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5pm, Friday April 4th 2008, Wadi Rum, Jordan

As I start this journal I'm feeling a bit low, because my new camera has stopped working. Almost certainly because it has got sand in it - almost certainly because, although I had a sealable plastic bag, I didn't use it.

waking up in camp It's actually been an up-and-down day altogether; I dreamed I couldn't get my eyes open, and then opened them to see that the stars had gone. It was 6am, and light; we had been sleeping in the 'courtyard' of our guide Aodeh's campsite, between his tent and a sandstone cliff, and the stars had made their slow procession across our view. We had been alone; Aodeh said (as he drove back to his home in Wadi Rum village) that if we were there by ourselves we would see what it felt like to be Bedouin. A clever argument (we knew he also needed to get his computer fixed), but I still felt English. We chatted for a bit, then went to the ablutions hut, which was much more luxurious than I had imagined - a squat toilet with water-rinse facility, and a basin and mirror for shaving, etc. I took my time, and by the time I returned, breakfast was ready - boring arab bread, hummous, a couple of brightly-coloured jams, olive oil and ground pistachios, and - best of all - a bowl of halawa,which we would call halva, but softer, and (of course) sweet. Aodeh rekindled last night's fire for the tea, which had mint and (at our request) not too much sugar.

Breakfast was lovely, and the day was still fresh and crisp, but then Aodeh stated that 'it is good to have children.' We tried to explain why we didn't. I should have known this was a mistake (on a previous trip in Nepal we used to pretend we had), and it wasn't a satisfying conversation; I found myself saying that my father had never lovingly played and cuddled with me like I had seen him do with his son; this left me feeling a bit bereft. (The son was proudly presented to us - the wife stayed out of sight.)

setting out Anyway, bereft or not, we set off at 8am for an expedition to Umm Adaami, a peak just south of the Wadi Rum area, and at 1832 metres Jordan's highest mountain. It is about 10 kilometres away, so the idea is that we start off in Aodeh's 4WD Toyota, and when we get to a good bit we get out, and he says 'walk to that small hill, then left to the left hand end of that big block with three peaks. It will take about two hours, and I will be waiting for you.' We double check which block he means - we are in the middle of nowhere, after all - and then he goes back again to Rum village while we walk, entirely alone, through the magnificent scenery of the Wadi. When we started this system yesterday we were a bit scared, but now we've got used to it. The place is actually never quite deserted, and walking on the flat between the spectacular rock slabs means we can easily be seen.

big rocks - notice Di at the bottom
There are no medium views in Wadi Rum; your eyes are either up, marvelling at the huge scale of the great rock beasts among which you are very slowly crawling (notice Diana in this picture); or you are looking down at your feet, marvelling at the mini-events you come across - the trace of a camel, or a snake, or an insect - or a beautiful little flower that would seem ordinary enough in Britain, but whose existance in the spring desert is something to be celebrated. One time we saw a kind of mini-foxglove - fantastic!

on the sand dune
Then of course there is the walking surface itself, which varies a lot. Sometimes it's compacted (usually with a greenish tinge) that makes for easy walking, sometimes it's sand, where you can't push off the step but have to lift each leg - much more tiring. Then came, after an hour or so, a little sand dune - darker in colour than most sand, with wind blown patterns on it - a real pleasure, walking on virgin territory. After about an hour and a half, Aodeh passes us, and soon we have arrived and are back in the truck.

camels On a bit more, with some hair-raising drives over the sand (you have to go fast, or you stick). Aodeh pointed out some Bedouin, disapproving that they left rubbish around their camp, and he also talked about Bedouin who keep goats even though there is less rain nowadays, therefore less free food, and all water has to be imported. Aodeh is a modern Bedouin, with a house, a computer, and (especially) a mobile phone.

