Aqaba and the southern desert Travel Guide

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The huge eastern deserts of Jordan are mostly stony plains of limestone or basalt, but much of the southern desert is sand, presaging the dunes and vast emptinesses of the Arabian interior. In the far south, squeezed onto Jordan’s only stretch of coastline, Aqaba forms a pleasant urban counterpoint to the breathtaking marine flora and fauna which thrive in the warm Red Sea waters just offshore. The real highlights, though, lie inland. You shouldn’t leave Jordan without spending time in the extraordinary desert moonscape of Wadi Rum, haunt of Lawrence of Arabia and starting point for camel treks into the red sands, while the award-winning ecolodge at Feynan makes a fabulous hideaway for walks, cultural encounters and off-the-beaten-track exploration in the little-visited Wadi Araba desert.

Two of the three north–south highways connecting Amman with Aqaba are desert roads, and only really of interest as access routes to and from southern Jordan. The easternmost of the three, the so-called Desert Highway, follows the line of the old Hejaz Railway and serves as a demarcation boundary between well-watered hills to the west and the open desert. The westernmost of the three is the Wadi Araba road, which hugs the line of the Israeli border south of the Dead Sea.

Feynan

As Jordan develops into a niche ecotourism destination of world renown, so one small project is rapidly gaining a reputation as the country’s – if not the Middle East’s – leading example of how sustainable development can run hand-in-hand with low-impact nature tourism. Feynan, an isolated rural community in Wadi Araba at the lower western end of the Dana Biosphere Reserve,now hosts the Feynan Ecolodge, a Jordanian-owned, Jordanian-run 26-room desert hotel which has won global acclaim for both the quality of its environmentally friendly tourism product and the way in which it has established a sustainable socio-economic partnership with local people.

Situated miles from any road, the ecolodge is not somewhere you stumble across. Book to stay here, though, and you gain access to a world that is effectively otherwise closed to outsiders: ordinary life for rural bedouin across Jordan, largely unchanged (for now) by tourism – older generations maintaining their traditional tent-based lifestyle, younger generations making new lives in the village.

Don’t come expecting Dubai-style desert luxury – it’s a long, bumpy drive to get here, across stony slopes that remain furnace-hot from May to September, and the lodge itself is charming but simple. Do come, though, expecting an atmosphere of calm, a stunning natural landscape opened up with walks and mountain-biking, an exceptionally long history evoked at remote archeological sites, and the rarest kind of genial, unfussy service from staff who have lived in the area all their lives. Austere but richly rewarding, Feynan shouldn’t be missed.

Brief history of Feynan

Marking a topographical meeting point between the mountains and the desert, where valleys coming down from the east bring constantly flowing water to an open alluvial plain fanning westwards, Feynan has seen human settlement for millennia. Neolithic villages on the slopes suggest people cultivated figs, pistachios and wild barley, hunted gazelle and perhaps herded goats and cattle here as early as 12,000 years ago. The 2011 discovery of an amphitheatre-like structure has led archeologists to theorise that the earliest buildings were not houses, as previously thought, but community centres for processing foodstuffs. The economic shift which caused hunter-gatherers to domesticate crops and animals is well understood; what Feynan suggests is that a social shift may have occurred before that, from nomadic independence to shared labour.

Feynan is also extremely rich in minerals, particularly copper. As early as 6500 years ago, simple wind-fired kilns were being used to extract copper for ornaments and tools. Mining and smelting techniques progressed through the Bronze and Iron Ages, reaching a peak under the Romans, when Feynan – effectively a giant penal colony – hosted the largest copper mines in the Roman Empire. The third and fourth centuries AD saw numberless prisoners – many of them Christians – sent to Feynan to be literally worked to death, bound in chains and forced to labour night and day. The prisoners were overseen by imperial administrators based in a town overlooking the confluence of Wadi Dana and Wadi Ghwayr, now ruined and known as Khirbet Feynan (khirbet means ruins). Wealth-generation continued into the Byzantine era, when Feynan was the seat of a bishopric.

