Stuff of Legends
Campfire Tales
27th October - 2nd November, 2019

As you can see from the date, this is a somewhat delayed post, but there you have it...

I was part of the generation of boys who grew up wanting to be Indiana Jones. Raiders of the Lost Arc came out when I was fifteen, and I was hooked on dreams of ancient temples and high adventure. By the time The Last Crusade was released in 1989, the story had waned a little but, like many who saw it, I was amazed to learn that the mysterious facade which greeted Indy at the end of that deep and rocky defile was a real place.

We had originally planned to leave Europe and go straight to Nepal for the last leg of our trip, but it seemed a shame to just bypass the Middle East and all its history, when we were so close. We'd thought of going to Morocco and to Egypt, then decided not to. I would also love to go to Timbuktu and through the Sahara but, like the Kunjerab Pass and many of those places I'd visited in the nineties, it didn't seem worth the risk anymore. The idea of appearing for a brief and soon-to-be truncated clip on Youtube, while a complete stranger vented their judgements on me, didn't appeal.

Enter, Jordan. If there was ever an eye in the violent political storm, it would be there. Unlike our adventures thus far, we booked ourselves on a tour to take out the guesswork. We had nine days to see Jerash, the Dead Sea, Mount Nebo, the Madaba mosaic, Kerak Castle, Little Petra and Petra, Wadi Rum, and the Red Sea at Aqaba.

Things started off well, with my bag being lost somewhere between Athens and Amman and my supply of fresh undies reducing to zero as a result. It was quite late by the time we filed the lost luggage form and got out of the airport. By the exit, a guy in traditional robes was donning a soft leather gauntlet while his three hooded falcons perched on his luggage trolley, motionless. There's something you don't see every day.

The ride into Amman was long enough to allow a good chat with the driver. He told us how the royal family maintained a balance of peace both within Jordan, and across its borders. As some proof, we saw almost no military presence the whole time we were there.
However, the most remarkable moment was when the driver asked where we were from. When we told him we were New Zealanders, he turned and looked at us with new eyes, and gave thanks for the way we had been as a country in response to the mosque shootings in Christchurch. It was unexpected and humbling to know that the clear and compassionate message from our community and government had been heard and appreciated so deeply. It gave me hope.

Amman Citadel
We had a day free in Amman before the tour started, so we had a look at the Citadel. It had been years since I'd been in this sort of environment, and I loved it. It was just another old pile of rocks, you might say, but felt very different to Athens or the other numerous old towns we'd visited throughout Europe. Amman rolled across the hills below us, with Roman ruins nestled here and there. The dark sky gave a lovely, dramatic backdrop and the three o-clock call to prayer echoed out across the dry cityscape. It was a welcome change after six months in the West.

Meeting the rest of our tour group that evening had been the subject of some trepidation. Having travelled so far by ourselves, it felt a bit like the first day of school, and we wondered how we'd get on with everyone.

Looking back now, and considering how badly a disparate group of people sitting together in a bus for nine days could end up, I thought everyone played together nicely. It was good having transport and accomodation planned for us. In the end, though, we felt the whole itinerary was too rushed. For example, we were at Little Petra for less than half an hour, because we had to race away and see a sunset. Sunsets, even ones over desert mountains, are found in many places. But there's only one Little Petra, and it deserves a lot more than a thirty-minute walk-through.
Petra and Wadi Rum had been my reasons for coming to Jordan, and I hadn't spent much time thinking about the rest of the trip. Therefore, our first day at the Roman city of Jerash caught me by surprise, and I was stunned by what I saw.

Enough of it remained upright, that I could feel the streets come alive in my imagination. In the upper reaches of the city, nondescript slopes were all that remained but, lower down, entire streets were intact. The thing I loved about it was being able to see how superbly the city had been planned. I could almost feel the ghost of a thronging crowd brush past me, as they made their way across the worn paving.

Jerash Amphitheater
"Friends, Romans ... "
The entrance to Jerash was yet another dedication to Emperor Hadrian's seemingly boundless ego. We'd seen evidence of it in the north of England with his wall, again in Athens with his arch and now here, with Hadrian's gate.

