Between a rock and a hard place: why deserts aren’t flat

A friend posting recently from Jordan brought back great memories of when I was there – almost seven years ago – and my discovery that deserts, surprisingly, are not flat.

I’d been fascinated by Petra (literal translation ‘stone’ or ‘rock’) from first becoming aware of it in 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – I’d always fancied being Indy but maybe it was just the whip – and then my sister showed me pictures following two visits she made as part of research for her dissertation.

Petra 1

Petra was the historic capital of the Nabataeans in the southwest of Jordan and dates from 300BCE. It was the crossroads of the major commercial trade routes of the time and its very size and structure provided the necessary protection from both nature and mankind for it to flourish. Add a perennial stream which made it habitable and the creation of water storage systems and aqueducts and it could prosper all year round. It is renowned for its buildings that have been literally cut out of the rock and whose design captures the fusion of Eastern tradition with Hellenistic architecture.

However, other journeys and travels beckoned and a visit to Petra seemed destined to remain low down on my bucket list until, as is often the way, other events conspired to get me there.

I’d been involved in fund-raising for a local hospice which had ranged from the relative comfort of hosting BBQ’s at The Albert Dock to the more daring: jumping off, sorry abseiling down, the Liver Building. Yes, all 98.2m of it. That’s 322ft in old money. It’s big. Especially when you’re looking down.

And just as I was happily resigning myself to sticking with the BBQ’s, I was asked whether I fancied doing a sponsored walk. I checked: I still had two legs and they moved forward in a coordinated left-right manner so why not?

Ah, but there was a catch – quelle surprise. The walk was across the Jordanian desert from the Dead Sea to Petra. Now these are two places I want to see. The trek was approximately 30 miles and would take 2-3 days. A relatively gentle pace thought I and it took me little time to secure the sponsorship funding from business contacts, many of whom probably paid up in the hope I wouldn’t come back.

It was recommended to get some walking practice in beforehand although apparently up and down the stairs at home or the office didn’t count. As is usual, life got in the way but I did finally manage a 12-mile romp round the Wirral peninsula a week before I was scheduled to depart.

Fortunately, by the time it came to get my connecting flight from Manchester to London my legs had started working again and I felt confident about the challenge ahead, more so with the goal of Petra in sight at the end of it. On the flight from London to Amman, the capital of Jordan, I watched the recently released Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and noted the flatness of the desert shown with an occasional sand dune thrown in for good measure. In the back of my mind I vaguely recalled the travails of the French Foreign Legion in the PC Wren classic, Beau Geste, but here I was with all the right equipment – there was nothing to it, surely?

There was only a little time to spend in Amman, visiting the famous market and delighting in the local cuisine, before heading off by bus to the Dead Sea, arriving mid-morning. A hot sunny day with clear blue skies afforded such a beautiful view that it made the reality of the historical conflicts in the area all the more saddening. Looking across the stillness of the Dead Sea lay Israel and Palestine, with the biblical cities of Jerusalem, Jericho, and Bethlehem, almost in touching distance.

Petra 2

The Dead Sea is, in reality, a lake, named because its salt content is so high that nothing can survive in it. In fact, you can’t really swim in it for the very same reason but you can float, without even trying. It is an unusual, weightless experience which I can imagine is akin to that experienced by an astronaut in space. Apparently, the mud is a good nutrient and nourishes the skin but either way, you need a good soak in the shower afterwards before any of it becomes an irritant.

Then it was back on the bus for a drive alongside the lake until we reached the destination – or rather we were told to get off the bus. Looking around the more barren landscape I spotted a tent containing some much-needed refreshments and was introduced to our guide. When I asked him where we were staying he laughed and pointed out into the desert: about two hours that way. And remember to fill up your water pack or you will die. He seemed to find this last remark quite amusing and I wondered if he was auditioning for the next Bond movie – I’d certainly recommend him.

As deserts go it ticked all the boxes in my mind – sand; flattish; desolate – and as promised some two hours later we pitched up at our Bedouin camp for dinner. Night came upon us remarkably early, which apparently it does at that time of year, and so suitably sustained, I headed for my tent and an early night.

Unsurprisingly if the sun goes down early it has a knack of coming up early the next day and so it was at 5am that I was roused from my slumber to eat a beautifully prepared breakfast of local delicacies. A body wash with wet wipes – how did we survive before they were invented? – and a visit to the bucket later, and I was ready, armed with a packed lunch of savoury delights and with bottles of water transferred into my indispensable 2l water bladder, to recommence my sandy exploits. My expectations though were very quickly to be dashed.

You see deserts aren’t flat. They have flat bits in them but they also have a lot of mountains and ravines as well which you have to climb up and down. And around. Unfortunately, nobody from the health and safety department has gotten there yet which meant I was far too often clinging on tightly to the side of a mountain as I precariously stepped sideways along a sandstone ledge that had definitely seen better days – probably about two thousand years ago, when Jesus was up here being tempted by the devil. Unfortunately for me the devil wasn’t present this time as I would have happily turned my hand in on a number of occasions.

Petra 3

I noted to the ‘guide’ that I didn’t recall any description of mountains and the like when I had signed up. Well, he replied, it did say it was a challenge. True, I replied, and I thought the prospect of walking 30 miles across a desert challenge enough. Well, he countered, if we’d told you about how dangerous it was then you probably wouldn’t have signed up. Hmm, there’s not much you can say to that is there. He then pointed out the mountain goats to me that were frolicking high above explaining that if they could do it then so could we. I pointed out the bones of a long-departed goat that we had just walked past. Well apart from that one, he added. Many miles later and by now late afternoon, we duly arrived at our next Bedouin camp but with little time for rest as you guessed it, we needed to eat before the sun went down.

The word ‘ow’ sprung to mind the next morning as I inspected the various blisters I had now acquired on the way with the ‘guide’ kindly dolling out plasters – no, really, you’re too kind. The now familiar routine of breakfast, wet wipes, and bucket, followed before, armed again with some Bedouin delicacies and water, the march was on for Petra – last one there is a wimp.

More mountains and dry ravines ensued as well as observing the installation of an irrigation project which is designed to turn the area into workable farmland over the next few years – the flat bits that is – until suddenly we came around a mountainside and there was Petra. Pictures really can’t do justice to its size and scale, or the skill and ingenuity used in creating it over 2000 years ago.

Petra 4a

What saved Petra ironically was the coming of the Roman Empire whose alternate sea and land trading routes led to Petra’s decline and it remained much forgotten until its rediscovery in the 19th Century. In 1985 it became a UNESCO World Heritage site with the Petra National Trust established in 1989 to help protect, conserve and preserve the sites which are susceptible to erosion and damage. What’s more amazing is that last year, satellite imagery identified a previously unknown monumental structure buried beneath the sands.

Petra 5a

Jordan is one of the most stable countries in the Middle East and I would recommend it to anyone, the people are hospitable and friendly. Petra and the Dead Sea demand to be seen and experienced although there are other more convenient ways to get to them so don’t be put off by the route I followed though I would recommend it. After soaking in a bath in a nearby hotel to remove three days’ grime before rinsing properly in a shower and shaving, it felt like I was in heaven and the views outside did little to dispel that myth. The sense of personal accomplishment far outweighed the challenges encountered and I felt I had really grown as a person. Fortunately, my trousers still fitted.

Petra 6

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