The silent sky was flooded with pinks, oranges, purples and reds, bleeding in and out of each other like a watercolour kaleidoscope. In the distance a jeep buzzed a route across the dunes, kicking up a cloud of sand in its wake like a pebble skimming the sea. Years ago I never would have imagined that I’d be able to visit somewhere like this; Jordan is a world away from little old England, that’s for sure. And our jeep tour through Wadi Rum was one of the most awesome moments of the entire trip.
What is Wadi Rum?
The first time I ever saw Wadi Rum (not that I was aware at the time), was when I was about eight years old. Lawrence of Arabia trekked up and down shifting sand dunes on a camel. Sherif Ali was swathed in fabric, materialising through glassy waves of desert heat. Towers of red rock stretched out into the distance accompanied by a sweeping orchestral soundtrack. I continued eating my roast dinner in my grandparents’ living room, mildly in awe.
(Granted, my trip through the desert was on a Wadi Rum jeep tour- rather than a grand and daring wartime escapade on a camel. But it still felt like a big deal to me).
The word ‘wadi’ is actually the Arabic word for ‘valley,’ although Wadi Rum is a much drier sort of a valley than might spring to mind immediately. Dry as a bone I tell ya! The largest valley in Jordan, Wadi Rum is in fact so arid-and its landscape so lunar- that it’s also commonly known as the Valley of the Moon. (And it also has a stellar career as the surface of several far off planets. Check out Star Wars, The Martian and Prometheus).
The desert is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for both its natural and cultural significance. The red granite and sandstone mountains are downright astonishing, but Wadi Rum also contains evidence of human life dating back at least 12000 years. Whether by paintings, carvings, or full on ruins- there are currently over 150 archaeological sites within the vast red desert.
From Aqaba to Wadi Rum
We’d sailed overnight from the mouth of the Suez Canal, to Aqaba- Jordan’s only port, which is tucked away in the South East of the country on the Gulf of Aqaba. From our vantage point as we docked, we could see four countries at once. Egypt across the bay, Israel and Jordan closest to us, and further down to our left was the coast of Saudi Arabia. It sort of blew my mind if I’m honest, to see four countries co-existing in such close proximity to each other.
The port shuttle bus dropped us in the centre of the city, in a car park sandwiched between the Doubletree Hilton Hotel (home to one of the best rooftop bars in Aqaba, FYI) and a food court. The golden arches of McDonalds gleamed on the opposite side of the road, and a group of German tourists sheltered from the sun beneath a canopy, exchanging Euros for dinar at the bureaux de change. Traffic skirted a busy road alongside the car park, and palm trees stood stockily next to an empty plot of land.
Our pal Rafaela had arranged with a Jordanian friend of hers to take us all for this awesome trip, and this was where we were supposed to meet him. But when Moad arrived on the scene, along with a couple of cars for us to make the journey in, the police took a bit too much of an interest in what was occurring.
Cruising to Jordan: Sailing Through the Suez Canal
The policemen didn’t believe that the pair were friends (although they are), and accused Moad of illegally taking business away from taxi drivers and tour operators. Which was all a bit worrisome if I’m honest. We sat silently in our car, hoping that everyone would be ok. And also wondering if we were about to get hauled into Jordanian jail cell, just for trying to get from Aqaba to Wadi Rum.
The policemen’s guns didn’t help to calm my nerves. It was a tense moment for all of us. After about half an hour of confusion and mild panic, they allowed us to leave.
Praise the lord!
Even driving down a road in a foreign country is adventure aplenty for me, and driving out of Aqaba was a joyous occasion. Arabic hiphop blared out from our taxi driver’s stereo, which was a great soundtrack for whizzing through the busy streets of the city. Open trucks passed us carrying groups of men, headscarves flapping in the wind. Billboards overhead displayed ads in elegant Arabic lettering, and all the buildings seemed to have a sheen of sandiness about them.
Finally out of the city, we made it on to the highway and headed straight for the mountains on the horizon.
The Bedouin camps of Wadi Rum
The journey from Aqaba to Wadi Rum takes about an hour, and once we’d left the city we were in true desert territory. Sand and stone surrounded us and the road stretched out as far as we could see.
Every once in a while, we spotted a colourful square of green farmland, out of place in the rest of the sandy landscape. Clusters of black tents were huddled next to these patched squares, and sometimes if I squinted I could make out the silhouette of a camel or a man plodding across a field.
