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.