Wadi Rum: A Galaxy Far, Far Away

4 and a half years ago I had a long stopover in Amman, the capital of Jordan, but wasn’t allowed to leave the airport hotel without a visa. It was from this point that I became a little bit obsessed with returning to Jordan and exploring it properly. Now, finally, I got my chance. Jordan is a unique anomaly in the Middle East – despite the worrying countries it borders, it is incredibly safe and is embracing tourism in a way that many of its more unstable neighbours can’t. Now, budget airlines such as Ryanair and easyJet have started to fly here too, so this is definitely the start of something big for this country. And so it should be – it’s a small place but it packs in a lot: breathtaking deserts, incredible mountains, a Wonder of the World, scuba diving opportunities and two remarkably clear seas, just to name a few.

The (not so) Red Sea overlooking Israel.

I took one of the first new Ryanair flights from Athens to the southern Jordanian city of Aqaba. Aqaba sits right on the Red Sea, just a hop away from the border with Israel. This is where most of the new budget airlines are flying to and it’s a fantastic place to start for a couple of reasons. Firstly, its location – Israel is minutes away; the desert area of Wadi Rum is around an hour’s drive away, as is Petra, and the Dead Sea isn’t too much further. In addition, Aqaba is a Special Economic Zone, meaning the visa on arrival at Aqaba airport is completely free. My arrival into Aqaba was a bizarre whirlwind. After disembarking the plane, a man was waiting for us all handing out “welcome to Jordan” gifts – a headscarf and Dead Sea bath salts – which was followed by confusion as nobody really knew whether they had to pay for a visa or not. All the visas on arrival here are free – my passport was stamped and checked by three different people but there was no fee. The next hurdle was transport from this tiny airport. Taxis have the monopoly here – there are no public buses. However, when researching Aqaba, I came across a new company called Jordan Shuttle which advertised $5 shuttle buses from the airport to the city. You pay in advance and they would apparently pick you up from outside the airport. It looked legitimate so I gave it a go and it seemed I wasn’t the only passenger to do so, since there was a whole group of us looking very confused when no shuttle was in sight. I’m pretty confident this service is a scam – no bus turned up and the airport staff said the same thing had happened the day before (seemingly the first day of operation for this new company). They said they’d contacted the police about them but the website is still operational at the time of writing so don’t use Jordan Shuttle!

Instead I grabbed a taxi – it might be worth mingling with your fellow passengers to try and share a cab as most hotels are in a similar area. I ended up in one by myself. It should have cost 10 JD but I fell victim to a dodgy taxi driver. Because I’d just withdrawn money from the ATM at the airport, I only 50 JD notes. The friendly staff at my hostel sorted out change for me but the taxi driver then told them the price was 15 JD. The staff double-checked with me first (which I don’t think the driver expected) and when I confirmed it was 10, he suddenly said it was 13 JD because he’d got a bit lost (despite the man at the airport explaining to him where my hostel was). I just gave him the 13 in the end because I was knackered but paying with the correct change would have avoided this problem so try to break into your big notes before taking a taxi.

After all this drama, it was nice to arrive at my hostel – I think the only hostel in Aqaba – Hakaia Home. It’s basic but is run by the nicest people. The host in particular is great. When I arrived, he had tea and a free dinner waiting for me and the small group of travellers staying there stayed up and swapped stories. Breakfast was included in the price too. It’s definitely the place for backpackers to go in Aqaba and at 10 JD a night is cheaper than all the alternatives in the city.

I left Aqaba the next day to head straight to Wadi Rum, the famous desert area of Jordan. A daily minibus runs from Aqaba to Wadi Rum village at around 12pm. However, in reality it leaves when full (or overfull) so it didn’t go until around 1pm. Still, I’d recommend getting there around 12 to make sure you can reserve a spot. It cost 5 JD and took an hour or so to reach the village. I was told the bus would stop at the Visitor Centre, a few km before the village, so we could pay the 5 JD entrance fee to Wadi Rum, but the bus just whizzed past and I never paid the fee. After the visitor centre, the bus drove past a huge area filled with tents, trailers and other film-related goodies. I was told that the ninth Star Wars film was currently being filmed there (Wadi Rum was previously used in Rogue One) which got me fanboying no end. Unfortunately I didn’t bump into R2-D2. It’s not hard to see why they’d want to film Star Wars here though, it really is like another world.

Good morning from the desert!

