They say the fat, arthritic olive trees in northern Jordan’s Irbid region were planted by the Romans. That would mean they were here at the time of local lad J. Christ, if not before. It’s a theory that’s not been scientifically tested, but is quite believable in this biblical land of dusty hills, itinerant goats, and near endless sunshine.
Light, divine and otherwise, shines across the Hashemite Kingdom, but I’m here for something much darker. I’m going caving, the first in a series of adventures above, on and below ground in Jordan. All of them are new to me, but what I lack in experience, I hope to make up for in enthusiasm.
“Sorry if I’m squeezing your balls,” says Hakim Tamini-Mariño as he tightens my harness and I take a sharp intake of breath. The discomfort is just enough to take my mind off what I’m doing: trusting men I only met a few hours earlier while they hang me over an abyss in the middle of nowhere.
Jordan’s limestone rock makes for excellent caving, but locating entrances isn’t easy. This is partly because some locals are suspicious of cavers’ motives. “They think we’re coming to steal gold,” says Hakim, who works in the government’s adventure tourism arm.
The dark boulders, fissures and eerie stalactites are all given a warm glow by the sulphur-flame torch Hakim has on the front of his helmet, but there’s certainly no gold down here.
The air feels simultaneously too thick and too thin. Through deep, laboured breaths, Hakim reminds me of how few people have laid eyes on this chamber. Being here does feel like the privilege of a genuine explorer, but in caving, what goes down, must come up, and so begins the 30m journey back to the light.
To help those on the surface pulling me up, I try to scramble up the cave walls. With so little oxygen in the atmosphere, I’m immediately breathless. A large rock gives way under my foot and tumbles into the black, a loud thud echoing below while I ricochet from one wall to another.
I don’t remember being born, but now I’ve got an idea of what it was like. Maximum stress, hauled from darkness to light, warm to cool, strangers staring at you, relieved you’re breathing.
Adventure was once defined for me by a man who’d climbed Everest as “outcome uncertain”, which seems reasonable enough, but isn’t particularly reassuring when my life is quite literally on the line — or a line, at least. Much of Jordan’s adventure tourism involves ropes and complicated bindings not covered when I got my knot-tying badge in the cubs 25 years ago. In other words: I must put a lot of trust in my guides, especially the following morning when we head out in brilliant sunshine to go canyoning.
A combination of scrambling, hiking, swimming and rappelling, the aim of canyoning is to get from a high point upstream in a gorge — a ‘wadi’ in Arabic — to an opening on the other side. Jordan has dozens of wadis suited to the task, offering everything from brief excursions to multi-day adventures.
Led by Abdullah Al Saheb, our small party sets off downstream in Wadi Balou’, barrelling through bushes and clambering over rocks. A tributary to the humongous Wadi Moujeb, this picturesque valley’s precious water supply is coveted by plants and animals alike. Luscious pink oleanders are one of several flowers lining the route; in the water, frogs and nymphs glide under the sun-dappled surface. Framing it all, the multicoloured walls of the gorge look as though they were created by a master sculptor in the midst of an acid binge.Before long, we reach our first rappel, down an unnamed waterfall into a cold pool. My guide offers little instruction, then sends me over the edge with a confidence I don’t share.
While the knots look complicated and the science behind tensile strengths and friction is above my lowly comprehension, I can’t help noticing how simple the release system is. I’m essentially feeding my life through a buckle, releasing a little more each time with my right hand, allowing gravity to do what gravity does. I’m repeatedly warned to keep away from the buckle itself lest it ‘bite’ me. If I let go, I’ll be taking the express way down.
Perhaps it’s being above water, but when I get to the edge, knowing that my grip on the rope is keeping me alive doesn’t feel too intimidating. Plus, there are so many distractions: as I make my way down the mossy green cliff-face, I’m amazed to see a cream-coloured crab scuttle past my boot. How did he get here, when the nearest sea has been Dead for a very long time?
Hours later, we finish with our longest of four rappels, one that requires hanging in the direct line of the water. When I drop into the pool, I let out a laugh that echoes up the wadi walls.
Having collected the line, and swum to shore, Abdullah shakes water from his ears, then offers me a satisfying high-five. “Good job, man” he says, without breaking stride. I want to try and sum up what an amazing, wild ride the day has been, but instead of chatting, the Jordanian continues past me, finds a flat rock, divines the direction of Mecca from the sun, and begins to pray.
Beyond the Comfort Zone
Remember the kid at school who was always climbing trees? The jittery, energetic one who could scale a rope with the ease of an adult chimpanzee? Well, that wasn’t me. I was the other sort — the kid who purposely left his gym kit at home. Nowadays I’m physically better equipped to cope with sport’s rigours, but that’s scant substitute for ability.
We’ve come to a rock face a few miles from the Dead Sea. A couple of days earlier, near Ajloun Castle in the north, I’d tried climbing for the first time, not getting very far before giving up to watch adept practitioners scale a sheer cliff like geckos.
