by Ramsey Tesdell
Ramsey Tesdell joins a group of intrepid hikers on a four-day trek from Wadi Araba to Petra.
Commandoes Trek to Petra
“Match me such marvel save in Eastern clime / A rose-red city half as old as time,” John William Burgon so aptly wrote in his 1845 poem Petra. After hiking for four days through striking mountain peaks, camping alongside freshwater springs and making our way through cavernous canyons, our first glimpse of the majestic Nabataean city of Petra was as mystical an experience as it must have been for camel caravans of yore.
The hike, Trek Petra, was developed by Jordanian guide Yamaan Safady with the help of Bedouins living in the area. He spend three months living with Farhan, a resident of Wadi Araba, who helped him explore the area and develop the trek. A mechanical engineer by training, Safady has worked with the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature and is an adventure guide conducting hikes in the nature reserves.
Beginning in the Dana Reserve, Trek Petra can be as long as seven days or as short as four. This particular hike started at the base of Wadi Araba and lasted four days, with the fourth day spent mostly in Petra. A group of us gathered in Amman in the early morning hours during the Eid holiday to make our way by bus to Wadi Araba. The 10-member group was an eclectic blend of nationalities, personalities, and hiking experience.
The wadi, located just to the south of Dana Reserve, is a beautiful mix of rocks and steep climbs. This is where the trek began. Farhan met us twice along the trek; once on the first day, taking us to the beginning of the “Difficult Path”, and again on the second night with a fresh load of water and wonderful warm shrak bread.
The “Difficult Path”, as the local residents know it, is a tough yet rewarding climb leading to a beautiful ascent through a narrow canyon with beautiful views of Wadi Araba.
Our first day took us from the base of the wadi, with views of the Abu Sakakeen rocky landscapes, up to 973 metres above sea level, to the mountain pass known as “Neck in the Road”, with breathtaking views of the path we travelled and even more spectacular views of the first evening’s campsite.
Descending rapidly from the “Neck in the Road” and noticing the first signs of change in geologic rock-types from volcanic to sandstone, we excitedly approached our first campsite for a much-needed rest. As we approached the campsite, beautify nestled between several high mountains, the presence of water was evident by the lush green vegetation and harmonious birds. Despite the beauty and closeness with nature, the break was a relief.
The spring provided us with pure and cool water to cook, clean and refill our water supplies for the next day.
Camping at the bottom of three mountains, we were able to witness a spectacular sunset and sunrise the next morning when we started off again after enjoying a warm meal.
All through the trek, Safady was in front of the group. Behind us, close friend and experienced hiker Hamzeh Shihabi kept the hikers in check. Safady knows the trail so well that he could almost walk through it asleep.
Sometimes it appeared like there wasn’t a trail at all, but we had no worries about being lost. Safady said it perfectly himself, “When your walking with me, don’t be afraid”.
A smoker who rolled his own cigarettes, Safady never tossed the butts on the ground. Aware that the preservation of nature is as important as the safety of the hikers, the guide would collect his cigarette stubs in a small bottle until he could burn them at the next campfire.
The second day was by far the most difficult in terms of distance travelled and strenuous hiking, but it was also one of the most rewarding. We passed sheer mountain sides, ruins of ancient village, and the remains of traps meant for the near extinct leopard that inhabited these areas years ago.
As we got closer to Petra, the types of rock signalled changes in geologic time periods. At first we saw simple limestone, then gradually we noticed more and more colours dancing in the massive cliffs all around us. Our lunch on the second day was taken in “Lover’s Lane,” where some of most colourful and beautiful sandstone can be seen.
We continued through sudden and dramatic cliffs all the way until the warmth of the day began to evaporate with the setting sun. We watched the sun set as we rested between a sandstone cliff of dancing hues and a magnificent wadi. The two different types of rocks seemed to wrestle at our second campsite, with the sandstone on one side and the igneous magmatic on the other.
Safady first became exposed to the beauty of the country’s vast expanses as a child when he participated in a programme for younger children that included three weeks of hiking and camping in Jordan’s natural habitats.
After graduating as a mechanical engineer from the University of Jordan, he decided to pursue a career as a wilderness guide. It’s difficult to imagine Safady, who looks more comfortable in a bedouin tent than behind a desk, working in the corporate environment. Leading hikes on weekends for his own sanity after becoming disenchanted with the business world, he decided to train as a guide and is now an expert on wilderness hiking and survival and rescue.
Throughout the trek, he was constantly pointing out animal tracks, Chukars and even a Blue Sinai Lizard.
It was easy to see that our guide was a true lover of nature with a sharp eye. “I’m mostly looking for things… things to show people, things to see myself like porcupine quills, Ibex, things to entertain myself,” he told us.
On the third day we encountered a very steep part of the trail that required us to crawl on our hands and knees. It seemed that our guides Safady and Shihabi would never tire - they helped a few of the hikers struggling up the steep inclines by carrying their backpacks, as well as their own. As our bodies grew tired, our minds grew increasingly aware of our proximity to our final destination: The rose-red city. The excitement of our imminent arrival overshadowed the pain of our blisters and the sheer exhaustion.
To keep us going, Safady would tell us stories about interesting adventures. As we neared the descent to our final campsite, he told us about a baby donkey they had come across on a previous trip. “Of course everyone took out their cameras and snapped pictures of the tiny donkey. After we finished taking pictures, we continued on our way. To my surprise I turned around and found the donkey had followed the group!”
We continued our descent to Little Petra and got our first glimpse of the spectacular rose-red city we were to enter the next day. Spending the night at the Ammarin Bedouin Camp, we indulged in the luxury of hot showers after three days of walking and enjoyed the food and music.
The next day we made our way to the ancient city of Petra. Winding through very narrow and difficult paths, we came across some of the most dramatic views of the mountains surrounding Petra.
After closing in on the ruins, we came around the bend to be greeted by the majestic Monastery.
Safady briefed us on the history of the great Nabataean civilisation, explaining in detail the function served by each area of the city. After a delicious lunch at a café inside Petra we continued our exploration, past the Royal Tombs and on to easily one of the most famous monuments in the city, the Treasury.
After just a short hike up through the Siq past dinosaur bones to the entrance of Petra, we made our way to our bus. With our adventure coming to an end, all our experiences now only resided as memories and pictures.
Spending 24 hours a day together for four days, struggling up tough climbs and enjoying spectacular views, the nine strangers had become good friends. But just as we had gathered in the darkness before dawn just a few days earlier, we went our separate ways on a rainy, overcast evening - each taking a bit of Trek Petra with us in our hearts.
This article appeared on the pages of the Jordan Times Weekender on 12th of December 2006