One of the most spectacular natural environments in the Middle East, the desert scenery of WADI RUM (rhymes with “dumb”, not “doom”) is a major highlight of a visit to Jordan. The wadi itself is one of a sequence of parallel faults forming valleys in the sandy desert south of the Shara mountains. They are oriented almost perfectly north–south, shaped and characterized by giant granite, basalt and sandstone mountains rising up to 800m sheer from the desert floor. The rocky landscape has been weathered over the millennia into bulbous domes and weird ridges and textures that look like nothing so much as molten candle-wax, but it’s the sheer bulk of these mountains that awes – some with vertical, smooth flanks, others scarred and distorted, seemingly dripping and melting under the burning sun. The intervening level corridors of soft red sand only add to the image of the mountains as monumental islands in a dry sea. Split through by networks of canyons and ravines, spanned by naturally formed rock bridges and watered by hidden springs, the mountains offer opportunities galore for scrambling and rock-climbing, where you could walk for hours or days without seeing another soul.
Although an arid, open desert, the Rum area is far from depopulated. Aside from the tents of semi-nomadic bedouin scattered in the desert, there’s a handful of modern villages in the area, including Rum itself in the heart of its eponymous wadi, and Disi, a few kilometres away.
However you choose to do it – and the best way is to book in advance for a one- or two-day tour with a local guide (see Arabian oryx in Rum) – you should clear at least one night in your schedule to sleep in the desert. The sunsets are extraordinary; evening coolness after the heat of the day is blissful; the clarity of the desert air helps produce a starry sky of stunning beauty; and the tranquillity of the pitch-dark desert night is simply magical. It’s an unforgettable experience.
Wadi Rum has extensive evidence of past cultures, with plenty of rock-carved drawings and ancient Thamudic inscriptions still visible (the Thamud were a tribe, cousins of the Nabateans, who lived as nomads in the deserts of northern Arabia between about the eighth century BC and roughly the seventh century AD), as well as a single, semi-ruined Nabatean temple.
T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) waxed lyrical about the Rum area, describing it as “vast, echoing and godlike” when he passed through in the years either side of the 1916–18 Great Arab Revolt. Appropriately enough, much of the epic Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here in the early 1960s, prompting tourists to visit in dribs and drabs during the years after. But until the late 1980s, Rum village was still comprised mostly of bedouin tents at the end of a rough track, with a single radio-phone serving the lone Desert Patrol fort.
The growth of tourism
In 1984, a British climbing team led by Tony Howard and Di Taylor requested permission from the Ministry of Tourism to explore the possibilities for serious mountaineering in and around Wadi Rum. With assistance from the bedouin and the backing of the ministry, a pioneering guidebook resulted, which brought the area into the forefront of mainstream tourism for the first time.
Since then, the local Zalabia and Zuwaydeh bedouin – sub-clans of the great Howeitat tribe that is pre-eminent in the area – have established co-operatives to organize tourism. With the proceeds, the Zalabia of Rum village built breezeblock houses and a school, and bought buses to link the village with Aqaba and Wadi Musa. The mid-1990s saw a tourist boom that has shown few signs of abating.
Wadi Rum today
Now, during the peak months of March, April, September and October, the deserts around Rum can be thronged with visitors, a strange mix of budget backpackers, well-heeled groups bussed in on whirlwind tours, and serious professional climbers. Of the 5500 people who live in the area, including Disi and outlying villages, roughly forty percent make their living from tourism. However, if you take the two thousand people who live in and around Rum village itself, that figure rises to around 95 percent. Almost everybody has given up keeping goats, and now survives by providing guide and driving services to visitors.