With that 15 minutes of experience under my belt, I’m stuck underneath a small, jagged overhang, the sun beating on my helmet like a terrible neighbour.
My body is sending feedback from every extremity. Sweat is carrying sun cream into my eyes. I’m breathing so heavily that dust blows out of a crevasse and sticks to my desperate face. Flies are plaguing my nose and ears. Lactic acid is gnawing my calf muscles. My right arm begins to tremble with fatigue. All I want is my blind left hand to find a hold. Somewhere far below, quivering behind a boulder, is my comfort zone.
I need to find a way to get my left foot to that little space in front of my face, a jigsaw puzzle with many missing pieces. Despite what feels like elemental discomfort, rock climbing is also partly an exercise in problem-solving — lateral and vertical thinking.
High above me, providing what might be called inspiration, Ahmad Banihani is silhouetted against a bleached sky: “Come on, man, you’re wearing Scottish shorts — you can’t give up!” I look down at the navy-blue tartan, darker now than when I started. I hope that’s sweat. Below, it’s definitely blood that’s trickling from a graze on my pink legs.
From above: “This isn’t a negotiation!”
Is hate a strong enough motivator to get me up this face? I’m not sure, but something must change, so I jam my elbow against the rock, feel the sharp stones sink into my skin, and haul myself up. And up and up.
When I get to the rest station, panting and bloody, I feel only relief.
Thankfully there’s reasoning behind this masochism. All week I’d been assured by each of my guides that the final day would be the hardest. Ahmad has brought me to the mighty Wadi Rum, the fantastical pink-and-orange landscape used as a backdrop in films from Laurence of Arabia to Rogue One. Most visitors look at it all from afar, or from atop a camel. I’m going to do something more challenging.
Now led by Abdullah Dakhilallah, a man who seems to hydrate by continually smoking cigarettes even thinner than he is, I’m to scale Jebel Rum, the second highest peak in Jordan at 5,800ft. This will not be a casual, bucolic amble — we’ll be mountaineering. This is again a first for me, but as I soon realise, the week’s preceding experiences will prove useful over the nine hours we need to traverse the mountain.
Setting out at 7am, we begin with a steady trek, sweat soon leaping from my brow onto the pink sand below. Next comes scrambling, using hands and feet to scurry over boulders and rock faces that I’d have turned back from just a few days earlier. The sandstone offers incredible grip, making it possible to ascend at unnaturally vertical angles. The strange erosions of the rock provide so many hand-holds that I find myself wondering if they are man-made. After a couple of hours, the golden light of dawn pours across the mountaintops like magma. Breathless and bleeding again though I may be, this demented experience is absolutely exhilarating.
On and on we climb, never seeing another soul. When we hit the summit there are 360-degree views across a Martian landscape, a red-sand sea making islands of other, smaller mountains nearby. From the bottom, the sound of lowing cattle is carried on the breeze from Wadi Rum Village.
We climb for three-and-a-half hours, ascending more than 3,280ft. Abdullah explains the descent will require a lot more scrambling and hiking. There’ll also be six separate abseils, the last of which comes half an hour from the end, 150ft down layer-caked rock of ochre, vermillion and violet.
Halfway down this final psychedelic drop, I take a moment to hang there and take in the great wadi behind me, a vast cathedral of fiery stone. A profound silence hangs with me, and is then blown away by a call to prayer from an unseen mosque, booming off the canyon walls, echoing like the voice of God himself.
Adventurers’ guide: Conquering the kingdom
Stay hydrated: It may seem obvious, but staying hydrated in a desert country isn’t easy. It’s doubly difficult when being as active as this, and worse again if you’re nervous. Many of the guides and instructors take camel packs — get one before heading out.
Say yes to everything: Even if it completely terrifies you, give everything a try. For the uninitiated, some of Jordan’s adventures may seem too intimidating to attempt, but safety is paramount. In the end, all you’ll have to fear is fear itself — you know, as well as smashed ribs, dislocated ankles, etc.
Take your camera: It may be completely impractical and frequently annoying, but you won’t regret having a camera with you on these daring experiences. Ideally, take a water- and shock-proof handheld; if you’ve got an SLR, take a dive bag to keep it dry.
Average flight time: 5h 30min
When to go: Avoid the heat of the high summer months (June-August) by visiting between September and May. The coolest month is January when temperatures average 25C, while the start and end of summer see temperatures peak at 35C. Travellers will experience dry, sunny weather — perfect for exploring and being adventurous.
More info: uk.visitjordan.com jordantrail.org
How to do it: KE Adventure Travel’s Jordan’s Wadi Rum and Petra tour offers an eight-day tour from £1,615 per person, including meals, local guides, transfers and flights. keadventure.com
Published in the Adventure Travel guide, free with with the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)