Jordan Trail Part II: Small wonders 

click to flip through (7) PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - Dizzying heights Walking the Jordan Trail
  • Photo by Leslie Anthony
  • Dizzying heights Walking the Jordan Trail

Our first day on the Dana-to-Petra section of the Jordan Trail (www.piquenewsmagazine.com, May 24) had been both an eye-opener and eye-closer. The rugged landscape of soaring peaks, deep canyons and dry riverbeds was mesmerizing, but a torrent of sweat made for blurry vision. In +40C heat, the mostly downhill, five-hour trek to Feynan Ecolodge had been a challenge. As we lie on its cool roof that night drinking in a milky firmament streaked by shooting stars, it's hard to contemplate the following day's 18 kilometre, 1,300-metre ascent in predicted higher temperatures.

Next morning, with a water-carrying donkey named "Happy" and Bedouin driver Abdullah, we stride across an historic landscape where copper has been mined for 3,000 years. Peaking under the Romans, millions of tons were smelted into metal exported around the empire. Slag heaps frame hillsides pocked with the graves of thousands of slaves who died working the mines and furnaces.

We're below sea level here, and the already incinerating temperature is increased by heat radiating off bare rock. Salt stains every item of clothing, and we can't drink enough to replace the liquids lost—or perhaps our bodies simply can't absorb it in time. Either way, as we pass Nabataean ruins to begin climbing in earnest, the direct sun cooks not only our bodies but our brains, with almost everyone suffering some form of heat stress—blisters, dizziness, headaches, nausea, cramps, and shivering (a true sign of heat exhaustion). As if in warning, we step over a dead Syrian wolf, its white fur barely visible beneath the shifting sand, a fossil in the making.

Rounding the mountain into a draw, we cram into the shade of a juniper tree for lunch. Even then it's hard to cool down; no one feels much like eating but we take a long rest. Stepping back into the sun, the climb steepens on a washed-out trail, becoming difficult and relentless. Startling views back to where we came from keep me going, but the top offers even better reward: a pockmarked, otherworldly landscape sculpted by wind-driven sand, much as water erodes with the sediment it carries. Several kilometres later we shamble into our campsite, with a breathtaking overlook of the Jordan Valley. Though each has their own tent, we collapse en masse into a large communal Bedouin shelter where people stretch, put their feet up, do half-hearted yoga, drink tea, and sleep, barely opening their eyes to inhale dinner.

Next day, leaving behind the sick, we make haste before the sun crests the ridges. After climbing a large, exposed slope on which another hiker collapses and has to be carried by Happy, we contour the Sharah Mountains on shepherd trails. Lunching in the shade of a cliff, hundreds of raptors circle on thermals above an astonishing view into some of the wildest, most remote corners of Jordan. Leaving, mauve sandstone crumbles underfoot and a sapphire-blue lizard appears atop a rock; like pink oleander in the dry washes, it's a blaze of preternatural colour in a land of brown pastel. The trail tops out in another phantasmagorical landscape where solution pockets seem like faces peering up from the rock. Soon, we swim through a knee-high current of goats as a flock makes its way back to a Bedouin camp, just beyond which we also find our own.

Again we move as fast as we can in the morning, passing ancient Nabataean wine and olive presses, cisterns, and rock-carved facades. After crossing an open expanse known as "the mattress" (of the lumpy, undulating variety), we descend a fairy-tale canyon that feels like a Star Wars set. It's simmering on the way down, but once at the bottom we're more-or-less able to move from shade patch to shade patch. Under one, guide Mahmoud finds a chameleon, the startlingly deliberate creature allowing us to press close for photos as it moon-walks slowly around a bush.

After a lunch break, it's only a few hundred metres before we scramble up large rocks in a narrow crack and find ourselves entering "Little Petra" from the back. We climb down worn, sloping stairs to its floor where there are cisterns, rock-carved facades and cave-like dining areas once used by desert traders, one with a fresco still intact on the ceiling. Exiting through the real entrance, where restaurant and gift shops seem like a violation of our desert solitude, we hurry to our camp for the night, readying ourselves for the final walk to Petra.

Sandstone mountains guard all approaches, and we again choose a back way. Following the Nabataean route from the valley and skirting the final mountain on a narrow rock terrace, we reach a hidden plateau high above another impressive chasm. Rounding a corner, the towering Monastery—furthest flung of the large Petra structures—comes into view. We'll spend two days exploring this ancient city, which is one of the seven wonders of the world. But the true wonder for many will be that we survived an 80-kilometre trek across the desert to be here at all.

For Part I of Leslie's trek to Petra go to www.piquenewsmagazine.com.

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

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