Rum is a Protected Area under the control of ASEZA, the Aqaba municipal authority. Controls are in place to limit environmental degradation while supporting sustainable tourism – though bureaucratic disputes hamper efforts. Some observers even question the benefits brought by “protected area” status, amid claims that the core area of Wadi Rum has seen accelerated decline in recent years, caused by (at the time of writing) 1200 4x4s and exemplified by the presence of 65 tourist camps within the Protected Area alone, 28 of them unlicensed. Nonetheless UNESCO declared Rum a mixed natural/cultural World Heritage Site in 2011. New ASEZA management teams installed shortly thereafter may start to turn things around.Read More
Exploring the desert
Exploring the desert
Although most drivers and guides follow a set pattern of routes – the highlights of which we cover in this section – you shouldn’t feel restricted: if you have a couple of hours to spare, there’s nothing to stop you walking out across the sands in whichever direction you fancy.
Crossing to the east side of Wadi Rum from the Visitor Centre – towards the mis-named “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” – transfers you from tour-group hubbub into stillness and solitude. Following the cliffs of the massif south for a few minutes will give you a more intimate flavour of the desert environment than a bouncing 4×4 ride ever could.
Another way to lose the bustle, if you have a rental car, is to drive back out towards Disi and onwards – on asphalt road – to the unvisited villages of Twayseh and Mensheer. The desert out here is just as explorable, and the views just as awesome, as in and around Wadi Rum itself.
The Nabatean temple
From the Visitor Centre, the road continues south along the west side of Wadi Rum for 7km to Rum village. Jabal Rum rises to the right, Jabal Umm Ashreen to the left. Rum’s former police post has been turned into a small archeology museum, not yet open at the time of writing. From the Resthouse, which is the first building you come to (on the right-hand side), walk alongside the telephone poles that lead away behind towards the daunting cliffs of Jabal Rum, and within five minutes you’ll come to a small, ruined Nabatean temple dating from the first or second centuries AD, with Nabatean inscriptions on the walls and columns overlaid by later Thamudic graffiti.
Most tours include the temple as standard; alternatively, once you’ve paid your admission at the Visitor Centre, you could walk or cadge a lift down the road into Rum village to explore for yourself.
Ain Shalaaleh (Lawrence’s Spring)
From the Nabatean temple, a modern cylindrical water tank is in plain view a little way south; follow a path from the tank up the hillside and around the cliffs above the mouth of a little valley, past springs lush with mint. On the south side of the little valley, at the head of a Nabatean rock-cut aqueduct, you’ll reach Ain Shalaaleh, a beautiful, tranquil spot cool with water and shaded by ferns and trees, evocatively described by Lawrence in Chapter 63 of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Nabatean (and modern) inscriptions are all around and there are stunning views out across Wadi Rum. Taking your time, you could devote a gentle half-day to visiting just the temple and the spring.
Most camel- and car-drivers, though, can’t be bothered with climbing the slope to reach the spring, and instead lead visitors who have requested “Lawrence’s Spring” south along the valley floor to the rather mundane spring at Abu Aineh, which is marked by a square concrete pumping block near a scree slope. Both this and Ain Shalaaleh are valid destinations, but the confusion has now become written into history, with the official map marking Abu Aineh as “Lawrence’s Spring”. Insist on Ain Shalaaleh, if that’s where you want to go.
From Ain Shalaaleh, it’s not hard to work your way east around an outcrop and south over a pass onto a path above the desert floor. About 500m further on, another pass to the right will deliver you to the bedouin tent and spring at Abu Aineh – also easily reachable on a simple one-hour valley-floor walk 3km south from Rum village.
Around Jabal Rum
A much longer and more serious undertaking is to circumnavigate Jabal Rum – from Rum village to just beyond Abu Aineh, then north, passing to the east of Jabal Rumman and across a saddle into Wadi Leyyah. This could take nine hours or more and is only for the fit. A much easier prospect is walking northwest from the Resthouse along the small, well-watered Wadi Sbakh, between the cliffs of Jabal Rum and the outcrop of Jabal Mayeen; you’ll eventually have to make a short scramble over a saddle into the tiny, narrow Wadi Sid, often dotted with pools, from where a scramble leads down to the road a little north of Rum village, making a pleasant three-hour round-trip.
Canyons of Umm Ashreen
The west face of Jabal Umm Ashreen (also spelled Um Ishrin) – the “Mother of Twenty”, named (depending on whom you talk to) for twenty bedouin killed on the mountain, or twenty hikers swept away in a flash flood, or a crafty woman who killed nineteen suitors before marrying the twentieth – is pierced by a number of explorable ravines and canyons.
