The welcoming sign at the border said “Welcome to the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan”! With still mixed feelings and a sort of bittersweet taste, we had crossed the Jordan-Saudi Arabia borders into our next adventure. Going back into “The Kingdom of Jordan” was for me a trip down the memory lane as I had crossed this history rich country in my very first overland trip, Athens to Cairo expedition, back in 2008.
Eager to see how much this country has changed and after the always present time consuming border procedures (we love those), we rolled Voukefalas into Jordan. It was almost dark by the time we were done with the formalities, so we made the decision not to drive far at night in a country that we had just entered.
Our destination for the night was the Dana Biosphere Reserve, one of Jordan’s best hidden gems. Within the park’s boundaries someone can find a surprisingly diverse eco system, from sandstone cliffs over 1500m high to a low point of 50m below sea level in Wadi Araba. Sheltered from the wind within this area, in the rundown but still informative small visitors’ center, we read that about 600 species of plant (ranging from citrus trees and juniper, to desert acacias and date palms), 180 species of bird and over 45 species of mammal (of which 25 are endangered) including ibexes, mountain gazelles, sand cats, red foxes and wolves thrive in the area and call the reserve home. One of the distinctive characteristics about Jordan that was still vivid in my mind was the open-armed every day welcome that I had received from the locals everywhere I had been back then. History repeating itself! That was exactly what we got as soon as we pulled up to our camp within the Dana Reserve. We were invited for dinner by the camp owners, while we were given the full run on the necessary information on what to do and see the next day. All that sounded wonderful and we must admit that we went to bed exhausted but really keen on starting to explore the area the next morning. Nature had other plans for us though! During that night, a really heavy sand storm kicked in, making us in need to constantly reposition our vehicle in order to avoid the strong winds shaking the entire car. After a long, very windy, sleepless night, we reconsidered our plans and moved onwards. With only a quick drive-by that a gap in the weather allowed us to do, we were off to visit the castle of Karak. Among the most famous, this evocative Crusader castle became a place of legend during the 12th-century battles between the Crusaders and the Muslim armies of Saladin (Salah ad-Din).
Next up on our list was Jordan’s capital city, Amman, which is probably one of the most easygoing cities to enjoy a “Middle East experience”. In our intentions was to camp in a park we had spotted on the map, just outside the city and enter the capital the next day. What we had not calculated was the end of Ramadan. Eid day (the end of Ramadan) was in full swing and as you can imagine, after one month of Ramadan, every single Jordanian was out celebrating. Our next “hypothetically” free overnight spot left us no other option than to enter the city. Driving through the whole chaotic, labyrinthine like, downtown area of the capital and after about two clustered hours of traffic up and over the city’s many hills, we reached our destination, the “magisterial Citadel”, our camp spot. “I am really sorry but it is not possible for you to overnight here today” were the words of the police officer that was guarding the parking lot. He sounded so simple and logical but he had just destroyed our last chance to rest after that long day. And not only that, we would now need another two hours in traffic in order to drive out of town. With our patience put to the test and with no other option really but to enjoy the moment instead, we drove back down the hill into the nightly promenade, following the crowds between mosque, souks, side streets and coffee houses. That experience itself was so strong that we both felt like we had experienced the best that Amman had to offer. To cut the story short, that night we ended up driving out of Amman almost at two in the morning and headed to Madaba’s visitors’ center for the night. Upon arrival, I must have had a very desperate look on my face when I asked the guard to allow us to spend the night there because he opened the gate without any further questions and wished us a pleasant stay.
After a good night’s rest, the next day we started exploring Madaba, an amiable market town, best known for its collection of Byzantine era mosaics. There is a whole walking path created in order to direct you through the sites. As we found out, almost one third of today’s Madaba’s population are Christians, making it one of the largest Christian communities in Jordan. Unlike most other towns along the highway, Madaba is less than an hour from Amman and therefore made up for our alternative base in exploring King’s Highway and Dead Sea highlights. Always with our compass heading north, we reached Jerash, one of Rome’s great Decapolis cities. These beautifully preserved Roman ruins are deservedly one of Jordan’s best preserved attractions and walking through the ancient city streets is a well worth the effort experience. Archaeological researches have been ongoing for many years in this area but it is estimated that 90% of the city is still unexcavated. After almost five hours of exploring the archaeological site, we retired in one of the area’s olive farms to camp for the night. The next day and after fixing our water tank that started leaking, we were off to the small town of Shobak that shifts from the fertility of the uplands to the semidry lands of Wadi Araba. Hidden within these dazzlingly hills is Shobak Castle, one more of the Crusaders’ gem. At this point, we took a short cut from King’s Highway and headed towards the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. A sea that has such high salinity that nothing but the most microscopic of life forms can survive in it. In fact, the only living things we saw in the Dead Sea where the over-buoyant tourists! With that said though, a dip in the sea is one of the must-do experiences but be warned: you will discover cuts you didn’t know you had. My plan here was to show Rochelle Amman Beach, a public facility that I stayed at in 2008. Unfortunately when approaching the entrance, we were turned down by a sign saying “this place is permanently closed.” That night, disappointed, we turned back to Madaba for one more night in the hospitable visitors’ center.
As I mentioned earlier, out of Jordan’s three north–south highways, the King’s Highway is by far the most interesting and picturesque, with lots of attractions lying on the road. From Madaba it was time to get back on that road, with direction south, towards the windswept Nabataean temples of Petra and the epic landscapes in the surrounding area. In our humble opinion, it is worth to plan your time, spending most of it here as the world wonders of both Petra and Wadi Rum need it. Later that day and after a couple of side stops to some minor sites along the highway, we reached Wadi Musa, the small town that owns its existence to the nearby Petra. It was in our plans to explore the ancient Nabataean city of Petra for a couple of continuous days, so we found a nice place to stay and settled in.
