Petra's Grand Secret

Petra's Grand Secret Entrance
You can just turn up at Petra, buy the T-shirt and clear off, but Jeremy Seal knows a much better way to do it.
"Take your time,” warns Yamaan.
The red rocks and waist-deep pools of the plummeting Ghuweir Canyon are flush with spring rain, and we’ve many days to go on our (decidedly roundabout) walking route to Petra. What our diligent guide means is: please don’t trip over and brain yourself.
But Yamaan’s words could also serve as a manifesto — a manifesto for a fresh approach to appreciating the world’s great historical monuments. Because taking your time is what this six-day hike is all about. And why on earth would we hurry, when there are swivel-eyed chameleons on the rocks and griffon vultures in the sky, and the sheer sandstone walls of the canyon are shot through with the surreal graffiti of iron, copper and magnesium?
We’re on the Middle East’s answer to the Inca Trail — ending at Jordan’s “rose-red city” rather than Peru’s Machu Picchu. You’re right: there are simpler ways of getting to Petra. The unimaginative one is via the country’s Desert Highway — from Amman airport to the Siq, Petra’s gargantuan gorge entrance, in about two hours. Take that option and you can be away to Aqaba — having seen it, done the camel ride and got the T-shirt — by nightfall.
But our group is a mix of old Petra hands and first-timers who figure that the standard whistle-stop tour won’t do when it comes to this site, perhaps the most eye-poppingly memorable of all. Petra is like a dream. Rainbow-streaked sandstone gorge walls have been cut to create exquisite column-fronted facades and cavernous tombs, extensive water channels and a monumental theatre. Then there is the setting in the Shara Mountains, which defies the usual Arabian desert stereotypes, as the Ghuweir is already demonstrating. The trail we’re walking, newly stitched together from grazing tracks, Bedouin migration routes and this first-day canyon descent, will bring us not only to Petra but, we hope, to a richer appreciation of the place and its surroundings. Tantric tourism, you could call it.
By the time we reach the foot of the canyon, crag martins are surfing the gloaming, stuffing themselves with insects. The Wadi Araba, “Valley of the Arabs”, stretches before us, a semi-desert that stalls the Ghuweir’s gravel-lined stream, with its pink-flowering oleanders, in its tracks.
The distant specks of light are candles at the new Wadi Feynan ecolodge. On the boundary of Jordan’s flagship nature reserve at Dana, this is Foreign Legion fort from the outside, monastic retreat within. Tonight, we’ll have solar-heated showers and stylishly simple rooms, a magnificent meze dinner — aubergines stuffed with walnuts and chilli, fava beans, fried courgettes and pickled green tomatoes — and coffee on the roof terrace beneath a star-stippled sky.
Next morning, the sun is still low as we stride out across the plain. Moses came this way, and many early Christians were martyred in the region’s brutal copper mines; all that remains of the churches that Byzantine pilgrims built in their honour is a solitary arched wall tottering above its ashlar footings.
Goats graze among the scattered tents of the Bedouins as we head south, hunkered down against the gathering heat. Flocks of bee-eaters pass overhead, a desert hare breaks cover and groups of hobbled camels work their way along the dry stream beds to chew on the acacia trees that grow there. We have already gathered under one such tree, enjoying a shaded picnic lunch and Yamaan’s freshly brewed herb tea — and our guide won’t have the camels eating our temporary parasol.
More tea — mint and sweet — greets our arrival at camp, an open-fronted communal tent with walls woven from hemp and camel hair. It sports a patterned pelmet and is furnished with rugs and bolsters, but it’s also patched with plastic sacks that once contained “Happy Semolina” from Turkey. The overall effect is intriguing — like a wedding marquee in a shanty town — but we are thrilled to call it home, especially when a foray up the nearby Barwas Canyon reveals a waterfall where none was expected. By the time we’re showered clean, the Bedouin camp staff have prepared an excellent chicken stew over the campfire. They have barely cleared away before we take to the mattresses and a full moon flares into view over the mountains. I hear a wolf calling from the canyon in the small hours.
Next morning we check our boots for scorpions — one has just been found lurking beneath a sponge bag — before heading for the hills along a well-trodden path. It is April, and the local Bedouin families, their goats and their donkeys will soon follow us along this important migration route. They know it as Naqb Shdayed, “the tough way” — and if the thin trail of rusted tins at our feet is anything to go by, the trail is so tough that they resort to scoffing sardines to keep them going. We make do with energy bars and more tea stops as we toil to reach a high pass through rock-strewn woods of juniper, desert broom and wild pistachio.
“That’s where we’re going,” says Yamaan, pointing to some distant peaks. We descend past caper bushes and desert roses to a stream, where we cool our feet, leaving our footprints among the fresh hoof marks of the elusive ibex goats that hide out among these mountains.
This is unrivalled walking, and not only for the dizzying views of the mountains and the Wadi Araba far below. Immersion in the local history, culture and geology is providing us with an illuminating context for the city we’re approaching. You can’t miss the fact that we’re closing upon Petra: it is sneak-previewed in the ancient rock-cut water channel that leads us one morning to the ruins of the village it once served, and in the colours and shapes of the surreal eroded sandstone that overhangs our path like molten wax or fresh tears.
We have been walking for five and a half days when we finally arrive. We bypass the queues, the ranks of tour buses, the trinket stands and the haggling calash drivers by taking a barely used back route. It leads us on a rocky trail and round a final corner to a sublime pay-off: we are standing before the monastery’s mountaintop facade, almost as if we’ve stumbled on the most awe-inspiring of Petra’s many monuments.
It’s still early, and we’ve beaten all but the very first of the thousands of daily visitors to the site’s literal and aesthetic high point — just us and the iridescent sun birds before this mesmerising confection of columns and capitals.
The main city site — churches and temples, forts, imperial tombs and the extraordinary theatre — lies in a mountain bowl below the monastery. We’ve a long day exploring ahead of us, but we won’t be the sorry ones — and there are always many — who remember the site chiefly for its physical challenges. Our walk to Petra has not only given us an understanding of the place, it has prepared us for the punishing contours and fierce temperatures there. Durable as Duracells, we’re among the last to remain.
There’s a narrow strip of late sunlight high up on one wall of the Siq as we leave this remarkable place. Our walk has ended, and only now are we among the ticket booths, the buses and the dubious charms of the site-side service-town sprawl that is Wadi Musa. For most visitors, this is the beginning — but we’ve been taking our time.
This article appeared in The Sunday Times.