Northeast of Rum village, between the highest peak of the Umm Ashreen massif and Jabal Kharazeh, is Makhman Canyon, explorable for about a kilometre along its length.
Directly east of the Resthouse is an enormous ravine splitting Jabal Kharazeh from Jabal Umm Ejil. Just beside it, a complex maze of canyons is negotiable all the way through the mountain. Once up and over a concealed gully alongside the ravine – the only way into the mountain – you emerge on a hidden plateau dotted with wind-eroded towers and framed by looming molten cliffs. Diagonally left is Kharazeh Canyon, and you can work your way along it for some distance before the cliffs close in. The main route follows Rakabat Canyon southeast from the plateau, but path-finding is complex in this closed-in, rocky gorge, requiring plenty of scrambling up and down through interlinking ravines. You eventually emerge beneath the magnificent orange dunes of Wadi Umm Ashreen on the east side of the mountain, from where you could walk south around the massif back to Rum village. To do the full trip (10km; at least half a day), you need confidence on easy rock, a good head for heights and experience of route-finding; if in any doubt, take a local guide.
Wadi Siq Makhras
Another option heads east from the Visitor Centre across the valley into Wadi Siq Makhras, which narrows as it cuts southeast through the Umm Ashreen massif, eventually delivering incredible views over the vast and silent Wadi Umm Ashreen. The walk from here south around the massif to Rum village (12km) can be shortened by navigating Rakabat Canyon from east to west. Other routes of 10–12km from the eastern opening of Wadi Siq Makhras involve heading northeast through Siq Umm Tawagi to get picked up in Disi village, or southeast to camp overnight in Barrah Canyon. If you don’t fancy such long hikes, you can arrange in advance to be picked up at any identifiable intermediate spot by camels or 4×4 for the return journey.
About 8km south of Rum, on the desert track to Aqaba, rises Jabal Qattar (“Mountain of Dripping”), origin of several freshwater springs. A short walk up the hillside brings you to the largest spring, Ain Qattar, which was converted by the Nabateans into a well. Stone steps in an area of lush greenery descend into a hidden, underground pool of cold, sweet water, drinkable if a little mossy. South and west of Qattar, just off the Aqaba track in the beautiful hiking area around al-Maghrar, are a handful of “sunset sites”, popular spots for late-afternoon 4×4 excursions (the places that give the best sunset views change according to the seasons).
The titanic chunk of mountain opposite Qattar is Jabal Khazali – a highlight of any tour in Rum and included on even the shortest excursions. It’s supposedly named for a criminal, Khazal, who was pursued up to the summit and, with nowhere to run, leapt off, whereupon he miraculously floated to earth and landed unharmed. The mountain’s north face is split by a mammoth canyon, entered by a ledge on the right, the inner walls of which are covered at different heights with stylized Thamudic rock drawings of people, horses and pairs of feet. It’s possible to scramble your way up through the cool, narrowing ravine, dodging the pools of stagnant water, for about 200m until you meet unscaleable rock.
Umm Fruth rock bridge
The area east and south of Khazali is full of small domes and outcrops, with a cat’s cradle of wadis and hidden valleys running through and between the peaks. To the south, a small, easily climbed rock bridge rises from the desert floor at Jabal Umm Fruth, another very popular stopping-off point which features in many photos of Rum.
Red dunes and Jabal Anfishiyyeh
East of Wadi Umm Ashreen is an area of soft sand, with some scrambleable red dunes rising to 20m or more against the north face of Jabal Umm Alaydya. Very close by, some of the best Thamudic inscriptions can be seen on Jabal Anfishiyyeh, including a herd of camels – some ridden by hunters, others suckling their calves – and some strange circle-and-line symbols. A little southeast, Jabal Umm Kharg has on its eastern side a small Ottoman structure, named – wrongly – “Lawrence’s House”, which commands spectacular panoramic views out over the desert.