Beyond lay a market square (or a market round, in this case), a hippodrome, and a lot of columns. Much of the ancient city had been buried for centuries. Excavation had only started in 1925, so the ruins had mostly escaped the ungentle treatment of history.

The amphitheater was perfectly intact, with the seats rising in a steep curve. Cavities in the lowest wall bordering the stage looked, at first glance, to be simple, hollow decorations. We learned that they were actually echo chambers, designed to absorb the speaker's voice rather than bouncing it back. If we stood precisely on a small stone cross let in to the floor, our voices projected perfectly. Even sitting on the highest steps, listening to an orator speaking far below would have been effortless. We found that merely stepping one pace away from the cross greatly diminished the acoustics. Who figured all of that out? The level of detail we saw everywhere, in every aspect of the city's design, was superb.

My recital of the first few lines of Lord of the Rings carried upwards with ease: "When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced... "
We walked across the upper slopes of a hill with the ancient city spread below us. We then climbed huge steps to a temple. One of the enormous stone pillars was so well balanced that we could feel it rock gently at the slightest push. I'm pretty sure that feature wasn't in the original design spec.

Down the hill from the temple, courses of stairs took us to a lower road. The steps had been built to look different in number from above than from below, so climbing or descending seemed visually easier, or more pleasing, or contained the correct number of steps for luck, or something like that. Same as the design of the amphitheater, I wondered who sat down and figured all that out?

The lower road was bordered with many pillars and seemed to be the main way through Jerash. It was punctuated at the north end by a massive four-way arch like the Arc de Triomphe. I followed the road back to the Nyphaeum, an aquifer that all the city had drawn its water from.

The time we had in Jerash was far too short. I tried to see as much as I could, but ended up sprinting the length of the city to meet up with our crew, only arriving a few minutes late. I wasn't the last person to come back, thank goodness, and so had enough time to cool down and enjoy some delicious pomegranate juice.

North Tetrapylon
Quite the roadway statement
We drove down to the Dead Sea. It's the lowest point on earth and has the most-floaty water anywhere. Considering I usually sink like a stone rather than float, I was curious to know what staying above water would feel like. Consistent with every other place that human civilisation has touched for long enough, the Dead Sea is becoming smaller and even more dead by the day. It is being steadily drained and the progressively-lower water levels were plain to see. Black sand at the water's edge transformed into a slick, hard, white plate of solid salt. Wading out into the water was like sinking into blood. We were so buoyant, it was quite possible to lay on our sides barely half-submerged, as though reclining on a soft couch.

One of the other things on offer was to smear yourself in a fine black mud and wander around in the sun until it dried. it was good for the skin, apparently. One of our crowd managed to cover himself completely in the stuff, apart from his navel. Being a tall, pale, thin fellow, he blended with the black beach perfectly and looked from a distance like a belly-button walking around by itself.

In a curious twist, I found that when I jumped in a freshwater pool at the resort afterwards, I sank even worse than usual. I didn't understand the physics of it. Maybe the greater atmospheric pressure from sitting at four hundred metres below sea level made me less buoyant? Whatever it was, I felt ripped off, having just been able to float properly for the first time in my life.

Drawing political lines
Our next day was a long one, and started at Mount Nebo. Moses was said to have seen the Holy Land from that place, and perhaps he died up there, too. It certainly had a nice view of the West Bank over the Dead Sea and to Israel, and Palestine. I thought that our guide did an excellent job, during the nine days we had in Jordan, giving a balanced perspective of a complex land that's been in contention for millennia. I think it's an interesting (and ridiculous) notion that some cultures consider themselves able to judge whether another nation has any right to exist. We're all just looking for a safe place to stand.

The Madaba mosaic was the next thing on our list and very relevant, having just talked about lands in contention. The mosaic was a partial map on the floor of a church. The site dated from the sixth century and the map had been used as a guide by many rulers to settle disputes on where certain borders should be. I'm curious to know, that since history is written by the victorious, how people could be so sure the map was correct? Probably not a helpful question...