Once at the village, you can either ask the driver to phone your camp or, if you know the location, find your camp’s office in the village. I managed to track down my camp, Bedouin Lifestyle, but had to wait in the village for a couple of hours until the jeep could take me and a few others into the desert. The village makes for a nice wander, particularly the bits which merge into the vast desert. My experience with Bedouin Lifestyle Camp was very good overall. I paid 90 JD (around £95) for 2 nights in a Bedouin tent at their camp, a full day 8ish hour shared jeep tour and all meals during my time there. It’s one of the better priced camps in an area that is known for being expensive. The camp is basic but fantastically located with gorgeous sunset views and a gigantic, looming rock alongside it. My only negative experience came after everything was completed – after paying up at the office, the owner ordered me to take out my phone and write a 5 star TripAdvisor review right there and then kept checking up on me to make sure I’d done it before directing me to my bus. It was really odd because the whole experience was so good and he didn’t need to do that – I don’t make a habit of writing TripAdvisor reviews but if I did I’d have given him 5 stars anyway and he’d certainly have got a perfect endorsement on this blog. I think he needs to have a bit more faith in the service he provides because he doesn’t need to wrestle people to the ground to get positive feedback.

Made some new friends.

That aside, it was fantastic. It’s hard to go wrong really – Wadi Rum is so incredible. I would recommend adding an extra night. Most people do a tour and then stay a night or vice versa but having the two nights made it much less of a rush. Especially if you go for a whole day tour (and it’s really worth it), it’s quite full on so having a night’s rest either side before being squished into a cramped bus was appreciated. One thing I didn’t realise beforehand, though I’m not quite sure why, was how much of a workout the desert tour was going to be. Fortunately the climate in November was very good (sunny but cool) as in the heat I’d have melted.

I expected more of a sightseeing tour but almost every stop involved some sort of scramble, climb or mini hike with varying levels of difficulty. I love hiking but there is a world of difference between a hike and a scramble and I’m hopelessly incompetent at the latter. My balance and co-ordination is so off and I really struggle going downhill. As such, I sat out a couple of the climbs. The first one, Lawrence Spring, literally looked like a rock climb so I sat it out. Later on, our guide wanted us to climb up to a huge rocky bridge to get a photo. Earlier, we had ascended to a smaller one which was fine but this one involved a perilous climb up and down a huge, smooth boulder. I decided the photo just wasn’t worth it. It is frustrating being the only one in the group not to do stuff but over the years I have learnt to know my limits. The fact that I survived the other 6 or so climbs that I did was a big achievement for me given it’s not really my thing. Know your limits and focus on the positives and Wadi Rum can still be absolutely incredible, even if you’re as hopelessly unbalanced as I am.

You’ll definitely feel small in Wadi Rum.

During the whole day tour we stopped more times than I can remember. Our great guide Alli wasn’t super talkative but was friendly and managed to pack a lot into the day. We saw absolutely amazing canyons, even hiking through one; stopped off at the ruins of Lawrence of Arabia’s house for lunch; climbed up a massive sand dune; sipped tea and then watched the sun go down, just to name a few things. At one amazing lookout point (which was a nightmare for me to climb down from but was so worth it), the jeep just wouldn’t drive up the sandy hill no matter how many times Alli tried… and boy did he try a lot! I think it was 8 times in the end, whilst the rest of us all sat in the back holding on for dear life as he did run up after run up, only for the jeep to keep getting stuck in the sand. After turning down our offer to get out and push, Alli eventually suggested we walk up instead. He did finally manage to get it up the hill later while we were admiring the view. It was worth the struggle.

After the tour was over, it was back to the camp which prepared a wonderful dinner. In Jordan they have a strange, underground method of cooking food. Food is put in a huge container and buried underground above a flame. It is buried and dig up a couple of hours later, giving it a wonderful smoky flavour. On both nights I enjoyed chicken, potato and eggplant cooked in this way, along with hordes of salad, rice, soup, bread and other delicious foods presented like a buffet. There was so much of it and even with the sizeable number of people staying at the camp, there was enough for second and third helpings. Breakfast was also yummy with eggs, bread and various dips on offer. In the evening time, since it gets dark shockingly early in winter in Jordan (it’s pretty much pitch black from just after 5pm), a campfire was lit outside and everyone gathered outside huddled under blankets watching some traditional dancing and listening to music whilst the stars and Milky Way glistened above us. I managed to spot Mars and also a shooting star. Luckily there was no Death Star.

Photos do not do this place justice.

If you chat to the staff at your camp, they will be able to talk you through transport options to your next destination which almost always leaves from the village – this can be in the form of a bus or shared taxi. There were loads of people about so it’s almost certain someone will be heading to the same destination as you. I was heading to Petra (Wadi Musa) and managed to get on board a minibus which leaves every morning at around 9am. The Bedouin Lifestyle office phoned the driver and he picked me and a couple of other people up from the office.

Overall, there are a ton of options for you at Wadi Rum depending on your budget, length of stay and what you want to do. Riding a camel is a popular addition, as is camping out under the stars with no tent or camping in a luxury tent. TripAdvisor lists the most reputable companies so do some research before. It is expensive for a budget backpacker but it’s one of those truly amazing experiences you’re unlikely to forget. No picture or description can prepare you for the jaw-dropping beauty of Wadi Rum and even if your time or budget only stretches to a few hours there, it’s worth it to see a landscape science-fiction directors can’t stop fawning over.

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