East of Anfishiyyeh lie Jabal Barrah and Jabal Abu Judayda, divided by the sandy, easily negotiable and very atmospheric Barrah Canyon, which winds between the cliffs for some 5km; this is an often-used overnight camping stop, the journey best done with camels.
Siq Umm Tawagi (“Siq Lawrence”)
North of Barrah, between a group of three peaks, the beautiful hidden valley of Siq Umm Tawagi is another classic destination, featuring plenty of Thamudic rock drawings as well as carvings of faces done in the 1980s – with the date “1917” – which tour guides describe as an original depiction of Lawrence and Emir Abdullah. Tragically, in the spirit of the theme park that Wadi Rum threatens to become, this canyon is now being dubbed “Siq Lawrence” as a result. Umm Tawagi is a good second-day route from Barrah to a pick-up point in Disi village, about 15km north. From Barrah, it’s also possible to round the Umm Ashreen massif and return to Rum.
Burdah rock bridge
For more intrepid types one of the highlights of Rum is the impressive rock bridge perched way off the desert floor on the north ridge of Jabal Burdah. Best photographed from the east, the bridge is best scaled from the west; it’s an easy but serious climb, especially if you’re not that good with heights, and should only be attempted in the company of a guide – preferably one who has a rope to protect the last few metres of climbing, which is a bit exposed (see w walkingjordan.com for a description). The sense of achievement at reaching the bridge, though, is marvellous, and the views are stupendous.
Jabal Umm ad-Daami
A guided ascent of Jabal Rum requires climbing competence, but an ascent of Jordan’s highest mountain, Jabal Umm ad-Daami (1830m), identified as such by climbing guide Difallah Atieq (who died in 2011) and located some 40km south of Rum on the Saudi border, can be achieved by anyone. In truth it’s often harder to find a driver who knows the way than it is to reach the summit. Once you’ve driven there, the scramble up the north ridge is straightforward, and the summit provides superb views over both countries. You can overnight in the desert, perhaps at a bedouin camp among the beautiful Domes of Abu Khsheibah, midway back to Rum.
North of Disi
The wild landscape north of Disi and Shakriyyeh is just as impressive as the core areas further south – but a fraction as well known. Three easily accessible sites stand out to give a taste of the area. In the foothills just east of Disi, at the base of Jabal Amud amid dozens of Thamudic inscriptions, is a large slab of rock covered in lines and interconnected circles which, it has been theorized, is an ancient map – although what it refers to isn’t known. About 6km north of Shakriyyeh are some amazing Thamudic drawings at Abu al-Hawl; the name means “the Terrifying One” and suits well the extraordinary experience of coming across stark, 2m-high figures with stubby outstretched limbs carved into a remote desert cliff. About the same distance again north is a breathtaking rock arch at Jabal Kharaz.
You could either take a half-day drive out to these two spots, or treat them as stop-offs on a long desert journey northwest to Petra or northeast to Ma’an. Also in this area is “The Palace”, a castle-like compound which some guides claim featured in Lawrence of Arabia. It was in fact built in 2001 for the French TV game show The Desert Forges.
- t 079 554 8133 or t 079 925 7111, w baitali.com
This comfortable, upmarket, fully serviced desert compound, located just outside Rum, is a great place to hole up and do nothing all day in comfort (surprisingly difficult at most camps, which often stand empty between 9am and 5pm). It is signposted off the main road, 15km east of the Rashdiyyeh junction and about 2km west of the police post marking the fork to Disi. The signpost leads you north across the railway and onto a desert track – passable in an ordinary car – to the site itself, which stands hidden behind a rocky outcrop, with open views across the desert plains. Owned and run by genial Tahseen and Susie Shinaco, the place – and its team of local staff – is the height of hospitality. Public lounge areas, decorated in traditional style, are sheltered and cool, and include a dining and entertainment zone. Their accommodation is excellent and they also have Wadi Rum’s only swimming pool, fed by water from aquifers beneath the desert.
