A great guide can open up the secrets of a destination – but sometimes planning your own route reveals local gems. Nick Redmayne gets behind the wheel for a road trip through the real Jordan
“Why don’t you self-drive? It’s easy!”
Mantra-like I repeated this advice while struggling with the door of an innocuous brown Mitsubishi. Middle East self-drive ‘easy’? I wasn’t even sure what side of the road to drive on in Jordan. Sitting down too quickly, the absence of a steering wheel provided a fairly succinct clue…
At least after midnight the airport road was quiet. Radio Fann 104.2FM played uneasy habibi hip-hop fusion (I couldn’t find the off button) and warm night air flowed through the open windows. It was 35km to Amman, and just the start of a week of exploring Jordan, from its northerly border with Israel and Syria to its southerly extent on the Red Sea.
Heading for Roman Jerash, the main road out of Amman is described by a series of roundabouts – ‘circles’ – identified numerically: ‘At the eighth circle take a right; it’s signposted to Jerash’. Easy.
That first morning I pulled over to fill up – and, if I’m honest, to check I was travelling towards circle eight and not one. An elderly gentleman sat on a small stool, his back propping up one of the pumps. Replete with oversized jalabiyya (robe), eyes lost in the glassy depths of thick-rimmed rectangular glasses, he didn’t look a good bet.
“Jerash wayn?” I hazarded. He wavered for a moment before snapping into focus and enunciating a perfect English reply: “Straight on through the tunnel, then go right.”
Having missed my turn off the circle I languished on the inside lane of four ill-defined streams of surging, honking traffic. I added a few honks myself – why not? Here, however, was a useful lesson on the innate civility of Arabs. “Jerash wayn?” I yelled to a nearby traffic policeman, who looked me in the eye, surprised, then swung an arm in the direction of a slip-road. Waving to other drivers I launched myself in perpendicular fashion across all four lanes. Obligingly, they all let me through and with a circular flourish the open road to Jerash unfurled ahead.
Leaving Amman, Jordan’s landscape soon opened up. Views stretched into the distance towards the Zarqa River and the fertile hills of Gilead. After 50km of easy driving the Arch of Hadrian, gateway to ancient Jerash, hove into view and I pulled into an almost empty car park.
Jerash’s Oval Plaza is magnificent, an ancient architectural triumph of town planning and beauty in which two elliptical colonnades enclosing a wide paved expanse encouraged age-old traffic along the city’s main Cardo Maximus. Walking upwards towards the dominating 15m columns of Zeus’s Temple, a peculiarly unsettling sound erupted from the nearby South Theatre – bagpipes. A lone piper stood on the stage of the ancients blowing and squeezing a sonorous rendition of ‘Flowers of the Forest’. Spilling out from the 3,000-seat auditorium, the melancholic tones followed as I continued above the Cardo towards the Temple of Artemis, taking time to admire its remarkable crisply carved capitals.
Further north, Umm Qais is not an obvious inclusion for European travellers. Its extensive ruins are those of Gadara, once one of the ‘Greek’ cities of the Decapolis. The town’s other claim to fame is as the site of the New Testament miracle of the Gadarene swine and, today, without a car it’d still be a bit of pig to reach. However, since 1948 many of those displaced by the establishment of modern Israel journey to Umm Qais for its commanding views towards Galilee and the land that was once Palestine.
I explored the ruins for a while, then surveyed the panoramas from more recent concrete reinforced foxholes and trenches – the occupied Golan Heights lay ahead in plain view, the Sea of Galilee sparkling in the distance.
This close to the borders of Israel, Syria and Jordan, there was a visible military presence. At a roadblock the soldier examining my passport asked if I’d give a lift to one of his comrades. Hamdi was an off-duty private, carrying a box of shopping home to his wife and family. He spoke no English but with my bit of sparrow Arabic we established the basics. For the next 25km along the Jordan Valley he kindly acted as an organic sat nav, pointing out the Israeli frontier and fast-tracking us through army checkpoints, until I eventually dropped him off.
Arriving in Madaba, 30km south of Amman, was easy enough; a queue of traffic at least allowed time to look out for signs and check my guidebook. I was looking out for the Mariam Hotel, by all accounts a two-star establishment of some repute. As a sign hove into view announcing in equivalent Arabic script: ‘Goodbye. Thanks for Visiting Madaba. Have a Nice Day’, I knew I’d missed something.
Back in the fray I asked any likely looking pedestrians, backgammon-playing guys sitting outside shops, small boys – anybody, in fact – for directions and was met by conflicting responses. Soon the brown Mitsubishi was becoming a familiar sight to shopkeepers. Chugging round downtown’s one-way system on what may have been my third circumnavigation, I finally broke out and took a counter-intuitive left, but to no avail. Outside the oasis of calm that was Coffee2Go ice cream parlour, three gents were ensconced drinking tea.
“Afwan. Minfadlak. Funduq Mariam wayn?”
I asked – which, despite my rubbish Arabic, was correctly understood as: “I am completely lost”. One of the tea drinkers shook his head. “Stop. Get out, have a seat. We need to talk...”