The next day, early in the morning, we entered Petra that will always be an impressive and captivating place, with its elaborate architecture chiseled out of the pink cliffs. This site is not just the leading highlight of a country, blessed with more than its fair share of top sites but it’s more of a wonder of the entire world. It lay hidden for centuries, known only to the Bedouins who made it their home, until the great Swiss explorer, Jean Louis Burckhardt, happened upon it in 1812. Built partly in honor of the dead, Petra necropolis till this day retains much of its sense of hidden mystery thanks to its inaccessible, windblown location. The site is reached via the Siq, a narrow corridor of cliffs that casts long shadows across the once-sacred way. The path suddenly slithers into sunlight in front of the Treasury, a spectacle that cannot fail to impress, no matter what time of the day you see it.
I could continue describing the rest of the sites but I will stop here as there are no words to express the beauty of these structures and the feelings that you get walking among them. Having a two days’ visit pass, we had the luxury of time on our side. So we took advantage of it the best way possible by spending time in each of the many spectacular tombs of the necropolis. On our third day, we even visited the very informative museum that explains a lot about the Nabataeans and their ways of living. Finally, after a total of five nights in Petra and its surroundings, we took the road towards the coast and the city of Aqaba. Perched on the edge of the Gulf of Aqaba, ringed by high desert mountains and enjoying a pleasant climate, Aqaba has what it takes to make it as a major resort town that still retains the relaxed small-town atmosphere of a popular local holiday destination. Beside Aqaba serving as our crossing point to Israel, we hoped to find here the perfect camping spot so we could spend some time enjoying the Red Sea.
Things don’t always go as we expect though. So as we could not find our perfect sea camp, we decided to depart for Wadi Rum, hoping we would find the perfect desert camp for a couple of days and return to Aqaba later. Wadi Rum was the last highlight that I wanted Rochelle to experience. With its magnificent landscape, Wadi Rum offers one of the easiest and safest glimpses of the desert. Everything you would expect to be is here and it is easily accessible. Sand dunes, red rock formations and magical gorges all add to this picture perfect scenery. What a place! A photographer’s dream! David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” movie was party filmed here, contributing not only to the myth of the man who took part in the Arab Revolt, but also Wadi Rum’s epic status.
What about our perfect desert camp? We finally had found it within a traditional Bedouin camp that allowed us to set up our own camp and use only the facilities. It couldn’t be better. We set back and enjoyed this miracle of nature. Although during the day hours Wadi Rum is a tour operator’s playground, with tourist loaded 4×4 vehicles roaming up and down the dunes leading to the sites, after the sun sets, Wadi Rum transforms itself to the quiet mythical place that everyone has in mind when they talk about the desert.
At this point, our days as well as our visas were almost expired. So after one more night in Aqaba, it was time to take the road into Israel. As soon as we rolled into Israel, we felt like time travelers that after long time traveling finally get back to the proper time zone. After completing the very detailed but professional border checks and go through another PCR test, we reached Eilat. This glitzy Red Sea resort town is where Israelis come to relax and have fun all year round. The turquoise-tinted waters of the Red Sea offer snorkeling, diving and swimming opportunities, but also for many visitors Eilat’s real appeal is its proximity to desert mountains and canyons.
Our first impression on the country was not exactly great, as we were faced with sky rocket prices for basic everyday items and rich, snobby crowds that we were not used to through our course in the Middle East. We left noisy, glitzy Eilat behind and moved further inland, to a secret lake that we had been told about. After a quiet night we reached the shore of the Dead Sea, from the Israeli side this time (elevation 428m below sea level). Much more organized, cleaner and somehow much more accessible, this side brings together breathtaking natural beauty and compelling ancient history. Nestled now in two dramatic canyons that plunge from the moonscape of the Judean Desert to the shores of the Dead Sea, Ein Gedi is one of Israel’s most magical desert oases. It was here and that first night, that Rochelle’s stomach problem firstly occurred. I think there is nothing worse that travelling with an upset stomach and I believe Rochelle can justify that, as since that night and for the rest of our week long stay in Israel Rochelle was “out of order”.
Next up was Jerusalem. Holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims, Jerusalem is one of the world’s foremost pilgrimage destinations. You can walk in the footsteps of prophets, pray in buildings built by order of kings and caliphs, and overnight in hospices where crusaders and cardinals have slumbered. Even for the nonreligious, it is hard not to be moved by the emotions and history that come alive in the narrow alleyways of the Old City.
All this history, religion deputes from all different inhabitants that lived here in the past is probably the reason that there is a negative air around. Truth to be told, the too much security, too many army weapons display and all the unhappy faces made us feel strange. Add to that Rochelle’s stomach problems and you can see why we did not stay. Instead we pushed onwards to Tel Aviv, nicknamed “the Bubble”. Tel Aviv is Israel’s happy city field with outdoor cafes, boutiques, bistros, leafy boulevards and long, sandy beaches.
Yet the real Tel Aviv is best experienced in humble hummus joints, wine bars hidden down alleyways, fresh-fruit-shake stalls, quiet pocket parks and chaotic marketplaces. Stretching for here Israel’s Mediterranean coastline has some fine beaches, first-rate archaeological sites and many of the country’s wealthiest and most innovative towns and cities. Apollonia was one of them.
Here we tried to get back to normality but Rochelle’s stomach had a different opinion about it. Decisions needed to be made! So after a short visit in Akko that seduces visitors with towering ramparts, deep moats, green domes, slender minarets, church towers, secret passageways and subterranean vaults, we retreated to Haifa from where we would be shipping Voukefalas to our next destination.
For this you will need to wait till our next post. The real overlanding starts when things don’t go as planned. To be continued!