One of Jordan’s most beautiful hideaways is the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature’s Ajloun Forest Reserve, spread over remote hillsides about 9km north of Ajloun (and roughly 85km north of Amman). This is lovely countryside, situated around 1200m above sea level – the coolness compared to Jerash is noticeable, and when it’s sweltering a short drive away in the Jordan Valley it can be balmy and fresh up here.
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The reserve comprises thirteen square kilometres of rolling Mediterranean woodland – mainly evergreen oak, with some pistachio, carob and wild strawberry trees along with olive groves. The fauna covers some very European names: wild boar, foxes and badgers are all common (alongside striped hyena, Asiatic jackals and wildcats), as are birds such as tits, finches and jays. Roe deer – previously extinct in the wild – have been successfully reintroduced to the reserve by the RSCN. Staying a night or two, or just booking for a meal and a walk, is strongly recommended.
Tourism investment has been pouring into rural Ajloun in recent years, and there are now competing interests at play in and around the forest reserve. As well as the walks and visits outlined in this section, run by the RSCN’s Wild Jordan ecotourism unit, the local Al Ayoun community has developed its own trails.
Walks in the reserve
From the reserve visitor centre, several walking trails head out into the trees. Of the self-guided trails, the Roe Deer Trail (2km; 1hr; JD9) is a short circuit heading up through the forest to a nearby hilltop and back – especially beautiful in springtime when wildflowers carpet the ground. More rewarding is the Soap House Trail (7km; 3hr; JD14), which leads through the woods and up to the stunning Eagle Viewpoint at 1100m before continuing down into Rasun village to end at the Soap House.
Longer trails must be done with an RSCN guide. The Orjan Village Trail (12km; 6hr; JD22 including lunch) extends the Soap House Trail beyond Rasun to pass springs, copses and olive groves around Orjan village – find a description of it at w walkingjordan.com. The Prophet’s Trail (8.5km; 4hr; JD19 including lunch) heads off in the other direction, south past caves and across hillside meadows before climbing to Tell Mar Elyas; an extension, graded as “difficult”, continues on an all-day route to Ajloun Castle, dubbed the Ajloun Castle Trail (total 18km; 9hr; JD27 including lunch and donkey transport). Another route is the Rockrose Trail (8km; 4hr; JD14), a scenic countryside walk of moderate difficulty, crossing wooded valleys and ridges on a beautiful looping path.
For all these (bar the circular trails), return transport by minibus is included.
Soap House, Calligraphy House and Biscuit House
As part of their remit for supporting socio-economic development in the communities hosting nature reserves, the RSCN has launched three development projects in RASUN and ORJAN, two adjacent villages on the northern edge of the protected area. The idea is to provide local people with new sources of income, thereby reducing their dependence on natural resources, promoting environmental conservation and giving a boost to the rural economy.
The Soap House employs local women to manufacture speciality soaps by hand from olive oil and floral essences. You can tour the workshops, view the soap-making process and chat with the women; there’s no pressure to buy, though the soaps (and other RSCN gift items) are available.
Just down the road, the Calligraphy House is a startlingly good idea: the RSCN has supported local women to study Arabic calligraphy in Amman, then bring the skills back to the countryside. You get a fascinatingly detailed explanation of the art of calligraphy – and a briefing on the Arabic alphabet – before being handed your own bamboo quill and pot of black ink, for gentle guidance on forming letters and shaping designs. There’s a silk-screening workshop alongside where you can print your handiwork onto a T-shirt or card.
Down the hill, the isolated Biscuit House employs local women to produce all-natural biscuits, energy bars and crisps under the RSCN’s Tasali brand for national distribution. You can visit the workshops and sample the produce at the onsite café. The same building also houses a lovely, peaceful B&B. There is talk of facilitating one-week residential Arabic classes, staying at the B&B and studying at the Calligraphy House. Check details well in advance with the RSCN.
Prices at Jordan’s RSCN-run nature reserves are high. The RSCN makes no apologies for this: it says that the reason it exists is to protect Jordan’s natural environment, and that it has built lodges and developed tourism as a tool for generating funds to help conservation and support rural communities. You may or may not agree with their pricing policy – but this kind of responsible tourism is virtually unknown in the Middle East, and the RSCN are pioneers. For now, until tourism schemes emerge that are truly community-owned, paying extra to visit the RSCN reserves is a good way to ensure that your money goes to benefit rural people and habitats.