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 – 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.
Brief history of Wadi Rum
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org), acknowledged as the leading specialist, contactable through Bait Ali. Atallah also works with French explorer Wilfried Colonna. Also check Awad Mohammed and Amman-based guide Hanna Jahshan.
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 nomadstravel.co.uk, wadirum.net and 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 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 4x4 cars which drive along beside the camels as they scamper – regrettably just ordinary nags, rather than sleek, pure-bred racing camels.
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 wadirumfullmoon.com.
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 4x4 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. 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 4x4, 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 4x4 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.
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.
Cut-price tours of Wadi Rum: a warning
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 4x4 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.
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.
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”.
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.