From copper to leather

Feynan’s economy, founded on copper, long ago shifted to farming – specifically goat-herding. To the local Azazmeh bedouin, goats provide milk, cheese, yoghurt, jameed (a type of preserved dried yoghurt), hair for tent-weaving, rarely meat and above all cash from selling the male kids. Today the Azazmeh are participating in an RSCN scheme that is altering the rural economy to place greater emphasis on environmental protection. For years, goats have been overgrazing the land and decimating local flora, but rather than banning them within the Dana reserve area – which would merely foment ill-will and shift the problem elsewhere – the RSCN are investing in them, fattening the goats in large pens outside the reserve and training local women to produce new craft items out of goat leather; both projects mean that the goats sell for higher prices at market and that their owners can additionally raise the value of each animal by selling the hide. You can ask to visit the leather workshops at Feynan to see more. Crafts made from Feynan goat leather are used in the lodge and sold at RSCN nature shops around Jordan.

Feynan Ecolodge

British archeologists have been digging at several sites in Feynan since the 1990s. In 2005 the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) brought in Jordanian architect Ammar Khammash to design a tourist lodge to replace the archeologists’ campsite. His style marries local materials with traditional arid-zone building techniques – thick walls, recessed windows, ribs to cast shadow on exterior walls, shaded interior courtyard, and so on – in the Feynan Ecolodge, a unique building that is functional, sympathetic and attractive.

The lodge is still owned by the RSCN but since 2009 it has been run by Amman-based firm EcoHotels, whose director, Nabil Tarazi, takes a refreshingly hands-on approach: you’ll often find him at Feynan, listening to the local community’s concerns and ideas, negotiating between tribal elders, refining how the lodge operates. Staff at the lodge, and the associated income-generating crafts projects making candles and goat-leather, are drawn from the Azazmeh bedouin tribe, who live in the area around Feynan. The drivers who shuttle guests to the lodge from a Reception Centre in the nearby village, where the asphalt road ends, are all from the neighbouring Rashaydeh bedouin – and every penny of the transport fee goes to them. Benefits are being spread around. The lodge is creating extra income for around eighty local families – perhaps five hundred people or more.

What to expect

The lodge’s green credentials are impeccable. It is not connected to the grid, and generates all its own electricity through solar panels – but only the reception office, bathrooms and kitchen have power; the rest of the building is lit by candles (which are made locally by hand). Water comes from local springs, and is heated by the sun for showers and kitchen use. Over the few chilly weeks of winter, the lodge fireplaces burn not wood but jift, a by-product of olive-oil production made from compacted olive stones and dry residue. The lodge composts and recycles, serving only vegetarian food made from locally sourced products: bread is baked fresh each day by a woman from the local bedouin community.

And the place has atmosphere. Sit out on the terrace, lounge on the sofas, try a spot of star-gazing on the roof, walk in the hills – it’s bewitchingly calm and contemplative. Set down below stony crags under a scorching sun, the lodge feels remote, but crucially not cut off from its surroundings. This is no luxury tourist hideyhole planted down amid rural poverty. Quite the opposite: thanks, above all, to the endlessly cheerful and accommodating local staff, staying here you feel a part of things – protected in a stark natural wilderness yet also with privileged access to the culture of people for whom it is home. Feynan has been named one of the world’s best ecolodges for a reason.

Short walks from Feynan

The choice of walks from Feynan is dizzying. If you want a private guide, rates start at JD81 for a half-day excursion, but the lodge’s guides – all local bedouin – also lead two guided group hikes each day, open to all. One is a half-day walk (up to 4hr; JD13/person), the other a full day (up to 8hr; JD18.50/person). Routes are decided the day before, but could include the informative Copper Mines trail (4hr), explaining the significance of Feynan for ancient copper-smelting, visiting Roman mine-shafts and slag heaps, or sampler trails into Wadi Ghwayr – past Roman ruins into a perpetually flowing stream-bed – or Wadi Dana, for birdwatching and spectacular views (both 4hr). There’s also a self-guided option for a walk to nearby archeological sites (2–4hr), including a Roman aqueduct, Byzantine church and Neolithic village.

Every day, a guided sunset walk (free) leads from the lodge on a short stroll up to a nearby hilltop, for freshly brewed bedouin tea and stunning views westwards as the sun sets over the vast Wadi Araba deserts.

Long walks from Feynan

Longer guided day-hikes venture deeper into the mountains. One varied trail combines the lower reaches of both Wadi Dana and Wadi Ghwayr (closed for a month in autumn for the ibex breeding season). There’s a challenging circular route to Um Alamad, to visit Roman ruins and abandoned mine-shafts – but the two best routes are both one-way treks, requiring either vehicle transfers back to Feynan or onward travel.

