us whether Matt favoured the sage/balsam or the intense mint tea.

Increasingly restricted in their traditional nomadic lifestyle due to an alarming reduction in groundwater in Wadi Rum, the Bedouin are turning to tourism and hosting film crews to make a living. Most people know that Lawrence of Arabia was filmed in this area, but parts of The English Patient, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, Transformers and Star Wars: Rogue One? Quite the list!

To end our desert tour, mid-afternoon Ali parked the jeep, wandered off into nearby bush and emerged with an armful of branches from fig and acacia trees, which survive in the desert thanks to their very deep roots. He proceeded to light a small fire and spread out a huge rug on the ground where he knelt to expertly chop greens, herbs and tomatoes from his garden into a salad that he seasoned with lemon and oil while chicken he’d marinated at home and brought along in a cooler was barbecuing over the flames.

Easily one of the best al fresco meals we’ve ever had, and we had no problem getting a table, or in this instance a tablecloth.

The several hours it took to reach the border crossing back into Israel were soaked up in questions and comments on the day’s experience, with Ali chatting away and opening up about life as a tour guide in modern day Jordan.

As on our previous crossing, a Desert Eco Tours representative was there to hand us our paperwork and guide us in crossing the no-man’s zone, with another rep waiting on the Israeli side to drive us to our overnight accommodation in Eilat.

So the next day at the bus station when our fellow travellers from NDG asked about how we’d been
received in Jordan, we had only positive experiences to share. Yes there are risks, but unfortunately there are risks in surprising parts of the world. Our advice is a resounding: now is a great time to tread in the footsteps of many notables and visit these wonders of the world while the usual crowds are staying away.

* Desert Eco Tours had no input in the writing of this article. To contact them: desertecotours@gmail.com

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