After the legendary lost city of Petra and epic desert of Wadi Rum, we finally arrived in Aqaba, Jordan’s only coastal city right by the Gulf of Aqaba at the northern end of the Red Sea. Serving as an essential port for the Middle East, Aqaba is also popular among tourists, thanks to its regular ferry services to Egypt and the world famous Red Sea coral reefs in the area. Before heading over to the land of pharaohs, we decided to spend a relaxing day in Aqaba.
In the morning, we took a shuttle bus from Crystal Hotel to the Royal Diving Centre. After paying a 10 JD entrance fee, my friend and I, who had never dived before, went for an introductory session. Then we spent the afternoon snorkeling with a disposable underwater camera. We saw some nice corals and a lot of colourful fish. We snorkeled for a few hours and returned to the diving centre. Upon leaving we tried to get the refund of the entrance fee. Their policy was that whoever diving at the centre would not require to pay the admission. The staff hesitated for a while and told us the cashier was closed for the day. We had no choice but to return the next morning. The next morning we returned to the Royal Diving Centre for our refund. The staff tried to avoid us. We expressed our discontent and at last a manager came out with a big smile and gave us the refund. Leaving the diving club behind, our hired taxi took us to the passenger ferry terminal. It took us over an hour to go through the customs and deal with the departure tax. At last we were led to board a shuttle bus that drove onto the ferry along with the passengers.
Once on board, we found the Egyptian custom officer to stamp our passports. The ferry didn’t leave the dock until way over 11:30, over two hours since we got to the terminal. At last, the ferry sailed slowly southwest towards the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, with Saudi Arabia to our east. At around 14:30 we arrived at the Egyptian port of Nuweiba. The hectic scene of Nuweiba was our first impression on Egypt. At the minbus station we met three Australians. The six of us hired a minivan to Dahab, the popular backpacker resort at the Egyptian side of the Gulf of Aqaba.
Dahab seemed pretty quiet to us, probably because of the recent terrorist bombing a month ago on April 24th, which claimed 23 lives in total. The town looked very young and causal. At the station we met Alex, a staff from Bishibishi Garden Village, a relatively new hotel in Dahab. We met Jimmy the owner and decided to stay at one of their air conditioned triple rooms. After dinner, we strolled around Dahab, dropped by an internet cafe, and bought another disposable underwater camera for the following day.
On our second day in Wadi Rum, we had a small breakfast when we get up. Soon after, our guide came to the camp and brought along three camels. The camels were skinnier than I imagined. It was our first time to ride a camel. We were kind of excited but also worried since we had heard enough negative experiences about camel riding. The guide made a “shuzzz” noise and made the camels to lower their bodies. One by one we climbed onto the camel. It turned out that my camel was actually the friendliest, relatively well trained and disciplined. Forgot how long we were on the camel back, maybe an hour, or an hour and a half, in the open desert. As the morning went by the desert was warming up quickly. On the camel back, I often adjusted myself to find the “best” position, balancing myself while taking pictures and preventing the numb feeling on my thighs. Every time we passed by a cluster of plants (looked pretty dried up), at least one of our camels would deviate from the group, lower their heads and pulled out a bunch of leaves to enjoy some causal snacks. This always caused a stir among all camels since all of our camels, including the one rode by the guide, were tied together one after another with ropes.
From time to time, we would get off the camels for some short walks, or climb a rock mount to check out the distant view. We ended up riding the camel for around three hours, and it really wasn’t the most pleasant experience. Perhaps because of the heat or lack of good bush around, one of our camels was a little grumpy at a point that it went on a strike by refusing to walk and kneeing down all of a sudden. I was glad that at least my camel seemed content and calm. Every time we got off the camel, we could hardly walk. The “desert mountains” near and far dominated the landscape everywhere we went. At last we were led to the Khazali Canyon. We didn’t have time to venture deep into the canyon, but far enough to see the dramatic sunlight shone through the narrow gap high up and reached the canyon floor in a dramatic way.