Bait Ali lies within the territory of the Swalhiyeen tribe, who are quite separate from the Zalabia of Rum and the Zuwaydeh of Disi, and so are able to offer unique trips by camel, horse or 4×4, at their own rates, into landscapes that most visitors don’t get to experience. Owner Susie Shinaco is herself an accomplished horserider. Added draws include adventure activities such as dune-buggies (JD35/hr per person), as well as hot-air ballooning and ultralighting.
The Seven Pillars?
The Seven Pillars?
Although the free handout map, and almost all tourist literature, names the soaring pinnacles of rock directly opposite the Visitor Centre as the “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, this is a fabrication, made up in the last few years by marketing executives to cash in on the legend of Lawrence. (Five of the pinnacles are in plain view; the other two are round the side.) Lawrence never mentioned this mountain, and took the title of his most famous work from the Book of Proverbs (9:1): “Wisdom has built a house; she has hewn out her seven pillars”. The local bedouin referred to this mountain as Jabal al-Mazmar long before outsiders had ever heard of Rum. It seems tragic that even they are now calling it the “Seven Pillars”.
Horse riding through the desert sands is perennially popular, and a handful of guides offer anything from short excursions (roughly JD25/hr) to a full week or more in the saddle exploring far and wide, camping each night. These are not for novices, though; you should have some experience of handling horses before booking. On the drive into Rum you’ll pass signs for the stables of Atallah Sweilhin (t 079 580 2108 or t 077 742 8449, e [email protected]), acknowledged as the leading specialist, contactable through Bait Ali. Atallah also works with French explorer Wilfried Colonna (w desertguides.net). Also check Awad Mohammed (w badiatours.com) and Amman-based guide Hanna Jahshan (w jordanexplorers.com).
If you’re intending to do technical rock-climbing, you should contact one of Rum’s handful of UK-trained mountain guides, all of whom have full equipment and plenty of experience. A few other locals also guide rock climbs; like many Rum bedouin they are naturally competent climbers, and have learnt rope techniques by climbing with experienced visitors. However, Jordan has no system of qualification for mountain guides: staff at the Visitor Centre can put you in touch with someone suitable, but you should establish his experience before agreeing terms. There is an informative leaflet on environmental and safety guidelines, Climbing and Trekking in Wadi Rum Protected Area, available free at the Visitor Centre. For more information and contacts, see w nomadstravel.co.uk, w wadirum.net and w wadiram.userhome.ch.
Hot-air ballooning offers an incomparably romantic way to experience the grandeur of Wadi Rum. You take off – usually at dawn – from near Bait Ali for a serene float over the mountains: an hour’s flight costs JD130 per person (minimum three people). Alternatively you could buzz the sands in an ultralight, an open-air powered glider operated in tandem with a qualified pilot (JD75 for 20min; JD140 for 40min; JD200 for 1hr). Book with Royal Aero Sports Club (t 03 205 8050 or t 079 730 0299, w royalaerosports.com) well in advance.
The locals (and visiting sheikhs) regularly race camels, but generally either at short notice – with no outside promotion – or at hard-to-reach locations. In 2011 a Disi-based entrepreneur launched camel races specifically for tourists to attend. They take place on pre-advertised days six times a year, at a track near Disi. Admission (from a bargain JD10 upwards) gains you a seat in one of the 4×4 cars which drive along beside the camels as they scamper – regrettably just ordinary nags, rather than sleek, pure-bred racing camels. Check schedules and book online through Disi Camel Race (t 077 620 9328, w disicamelrace.com).
New-agey ideas are slowly entering Rum’s tourism profile, with a few guides now hosting one-off desert yoga or meditation sessions. Regular full-moon gatherings are more approachable, featuring a sunset journey to a tranquil corner of the desert outside Disi for a short camel ride, dinner under the stars and stories round the campfire, with the option to sleep in a quiet eco-friendly campsite. It costs JD75/person including dinner, breakfast and overnight, with profits staying within the Disi community. Check schedules and book ahead at w wadirumfullmoongathering.com.
