It’s about seven in the morning and I’m standing bleary-eyed in the large dining room of a hotel in Amman looking at a long white table of breakfast things that I can’t quite identify and longing for a bowl of cornflakes. Our group had got into the hotel at about half-past three in the morning and then we foolishly agreed to take the optional early morning tour of Amman before leaving for Wadi Rum.
The journey out hadn’t been too bad. The train from Nottingham ran on time, and it took me exactly an hour and five minutes from St Pancras to Heathrow Terminal 3 on the underground (although that included a quick change at Green Park due to engineering work). In a complete contrast to my last trip, there was almost no queue at the flight check-in or security, which meant that together with the one hour delay to the flight departure I had four hours to kill.
Then it all suddenly seemed to go wrong as I approached my seat, 25 G, to discover that it was already half-occupied by a very large gentleman who was also occupying all of seat 25 F. I squeezed in as best I could, but finally my discomfort overcame my British reserve, and I managed to ask him, as politely as I could, if he wouldn’t mind spilling over into my seat a little less (though not quite in those exact words). The situation was saved when the passenger in 25 E, clearly suffering a similar problem, spied a free seat in the row in front and quickly moved, allowing the large man to move across one and spill equally into the aisle and the now free seat between us. “Happy now?” he bellowed at me, in what appeared to be an attempt to maximise my embarrassment. “Yes, thank you!” I replied in what I hoped was an equally confident and unabashed voice. “Enjoy your flight.”
I look again at the buffet, feeling that some kind of decisive action is called for, and pick up a plate. Now I am making progress. Some bread, a few slices of tomato, a sort of hummus, a triangle of Dairylea cheese, and some dark purple juice. The bread is stale.
Our first stop on the tour is the King Abdullah Mosque. The air is warm but the sky cloudy. We pause on the pavement outside to take a few photographs of the blue dome, and then continue to the citadel, a high point with long views across the city in all directions. Across the valley a colossal flagpole rises 126 metres above the city carrying the national flag, the size of nine tennis courts, gently rippling in the breeze. The buildings on the hillside appear to be stacked almost on top of each other in the far distance. Hazim, our tour leader and guide, explains that Amman is known as the white city, due to the local limestone from which many of the buildings are constructed.
There are a few ancient columns standing, a restored domed building (known as the Palace, or Al-Qaser), and a museum, which amongst other artifacts houses some fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Back at the hotel, Hazim briefs us on the rest of the day, and then we hit the road south. The scenery is initially uninspiring as we leave Amman – grey, rocky desert. After some way we begin to descend into a valley and the landscape suddenly changes. It is more sandy, and rocky outcrops begin to punctuate the vista. The driver clearly does not believe in sparing the horses, and slows only for the occasional rumble strips as we pass through various small settlements along the way.
Finally, we turn left off the Desert Highway and cross a single-track railway. We pull over in front of a dramatic rock hill, its surface weathered into extraordinary shapes as if the sun had melted the very rock causing it to drip and run down the sides like icing on a cake. The overall effect is of distorted organic gothic arches and columns.
We walk for about ten minutes, crossing the railway track, and come quickly to where our lunch picnic is ready waiting for us in the back of a pickup truck.
From there we continue across the sand between more rocky hills. It is hard work walking on the soft sand. Just before we reach our campsite, Hazim stops us to point out a rock, one face of which is covered in carvings representing camels, people, and other symbols. They were left by Bedouin traders as a record of their passing this place around three thousand years ago.
The camp is surrounded by rock on two sides and consists of two large brown goat-hair tents, one for our sleeping quarters, and the other at right-angles to it for the kitchen. Hazim shows us first the toilet arrangements – it is in fact a proper sit-down loo inside a metal hut, and it even flushes. I’m not sure this is real camping.
It is not long before it begins to get dark, and dinner is served soon after, cooked in an oven made from a steel barrel sunk into the sand.
Decide that I really need a good night’s sleep tonight, so I opt to sleep in the tent. Most of the group have taken their matresses and sleeping bags out onto the sand outside the camp to watch the stars.