The walk from Feynan all the way up Wadi Dana (14km), rising from 325m to Dana village at 1200m, passes from stony desert to Mediterranean scrub forest, taking in a multitude of flora and – occasionally – fauna. You can take the steep walk up and then either stay in Dana or book ahead for a transfer back to Feynan (3hr; JD50/car). Alternatively, do it the easy way: be driven up and then do the full-day walk back down to Feynan. Either way, you can take a guide (JD18.50/person) or go it alone.

Perhaps even better is the full-day adventure in Wadi Ghwayr (16km; closed in winter), negotiating a path through a gorge narrowing into a slot canyon, past palms and giant boulders. The hard way is uphill from Feynan, ending on the plateau at the highland village of Mansoura for the vehicle transfer back (2hr; JD50/car), though there are accommodation options near Mansoura at Shobak – or you can go in reverse, being driven to Mansoura for the hike down to Feynan. In either direction this route requires a guide (JD18.50/person).

Mountain-biking

Feynan is also developing mountain-bike trails, both on- and off-road around the lodge, nearby archeological ruins and the neighbouring villages. They supply bikes and all the gear. Self-guided routes are charged at JD17.50 (half-day) or JD29 (full day), guided trails (minimum 4 adults) at JD29/46.

Star-gazing

Out here in the desert, where there is no light pollution, stars fill the sky every night. After dinner each evening, staff set up Feynan’s seriously high-powered telescope on the roof for a spot of star-gazing – amateur for sure, but guides have been trained by astronomers and are able to point out constellations and astronomical features with considerable knowledge. Join in if you like (it’s free), or just lie back on a mattress to take in the galactic splendour.

Cultural encounters

Under development – and perhaps up and running when you visit – is a programme of cultural encounters with local bedouin families, where you’ll be welcomed into a family tent to be served coffee around the fire, with a Feynan guide on hand to explain the intricacies and significance of the traditional coffee ceremony, and the deep cultural significance of coffee itself to the bedouin. There may also be the chance to participate in making arbood, a doughy, crusty bread baked in the embers of the fire, shugga weaving with goat hair to produce tent panels, or kohl, a form of natural eyeliner. Another idea could be spending a day with a shepherd, shadowing one of the local kids as they move up the mountainsides with their flocks searching for grazing. Ask about these when you book.

Diving and snorkelling at Aqaba

Some of the world’s best diving and snorkelling is packed along the 20km or so of coastline between Aqaba and the Saudi border. If you’ve never been snorkelling before Aqaba is an easier, and more instantly attractive, place to start than nearby Eilat (Israel) or Sharm el-Sheikh (Egypt), with the reef shelving gently directly from the beach, cutting out the need for boat entries. Diving beginners can go down accompanied by an instructor at any of more than a dozen dive sites.

The major advantages of diving here are the condition of the coral, especially below the 6m line, and the excellent biodiversity. Aqaba was a relatively slow and careful starter in dive tourism, and so has managed to avoid severe deterioration of the reefs. It’s also quiet: compared to the Sinai’s two million annual dives, and Eilat’s 750,000, Aqaba sees fewer than 20,000 dives a year. Work by local environmental NGOs – principally the Royal Marine Conservation Society – is raising awareness of conservation issues. Almost 9km of Aqaba’s south coast is protected as the Aqaba Marine Park, which extends 350m offshore and 50m inland.

With the impending demolition of the town-centre port, and construction of a new industrial port complex beside the Saudi border, expect major changes to dive sites and access in years to come.

What to expect

Wherever you choose to dive or snorkel, wide fields of near-perfect soft corals stretch off into the startlingly clear blue water, huge heads of stony corals growing literally as big as a house. Fish life is also thrillingly diverse, with endless species of small and large multicoloured swimmers goggling back at you from all sides. Butterflyfish, angelfish, parrotfish and groupers are all common, as are shoals of damselfish, jewelfish and even moray eels. Experienced divers should not miss the chance to go down at night. All the dive centres listed below offer one-off dives, boat dives, PADI courses and more. Small groups could book ahead for a trip in a fancier craft, such as the submarine boat Neptune or the wooden Phoenician-style vessel Alissar.

It can be dangerous to fly, or climb to altitude, soon after diving. If you’re driving from Aqaba (at sea level) up to Wadi Rum (at 950m), Petra (1100m) or Amman (800m), allow eight hours on land in Aqaba after diving to let your body adjust. The sea-level drive to the Dead Sea is fine. If you’re flying out of Aqaba, give yourself at least eighteen hours on land before departure.