These mysterious figures are Bedouins- nomadic tribes of people who live in the desert in Jordan. The majority of the native population of Jordan is of Bedouin origins, and a number of these people still live a fairly traditional Bedouin lifestyle. Just with a few trucks and phones thrown in to keep the modern vibes flowing. These days instead of consistently travelling around the country, Bedouin tribes tend to camp for a few months in each location, either driving livestock or farming crops.
New around here? About Alex Getting Lost
And although there are plenty of Bedouin people living this traditional lifestyle, there are some who have made the most of the influx of tourism to Jordan- by setting up Wadi Rum Bedouin Camps where visitors can experience the nomadic desert lifestyle. The Bedouin are an extremely hospitable bunch of people, and staying at a Wadi Rum bedouin camp isa great way of getting an insight into the intriguing way of life of these desert-dwellers.
For more ideas of what a Wadi Rum Bedouin camp experience is like, check out the Wadi Rum Bedouin Camp or Wadi Rum Starlight Camp. There are luxury camps springing up in the desert as well (look. at the Wadi Rum Bubble Luxotel for jacuzzis and wifi), but if you want an authentic experience, stick to to a Bedouin camp.
A steam train in the desert
After about twenty minutes of winding our way past desert mountains galore, we pulled up at the side of the road. Our taxi driver told us we should get out and have a look around, saying he’d wait for about twenty minutes for us.
I was mildly confused. Were we there yet?? And where was the other car containing our pals? Had the Wadi Rum jeep tour transformed into a taxi ride by accident? Some wires had clearly become crossed here.
Stepping over the dusty road, I realised why we’d pulled up in this obscure spot. Parallel with the road was an abandoned steam train, slightly sandified and sitting proudly on the fine terracotta-coloured sand. The silence, the sheer magnitude of the open space all around us, and the bizarre addition of a slightly rusting-at-the-corners steam locomotive, collided in a wonderfully surreal mish-mash.
I was absolutely loving it, I tell you.
For the nosy and the curious: Here’s how my 2020 went
The faded black engine of the train rests on top of massive red wheels linked with fire engine red coupling rods, and a dusty green carriage sits in the middle of the majestic vehicle. What an absolute gem to see in the middle of a desert! We heaved ourselves up onto the metal giant and scanned the horizon. In the distance, the knobbled granite mountains looked like the spines of dinosaurs. The thin silver rails of the train track stretched out in either direction, curving sleekly away from us.
The old steam train in Wadi Rum is a refurbished Hejaz Railway train from the early 20th century. Whilst it doesn’t run any longer, it was purposefully put at the Hejaz Wadi Rum station because of its historical significance.
It’s difficult to imagine now, after so many years of conflict in the region- but once upon a time, steam trains like this one ran through the deserts of the Middle East on the regular. The main line of the Hejaz Railway was constructed in the early 1900s, running through what is now Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Whilst its main purpose was to make Muslim pilgrimages easier, it also helped to strengthen the Ottoman Turkish stronghold in the Middle East. That is, until the Arabs of the Hejaz area (encouraged and assisted by the Allied Forces, especially old Lawrence of Arabia), revolted against the Ottoman Empire.
Attacks on the Hejaz Railway were frequent during the Great War, and were instrumental in defeating the Turkish. After the war ended, the new nations of Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria were formed.
Our Wadi Rum jeep tour
Further along the road, we met our jeeps. Moad had done a really awesome job of organising this day for us, and I was glad we were doing it with a small group instead of as part of a massive tour.
The two jeeps were driven by locals, and although the driver sits inside, the rest of us clambered onto the back to sit up in the open air. Like the steam train, the jeeps were covered in a thin layer of sand. (But nicely cushioned, I must say. Good on you, jeep-seats.)
We weren’t sure where our Wadi Rum jeep tour was actually going to take us, but when you’re loving life in the middle of an actual desert, does it even matter!? I think not, pals. The engine choked into life and off we rolled into the sand.
The whole journey was a mixture of being blown away by the otherworldly landscape around us and literally blown about by the wind as we sped along. Our jeep rolled at speed down steep sand dunes and through the stone pathways of the mountains. The sun was sinking lower and lower in the sky and the air was gradually becoming hazier and hazier.
