Petra is on everyone's wishlist - but not many people know about the alternative way to get there: hiking the Bedouin road to the ruins...
"Shut your eyes," Yamaan commanded us. We hadn't trekked this far without coming to trust our trek guide, so we followed him in a blind shuffle along the narrow mountain path and around a final sandstone bluff. We finally opened our eyes to a super-sized facade - rock-carved columns, capitals and a soaring portico topped by an urn all of 10m high - which reared above us. So it was with a collective gasp that our six-day trek through the Shara Mountains of Southern Jordan came to an end at the so-called 'Monastery', the temple shrine which lords it over the fabled mountain city of Petra.
One of the world's most breathtaking ancient sites, Petra has headed travel wish lists for 200 years. Modern tourism has done a disservice to the 'Rose-Red City' of the Nabataeans, however, by all too often reducing it to a disenchanting whistle-stop experience for the 50,000 British visitors it annually attracts. Site tour, statutory camel ride and souvenir trawl topped and tailed by transfers in air-con coaches from the likes of Amman (two hours along the featureless Desert Highway) or Aqaba - hardly puts one in an ideal frame of mind to appreciate this city's fabulous allure. Which is why - in the spirit of the Swiss explorer Jean Louis Burckhardt, who first stumbled across Petra's forgotten facades, tombs and temples in 1812 - I took the slow route here.
This trek, along a route recently stitched together from grazing tracks, Bedouin migration routes and canyon descents, has been dubbed the Middle East's answer to the Inca Trail. A top-class hike to world-renowned ruins, then, with the singular difference that only a handful of Westerners have yet walked these wild and largely uninhabited kilometres.
Without waymarking, offering no opportunity en route to replenish supplies and with limited fresh water, it's a challenge walkers shouldn't even consider unsupported. Which is why we'd teamed up with impressive Jordanian guide Yamaan, who largely pioneered the route, and the support team he had organised to set up camp and cook for us at the end of each day.
My journey began just below the splendid Crusader castle at Shobak. We had barely entered the Ghuweir Canyon when the landscape laid into our desert expectations. I goggled at the fig trees, tamarisks and pink oleanders lining the banks of the Ghuweir. Spring rains had topped up the pools, which were full of scattering frogs. The canyon's sheer walls of red sandstone, scalloped, marbled and wrinkled with multi-coloured seams of iron, copper and magnesium, rose to narrow strips of sky where vultures and buzzards rode the thermals.
"Our backcountry is one of Jordan's revelations," said Yamaan. "Only local Bedouin and occasional ibex hunters ever visit these mountains."
Dusk had fallen by the time we reached the foot of the canyon, one of some 75 walled, wet worlds that drain Jordan's Shara Mountains. We emerged onto the vast Wadi Araba - 'Valley of the Arabs' - the desert depression which contains the Dead Sea to the north and which stretches south, sidestepping into Africa to become the Great Rift Valley. On these sands, the Ghuweir's gravel-lined stream soon stalls and dies.
Distant specks gleamed ahead, guiding us in. The lights proved to be candles at the Feynan Wilderness Lodge, a Yemeni-style desert bastion that might have evoked Beau Geste were it not for the huge solar panels perched on its roof. We passed through gates in the pink-tinged clay walls to find rooms of stylish, cell-like simplicity, but with the blissful prospect of solar-heated showers. We dined on a lavish spread of Arabian exotics - aubergines stuffed with walnuts and chilli, fava beans, courgette fritters, steaming heaps of rice and pickled green tomatoes - before taking coffee, sipped on the roof terrace beneath star-stippled skies.
In the morning we strode out across a landscape straight out of Mad Max: a steppe crossed by dry streambeds and littered by molten slag - relics of the copper mines where early Christians were worked to death, the tottering arches of ruined Byzantine churches their only memorials. The sophisticated engineering solutions of centuries past - an open cistern the size of a municipal swimming pool, with sheer sides of neatly cut ashlar blocks, and a channel leading to a mill wheel where grain was once ground - have given way to makeshift arrangements, with black plastic piping ferrying canyon water to the villages. Goats grazed among the tents of the Bedouin and flocks of bee-eaters swooped overhead, bringing sudden shocks of colour to a sere landscape.
