After Trekking The Jordan Trail, Nothing Was The Same
My friend Jordan was up to his calf in water before we saw the man. The rush and spit of the river meant that we could not hear what he was saying, but from the wide frantic waving of his arms the meaning was clear. As we climbed out of the cut the engorged river had made into the soft winter soil, his voice became clear.
“No, No!” he called, striding over the slippery mud towards us. “Over!”
He pointed behind him where there must be a bridge. “Here, no,“ he broke off, making a sweeping gesture with his arms and a whooshing sound. His face, cracked and brown like the dried mud on the riverbank, was furrowed in what was clearly exasperation. What were these two foreigners doing trying to ford a stream in December in rural Jordan?
As we followed him back towards the indicated bridge, his face cleared. “Drink Tea?” he asked, gesturing to his tent. It was the second time we had been asked in so many hours, so we declined in favor of continuing our hike. We thanked him as graciously as we could for him likely was saving our lives, which he waved away with a shrug before ducking back into the warmth of the shelter, a black and white patterned goat hair tent, like so many that dotted the area.
I had no answer for the unasked question of what we were doing there. We had followed a GPS track through the mountains and facing a stream, assumed we were meant to ford. But as to why we were in rural Jordan with little Arabic and following a shepherd across a muddy field in search of a bridge? It’s a longer story.
From the web site, the Jordan trail appears to be a popular and well organized trek, covering 370 miles running from the north of Jordan to the Red Sea in the south. Stunning photos of olive groves, dramatic mountains and deserts seem to promise adventure along a well-formulated route — with full GPS available online. The U.S. Ambassador to Jordan recently took a stroll along one segment of the Jordan trail and the sun and smiles on her Instagram page seemed to promise an authentic and rewarding experience. In mud up to my knees, halfway down a cliff with no idea how to proceed, by day five I had a slightly different impression of the Jordan trail.
It would be wrong of me to imply that the trail’s web site is false advertising, as it does provide walking notes and GPS routes for the part of the trail running from Umm Qais in the north to Aqaba in the south. Assuming basic knowledge of topographic navigation and modicum of fitness, the stages suggested are doable and varied, carrying the through-hiker past the best of Jordan’s varied ecosystems: rolling olive-covered hills cut by dramatic fog-shrouded valleys to the north, and craggy canyons in the center of the country, which give way to desert and sandcastle-like spires of rocks north of the ancient Nabataean city of Petra. South of Petra the trail continues to the true desert of Wadi Rum over miles of open sands, before finally climbing the jagged faulted mountains that separate it from the Red Sea.
Through-hikers will note that in most northern areas of the trek there are towns every day where you can restock on dates and halva, snag a shower and bed if desired, and fuel up with Arabic coffee and shawarma (the real star of this journey is the readily available shawarma).
The south, where the land is more wild, has several sections through the backcountry that lack these creature comforts, but make up for it with stunning night skies and vast, almost extraterrestrial, landscapes, empty except for the windswept hiker and an occasional camel.
What the Jordan Trail is not, is something to be taken lightly. We found the web site online, and four fairly fit Americans decided to tackle the trail alone, with no guide, in winter. In our defense, the site suggests winter as a pleasant time to hike to avoid the Jordan summer heat. It also suggests a guide. Perhaps the first indication of things to come was the conspicuous empty space under the heading of “licensed tour operators” in the website information section. We later found another well-known guidebook that described crossing the Wadi Rum section without a guide as “suicidal.” Of course, it was not until we were already halfway through the section concerned that we found this assessment and were pleased to find it an exaggeration.
The walking notes provided on the Jordan Trail website are amorphous at best and quickly became a joke among the four of us. On day one we were instructed to “[t]urn R off road down into wadi [river valley] (no distinct footpath).” Days later, stranded on the side of a very sharp decline so overgrown with scrub that we could not advance, the notes calmly encouraged us to “[c]ontinue straight/slightly R downhill cutting through forest.”
It was over an hour and a half later that we all emerged muddy and scratched, a half mile down the hill. At some point after the fourth day, someone must have kicked over the bucket of paint used to blaze the trail because all indicators ceased. There were, however, some rocky cairns in the more famous section of trail between Dana and Petra, which likely predate the creation of the Jordan Trail.
In the early days on the trail we scoffed at the suggested distances, some days of which were only 10 miles — a distance we could usually walk in a little over 3 hours. However, our first double day of punishing mountain hiking and trail finding in some of the wilder areas of Jordan’s north went a long way towards convincing us of the wisdom of the trail-makers’ planned route. We often found ourselves confused by the trail notes. Just as often, the GPS led us to the only way through a mountain pass or down a steep canyon.