Sunset in Wadi Rum
As the entire sky lit up with oranges, reds and pinks, we arrived next to a large tent where some other vehicles had parked. There was a small collection of other visitors around, and some bedouin people selling scarves, tiny wooden camels and other trinkets.
A big rock stood statuesque in front of us which we climbed onto to get an even better vantage point of this otherworldly scene, dotted with a few solitary figures. The sun disappeared as the sky continued to melt its way through a symphony of colours.
I’d only seen sights as wonderful as this on screen savers, at this point in life. I am telling you.
A jeep scooted away from us, kicking up a sand cloud in its wake. Some men were praying, heads and hands bowed onto the ground in their Maghrib prayer. A man on a camel plodded towards us, leaving a path of flying-saucer-footprints in the soft sand. (And pals, camels in Jordan are some serious fashionistas, bedecked in colourful tasseled blankets; this particular camel was a marvellous white against its crimson desert backdrop.)
The sky crescendoed and faded to a pale dusk, with a tiny silver moon illuminated above a mountain.
As we drove our way back through the desert, we passed the twinkling lights of bedouin tents, campfires burning. The sky was the biggest I’d ever seen it, dotted with more stars than I’d witnessed at any one time. The jeep’s headlights were the only other light in the quiet darkness of the desert, illuminating the sand a few metres ahead of us.
How lucky we were to witness sunset in the desert.
How to go on a Wadi Rum jeep tour
Our Wadi Rum jeep tour is one of the most memorable parts of my entire six month contract. (To get you up to speed if you’re new around here, I work on a cruise ship.) Without a shadow of a doubt, I’d recommend this to any visitor to Jordan. In fact, our two days in Jordan captivated me so much that I can’t wait to visit the country again and experience even more of its magic.
Head to Bedouin Directions to pre-book a Bedouin-led jeep tour in Wadi Rum. Our own Wadi Rum jeep tour was shorter than planned because of the delay in leaving Aqaba, but it’s possible to have a way more in-depth tour of the area with stops for hiking and at locations like Nabataean inscriptions and Lawrence Spring. (Where Lawrence of Arabia quenched his thirst all those years ago.)
What to wear in Wadi Rum
First and foremost, Jordan has a culture of dressing modestly. For women, that means covering arms, shoulders, chests and legs; and as with any foreign country you might be visiting, it’s always nice to respect the local way of life.
I awkwardly managed to cover my top half, but felt terrible that my dress didn’t quite reach my ankles and in actual fact had a slit down each side. It was literally the most covered-up I could make myself with the wardrobe I had, but nobody batted an eyelid- thank goodness. I saw several tourists in Jordan showing far more skin (short shorts and all). But I felt way more comfortable at the thought of staying as covered as possible, as opposed to the opposite.
And. In the name of honesty, a lovely Jordanian lass who joined us for our Wadi Rum jeep tour was wearing board shorts and a short sleeved t-shirt. And everyone seemed fine about it.
In terms of desert-wear- lots of thin layers of clothing are best! You’ll need to layer up at night time or if the wind picks up. (Trust me, the desert can get really cold at night.) Don’t forget your sunglasses, and slather on plenty of sunscreen as well. That Wadi Rum sun is BRIGHT.
How to get to Wadi Rum
Wadi Rum is off of the Desert Highway between Amman and Aqaba, although it’s far closer to Aqaba. By road from Aqaba to Wadi Rum takes around an hour, and from Amman to Wadi Rum takes around four hours.
To get from Aqaba to Wadi Rum, you can either take a taxi (or hire car if you have one), or a public bus. The price of a taxi should be around 25JOD each way, so with a group of people the cost is quite reasonable. Public buses operated by Jett do run from Aqaba in the direction of Wadi Rum; however you’ll have to hitchhike or hope to stumble upon a minibus to get you the very last leg of the journey! If you’re not the super-adventurous type, private transport is probably the best method.
There are no buses running from Amman to Wadi Rum, and taxis are a whole lot more expensive- upwards of 110JOD for a journey to the desert.
Extra tips for your Wadi Rum jeep tour
- It costs 5JD per person to enter the Wadi Rum protected area. (Around €5-6)
- Hydrate yourself. Bring bottled water and all the lip balm.
- Some Wadi Rum jeep tours expect payment in cash on arrival, so have this prepared! There are no ATMs in the desert, homies.
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