Jordan: Wadi Rum and the desert

Walk in Lawrence of Arabia's footsteps, from the Jordanian village of Rum to the heart of the Arabian desert

Jordan: Wadi Rum and the desert Valley of the Moon: looking out on Wadi Rum
By Ellie Bramley

Things to do in Jordan in 2013 | Visit Petra | Swim in the Dead Sea

Moon landing in Wadi Rum

Jordan's desert is, in a word, majestic. Its lunar-like landscape (Wadi Rum is also known as the Valley of the Moon), crevice-riddled cliffs and ever-evolving light inspire unbridled awe. The nights are filled with screeching desert foxes, sightings of the Milky Way and blazing shooting stars, while the days are as dramatic as they are dusty.

Visitors can use the small village of Rum, with its scattering of concrete houses, a shop and small guesthouse as a jumping off point into the desert - hop in the back of a Jeep and watch as Tarmac quickly gives way first to dust, then to thick, reddish sand. Wadi Rum, unmissable on any trip to Jordan, is made up of a series of valleys around 2km wide, stretching down to Saudi Arabia. Its mountainous terrain makes for an action- and history-packed few days.

This is the former stomping ground of ancient caravans and, though they are long gone, the marks they left on Wadi Rum's rocks remain - the squiggly characters of Aramaic, believed to be the language of Christ, and crude pictures of camels and the men who rode them. Finding these Nabataean etchings in such an expanse feels improbable and miraculous. Khazali ravine is one spot where you can see drawings. Here you will find sketches of horses, people and idiosyncratic feet.

Lose yourself in the desert

The desert can seem at first to be an empty expanse, but trudging camels punctuate the vastness, as do Bedouin camps: happy oases where tourists  - uninvited but not necessarily unwelcome - are dressed by local vendors as sheikhs and sheikhas, and where tooth-tinglingly sweet tea seems obligatory.

Visitors to the now all-but-dry Lawrence's spring (named after TE Lawrence, who cited it in 'The Seven Pillars of Wisdom', his autobiographical account of his time as a liaison officer with rebel forces during the Arab Revolt) willl see drawings galore etched by caravaners in the breaks between days-long journeys through the desert on camel-back. Another visit-worthy spot, though not for its billed appeal, is the supposed site of Lawrence of Arabia's house. The more likely history of this rubble is in fact far more interesting - a tariff point and rest-stop for ancient travellers.

One hulking red sand dune is a particular attraction. Formed by millions of years of sandstone cliff erosion it provides a tempting slope to roll down, though perhaps not in summer when the sand underfoot is blisteringly hot. (In the afternoons the mercury easily reaches the 40 degrees mark, though nights are cooler.)

Another must-visit is one of the desert's rock bridges, such as Jabal Umm Fruth. Pretend you are a mountain ibex as you scamper up to pose for an obligatory photo on this precarious looking natural phenomenon.

Arabian nights

As night falls make your way up your nearest mountain - scurrying up steep inclines should be becoming second nature by now - to watch as the setting sun makes a painter's palette of the landscape. Mountains morph from pale peach to pink to terracotta to deep red. From up high the dust tracks of the occasional passing jeep look like cigarette smoke trails, and the desert craters like dimples in the sand's cheeks.

Stay in one of the Bedouin camps to experience Wadi Rum at arguably its most spectacular, after night has fallen. Panorama Sunset Camp is one such - an oasis of hospitality and calm. Sheltered on two sides by cliffs, during our visit the owners, when they weren't busy reclaiming the chicken, potatoes and onions they'd buried for slow-cooking in a subterranean oven, were chugging away on shisha pipes.  The bubbling of the water pipe provided a fitting and constant background for an evening spent in a low-slung tent drinking tea and listening to leg-pulling stories of the nocturnal hunting capers of desert foxes; their prey - unsuspecting tourists.

Basic, but comfortable and clean, little tents were available and would be a must in the colder months, but sleeping under the Milky Way with only a flimsy mattress separating you from the sand is a great experience in the hotter season. Tired after the day's exertion, your eyes won't want to close, as shooting star-spotting is surprisingly fruitful, and therefore addictive. Waking up at intervals in the night with a sense of relief that none of the scorpion or fox horror stories have been fulfilled, gives way to more amateur astronomy as you notice how the stars have shifted in the sky. A thin but uncommonly heavy blanket, at a guess made from camel hair, is welcome when the morning brings a slight chill.

Wake up at Panorama Sunset Camp to a breakfast of labneh, olive oil, zaatar and bread. Pistachio-filled halva is on offer for those with a sweet tooth, as is tea with mint. Replete, get back in the Jeep for a bumpy but scenic ride and watch as sand gives way suddenly to Tarmac.


More places to visit in Jordan

Just 30 kilometers south-west of Amman is the calm, historically rich city of Madaba. One of its main attractions is the incredible 6th-century mosaic map of the Holy Land in the Greek Orthodox Basilica of Saint George, and there is also the Madaba Archaeological Park, which is home to more mosaic marvels.

The family-run Mariam Hotel (+962 53248650) is comfortable and clean, and has the welcome addition of a large swimming pool. Sample lovely Middle Eastern food under the canopy of a fig tree in the courtyard of a restored Ottoman house restaurant, Haret Jdoudna (+962 53248650). The freshly made fatayer and fattoush were favourites. On the night we were there you could munch on your fatayer in time to lovely live oud music and singing. Bawabit (+962 53240335), opposite St George's Church is a friendly and fun alternative.

One-and-a-half hours' drive from Madaba lies the ancient Greco-Roman city of Jerash with its unique oval colonnaded plaza, the impressive Hadrian's Gate, its huge multi-tiered theatre and its one wobbling column. Give it a push and see if you can make the spoon-wobble gauge move.

Getting there

Intrepid Travel offers an eight-day Explore Jordan small group tour from £820 which visits Amman, Wadi Rum, Petra, Dana Nature Reserve, the Dead Sea and Madaba. The price includes accommodation, transport, some meals and activities, and services of a local tour leader. It excludes international flights. Book at

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Wadi Rum is a cultural and natural gem. It is worth spending more time here than you probably would plan for. There are plenty of nice walks to do and comfortable camps to sleep in.

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