Everywhere we went we were greeted by the same response. The faces differed from weathered farmers and goat herders of the north, to the kohl-eyed Bedouin and townspeople of the south, but the questions remained much the same. Where are you from? Where are you going? You walked from there? But it’s cold/wet/raining/far. Where will you sleep? Would you like a cup of tea?
This last question, typical of Jordanian hospitality, was by far my favorite. If we had time we would duck into homes we passed for tea, coffee or sometimes a light meal. Unfortunately, due to the short winter days and challenging stages, we often had to turn down invitations, struggling for the right words to convey our gratitude and apology. Often, if they found out that we were sleeping in a tent and it was near evening, people would insist that we stay in their homes.
Like this we gained a picture of Jordanian life, of the close-knit extended families, of the importance of hospitality and the rarity of foreign guests. I did my best in my broken Arabic to answer their questions and ask some of my own. Often the days ended happily in creative gesticulation and confusion.
Even when we wanted to camp, we found it hard to find anywhere to put our tent, especially in the crowded north. Almost all of the land is claimed, and it is unusual and considered dangerous for people to sleep outdoors. Add to this the fact that hospitality laws meant that allowing us to camp without offering us a place to sleep indoors was unthinkable, and we spent most nights in civilizations with a host.
Too often I was afraid we have caused inconvenience to these people, many of whom did not have much, but who shared the best of everything with us. To the grubby hiker, windswept and unshowered, to be served by the family matriarch on what was clearly the best china, and to be seated next to the stove and warmed with blankets and kindness, was like wandering into another world. I am filled with gratitude to the families that hosted us and in awe of a culture so giving to strangers.
To my great surprise it was the people who I will remember more from this trip than anything else. The young girl in the bright pink hijab, correcting her father’s English in a whisper so he could pretend to have thought of it himself, the old blind Saudi man, concerned that we had not been offered tea, and my own traveling companions, two of whom I had not really known before this trip, but all of whom quickly became a family to me as we shared all of the absurdity and the beauty of a long hiking trip in a country where hiking is rare.
Every trip has a few adventure stories — moments that stand as asterisks to a carefully laid plan that years later are brought up nostalgically over pints. We had a moment like that every day because every day it was as though we lived twice: once in the mountains on the trail, just with ourselves and what we carried, and once at night in the towns, stumbling over Arabic conjugations and appropriate manners or camping out under a sea of stars in the desert.
Every day I found myself in a situation that would seem unthinkable in another context. There was the day we were lost in the canyons outside Petra, saved by a Bedouin and hauled into town with a police escort. Or the time a kindly local woke us up in the middle of the night at our tent miles away from civilization to check if we needed water or food. Christmas Eve we spent in a Bedouin cave, preparing a meal and swapping riddles. The next day we bid Christmas farewell from a seat on a rescued sofa near a camel graveyard in Wadi Rum, drinking hot toddies and looking at the stars.
“A lot of people talk about length of experience but fewer seem to emphasize depth. Walking these weeks, I really got a sense of this place,” my friend Jordan mused on our last evening together.
It was impossible not to agree with him. I have seen many sunsets, but there have been very few moments in my life like watching the sun go down over the slightly dusty horizon, the misty mountains in the distance, as Wadi Rum turned from blue and tan to gold and navy. Or the last sunset from the top of the last mountain where we watched the sky turn lavender over Egypt, or maybe Israel, and thought about everywhere we had been and everywhere yet to come.
We ended up walking just under half of the official distance of the Jordan Trail, strategically interspersed with public transit stages and some private transfers to make the most of our time, but the feeling of that first rush of the Red Sea erasing the dirt of the desert, was no less sweet because of it.
We started our trip with a plan to push ourselves to complete the whole trail in a limited time with carefully planned notes and stops. But the truth is that purists always miss something, whether it is a game of Frisbee at sunset or a day spent canyoning in Wadi Rum. Work and school pulled us back to our homes, but our three weeks hiking across Jordan could have been a year. To future through-hikers, the sections from Dana to Petra and Wadi Rum to the Red sea are some of the most visually stunning areas we walked in, although the former is definitely the more challenging of the two.
As I look back on it now, it seems a sort of grand adventure, of the kind you would only find in books, the kind we are told no longer exists in society where answers are a click away. It was, in a way, as though we blazed our own Jordan trail. We started in Umm Qais and found ourselves in Aqaba many weeks (and adventures) later. We scaled mountains and crossed deserts and finally found our way to the sea, with help from strangers as we went.
Leah Matchett is a Masters student at the University of Oxford, where she studies International Relations and occasionally escapes into the real world to go on really long walks.