We were in the land of the Old Testament Edomites, Yamaan told us, where Moses led the Israelites on their flight out of Egypt. They despised the place, supposedly for the quality of the bread. With our picnic lunch and Yamaan to brew us alouisa (freshly picked herb tea), we had no such complaints. The only disturbance came from the hobbled camels who moved down the stream beds to graze on the acacia trees; with true camel obduracy they settled on the one where we had stopped for lunch. They might as well have been eating our parasols. Yamaan howled like a banshee to drive them off.
A long day's walk brought us back to the mountains where the Bedouin staff were praying before an open-fronted awning. The walls of the camp were woven from hemp and camel hair, though patches - cut from plastic product sacks which once contained Turkish 'Happy Semolina' - leavened any delusions of luxury with a more authentic shanty feel.
The truth was that I was won over by the desolate desert setting and by the patterned rugs, the more so when - having been resigned to going unwashed - I heard word of a waterfall, still flowing after the recent rains, a few hundred metres up a nearby canyon. We took it in turns to shower beneath a freezing torrent, my scalp still reverberating with the impact as we returned to a campfire dinner of chicken tagine and sweet mint tea. From my bedroll I watched a sickle moon rise over the mountains.
Our route led back into the mountains, along a former camel track some Bedouins - those yet to acquire the pick-ups they refer to as 'Japanese camels' - still use to move livestock to the high summer pastures. We were a few weeks ahead of the spring migration, and the only sign of the Bedouin were the rusted sardine cans - the local energy bar of choice - betraying the presence of previous travellers along the Naqb Shdayed ('Tough Way').
But we didn't meet a soul on the herb-scented hillsides of juniper and desert bloom, where wheatears and bright-orange grackles flitted. Yamaan showed us the remains of a narrow stone tunnel, a kind of lobster pot for leopards, which were common here a century ago. We peered down to check our progress; from these giddy heights the dried-out stream beds seemed to fan out like tree branches to die in the sands of Wadi Araba.
In the afternoon, descending into a valley past carob trees and desert roses, Yamaan raised a finger for silence. He hoped to provide us with a privileged glimpse of the ibex goat, regularly sighted here. We saw nothing of these elusive creatures, though it became clear how close they were when Yamaan pointed out fresh hoof marks on the banks of the reed-fringed stream where we cooled our feet.
In the evenings, around hillside campfires, Yamaan talked of the inventive and artistic merchant people who had shaped these malleable landscapes, for centuries defying the Romans from their influential position on the trade route to the east. What I had begun to appreciate was that this trek offers not merely magnificent walking, but also the contextual wherewithal to properly appreciate the wonders of Nabataean Petra. In rock-cut water channels leading to ruined villages, and in the surreal, multi-toned shapes of the eroded sandstone - like teardrops or melting wax - there are vestigial hints of the city's remarkable character.
It came as a shock when we left the back country, with its scrub oak, shepherds and little Sinai rosefinch - Jordan's national bird - to set foot on tarmac for the first time in the best part of a week. Our last morning's walk brought us to Little Petra, a kind of Nabataean service station for arriving camel trains. Its canyon location, carved facades and rock-cut interiors provided a tantalising foretaste of Petra proper, before the route led us back into the mountains. The precipitous path narrowed to a single-file track; beneath a rocky overhang a Bedouin in white robes, the only person we saw on this final approach, was selling beads.
It was only later in the day, once we had made the long descent from the Monastery to admire the dramatically weathered facades of the royal tombs, and to explore the churches and the remarkable rock-cut theatre, that I noticed flagging visitors all around. I realised that this trek had not only helped us understand Petra; it had also prepared us physically for the site's punishing contours and temperatures.
We were among the last to leave. We walked out along the Siq, the narrow gorge entrance to the city, and out past the ticket kiosks and tour buses of the modern township of Wadi Musa. This would have been my first sighting of the city if we'd arrived by the usual route. By trekking in through the back door, Petra had proved unforgettable.
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