by Grania Willis
(http://www.everestnews.com/everestupdatesnorth2005/irisheverest06052005.htm) first Irish woman to summit Mt Everest's North Side
Journalist, Adventurer and Sportswoman
Trekking through magnificent gorges, negotiating wadis and scrambling over mountains into the rose-red city of Petra appealed to Grania Willis's sense of adventure.
What constitutes paradise? According to the dictionary it is, as well as the obvious definition, a place of ideal beauty or loveliness, or a state of delight. Well I've found that place. And it's called Jordan. While I was there, I was unquestionably in a near-permanent state of delight.
The opportunity to spend 10 days in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, trekking through magnificent gorges, negotiating wadis and scrambling over mountains into the rose-red city of Petra sounded perfect. And perfect it proved to be.
The Gorges and Petra trek was added to the Walks Worldwide brochure for the 2006 season, but despite its relatively recent entry into the tour brochures, it is already billed as a potential rival to the Inca Trail to Macchu Pichu in Peru. Much of the route is a traditional Bedouin trail used for taking livestock to and from the summer pastureland high up in the mountains. It had been used commercially only once - the week prior to my trip by a British group raising funds for the international charity Just A Drop - but it was close enough to being totally unknown to Western visitors that the whiff of adventure lent spice to the mix.
Tour leader Mike Wynne met me and his six other clients at the Heathrow check-in desk and from that moment, decision-making was taken out of our hands. All we had to do was go with the flow.
We arrived at Amman's Queen Alia International Airport and headed south for an overnight stop in Madaba but not, as originally planned, en route to the black canyon, Wadi Mujib, probably the best known of the Jordanian gorge descents. Heavy rain the previous week had caused flash floods in the gorge and the anticipated thrill of abseiling down the side of a 20-metre waterfall was suddenly whisked away from us. And, even more disappointing, so was the trip to the Dead Sea, the scheduled finishing point for the day.
I felt like a whingeing child when Mike told us that first night that we were going to be re-routed. "But I really wanted to go to the Dead Sea," I pleaded. But there was no choice. The weather gods went against us.
When our Jordanian guide arrived early the next morning, he was in no doubt that his suggested alternative, Wadi Ghuweir, was actually a better prospect. That first meeting with the man who was to be our guide for the next eight days was memorable for two reasons. The first, a pair of astonishing green eyes and the second, his opening utterance. In combination, they left an indelible impression.
"Yer man", he said to me, fixing me with those eyes. "Yer man?", I queried inwardly. Did he have Irish connections? But no, he was telling me his name, Yamaan. Confusing, yes, but at least I was never going to forget it, or even mispronounce it, unlike my fellow travellers, who would trot out approximations so vague as to be unrecognisable to yer man, sorry, Yamaan.
We took the main arterial route south, the King's Highway, embarking on a two-and-a-half journey towards Shawbak Castle, the oldest in Jordan dating back to the early 12th century. But there was no time to stop and look at the castle. We had an eight-hour descent ahead of us, not in the minibus, on foot, and we were hoping to reach our accommodation before dark.
Our minibus driver was none too keen on the long and winding, and also incredibly bumpy, road that took us down to the start of our day's adventure. I suspect his mutterings were the first Arabic curses I had ever heard, but eventually Yamaan introduced us to another Arabic expression, "Yalla". Apparently it means something in between "come on" and "let's go" and we were to hear a lot of it over the coming days.
We yalla-ed as quickly as we could and, with our sunhats firmly on our heads, our backpacks cinched round our waists and any exposed bits slathered in sunscreen, we followed Yamaan down the trail that led to Wadi Ghuweir.
I've trekked in some of the most beautiful parts of the world, but I can truthfully say that first gorge in Jordan provided one of the most magical days ever. As we got deeper into the canyon, the outside world vanished behind the immense walls of sandstone that towered over our heads.The only sound was our feet scrunching on the stones beneath them. Water, gurgling over stones on the flatter parts or rushing on its headlong descent where the route got steeper, was also a constant.
The occasional shrill peep or liquid trill from one of Jordan's abundant bird life elicited similar peeps and trills of excitement from Steve, the twitcher in our party, whose face was nearly always partly obscured behind binoculars or his bird-watching book. I can't confess to any great skill at bird-spotting, but Steve's enthusiasm was infectious and soon we were all greeting an overhead flurry of Tristam's Grackles or the effortless glide of an eagle with coos of delight.
