The fastest but least romantic of the three routes linking Amman and the south of Jordan, the Desert Highway can whisk you from the capital to Petra and beyond in a fraction of the time the same journey would take on the slow King’s Highway – but with a fraction of the interest. For the most part, the journey south is framed by bleached-out desert hills rolling off into the distance, the monotony broken only by feeder roads branching west at regular intervals to towns on the King’s Highway – in north-to-south order, Dhiban, Karak, Tafileh, Dana and Shobak and Wadi Musa/Petra.
The Desert Highway is the route followed by tankers and heavy lorries running between Aqaba’s port and the industrial zones around Amman and Zarqa; it may be a dual-lane highway but traffic can be dense in parts. This is also the principal road into and out of Saudi Arabia, and all summer long features a tide of big, well-suspensioned minivans packed with holidaying Saudi or Gulf families heading north to cooler climes. Most people prefer doing these huge cross-desert drives in the cool of the night, so you’ll find services on the highway open until the small hours but often shut in the heat of the afternoon.
This route is older than it appears, as the road was built mostly along the line of the Hejaz Railway, which itself shadowed earlier Ottoman pilgrimage routes through the desert from Damascus to Mecca. During the sixteenth century, the Ottoman authorities built forts roughly a day’s journey (about 30km) apart all down the length of the route, to guard local water sources and to serve as accommodation for the pilgrims; some of these “hajj forts” survive today, but almost all are ruined and/or inaccessible, the preserve of kestrels and archeologists.