In 2009, lured by history and the desert, I went to Jordan. I had wanted to go there for a long time, but what particularly attracted me to the trip I booked myself on (I know no Arabic and was not going to unduly stress myself by trying to navigate my way alone for two weeks!) was that included was a 5 day trek through the desert to walk to Little Petra.
Petra is well-known from films (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade springs to mind) or travel programmes. The Treasury and the narrow rock fissure which leads to it are often-seen images, rightly so, as they are beautiful. But Little Petra – Siq al-Barid – is a lesser known, lesser visited attraction. It is about 8 miles north of Petra, on the Silk Road, and was also built by the mysterious Nabataeans.
At the time I set off on the trek, I didn’t have any picture of Little Petra in my head, had no real idea what it would be like – I was just happy to be out walking in the desert.
We began our trek after a disturbed night in accommodation at Dana Village (the joyous sounds of someone throwing up, dogs fighting, and vehicles charging about with high-rev’d engines). Starting from the village, which is within Dana Nature Reserve, we descended down a very steep twisting track, down to a long narrow wadi (valley). It was hot. Very hot. And there was no shade. Despite the trip being advertised to include the trek as a major part of the holiday, there were several people who either did not want to walk, or were physically unable to walk far – including a heavy lady who walked with two sticks and who struggled even on the pavements of Amman. The start that day was not bad – very steep, but along a wide track which looked as if a 4×4 with a good driver would manage to get up and down it. But we progressed slowly as a group to accommodate the slowest walkers, and ended up walking for a long, long time in the height of the day. I came prepared with my umbrella, which I had been teased about by the others in the group. Suddenly they were all very jealous of my portable shade, and another trekker quickly produced hers. She and I walked like two gaudy mushrooms through the heat in our own private domes of shade.
During these first two days we were slowed down by the people who did not want to walk/could not walk. Unfortunately, the tour guide was not particularly firm, and did not make alternative arrangements for them until late on the second day when we were already hours behind time, having had to wait for the stragglers so often. Despite carrying 4 litres of water, on both days I had little left because our walks had taken so long. I have to say that I began to get pretty irritated with the slow walkers who seemed to just want to complain the whole time about the heat/environment/the dust/their water being warm/their shoes – everything, it seemed! Trekking in the desert seemed to bring out the worst in them, and it was a relief when they persuaded the support vehicle to take them onto camp, while the hard-core remaining 8 walked on with our Bedouin guide, Nile.
At night we slept in tents, on foam mattresses, under thick furry blankets, the kind which only seem to be sold in the Middle East and Africa, but which I could often do with on a cold winter’s night in Scotland! But the skies were amazing. Out in the desert, with no light pollution, the Milky Way is like a wide river, and each individual star can be seen flickering and twinkling. So I chose to sleep outside on my mattress, using the tent for changing and storage. It was the time for shooting stars, and it was no hardship to be awake for a while during the night to watch for them. Each morning I woke with the dawn, my face cold, sand in my hair, feeling refreshed.
A small team of men put up our tents, made our meals, and transported our bedding and tents from one place to another in their pick-up truck. It certainly made arriving into camp so much more welcome with the smell of woodsmoke and the cups of mint tea ready!
From the dusty rocks and deep gorge with signs of irrigation all around on the first day (we showered in a sprinkling system, surrounded by oleander), the second day saw us walking across a flat plane of a rocky desert. Gravel was overlaid with loose black volcanic rocks and stones, and care was needed not to turn an ankle. This area had been one of copper mining for the Romans and the Nabataeans, and remnants of their structures, and the copper spoil was all around us.
We passed several scattered Bedouin tents along the way, and paused to marvel at a Roman cistern – looking like a small swimming pool – which now appears to be in the middle of nowhere, but was once part of the thriving copper industry.
By the end of the second day, we were walking in a more sandy environment, where the rocks were golden, and carved into intricate caves and monuments by the wind and rain. Trekking in the heat, where there is no shade, and where you are very aware of your vulnerability should you become injured, is interesting. In the morning, when it is cool and you are fresh, you walk smartly, and conversation is wide-ranging. You catch up and fall away from the others. Later in the morning, as the sun gets to its height, and you are straggled out in a line or in mismatched pairs, each in their own little private thoughts. But the silence of the desert is not absolute. The wind stirs the sand, there is the sound of feet knocking rock against rock, and birds suddenly call. But mainly all you can hear is the sound of your own breathing, and the minute sounds of clothing rubbing, and the swishing sound of water in your back-pack.
On the third day, when it was only the people who wanted to trek, we left at dawn, and got to the shady lunch site within 3 hours. After lunch, we left the desert and made our way up a steep mountain road full of hairpin bends. It was mainly quiet, but every so often a truck or sports car would suddenly zoom round a corner, and we would leap onto the side of the road where we could.
By this point, my legs were getting pretty sore, and I found that, after spending so much time on the flat or climbing, my calves were in agony trying to go down hill. In the end, umbrella held aloft, I found the energy to run down the hills, much to the amusement of everyone else.
It had been a lovely day, but we were all very sweaty and covered in a patina of dust. That night we slept in a canyon, and the owner of the trekking business turned up with several large containers of water. Away from the camp we had impromptu showers and washed the dust from ourselves – the feeling of having clean hair again is a very under-rated emotion!
That night, about 5 of us were sleeping outside. I was facing a sandstone wall with the most amazing natural colours which resembled scarlet feathers, as if it was a roosting bird.
At first the night was quiet, and we all drifted off to sleep. Then a sound of snarling and furious barking broke out, interspersed with howls and yelps. One by one, people dragged their mattresses inside their tents, until I was left by myself. Sometimes the dogs sounded as if they were on the edge of camp, sometimes they sounded miles away, but the natural amphitheatre was amplifying and confusing the noise. The sound continued, then abated, circled, and then silenced until dawn, when we got up. No one actually saw any of the dogs, wild or otherwise, and needless to say, we all lived to tell the tale.
This was our last day of trekking, and just about everyone chose to walk. We left the road, and began to see signs of irrigation and cultivation, our first juniper trees, and Bedouin tents.
We then left the sandy way, and started hiking through elaborate sandstone mountains, gorges, and wadis. Sometimes it was difficult to tell what shapes and caves had been made by the wind and rain, and what had been carved by the peoples who had lived and worked there.
Although sometimes it was very easy to tell.
Being up close to these tortured hills and valleys, scrambling down boulders and picking our way over rocks and scrub, was probably the most beautiful part of the trek. It would have been lovely to have lingered there, perhaps camped and spent the day exploring, but we were now so close to Little Petra, only a few hours even for the slowest walker (and the irritating person who kept stopping to take photographs!), that we pressed on.
It was a fantastic feeling to walk into the gorge of Little Petra, dusty, dirty and probably just a little smelly. The visitors who had arrived by vehicle looked pristine, fresh-out-of-the-box, and openly stared at us. On our trek, we did not meet a single other trekker or tourist, only our support group and some Bedouin who lived there. But suddenly random people began coming up to us, asking if we were the trek group who had the big lady who didn’t walk! Gossip travels fast, even in the desert.
Little Petra was really pretty; it was calm and tranquil in soft-coloured stone which was shot through in vivid blocks of colour. As this site is not visited as much as that of Petra, we were free to wander about at our leisure. Set in a deep chasm, the morning sunlight did not read the floor. The umbrellas were put away, dusty and sun-bleached. All of us who had trekked the whole way there felt that we had achieved something worthwhile, and that, in some way, we had earned the quiet beauty of Siq al-Barid.
But Little Petra itself is, as they say, a story for another day…