Heaven Above & Hell Below in Wadi Rum
There are some life events that you know will never be forgotten, and some that make a non-drinker contemplate getting wasted. During the trip’s planning stage, Wadi Rum, Jordan sounded like a three-star Michelin restaurant, complete with all the ingredients needed to guarantee a world-class adventure. After all, Adventure is my middle name. My dreams to conquer Mount Everest, visit the Titanic, and win Olympic gold started when I was young, and since I haven’t made it to 29,000 feet up or down, or stood on the podium proudly singing, “God Save the Queen,” I spend my time as a professional photographer, media producer, and world traveler. I thrive on going off the beaten path, exploring where Rick Steves has yet to go. So, Wadi Rum was set to be the highlight of this Middle East work trip, and I was ready.
After driving most of the day and stopping to admire the Jordanian royal family’s portrait at the last McDonald’s this side of civilization (I never refuse a clean Western toilet), our group of six arrived in early evening and found our tour company, Bedouin Directions, located at the end of a paved road within a walled compound. We were eager to load up, head out and enjoy the off-road Jeep trip before dark.
We tossed our overnight bags in one vehicle and climbed into the back of the other. Minus the Jeeps about to take us off into the wilderness and our guides talking about the Internet, it was easy to imagine what life has been like here for the past five-thousand years. Moments later, we left the pavement and drove back in time, to when camels ruled the world and Bedouin camp fires first lit up the night sky. We were surrounded by tall red sandstone cliffs, above was vivid blue sky streaked with high wispy clouds, and beneath was nothing but warm, soft, red sand stretching past the horizon, which smelled like pancake syrup.
We stopped at a tent shop to purchase traditional Jordanian headscarves to keep the sand out of our hair. The Bedouin men wrapped our heads and we were off again, this time stopping briefly at a location made famous in the movie Lawrence of Arabia. Finally, we reached a steep rock wall and our driver stopped, turned off the engine, and we climbed out.
There was nothing for miles around to break the spell. As a social person whose only fear is being locked up in solitary confinement, I actually found this new experience rather profound; the stillness, the peacefulness, and the utter solitude was intoxicating.
Shortly before sunset, a herd of camels timed their arrival perfectly and crossed our path, so we had to stop to take pictures. The scene couldn’t have been more beautiful, with golden and pink light casting long shadows. Moments later, we watched the sun set atop a sand dune, then eagerly headed off for camp.
In the twilight, we pulled up next to a high sandstone wall where an overhang created a semi-protected area perfect for a camp. Our Bedouin hosts were already cooking a pot of vegetable stew and warming up flat bread over an open fire, while we reunited with our luggage and chose our mats to sit on for dinner. The soup was delicious, and in between bites I took long exposure shots, made possible with my tripod, to capture the perfect evening. Around 10pm, when our guide said, “They’re here,” I turned on my flashlight and there they were. Seven stealthy camels, not even ten feet away, silently laying there watching me, while re-chewing their last meal from two weeks ago. They hadn’t made a sound, but the smell of our stew wafting through the night air had brought them to us, along with their silver-medal-winning-camel-racer guide, the one whose brother was the gold medal winner.
Clearly, racing camels was in his DNA, and our group leader was anxious to join him by booking not the one, but two-hour nighttime camel ride. Could this be life’s ultimate adventure? We all wanted to know.
While the rest of the group settled in for a comfy midnight trek towards Saudi Arabia, it quickly became abundantly clear that I was the only one mounted on a vibrating meat tenderizer sans shock absorbers. I hadn’t ridden a horse, much less a camel, since my early teen years, and now my body was being jiggled so violently, my legs stretched unnaturally over the back of this massive beast, and I seriously thought I’d pass out if I had to endure two hours of this torture. From my years at riding school and owning a horse, I know what a horse with an uncomfortable gait and ill-fitting saddle feels like, but this was off the charts. Did I sweetly mention to the group how much I wanted to get off and walk or die? Oh, yes! Their response was sarcastically heartfelt, since none of them could fathom what it felt like to be thrown about on a petrified jolting 2×4 board. Those were the longest two hours of my life. I wanted to enjoy the billions of stars in the heavens above me, but I was trapped by the hell beneath me.
Back at camp, our six mats were lined up side-by-side waiting for us. In the time it took me to brush my teeth in the dark, our driver was snoring loudly, and our Bedouin guides were also asleep a few feet away. I chose the mattress at the far end from the snoring section. As I lay there, I popped in my headphones and listened to one of my favorite groups, Il Volo, sing about “the Bedouin fires at night” from U2’s Beautiful Day. It was such a surreal feeling, realizing that one of those “Bedouin fires” in the middle of somewhere between Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia had earlier cooked my dinner and lit up my cave. Then, as I heard the opening strains of the ethereal string introduction to Il Mondo, it was a defining, incredible moment that I’ll remember forever. I will never forget the view from my pillow as I lay there, feeling very small. The top of our rock cave/overhang created the perfect silhouette to frame the most beautiful night sky filled with millions of dancing, radiant stars. After a few more times hitting “repeat” on my iPhone, I drifted off to sleep and woke up a couple hours later covered in a layer of sand, which invaded every square inch of my bed, pillow, and face. The rest of the night was spent wiping sand off my pillow each time I rolled over. Apparently, when sleeping in a giant sand box, it’s not uncommon for mini-sand storms to erupt whenever the breeze blows, and since I was at the end of the line, I became the human shield protecting my peacefully sleeping friends in the middle.
At long last, morning came. I crawled wearily out from under my sand pile, every inch of me aching, but relieved that I had survived one of the greatest, once-in-a-lifetime travel adventures of my life. Now, if only I could walk!
All images on this website are copyrighted by Debbie Thompson Photography. For custom canvas prints, please visit my shop.
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