After the Khazali Canyon, our Wadi Rum experience was almost over. We did a bit more camel riding, had a brief lunch, a short nap, and rode back to Rum Village. While we waited for our hired taxi at the Visitor Centre, we went into the official Wadi Rum shop. I bought a black T-shirt with the Rum-art (ancient rock carving of animals) printed on it. In late afternoon, we reached Aqaba at the southern tip of Jordan right by the Gulf of Aqaba/ Red Sea. For some reason, we ended up having Chinese food for dinner. It was a decent size restaurant on the second floor of a commercial building. We weren’t the only table there but of course it was not full. I wondered if it would ever get a full house.
We started off the afternoon with climbing the Um Fruth Rock Arch. The arch is about 20m high. At first glance, the steep surface of the rock arch seemed impossible to climb. With his bare feet, our guide showed us the way to ascend the slope. The key was: climb in a slight diagonal, move fast, never stop and never look back. We did what he said and reached the top in a single breathe. Of course, climbing back down was a bigger challenge.
Before retiring to our evening camp, we did a 1.5km walk through a canyon. Everything appeared red and orange under the afternoon sun. The walk allowed us to admire the two most remarkable features of Wadi Rum: the red sand dunes and the rugged rock mounts (or desert mountains as the locals called them).
Near our camp, we climbed another rock mount where we watched the sunset. From the mount, Wadi Rum appeared vast, dry and windy. Despite tired, I totally fell in love with the horizontality of the desert. As the sun receded below the horizon, so as the vivid colours of the landscape. The wind felt a little chilly as the desert colours faded with the evening twilight. We had a delightful night chatting and laughing with the Bedouin hosts, and had a delicious dinner of lamb and chicken rice.
In June and July 2008, a retrospective screening of David Lean’s films took place at BFI (British Film Institute) London Southbank. We picked an evening show of Lawrence of Arabia as an after work treat. Watching the 1962 classic on the big screen was a fantastic experience, especially for the majestic desert scenes that reminded me of my brief stay in Wadi Rum back in 2006. Wadi Rum, an UNESCO World Heritage site acclaimed for its desert landscape, is a popular filming venue for epic movies from Lawrence of Arabia of 1962 to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker of 2019. Wadi Rum also put its mark in modern history when T. E. Lawrence passed through the desert numerous times during the Arab Revolt of 1917-18. Together with the iconic red dunes and rugged plateaus, the memories of T. E. Lawrence has made Wadi Rum, also known as Valley of the Moon, the most well known tourist attraction in Jordan after Petra.
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At around 09:00 we arrived at Wadi Rum Visitor Centre where our guide Attayak greeted us at the ticket office. After we got the admission tickets, Attayak drove us into Rum Village and stopped at the Resthouse Cafe, where we met Shaba, our desert guide for the day. The first thing we did with Shaba was to get bottled water and the red and white keffiyeh. We put on the keffiyeh with Shaba’s help before hopping onto his Toyota Land Rover. Our first stop was the Spring of Lawrence. Story has it that the spring was the spot where T. E. Lawrence bathed and relaxed himself during his stay in Wadi Rum. Reaching the spring was a 15-minute climb up a slope of boulders, about 200m high. We were a little disappointed to find the spring was no more than a tiny pool, perhaps an outlet of underground water. Though we were rewarded by the magnificent panoramic view of the desert.
Our second stop was a cliff of ancient petroglyphs, where figures of camels, goats, and humans were found. Petroglyphs and inscriptions could come from the ancient desert nomads 12,000 years ago, or any desert dwellers thereafter, including the Nabataean caravans 2000 years ago when Wadi Rum was situated in the crossroad of caravan routes between Saudi Arabia and Damascus. In the shade of a rock plateau, we got off the Land Rover once again for our first desert lunch. Shaba took out canned tuna, fresh tomato, mixed beans, cheese, and bottled orange juice. He then started a fire to make our cups of mint tea, a common practice for the nomadic desert Bedouins, who have roamed the Arabian desert for centuries. Despite circumstances after World War II that led to mass sedentarisation for the Bedouins, the carefree lifestyle of the desert nomads continues to inspire literature and cinema, consolidating the cultural heritage and promoting tourism of the Arabian Desert. Today, most Bedouins have moved to houses or apartments. The few Bedouin tents remaining in the desert are erected mainly for tourists. As globalization continues to reach the different regions of the Middle East, nomadic traditions of the Arabian Desert are becoming a collection of romanticized stereotypes reconstructed solely for the commercial value of tourism.