Cooled by a sublime ice cream and clutching a hand-drawn map, that should have been that. Unfortunately, it wasn’t, and I was soon negotiating a one-way street the wrong way. Game over. I cut up a taxi and offered him a couple of dinars to lead the way – money well spent.
Next day, at the southern end of the Desert Highway near Wadi Rum, I’d stopped to drop off my companion of the last hour or so. The elderly Bedu climbed out stiffly, squarely repositioning his red-checked keffiyeh before grinning broadly, waving and touching his chest. His journey wasn’t over, but neither was mine. Monolithic rocky jebels characterised the landscape now; the setting sun warmed their reddish flanks, highlighting contrasting relief, in-between immense, sandy wadis. At the military checkpoint outside Diseh, gateway village for Wadi Rum, a patient Jordanian succinctly described the route to my tented camp accommodation. Before long I was reclining, drinking a glass of sweet tea by a crackling brazier and, as the light faded, occasionally sucking on a gurgling argileh (hookah), waiting for the stars to reveal themselves.
Before 7am next day I’d hooked up with a Bedouin guide at the official entrance to Wadi Rum. Despite low-budget Mad Max styling and four bald tyres, Abdullah’s ‘desertised’ pick-up described a faultless progress through the sand, shadowing the immense 1,753m cliffs of Jebel Umm Ashreen – ‘the mother of 20’ – extending as far as the fissure-fractured bulk of 1,748m Jebel Khazali. We didn’t have 4WD but this was of little consequence to Abdullah. “No, no four-four – Bedu. Bedu, no, pah!”
At Ain Shalaaleh we abandoned the pick-up; Abdullah untwisted the wires of the ignition, disconnected the battery and chocked the front wheels with rocks. A short ascent brought us to a verdant shock of vegetation where the waters of an alluvial spring trickled forth. Here, troops of Lawrence and Faisal’s Arab Revolt had watered their camels before a pivotal attack on Aqaba Fort. “Ain Shalaaleh good,” said Abdullah, cupping a handful of cool spring water. I took my own double-handed draught, drank and splashed the rest over my face. Thankful this was not the eve of battle, I was happy to agree.
Travelling independently by car circumvented the strictures of public transport and often brought me closer to local people in places unused to tourists. Stopping in small villages for tea, I’d inevitably be unable to pay – save for the contribution to collective mirth made by being there at all. Almost running out of fuel, drivers escorted me in convoy to the nearest petrol station. These small acts of hospitality individually cost little but accrued to a refreshing reminder of how positive human nature can be. In addition I’d become a friend to a nation of hitch-hikers, an aficionado of self-drive souk tours, savvy to sneaky speed humps and after only one week could now understand as much Arabic as a two-year-old labrador.
Rent a Reliable Car offers air conditioned cars with unlimited mileage from US$220 (£135) per week including tax. Sat navs can be pre-booked for JD7 (£6.10) per day. A UK photocard licence is acceptable though an International Licence, by virtue of its translation, may be useful in some circumstances. Petrol costs around JD0.97 (85p) per litre, diesel a little less.
Amman aside (where sheer volume of traffic and a chaotic driving style make self-drive inadvisable), in general, driving in Jordan is easy if you stick within your limits and adopt a defensive style – look out for indistinct speed humps upon entering towns and villages, and watch local drivers for cues. Main roads are well maintained and signed in both Arabic and Latin script. Unwaveringly helpful Tourist Police are on hand in most towns to point the right direction, though a few simple Arabic phrases will help in out-of-the-way places – if only to amuse local inhabitants.
Be cautious of pedestrians, particularly children – in the event of an accident the car driver is automatically held responsible. Avoid driving at night.
At the head of the King’s Highway, 30km south of Amman but only 17km from the airport, Madaba is an alternative starting point for self-drive explorations and offers a relaxed and accessible introduction.
Stay: Mariam Hotel At the end of a quiet residential street, less than ten minutes’ walk into Madaba, the Mariam has parking, a rooftop restaurant and a pool. Doubles from JD40 (£35).
Eat: Haret Jdoudna A courtyard setting offers fine dining on an upper mezzanine as well as the ground floor. Not cheap, but has a lovely atmosphere and good food. Try mezze starters of sambousek pastries, muhammara (a peppery dip), fresh bread and hummus followed by a glass of chilled Mount Nebo white wine and a succulent shish kebab.
See: St George’s Church Home to Madaba’s famous sixth-century mosaic map of the Holy Land. Though busy, this enduring cartographic record of the Christian Levant adds historical context to the modern-day Middle East.
Snack: Coffee2Go (Abu Baker Al Siddeeq St) Probably the best ice cream in town. For something exotic try aromatic mistkah spice flavour, or stick with the sublime cheesecake variety.
Out of town: Mount Nebo (10km), where Moses looked down onto ‘the promised land’; Bethany-Beyond-the-Jordan (30km), where Christians believe Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist; Amman Beach (20km), where you can flounder in the salty Dead Sea.