We left that mystery unsolved (and unspoken) and headed for Kerak castle. On the way, we paused at a mosaic studio, which gave employment to local disabled people. The artwork itself wasn't my thing, but the skill involved was remarkable. There was also a selection of marquetry furniture, with very fine hardwood and mother-of-pearl inlays, which must have taken ages to make.
“Narrow openings to the bright outside world punctuated the gloom of otherwise impenetrable rough stone walls."
Kerak castle was a crusader fortress but looked more like a hill, than a fort. The complex had been so modified by subsequent occupants that its original form was impossible to see. It held an imposing high ground overlooking a natural choke-point in the path along the Jordanian coast. Perfect, if you wanted somewhere safe to stand and throw things at people you didn't like. Within, we explored many interconnecting stone chambers, lit from above by small shafts. Doorways had been opened or blocked off at random, as needs changed.

Finding our way back out to the sunshine was more by guess than intelligence, because I couldn't figure out the underlying pattern of the place. That was an unfamiliar experience for me, as I've been exploring natural caves for a long time, and have a good sense of direction. But, the chambers and doorways followed no natural pattern, and it looked to have been built as needed, then fought over for centuries by many different people who failed to agree. Where people would actually have lived within it, was a mystery. The rooms were chaotic and empty of grace. I couldn't see anywhere someone might have sat for a meal with comrades, or slept. Narrow openings to the bright outside world punctuated the gloom of otherwise impenetrable rough stone walls.

As with Jerash, we spent less time in Kerak than I would have liked. I did manage to get some street-side portraits as we trundled away, quickly snapped through the bus windows.

Many different occupants, over many, many years
If there was one thing that annoyed me on the tour, it was our stop at Little Petra. There was an understandable determination to fit as much as possible into every day but, today, it was going to include the sunset. Come hell or high water, we were going to see it.

When we arrived at Little Petra, the sun was well on its way down, so we rushed off the bus and through the gates. The entrance was a canyon, narrow enough that we could brush our fingers along both walls, which were lit by the setting sun. The colours on the cliffs were rich and varied, and the openings carved into them stood out in sharp relief from the brilliant (setting) sunlight.
You be the Judge
“I sincerely hoped it would be mind-blowing, as sunsets went... "
Just inside the entrance, I was presented by the sight of my first-ever camel. It wore exactly the supercilious expression that I had imagined it would.

We carried on, and climbed up some steps cut into a cliff wall, past cisterns and drains carved ingeniously so as to catch every last drop of water. At the top, a doorway gave onto a chamber with perfectly square-cut walls and corners. The far reaches of it were already wrapped in gloom. Further along the canyon, we could see steps cut into a cleft that led (so the sign said) to the Best View in the World. Even though the sign promised that the view was only five minutes away, we learned it was actually about a 30 minute walk, which we didn't have time for, because the sun was setting...
After about half an hour we were back on the bus, breaking the sound barrier along a twisting road so we could get high enough to see the sun disappear behind the hills. The view over the landscape was certainly dramatic, but there's only one Little Petra in the whole world and that was the only chance I'd ever have to see it. Sunsets happen every day, no matter where you are. I sincerely hoped this one would be mind-blowing.

It was nice enough as sunsets go, but not worth the rush...

A sight I'll never forget
We got ourselves settled into the hotel at Wadi Musa and had a delicious local meal. Actually, there were two meals we enjoyed while we were there. One was rice and lamb, and one was chicken. Both included a rich sauce and both were fantastic. It's been five months now, and I can't remember which dish we had when. We were off to bed as soon as possible. Tomorrow was going to start early.

Our good friend B has a saying which has been invaluable to us. She says, "low expectations equals high delight". It sounds pessimistic, but it really means going into something with open eyes and as few pre-conceptions as possible. When we've done that so far on our journey, the experience has been so much more rewarding.