Dive sites

Aqaba’s South Coast hosts more than a dozen dive sites, although, confusingly, different dive centres use different names, and sometimes divide one site into two or more areas (Dive Aqaba, for instance, lists more than thirty sites, including several technical dives in deep water). Always consult a dive centre in advance about the latest conditions; the account below – which runs from north to south – is not meant to be exhaustive.

Just south of the Marine Science Station’s fenced-off area is First Bay, with the popular Cazar Reef directly offshore from Club Murjan beach beside the gently sloping Eel Garden. South is the King Abdullah Reef, which extends for several hundred metres offshore and is good for snorkelling as well as diving; close by is the steeply sloping Black Rock, with a wide variety of massive hard corals and the added attraction of occasional turtle sightings.

About 4km north of the Royal Diving Club and barely 50m from the shore lies the wreck of the Cedar Pride, a Lebanese cargo ship sunk here in 1986 as an artificial reef. Lying in 30m of water, it’s now covered in soft corals. Very close by is the gently undulating Japanese Gardens, colourful and good for snorkellers.

A little further south are the unmissable Gorgonion I and II, the reef gently inclining down to 30m or so with spectacular fish life and perfectly preserved coral growth of all kinds stretching off to all sides. The Canyon has a shallow slope leading off for several hundred metres to a drop-off plunging over 45m, the whole slope split from the shallows outwards by a steep-sided ravine; its neighbour, the New Canyon, hosts an old field tank, sunk here to create a barrier to encourage reef growth. Blue Coral, named for a bluish lacework coral found here, is a little south.

Just north of a fenced-off nature reserve, Moon Valley offers an undulating reef framed by sandy beds, and is also the entry point for the Long Swim, taking divers or experienced snorkellers 700m south beyond the reserve fence to the Royal Diving Club jetty, past patches of dense coral interspersed with sandy valleys. From the jetty itself, the Aquarium (to the north) and the Garden (to the south) are both superb for divers and novice snorkellers alike.

Coral conservation

Coral reefs are formed of millions of individual creatures called polyps, which come together to create a single, compound organism. The various species of polyp produce hard external skeletons, which remain intact after the polyp dies; sand and other detritus fills up holes and cracks, and the reef is built up little by little, with new corals growing on the surface of the stony mass. Some coral colonies are several centuries old. To avoid damaging the reefs:

  • Never stand on the coral – any kind of pressure can damage or kill the outermost polyps. If you opt for a boat dive, make certain that the captain ties up to one of the mooring buoys already in place all round Aqaba, and doesn’t just drop anchor onto the reef. If he claims that his selected site has no buoy, then insist that you be taken instead to a site that does have one.
  • Don’t enter the sea from the beach – the reef begins directly from the shallows. Instead, use jetties or boat entries.
  • Never break the coral – snapping off a particularly colourful bit of coral not only kills that section of the reef, it’s also pointless: after a few days out of water, all coral turns grey.
  • Avoid kicking up sand – clouds of grit settling on the reef can smother the outermost polyps.
  • Don’t litter, feed the fish or buy marine souvenirs, such as corals, shells or starfish.

Independent dive centres

Aqaba has at least a dozen dive centres – more, if you include the dive operations attached to the big hotels. The tourist office can supply a full list and contact information; this is a selection of the better-known ones.

Small, flexible team with a great reputation, also with its own beachside accommodation.

  • Barracuda Diving Club

A professional approach and long-standing local experience.

Leading centre that is known for its outstanding service and expertise from a knowledgeable Jordanian–British team.

Friendly, well-respected operation, also with its own little hotel in the South Beach area.

A slick and innovative company, part of the local Sindbad group.

Well-regarded family-run operation on South Beach, with onsite hotel to boot.

  • Royal Diving Club

Pioneer dive centre, revamped and still a market leader, located beside the reefs for snorkelling directly from their jetty.

  • Sea Guard

Welcoming, accomplished and well regarded operation with the personal touch.

Long-established dive centre with professional local and British staff, which works closely with local tour company Above And Below (no longer linked with the Alcazar hotel).

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 4x4 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 4x4 for the return journey.

Jabal Qattar

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 4x4 excursions (the places that give the best sunset views change according to the seasons).

Khazali canyon

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.

Barrah Canyon

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.

Bait Ali

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 4x4, 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.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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