He instructs us to walk on and down a gully, where he will again be waiting. This time he drives on, and we are left with a walk past some of the Bedouin's camels, who show some interest in us, but are hobbled, so they can't get too near. (Wild camels can be dangerous if in must, but there are no wild camels in Wadi Rum.) We walk towards a narrow gap between two blocks (a 'siq', as in Petra), down through the soft sand (hard work in the increasing heat) to Aodeh, who says that it's too hot to climb the mountain now, we will have an early lunch - and drives round a corner and up a little cleft.

flowering plant It's a lovely spot, with shade, cool, a surprising amount of greenery, and lots of soft sand. Aodeh suggests we walk with our shoes off, which we do, but there are always bits to prick your feet. We wander up a bit and do some crossword, and by the time we get back he has a little fire, and tea, going. Lunch is a picnic of bread (a european roll as well as arab bread), a tomato (the juiciest so far in Jordan), a cucumber, tinned tuna (surprisingly tasty), an orange, and a sweetie cake. Conversation was relaxed and friendly - he talked about liking the place. He joked that a narrow passage was where he put 'bad' tourists, which seemed to be the Japanese. Racist and sexist talk is OK here. We get on well - he teases me, and I tease him. He said that he did hunt, but once when he saw two gazelles he shot the baby for food, and spared the mother to have more. We also saw birds, including the Sinai Rose Finch, the national bird of Jordan. When we left, we left our scraps, and he made a little bowl of water out of a plastic bottle for the birds.

Then on to the mountain, through increasingly desolate and dry country. At one point we saw another vehicle, and Aodeh drove towards it across a little wadi - straight down one side, up the other. While the two guides talked in Arabic, I talked to the three male tourists in the back. They had just climbed the mountain, and said it was great - they did it in 'an hour and ten', though (looking at us) 'you will take one and a half hours.' Fine, I don't need to join their macho games. But we were moving into a harsher, more masculine world. Aodeh explained that there were people nearby who took fuel over the Saudi Arabia border to sell (illegally) here, and soon we saw them - two men with a truck and some drums. Aodeh bought 40 litres for 20 Jordanian Dinars, about 36p/litre, which I paid for. (The current UK price is 105p/litre.) Then through more lunar landscape to the mountain.

Umm Adaami - towards the summit (web photo)
It was not a pretty sight; a base of sandstone covered by a huge scree. Aodeh skittered up the smooth sandstone like a mountain goat, and we plodded carefully after him. Di was the slowest, but we sweated our way up a rudimentary path, with a bit of scrambling. I think Aodeh likes to show off, but he also picked up wood for the fire later, and showed us how to eat the root of a particular plant (it was tasty, like a water chestnut). There was no real let-up in the ascent, and Aodeh kept telling us we hadn't really started yet.

Umm Adaami - view from the summit (web photo) Then he said we had started, and in no time we were on the summit. A 360-degree view, south to Saudi Arabia (we could see a couple of roads) and north back to Wadi Rum. By this time my camera had stopped, and none of my batteries worked. So I was upset about that, but I could still appreciate the stark beauty of the rocky peaks all around us. And we had done it in an hour! (I later discoverd that my batteries were all defective, and a new pair bought in Aqaba solved the problem.)

We came down again very carefully, always aware how easily a slip could ruin our holiday. Again Aodeh skipped ahead, while telling us to be slow, and threw his firewood down the mountainside, to be collected at the end.

the camp Which finally came, and we got in the 4WD and drove home. We were tired, I was cross about the camera, and clouds had come in. We got back to camp and I wrote this. It's now about 6.50, Aodeh is getting the fire ready to cook ('Inshallah' - it might get too windy). The sky is clearing again now and perhaps there will be stars, but it's quite cold, and Di is huddled under a doubled-up duvet. A little later, at sunset, we walked just outside the camp and watched camels being taken back to Rum village. There were some beautiful colours. As I said, it's been an up-and-down day both literally and emotionally, but it's been a privilege to spend time in this beautiful, stark, empty, colourful place.

© Jeremy Polmear 2008

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