Even so, I struggled with the concept of low expectations when it came to Petra! I first saw images of the Treasury years ago and was captivated with the idea of a completely different culture, hidden within such a dramatic landscape. Here we were, the dawn light just beginning to colour the rounded tops of the hills above, and we were about to see it all for real.
“Nothing could have prepared me for the impact of emerging from the cool, richly-coloured rock walls of the siq and seeing the Treasury for the first time, glowing in the morning sunlight..."
Now having been there, and walked the ancient paths and stairways, I can say that expectations don't matter. Nothing could have prepared me for the impact of emerging from the cool, richly-coloured rock walls of the siq and seeing the Treasury for the first time, glowing in the morning sunlight.

That was just the first thing we saw and, as we made our way along the canyon, more and more details of Petra became clear. Centuries of flooding had washed down stones and sand to partially fill the streets and low doorways. A wide amphitheater, carved in perfect detail into solid rock, presented on our left, waiting for the next audience and list of players. The benches were worn smooth, and silent.

We had heard that the Monastery was the best place to go, and worth the walk. What amazed us was the number of seemingly active people who thought it was just too far to drag their sorry arses, so they rode donkeys up to it instead. The path followed natural shelves and steps in a steep defile, doubling back on itself many times. Stalls made of steel pipe roughly welded together and filled with trinkets lined the way. Behind low curtains I could sometimes see a dim, narrow space with a tiny fire flickering in a ring of stones, a steaming kettle perched on top.

If the Treasury is the most well-known facade in Petra, I think the Monastery is the most stunning. It towered above us on the uppermost cliff and commanded a wide view over a chaotic, jagged mountain range that simmered in the heat. Cafes were arrayed opposite, the farthest one perched on the edge of a sheer drop, held up by optimism and bits of old steel pipe. We had expected Petra to be heaving with tourists, but the crowds up there were not bad. A tribe of ginger cats surveyed people from the shade. The wide basin in front of the Monastery was busy, but not overcrowded.

We felt sorry for the donkeys. One was hiding under an overhang in the shade, next to a massive drop. Another sad individual was hobbled in the sun, a master at showing its dejected expression. Succumbing to its plight, we gave over some food and water from our lunch. It didn't look like a fun place to be a donkey.

Our trail ended at the aptly-named Cafe at the End of the World. It offered a shady spot to enjoy sweet tea, while a deep and rugged canyon yawned at our backs. I had never seen such a powerful, desolate and beautiful landscape in which to build a city.

We retraced our steps, pausing at the Roman colonnaded street, then climbed the cliffs to the Tombs of the Kings where we could see the city laid out below us. On the path back down, I saw a tourist riding a donkey, blithely surfing on her phone while the donkey guy trudged behind her in the dust. Nothing much has changed since the times of the Pharos, it seems.

We returned to the Treasury, past tribes of self-absorbed Instagrammers, before walking slowly up the siq. The mystery of Petra faded behind us.
We'd heard that Petra by Night was really the thing to do. We all lined up at the park entrance in the dark and then were released, flowing down through the warm night like a flood. The siq had been lined with a trail of candles set inside paper lanterns. We got to the Treasury and settled down on mats, while the cliff and facade above us were bathed in coloured lights. Unfortunately, while it might have been a lovely thing to see and do when it was first thought of, the novelty had since worn off and the prospect of extracting money from tourists clearly too tempting to resist.

We had walked in near-silence at the front of the crowd down the siq, but the number of people coming was a hell of a lot bigger than we'd expected. People kept pouring through in a spreading, confused mass to overflow the space. Amid calls to, "keep moving forward..." and frustrated whispers to, "sit down!" we became less enchanted by the moment. After a time, with people still filing in behind us, a lone instrument started to play. I imagine the atmosphere would be magical if they limited the number of people but they didn't, and so it wasn't. We left in frustration well before the end, before it changed our memories of the day. We walked for a short while back up the siq and then sat in soft darkness and silence, as the warm night settled down and faint candlelight played on the sculpted rock walls.

