Treading in the footsteps of David, Herod, Lawrence, Ralph, Harrison, Matt et al: Discovering the other-worldly Israeli and Jordanian Deserts
(Appeared in the June 2107 Senior Times titled Discovering the otherworldly Israeli and Jordanian Desert.)
At the beginning of this month, my partner Carol and me were waiting to board a bus in Eilat that would take us back to Jerusalem -our base for a six-week stay in Israel - when a couple noticed Howard’s Canadian hockey themed tee-shirt and struck up a conversation. As there are at most 3.5 degrees of separation in the Jewish community, we discovered that this couple lived on Marlowe in NDG, basically just down the road from us. As we enthusiastically shared details of our travels, they were surprised to hear that we were fresh off a trip into Jordan and specifically enquired as to how we were received and treated while there. Had we felt safe?
We had to take our seats and never found out whether their concerns were general or specific in nature. History has not always placed Jordanians and Israeli Jews “on the same side,” to say the least, and 2016 saw several troubling incidents in pro-Western Jordan that gave us pause for thought before venturing there. In November, three U.S. military personnel on a training mission were killed by a lone sniper and as late as mid-December, a retired Newfoundland teacher was killed in an incident involving four gunmen being chased down by Jordanian security forces. Nevertheless, the Canadian government’s travel advisory for Jordan was the same as that for Israel – “Exercise a high degree of caution (with regional advisories)” – at the time of our trip.
Not being totally laid back nay fearless, before we ventured into Jordan we did our due diligence and chose a private/small group tour with Desert Eco Tours, an Israeli company that several people recommended. Based in Eilat, they arranged everything we needed for our three-day trip from the door of our hosts’ home in Arnona, a suburb of Jerusalem, to that bus station in Eilat where we’d met the couple from NDG who were so anxious to know how we’d been treated in Jordan.
Zion, our guide for the first day of the tour, proved within minutes of collecting us in Arnona that we’d made a great choice. He was extremely friendly, putting us immediately at ease, and very knowledgeable, informing us of a myriad of facts regarding the neighbourhood we’d made our home for the last month even as he navigated Jerusalem’s alarming traffic to pick up the route to our first designated stop, the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve.
Thanks to Zion’s excellent planning, a pit-stop took us to Qumran National Park and a view of the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Once at Ein Gedi, Zion made sure we were properly equipped (sunscreen on/heads covered/water bottles in hand) for the short hike to David’s Waterfall just one of the historically significant sites of this 5,000-year old oasis. An easy walk out of Wadi David gave us amazing views of the Dead Sea and Judean Desert. Then, it was on to Masada, the sprawling, elevated (we took the cable car) site of King Herod’s Palace and the mass suicide of the Jewish who made a last stand against Roman invaders. We ended our day’s adventures with the obligatory float in the Dead Sea. Throughout the day, Zion was able to answer any questions we threw at him while being a fun, relaxed guide to the Judean Desert’s wonders.
By sundown, Zion had driven us to the border and handed us over to another Desert Eco Tours representative at the Yitzhak Rabin Crossing; this rep gave us all the necessary paperwork and even instructions for traversing the no-man’s land to the Jordanian side. We have to admit that the eighty metres or so walk leaving Israel and entering Jordan was jarring compared to the easy companionship we’d enjoyed during the day. Still, happily, and maybe surprisingly, there were no reasons to be concerned and once our documents had been checked and our luggage cleared security we were in the capable hands of another of the tour group’s reps who whisked us off to our overnight hotel in Aqaba. The next morning, our Jordanian guide, Ali, collected us at our hotel for the second day of our tour – the ancient city of Petra.
Over two thousand years old and the site of several empires, Petra was a prosperous city on a lucrative trade route leaving its magnificent coloured rock ruins to today’s tourists. Each twist and turn in the route that leads through a soaring narrow gorge into the ancient settlement unveiled more “aahs” and “wows” as temples, burial monuments, tombs, cave dwellings, and even a theatre and market place all “rose-red” suddenly come into view. The thrills are not only static; vocal Bedouin selling souvenirs line the route through the ancient city and Arabian stallion horse riders, along with owners of donkey carts and camels tear past trying to persuade you to hop on! Perhaps their efforts are magnified by the fact that tourism, according to our guide, is drastically hit by concerns over safety even in this exceptional World Heritage Site, setting for the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Desert Eco Tours upgraded us to the impressive Petra Gate Hotel for our overnight stay which was tinged with drama as the wind howled alarmingly into the early hours. The weather didn’t prevent our guide from arriving on time to whisk us off on the climax of our trip – a one day jeep ride through Wadi Rum, the other-worldly desert inhabited by the Bedouin. No surprises around the next corner here, the sites were far from hidden as Ali expertly drove us through vast tracts of open land that seemed to have no discernible routes. As in Petra, the rich red hues of the rocks were startling, but the landforms that the elements had fashioned out of rock and sand were the real scene stealers.
In addition to the awe inspiring landscape, the Bedouin tea tent frequented by Matt Damon when shooting The Martian here was a welcome stop, although the young Bedouin man wasn’t able to tell us whether, like us, he favoured the sage/balsam or the intense mint tea. Increasingly restricted in their traditional nomadic lifestyle due to an alarming reduction in groundwater in Wadi Rum, Bedouins are turning to tourism and hosting film crews to make a living. Most people know that Lawrence of Arabia was filmed in this area, but parts of The English Patient, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, Transformers and the next Star Wars? Quite the list!
To end our desert tour, Ali parked the jeep wandered off into nearby bush and emerged with an armful of branches from fig and acacia trees which survive in the desert thanks to their very deep roots. He proceeded to light a small fire and spread out a huge tablecloth on the ground where he knelt to expertly chop greens, herbs and tomatoes from his garden into a salad that he seasoned with lemon and oil while chicken he’d marinated at home and brought along in a cooler was barbecuing over the flames. Easily one of the best al fresco meals we’ve had, and we had problem getting a table or in this instance a tablecloth.
The several hours it took to reach the border crossing back into Israel were soaked up in questions and comments on the day’s experience, with Ali chatting away and opening up about life as a tour guide in modern day Jordan. As on our previous crossing, a Desert Eco Tours representative was there to hand us our paperwork and guide us in crossing the no-man’s zone, with another rep waiting on the Israeli side to drive us to our overnight accommodation in Eilat. So the next day when our fellow travellers from NDG asked about how we’d been treated in Jordan, we had only positive experiences to share. Yes, there are risks and we’re glad we were in expert hands. But unfortunately, there are risks in surprising parts of the world – the shooting in Ste Foy happened just before we left, not to mention the terrorist attacks that have beset Paris. Our advice is: now is a great time to visit these wonders of the world while the usual crowds are staying away.