Jordan trail I: Middle Eastern mountain culture 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - Road less travelled Climbing out of Wadi Feynan.
  • photo by leslie anthony
  • Road less travelled Climbing out of Wadi Feynan.

Historically nomadic, over the centuries Bedouins became dedicated herders whose itinerant seasonality necessitated smaller movements. Still, they remained a desert people. In Jordan, where much of the desert is mountainous, they also became mountain people. There's no ice on the peaks here, yet like Berbers, Sherpas, Incas and others, they are adept at surviving alpine heights.

Driving goat herds over hardscrabble slopes, across high plateaus and through dry canyons known as wadis, the Bedouin throw up expansive woven goat-hair tents where they can, and where they cannot, inhabit caves both natural and excavated, of which there's a surprising abundance of both. The latter, carved from ubiquitous sandstones by the enterprising Nabataean culture—industrious traders who also took to these mountains two-millennia ago—can be high-end dwellings, with raised sleeping platforms, storage nooks, a kitchen and eating areas. Cave, however, does no justice to their more elaborate diggings: monuments to kings and gods, massive tombs with cavernous chambers and three-story doorways. In fact, the Nabataean capital of Petra—deep in the Jordan Mountains and variously occupied by Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Ottomans—is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

During a dizzying six-day hike last month—dizzying being a double entendre for both mind-boggling views and unexpected heat—I experienced these and other waypoints of Nabataean and Bedouin culture along the newly opened Jordan Trail. Comprising a sinuous 600 kilometres north-to-south route that through-hikers take about 40 days to complete; the Dana-to-Petra section I trekked was recently rated one of the world's top hikes by National Geographic.

We began in Dana, a 400-year-old mountain village at 1,200 metres on the edge of the Dana Biosphere Reserve, Jordan's largest and most notable nature set-aside in that you descend 800 metres through four separate ecological zones.

This 18-km day would be almost all downhill, the first three by far the steepest, yet the canyon into which we suddenly freefell was so stunning it was hard to keep our eyes on the trail. Where the Middle East's epidermis is like worn sandpaper, Wadi Dana cut deep into that skin to expose subdermal layers, a Grand Canyon-like cake of limestone, sandstone, conglomerate, and a base layer of basalt exposed near the bottom. Gazing around, it was like someone had taken the Earth apart and reassembled it as best they could remember, creating hopeful mounds here and there like some potter and sweeping leftovers into the interstices.

Talus, slickrock, rolling cobble. It was hotter than it had seemed to start, but then, we were going down, so it would just keep getting hotter. Was this where the concept of hell—a blazing, inescapable underworld—came from?

Going down also delivered a descent into time. Bedouins shepherded goats up the trail, and others herds could be seen constellating hillsides, their watchers crouched in cool caves above the dry riverbed or under the shade of trailside trees; one even played a mournful flute while crossing a slope astride a donkey.

We stopped for lunch in a copse of pistachio trees, a small reprieve in which more time was spent admiring the arbours' ancient gnarled trunks than eating our goat-cheese and cucumber sandwiches. Our guide, Mahmoud, collected twigs from a dead juniper and built a fire under the tiny, blackened kettle in which he brewed Bedouin tea, a sugary concoction tasting faintly of goat dung—possibly because he added one of the abundant wormwood plants that was doubtless nibbled and defecated on by passing goats.

After lunch the heat was incinerating, and any attention-distracting mercy was exploited. Like the fragrant oleander in bloom along dry riverbeds, a sign that water ran somewhere beneath the parched gravel; from a distance the blossoms were a shock of bright pink against a paint swatch built on shades of dun, like lipstick incongruously smeared in the corners of the canyon.

The last few kilometres seemed interminable; it was hard to get used to being so hot for so long. When we found a canyon wall casting a body-width of shade, a dozen of us lined up against it, plastering our backs to cool rock like we were standing on a ledge. My feet felt as if I'd been standing in the burning embers of a campfire.

The gravel-and-boulder bottom of the wadi was a death trap if there were to be a thunderstorm upstream. Brushing past thick oleander and bamboo, we finally climbed to a Bedouin encampment set on a plateau high above the deep wash, lined by enormous boulders washed out of the canyon by unfathomable forces.

Feynan Ecolodge appeared as we crested another bench above the dry riverbed of Wadi Feynan, a figurative—and literal—oasis in a desert. It was dark and cool inside, and the cold tea with fennel we were served by a young Bedouin host was both welcome and refreshing. From here on we would strike out across empty mountains, camping on the land. And it was supposed to get hotter. How would we fare tomorrow?

Tune into this space in the June 7 issue of Pique for the next installment.

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.

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