Lawrence of Arabia
Lawrence of Arabia
Very few of the events concerning T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt can be pinned down with any accuracy. The Arab protagonists left no record of their actions and motivations, and the single account of the Revolt is Lawrence’s own, his famous Seven Pillars of Wisdom, written after the war, lost, rewritten from memory and published in 1926. By then, though, the image of Lawrence as a true British hero was firmly in place; he was almost universally seen as a soldier of integrity and a brilliant strategist, honest and courageous, who acted with genuine altruism in leading the Arabs to victory and was betrayed by his own officers. The image is a beguiling one, and stood the test of dozens of biographies. Even one of his closest friends describing him as “an infernal liar” didn’t crack the facade.
But with the gradual declassifying of British war secrets – and dozens more biographies – elements of a different truth have slowly been taking hold. Lawrence was undoubtedly close to British Intelligence; indeed, even in his early 20s, Lawrence’s work on an archeological dig in northern Syria may have been a front, enabling him to photograph engineering work on the nearby Berlin–Baghdad railway. His supposed altruism during the Arab Revolt seems to have been firmly rooted in a loyalty to his own country and a hatred of the French. During the Revolt, Lawrence was well aware of the Sykes–Picot Agreement that was to carve up the Levant, and seems to have wanted to establish Arab self-rule mostly to stop the French gaining any control. Although his own conscious betrayal of the Arabs racked him with guilt, he justified himself on the grounds that it was more important to defeat Germany and the Ottomans. Details have also emerged of Lawrence’s dishonesty and self-glorification: biographers who have compared Seven Pillars to documentary evidence have regularly come up against inconsistencies and outright lies perpetrated by Lawrence, often for his own self-aggrandizement.
Lawrence is much less highly regarded in Jordan, where he is often seen as an imperialist who sought to play up his role in what was essentially an Arab military victory, achieved and led by Faisal. Although he pretended to have Arab interests at heart, in fact – as was shown by the events after the Revolt – his loyalty to British interests never wavered.
Nonetheless, as the years pass and the biographies pile up, the myth persists of Lawrence the square-jawed, blue-eyed buccaneering English bedouin as portrayed by Peter O’Toole in David Lean’s 1962 film epic Lawrence of Arabia. But in 1919, Lawrence’s friend Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen recorded a conversation that they’d had about the text of Seven Pillars: “He confesses that he has overdone it, and is now terrified lest he is found out and deflated. He told me that ever since childhood he had wanted to be a hero. And now he is terrified at his brazen imagination. He hates himself and is having a great struggle with his conscience.” This seems as appropriate an epitaph as any to a life still shrouded in mystery.
Wadi Rum: what to expect
Wadi Rum: what to expect
Wadi Rum is elevated at around 950m above sea level. Bear in mind the extremes of temperature. Although it may be killingly hot during the day, nights even in summer can be chilly and, in winter, a dusting of frost isn’t uncommon.
Although the landscapes in and around Rum look similar, three clearly defined tribal areas intersect here. The Protected Area of Wadi Rum itself, in and around Rum village, is the territory of the Zalabia. The area around Disi village, east and northeast of Wadi Rum (including the easternmost part of the Protected Area) is Zuwaydeh land. North and west of Wadi Rum, around the village of Shakriyyeh, live the Swalhiyeen tribe.
As you approach the Visitor Centre, the jeeps parked outside the walls belong to the Zuwaydeh: they are permitted to follow routes only in the outlying zone dubbed “Operator 2”. Beyond the Visitor Centre, through the gateway, are cars belonging to the Zalabia; they stick to routes in the central heartland of Wadi Rum, dubbed “Operator 1”. The Bait Ali complex is in Swalhiyeen territory, and has guides for camel, horse and 4×4 trips in this less-explored area.
There’s much jockeying for position, with the Protected Area administrators bending over backwards to upset nobody (and thereby pleasing nobody either). Although Wadi Rum itself falls within Zalabia territory, there is nothing to stop you exploring further afield.