It wasn't long before some of our group came by, having reached the same conclusion about the concert. We all headed out together, enjoying a chat. Everyone on the tour pretty much got along, and it was a far cry from a few days before when A and I had been nervous about meeting strangers. It was unlikely that we'd all stay in contact after the trip, but that didn't stop it being a companionable time.
Not Logical
“Suddenly, all fear of camel spiders disappeared as we drove past a railway station.... "
The next morning we had a much more civilised start. The only thing on our agenda that day was to drive to Wadi Rum and camp somewhere. Wadi Rum was part of the picture drawn by my imagination, coloured with high adventure and sparse, beautiful landscapes. It was so other-worldly that the films The Martian and The Rise of Skywalker had been shot amongst it's mountains. Lawrence of Arabia had lived there in real life, raiding the Turks as they rode the railway through Jordan during the First World War. So much history. I'd never even seen a desert before, and I wanted to.

I was looking forward to going there, but the idea of camping in the desert also scared the crap out of me. I've spent a lot of time in the outdoors and I love camping. I am, however, afraid of spiders. Dry-mouthed, arse-openingly terrified of them. I had seen some pictures of camel spiders on the internet before we arrived and they looked butt-ugly, even for a spider. The idea of waking up with one of those buggers perched on my face gave me the horrors. We were going to ride camels, and where there'd be camels, there'd be camel spiders, right? Letting that fear rule my life has been a struggle. Especially when it comes to seeing some of the most beautiful places in the world.

The landscape became progressively more barren and open as we headed south. We eventually turned off the main road and went east, towards a range of mountains.

Suddenly, all fear of camel spiders disappeared as we drove past a railway station. It wasn't just any station, but the station at Rum. Sitting on the rails, coupled to a line of old carriages, was a steam locomotive. The rest of our tour group probably couldn't have been less interested in a rusty old train, but I was beside myself with glee. It was being moved by a battered diesel loco onto another track, at the exact moment we arrived.

I don't know if that was the train T.E. Lawrence had a go at, but it didn't take much imagination for me to see it toiling along the tracks in the desert, with him bearing down upon the hapless crew, Bedouin tribesmen thundering at his back. Like our trip to Mostar a few blog posts before, I recalled a video we had watched in Norway only a few months previously from Chris Tarrant's Extreme Rail Journeys. It featured this very train under steam. Awesome.
We drove on to where our trip into Wadi Rum would begin. The turnoff was close to the offices and race track of the Jordanian Camel Races Committee. I thought it was fantastic there'd be a committee for that.

We hopped aboard three open SUVs, fitted out with bench seats in the back, to give us an unobstructed view. The breeze was cooling, and the scenery kept me transfixed. Like Petra, this place was even more than I'd imagined. More what, you may ask? More everything!

We stopped at a rock bluff with a high, sandy slope down one face and amused ourselves first by climbing it to see the view, and then bounding back down in great, leaping strides. One of our crowd did an excellent Hollywood sideways-tumble all the way down, just for the hell of it.

We stopped again further along to climb on top of a natural rock archway, then drove to a tent camp, for sweet tea. Being in the fabric industry, I was amazed at how the tent had been made. The women of the tribe would gather goat hair and spin it into a heavy grey yarn, then use that to weave fabric about a metre wide. It was then sewn together to make the tent. Our guide said the weaving was a community project, and making just one tent would be the main focus for a season. Looked after properly, such a tent could last decades. I'd seen an old woman in Petra sitting by the side of the path, spinning by hand. It would have taken months to make.
After the tent camp, we visited a well which collected runoff from the surrounding rocky landscape. It had been used by the Nabataeans, the same folk who built Petra. The fact that people had been coming here for water for the last several thousand years left me bewildered. Immortality in whatever form has been a dream or obsession of the human race for millennia. Peering into the dark water, I knew I'd never be able to truly comprehend a lifespan of even just one thousand years, let alone the memories that such a lifetime could hold. True immortality would drive us insane. Or maybe it would teach us to be nicer to each other.

