Jordan’s magical red dessert is short on plastic bags, throwaway bottles, and paper litter. Begs the question, does raw nature shame us into better environmental behavior? If so, a stay in Wadi Rum nature reserve should be a national obligation.
Most people blow past Wadi Rum in the race to Aqaba’s beaches or Petra’s ruins. Got seventy bucks and a night to spare? Hop off the Desert Highway for eye-popping scenery and a dose of ancient quietude.
The valley stretches to the Saudi border, cutting through sandstone and granite peaks, creating distinct “red” and “white” deserts. Wadi Rum lies about 30 miles north of Aqaba and 200 miles south of Amman.
Local Bedouin have developed eco-adventure tourism, now their main source of income. Visitors can hike the massive rock formations. There are camel and horse safaris. But most come to quietly absorb the scenery and observe an unobstructed night sky.
The valley’s been protected since 1998 and gained UNESCO world heritage status in 2011. Working with the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority, local people are pioneering ways to safeguard sensitive habitat while increasing tourism. (Check out a summary of the valley’s environmental challenges here.)
A single road from the Desert Highway leads to the visitors’ center where you pay for admission and in-village parking (about $28 for a car of four). Drive into Rum village to meet your camp’s driver at the main car park.
Special guides can be arranged. Suliman (below) was incredibly generous with stories about the area, it’s people, and his own life in Rum. We’ll be back to see things through his eyes on our next extended visit.
Many camps offer the “Bedouin experience”, TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet make comparisons simple. Fees include roundtrip transit in an open air 4×4, accommodation, a delicious supper of rice, hummus and “zarb” (meat and vegetables cooked in a large underground pit), and a simple breakfast. Vegetarian options can be arranged.
We’ve stayed in a few, and Mohammad Mutlak Camp is my current favorite: owners Saleh and Salim Zalabih charge about $42 a person per night, all inclusive.
This camp is intimate. Fifteen compact cabins (each sleeps 2) are wrapped in classic black and white goathair and elevated, allowing air to circulate and keeping interiors sand-free.
The camp is tucked against a low rock outcropping. Soaring red dunes serve as sunset viewing stands.
The sinking sun revises the scenery. Temperature and wind directions change. Colors transform and shadows lengthen across rock formations and windblown dunes. Zoom back to where you’re sitting, spot tiny beetle tracks in sugar-fine sand. Sensory bombardment in a place with no television, internet or cell phone coverage.
This camp provides a few benches for kick-back viewing, fueled by eternal cups of sweetened sage tea.
Something’s happening everywhere, you don’t know where to look.
Are there names for these colors?
The sunset’s solemnity conjures up ritual. Couples perch on flat rocks with bottles of wine. Teenage girls climb high to a cave, toasting the sun with cans of ice tea. After a few snaps, cameras are forgotten. Everyone quietly watches the sky.
When the natural lights go out, there’s dinner intermission. A tower of zarb appears from an underground oven, everyone congregates in a central tent to dine.
Then out to a campfire encircled by cushions for singing and oud-playing, dancing and jokes.
The constellations appear. The sky’s alive with shooting stars, and as eyes adjust to darkness, layer on layer of faint twinklers can be picked out.
Plan your visit based on the lunar calendar. Camping’s excellent anytime, but for optimal star viewing, best to book near a new moon.
The cold night air ensures excellent sleep. Our singing hosts rouse everyone for breakfast. Some campers opt for an extended stay and additional activities. We’re back on the road.
The bumpy drive back to Rum takes about thirty minutes, and beats any Coney Island amusement ride. See the terrain from a new perspective, spot a natural pyramid in the distance. Did it give a pharaoh ideas?
Color values change in morning mist, far off peaks look surreal. Mountain or mirage, it’s a tough call.
There’s a lost sense of human scale until Rum village reappears.
Remarkable desert gardens and colorful details transform simple concrete buildings.
Manager Salem asks how his camp could be improved. Some half-baked suggestions of a hot-tub, beer garden, desert masseuse – but the beauty of this place is in the absence of urban relaxations and the reminder of nature’s rejuvenative power. Mohammad Mutlak Camp is perfect as is.
This tiny toddler has it right – thumbs up to Wadi Rum.