“I think I can get a mobile signal at the top of that dune,” Nancy tells me, pointing somewhere into the night. “From there I can set up a mobile hotspot and you can send your email.” We were staying at the remote Rahayeb camp, at the edge of the Wadi Rum protected area. In any other circumstances, I would have been settling down for the evening, enjoying a drink and thinking of dinner. But there was a deadline to meet, and the blog post I’d just finished about the morning’s hike was already due to be published on natgeotraveller.co.uk.
It was a case of two laboured steps forward, one sliding step back as we trudged up a formidable bank of soft sand, probably no more than 30 metres high, but thanks to its ridiculous incline felt a good deal more. With laptop in hand, I made hard work of the scramble while Nancy, one of the hosts and a highly proficient dune scrambler, announced she’d picked up a weak signal from the ridge. A few minutes later my email was dispatched and I took a few minutes to admire the unfolding constellations before running back down to join the others.
While getting online seems to be an essential requirement of a typical holiday these days, having to file a story every day, and finding a suitable connection while travelling in remote areas, was proving to be a challenge. My brief in Jordan was to produce 14 separate blog posts, and for this I needed to find short, often unrelated stories. It was a contrast to a typical writing trip, where I’m doing research for a single feature, with a central theme that ties all my experiences together.
My photographer wife Sameena, meanwhile, was taking the photographs as well as sharing her images via Instagram and Facebook. Jordan certainly provides plenty of good material, and a packed itinerary left me with an almost daily dilemma of selecting which elements from it to use for the blogs I was writing.
The trip begins and ends in Aqaba, a laid-back city on Jordan’s short stretch of Red Sea coast. Aqaba’s origins hark back to pre-Roman times, and ruins remain of what is thought to be the world’s oldest church, as well as the early Islamic settlement of Ayla. But it’s the five-star beaches and the diving that draw visitors here.
At the Red Sea Dive Center, we’re able to take a beginner’s diving lesson with the very patient Omar, who takes us through the basics in the shallow water just off the beach, before we set off on a 40-minute dive around the nearby coral. Just up the road we visit Berenice Beach Club, and after being bounced on the sea on an inflatable banana, we’re invited to spend the night on the Aladdin, their liveaboard boat.
The wind has picked up and the water is surprisingly choppy as we watch the sun set over the Egyptian hills. I throw on an extra layer before tucking into a barbecue cooked up by the crew on the ship’s deck. The captain decides to anchor near a public beach — which is a splendid stroke of luck as I soon find the beach has free wi-fi and the signal just about reaches our boat. I stop to chat to the crew as they enjoy a spot of line fishing, and when they turn in for the night empty-handed, I stay up late to get some writing done. With several days in the desert ahead, I can’t waste the opportunity of getting online and up to date.
The current regional turmoil has led to a collapse in the number of foreign holidaymakers, and Aqaba’s hotels (like those elsewhere in Jordan) are suffering. Not that you’d detect any pessimism looking out at the Aqaba shoreline: the enormous construction projects by Saraya, Ayla and Maabar will bring a new harbour, golf course, water park and convention centre to the city, and speaking to staff working on the projects, it’s clear they’re gearing up for the prompt return of the good times.
Beyond the beach
The ancient city of Petra is a little under two hours’ drive from Aqaba, but we take the slow road, setting off on a shortened version of the 55-mile hike from Dana to Petra. Along with our guide Murad Arslan from Terhaal Adventures, we take three days on the trail, crossing dry river beds and climbing several steep rocky banks to heights of up to 4,000 feet before scrambling back down to the valley floors.
We spend a night at the atmospheric Feynan Eco Lodge, arriving in time to catch the sunset on a nearby ridge. Despite being surrounded by nature and regardless of the lodge being lit mainly by candlelight, there’s free internet access and I’m soon chatting with folks back in the UK about our latest adventures.
A makeshift Bedouin camp is home the following night. There’s no hope of getting online — exhausted after 10 hours on the trail, I’m relieved to be temporarily excused from tweeting and blogging for an evening. After a delicious meal cooked on the campfire and plenty of Bedouin tea, we sleep in simple tents and rise with the sun, ready for the day ahead.
The final part of the walk passes Al Beidha, commonly known as Little Petra, and a lively city in its Nabatean heyday. In spite of its impressive collection of facades, the site is almost empty when we arrive.
We reach Petra by a back trail, entering at the Monastery and descending to the valley floor, before finally reaching the welcome comfort of the Moevenpick hotel just beside the Petra visitor centre. It says much for my sweaty state after two days’ hiking in the heat that I don’t even think about the need to get online — a shower’s the only thing I crave.
On our first visit to Petra back in 2009, we encountered thousands of people milling around the famous Treasury facade and along the main street, which runs through the old city. This time visitors can be counted in their dozens; camels and mules remain idle, their keepers hoping to attract at least one tourist in the day to earn a few precious dinars.
I take the time to chat with New Zealander Marguerite van Geldermalsen, who arrived as a tourist in 1978 and fell for a Bedouin man, moving into one of Petra’s caves with him and raising a family there. I read her book Married to a Bedouin just before coming to Jordan, and I’m delighted to see Marguerite standing by the stall where she sells jewellery made by local women, following her own unique Petra-themed designs.
Later, we take a walk along the Siq in the dark for the ‘Petra by Night’ experience, with candles lighting the way down to the Treasury. In front of the famous facade, a modest crowd of around 100 sits and listens to a gentle recital of Bedouin music. The performance itself is secondary to the magical setting and my attention soon drifts from the musicians to the towering rock faces and the night sky — I spot a shooting star cutting an arc between the high walls of the surrounding rocks.
As the Digital Nomad, I feel compelled to get stuck into everything suggested by our hosts. The hike to Burdah Rock Bridge, a natural stone arch high above the desert floor in Wadi Rum, involves scrambling up and down steep rock faces and clinging on to rocks, inching our way across narrow ledges, while trying not to look at the sheer drop below. It’s well outside our normal hiking comfort zone, but luckily we’re in the hands of Mosa Al Rawajfih, a patient and very careful guide. With Sameena taking out her camera at every other turn to capture the constantly changing panorama, I’m forced to slow down; this allows me to pay close attention to the views, the colours, and above all, the silence.
And the challenges that come as part and parcel of this assignment aren’t just physical. On arrival back at our camp one night, we’re given 15 minutes to wash and change before a promised ‘surprise’. We soon discover that a Bedouin wedding has been planned for us by our hosts, and the plan is executed with painstaking detail. I’m dressed as a sheikh by my adopted ‘uncles’, while Sameena is transformed into a desert bride and brought to the camp on a camel in an elaborate bridal tent.
More bizarre still, a random wedding party has somehow been corralled into hollering, singing and even dancing for us, and we play along, reassured we’re thousands of miles from home and that nobody need ever know about this. Our activities in Jordan had been steadily tracked by journalists, travel professionals and Jordanian tourism officials via social media, but the wedding videos and photos instantly spread like wildfire.
I’m mortified to hear about them the next day from a friend back in the UK, and worse still, on further encounters later in our trip we’re recognised as ‘that Bedouin wedding couple’.
Turkish Airlines flies to Aqaba via Istanbul.
When to go
Spring and autumn with temperatures in the high 20Cs.
Oryx Hotel in Aqaba.
Feynan Eco Lodge.
Moevenpick Resort Petra.
Berenice Beach Club.
Red Sea Dive Center.
Published in the September 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)