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 archaeologists.
The principal route from Ma’an to Petra (33km) runs from the centre of town across the Desert Highway and through Udhruh. Continuing south from Ma’an on the Desert Highway itself you’ll pass another couple of exits marked for Petra (both of which meet the road from Udhruh just above Ain Musa), and then the Al-Anbat Tourist Complex, another rest stop. Just past here is the final turn-off for Petra, some 33km southwest of Ma’an; this is the start of the so-called “Scenic Road” which runs into Wadi Musa through Rajif and Taybeh.
A few hundred metres further, the Desert Highway reaches the edge of the highland plateau at Ras an-Naqab, from where the most stupendous panoramic views over the sandy deserts of the Hisma region suddenly open up in front of you. Pull off, if you can, to savour them.
The highway comes down off Ras an-Naqab before scooting away across the sandy floor of the desert, with the sheer mountains of Rum clearly visible off to the left of the road for much of the way. To the right lie the ruins of Humayma, a Nabatean village that was fortified by the Romans and later used by the Abbasid family to launch their overthrow of the Umayyads; it’s a significant historical site but the ruins are scanty and hard to interpret.
Some 41km from Ras an-Naqab and a little beyond the village of Quweira, a marked left turn at Rashdiyyeh points the way to Wadi Rum.
From here it’s a clear run onwards as the highway threads a twisting path between the mountains, following the Wadi Yitm down towards Aqaba.