From a distance, Wadi Rum looked completely barren but, the closer we got, the more life I could see. Fresh animal prints were everywhere, and low bushes marked almost invisible watercourses.

Shadows deepened as we drove on and the sun set, colours becoming even more rich, if that were possible. We stopped below a vantage point, and A and I climbed up a short way to a red sandstone outcrop, pitted with shallow openings like burst bubbles. We sat inside one and looked across many kilometres of open space to a red horizon, with layer upon layer of silhouetted purple mountains, set against the deep orange sunset. The land was completely silent.
We arrived at the camp, which was actually a nicely set-up compound of huts. There was an excellent meal and a camp fire waiting. For some added spice, we headed off as a group into the night, after dinner, walking without lights under the stars. We gathered some small twigs and our guide got a fire lit for toasting marshmallows. He was a nice fellow, and looked after us well.

We headed back and the moment I'd been dreading was upon me. Even though I could have slept inside, there was also the option to sleep under the stars by the fire, on a mattress. I'd probably never have the chance again, so I set myself up. It was just me and our guide. He said he always slept by the fire and I could see why. An immense dark cliff rose behind us and the stars tracked slowly overhead. I now know their path intimately, because apart from about half an hour of snoozing, I did not sleep a wink. The wonder of the desert around me, seeing the stars above, hearing distant barking or the quiet pad of wild dogs nearby, was all too much. I was also completely wired, expecting one of those ugly bloody camel spiders to pounce, any second. Of course I never saw one, the whole time we were in Jordan.

My final ambition was to ride a camel, and here was the chance. We packed up before dawn and walked down to where a small group of camels and two Bedouin were waiting for us.

Camels have a soft, flowing gait and I found the ride very comfortable. I dunno how I'd go after a week in the saddle, though. Some people in our group had decided not to take the ride, and motored past us some time later, while we cruised along sedately. Dropping down to the ground at the end of the ride was a bit alarming, but I loved the whole experience. We ended next to one of the vehicles parked just outside of the town, and drove in the final distance.

That whole morning my mother had been very much in my thoughts. I have a small black and white photo of her riding a camel by the Suez Canal, in the 1950s. She has Alzheimer's disease now, and hasn't spoken a word in eight years. But, she's still my Mum and, back in the day, she travelled all over the place. I wished so much that we could have talked about our adventures. We can't, but now at least I can say to her, "Hey Mum, guess what I did? I rode a camel, too."
The final item on our agenda was driving down to Aqaba and snorkelling in the Red Sea. This was the one time where being part of a tour just didn't work. Another in our group was a diver as well and, rather than just snorkel about on the surface, the two of us figured it would be better to book a couple of scuba dives instead. We really wanted to stay separate, book our own dives, then meet everyone at the hotel that evening. After more messing-about than we would have credited possible, it was recommended that we stay together, meet a dive crew out on the water, and have a couple of dives with them. We met up with the dive crew no problem but found that, instead of two or three dives as promised, we only had time for one. Being stuck on the boat meant we had no choice. The dive was very good and I saw my first sea turtle paddling away, but the day was definitely not as promised. We felt pretty frustrated, but what do you do?

That evening we enjoyed a great meal with some local musicians playing next to us, adding to the ambiance by giving us progressive industrial deafness.

The last day was consumed entirely by a long bus ride north back to Amman, along the edge of the Dead Sea. A final group dinner had been planned, but A and I were leaving Jordan just after midnight. We had a quiet meal by ourselves, rested in our room for a couple of hours, and then motored out to the airport. There had been a problem getting into Nepal, so we decided to just go home to New Zealand instead.
Sitting in the car amongst a stream of late-night traffic, I thought about Jordan. It was so different in every way from all our other adventures and was the perfect way to finish.

Petra and Wadi Rum were more beautiful than I could have imagined. Jerash was a wonderful surprise. We had been in the centre of the Levant, where more time has passed in human civilisation than almost anywhere else on earth. Taking only a few days to see the magic of it all just hadn't been long enough.
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