Planning your time
Visiting the desert is at least as much about the people as it is about the sand. The best way to see Wadi Rum is to pre-book with a named guide. The scenery is stunning but it can be hard to make sense of it – or see the best of it – on your own. The bedouin of Rum and Disi are, on the whole, skilled, business-minded professionals who know how to deliver an experience to remember. Book ahead and you’ll be met at the Visitor Centre at a prearranged time to be whisked off for your agreed tour. If you choose to stay overnight, all meals and accommodation will be included as part of the deal (see Arabian oryx in Rum). If you arrive at the Visitor Centre without a booking, all is not lost. We cover the options under “On-The-Spot Tours”.
Either way, there’s a collection of specific sites to visit in the deep desert, which we’ve outlined in this account along with a few pointers for walkers to get off the beaten track. There are literally dozens of possible itineraries. Any of the routes can be strung together to form a two-, three- or four-day adventure, with intervening nights spent camping in the desert. There are also plenty of opportunities for journeys further afield, including the desert track to Aqaba (50–70km), covered in a day by 4×4, two or three by camel. It’s possible to reach Mudawwara by camel in about four days, Petra or Ma’an in five or six.
A night in the desert
There are no hotels in or near Wadi Rum: the only places to sleep are the numerous bedouin-run camps dotted around the desert. Even at the best places, washing facilities are somewhat rudimentary and beds (and bedding) rather make-do. Just so you know: camps within the Protected Area are small, placed in isolation from one another far out in the desert, accessible only by 4×4 and sleep ten or fifteen people maximum in bedouin-style goat-hair tents. Most camps at Disi are larger, sometimes cheek-by-jowl with one another; they are often accessible by tour buses driving on dirt tracks, frequently set around circular performance areas with amplified music and electric floodlights, and sleep anywhere from 50 to 250 people, often in army-style canvas tents pitched in rows.
Walking alone: a warning
A final note. It barely needs saying, but here goes: it would be suicidally reckless to tackle any of the mountain routes in and around Wadi Rum without a local guide. Walking on the desert floor is fine – if you’re fit enough to cope with hours on soft sand – but even then, if you choose to do a long-distance walk alone, you should register your intended route at the Visitor Centre and let staff know when you are planning to return. For multi-day walks, and all types of scrambling or climbing, it is essential to have a knowledgeable local guide: this is exceptionally harsh terrain and apparently safe rock can be treacherous.
Cut-price tours of Wadi Rum: a warning
Cut-price tours of Wadi Rum: a warning
Numerous scammers – notably at cheap hotels in Wadi Musa and, to a lesser extent, in Aqaba, Amman and Dana – offer cut-price tours of Wadi Rum that may leave you disappointed. Here’s why.
Wadi Rum or Disi?
Unlicensed operators are not permitted to bring tourists into the Wadi Rum Protected Area, which is patrolled by rangers. This means that anyone offering cut-price tours of Wadi Rum – such as a budget hotel in Aqaba or Petra – will not be taking you into Wadi Rum*: they will, instead, drive you around the deserts of Disi nearby, and host you at one of the Disi tourist camps. There’s nothing wrong with Disi – it’s beautiful – but it’s not what you’re paying for. Yet these scammers will swear blind that you’re being taken to the real Wadi Rum – even to the extent of lying to you about which camp you’re in (we’ve had reports of tourists being dumped at one of the Disi camps by a driver who told them it was Bait Ali). Rum camps are invariably smaller, cosier, quieter and less commercialized than those in Disi.
If you pay, say, JD25 to a hotel in Petra for a tour of Wadi Rum, it’s likely that at least JD10 of that will go straight into the pocket of the hotelier. That leaves JD15 for the man who’s actually going to drive you around – which means you get a very short tour. For comparison, the going rate for a decent tour of Wadi Rum booked directly with a reputable guide, including overnight camping, all transport, meals and facilities, is roughly JD40–60 per person. Pay significantly less than that, and you can be sure you’ll be short-changed.
Guide or driver?
At cut-price rates you are unlikely to be hosted by a guide – that is, someone who lives in Wadi Rum, speaks English and can explain the area and its sights to you. Instead you’re likely to get someone who can drive the car, but little else – probably friendly enough, but possibly not even Jordanian.
Being taken around the desert in a 4×4 is never cheap – why should it be? – and that’s even more true for somewhere as extraordinary (and fragile) as Wadi Rum. Out here, you really do get what you pay for.
*The Cleopetra hotel in Wadi Musa is an exception – to our knowledge, this is the only Petra hotel offering tours that genuinely do enter Wadi Rum.
Arabian oryx in Rum
Arabian oryx in Rum
Wadi Rum is the setting for an ongoing experiment in wildlife reintroduction. The Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx) – a white antelope with long, straight horns that formerly roamed the deserts of the Middle East – has been extinct in the wild in Jordan for many decades. A captive breeding programme in the 1970s and 80s at Shaumari was successful, but after the first Gulf War 1.7 million sheep and goats, brought into Jordan by refugees from Iraq, decimated the rangelands through overgrazing, rendering the planned oryx release impossible. Oryx have remained in captivity at Shaumari ever since. Other regional projects have fared little better: Oman’s oryx reintroduction recently failed due to excessive poaching, and schemes in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Syria and elsewhere have had varying degrees of success – always (bar one release area in Saudi Arabia) with the oryx remaining behind fences.
In 2009, after meticulous planning over several years, twenty oryx were brought to Wadi Rum from Abu Dhabi for acclimatization in a large, fenced zone behind Jabal Rum, away from tourist routes, before release into the open desert. Twenty more followed in 2012, boosting the herd’s viability; a hundred gazelle also live alongside. By all accounts, the local bedouin are thrilled to see the animals back in the area: oryx have a uniquely poetic resonance in bedouin culture. They have vowed to protect them, not least because they also recognize that oryx-spotting safaris could become a major money-spinner. An oryx-spotting ecolodge is also planned. Time will tell how the project develops: for up-to-date information, ask at the Visitor Centre.
The Wadi Rum bedouin: an insider’s view
The Wadi Rum bedouin: an insider’s view
Ruth Caswell, author of w jordanjubilee.com, has been visiting and writing about Wadi Rum for twenty years. Here she sheds some light on the background of a generation of bedouin who now make their living as tourist guides.
Two cousins I know, Muhammad and Mahmoud [names have been changed], who are guides at Rum, are both from the Zilabia tribe, a branch of the great Aneizat tribal confederation. Both of them were born in the mid-1970s, in the desert, in the family tent. When they were children they attended the army school in Wadi Rum, usually walking up to 10km in the mornings and then returning to the family camps in the afternoon (school finishes at about 2pm). Sometimes they rode a donkey, sharing it with their friends. After school and during school holidays they looked after their family’s animals, often moving tens of kilometres across the desert in search of grazing. They learned to hunt for meat in the mountains, and to gather the medicinal herbs they found there. Both families had a number of goats, but they were (and still are) too valuable to be killed for meat except for special occasions.
The usual transport was by camel. Muhammad’s father bought one of the first jeeps to be seen in Wadi Rum when Muhammad was 12 years old; they quickly realized that the jeep was more expensive to run than the camel was, so its use was strictly rationed. It certainly wasn’t to be used for things like taking the children to school. Muhammad’s family used to spend the winters sheltered in the Barra canyon; during the spring they made their way slowly across the desert, spending the high summers on a plateau across the border in Saudi Arabia. Then back again during the autumn. Mahmoud’s father preferred to travel from east to west, from the Mudawwara mud flats to the Abu Aina spring in Wadi Rum.
It is not surprising that these men and their families know the desert and the mountains intimately, nor that they are good walkers.
Another trait that they nearly all share is complete independence whenever possible. Because they were not brought up to be able to call a doctor, a vet or a mechanic, they all know a fair bit about treating an injury or an illness, caring for a sick or injured animal or repairing a car. They are confident in their own abilities in almost any situation. Most of the bedouin guides in Wadi Rum have the same or similar backgrounds. The few exceptions are from the families that preferred to remain near to the fort in Wadi Rum that was built by the Desert Patrol and a sure source of water, rather than moving with the seasons. These people might know the deep desert less well than the others, but nonetheless all the Rum guides are still bedouin to the core.