The stresses and strains of everyday life seeped unnoticed out of our bones as we walked, stopping to gaze in silent awe at the staggeringly beautiful patterns etched, by time, in the sandstone. It was like walking through a giant art gallery, a living, constantly changing gallery offering a glorious palette of colours woven into the rock. Despite its three dimensional appearance, the rock was totally smooth to the touch.
We encountered a couple of deep pools, the most memorable of which was waist-deep with quite a long drop into it. Two of us scrambled down the rocks into the surprisingly icy water and ferried everyone's backpacks on our heads to keep them dry while the rest of the group were lowered down on ropes by Yamaan.
It was a blissful day that ended in a moonlit walk to our base for the night, the Feinan Eco Lodge, which at first glance I mistakenly read as Fenian. The sign at the lodge actually says Feynan, but I'd been warned that English spelling is a haphazard affair in Jordan. There isn't really a way of translating Arabic into English, so the spelling of names and places is often just an approximation.
Arriving after dark is the best possible way to see the Eco Lodge, on the western edge of the 312 sq km Dana Nature Reserve. The lodge, which is managed by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature and provides employment for the local Bedouin communities, is lit almost exclusively by candlelight, although there is electric light in the bathrooms. There is air-conditioning in the bedrooms, too, but there's an expectation that you won't use it, in-keeping with the green ethos of both the lodge and the nature reserve.
With our appetites sharpened by a day of fresh air and exercise, we fell upon the food. They say hunger is a good sauce, but this ambrosial buffet needed no sauce. And breakfast was of a similarly high quality, the highlight of which was my first taste of zata'ar, an unprepossessing-looking mixture of ground cumin, a variety of other spices, and salt, with whole sesame seeds scattered through it. We dipped flatbread in olive oil and then in the zata'ar.
As we set off into the vast arid plain of Wadi Araba, Yamaan told us about the Bedouin peoples and the three things that characterise their lifestyle - tents, goats and camels. "They may seem poor," he said, "but they're independent." He told us of the huge copper mines that had flourished in the area between 5,000 and 3,000 BC, when the life expectancy of the slaves working in the mines was just three months. And the history lesson continued with the story of Moses bringing the Israelites to Canaan, the Promised Land, using a copper stick to fend off the snakes - the snake and stick emblem that is used to this day by pharmacies.
There was more walking to be done before we reached our campsite, but I was looking forward to my first night in an open-sided Bedouin tent, with a waterfall for a shower and a campfire to sit around. No-one was up for a late night, however, and even though I had the Bedouin version of a breeze-block for a pillow, I fell into a sleep uninterrupted by two of our party evacuating the tent, driven out by a fellow camper's snores.
The terrain changed as we moved up into the mountains, clambering up the Naqb Shdayed or tough route, a migration trail formerly used by camels but now used only by donkeys . . . and us. The route was steep, but not unforgivingly so and the views over Wadi Araba were astounding.
Would Petra be a disappointment after the wonders of nature? After five days of gloriously varied trekking, the last through a maze of rocky outcrops that Yamaan had unravelled only with the help of local goatherds, we slept in a tomb, in monsoon conditions, in the Neolithic settlement at Al Baida, outside Little Petra.
It was still another 14 kilometres to Petra itself, with the final part along some spine-tinglingly exposed traverses. But I needn't have worried about being disappointed. Nothing you've ever read or heard about the Nabatean capital can prepare you for its beauty. And we had it almost to ourselves for we had come in through the back door and were standing, awe-struck, in front of El Deir, the monastery. More than three million cubic tonnes of sand were taken out with hand tools to carve the facade.
Known as the rose-red city, Petra is in reality a city made up of many colours, ranging from the lightest of pinks, through yellows and browns to mauves and deepest purples. Although it was discovered in 1812, archaeologists believe that what is currently visible is less than a third of the site.
It was something of a culture shock to see other people around. I'd gone native, if only fleetingly, but suddenly someone had unscrewed my trekker's limbs and replaced them with tourist's legs. But as we skipped down the 800 steps to the main site, the real tourists were ploughing their way up, some of the larger ones being carried by long-suffering donkeys.
The Silk Tomb, the Palace Tomb, the Corinthian Tomb, the Theatre, the four churches - there was so much to see and we still hadn't got to the best known part of Petra, the Treasury, familiar to anyone who has seen the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
The urn on top of the Treasury is said to contain secret treasure and many Bedouin believe that there is gold buried at the site. But gold or no gold, Petra is a must. In fact Jordan is a must. It's a sensationally beautiful country and it really is a living museum. Among 120,000 archaeological sites that include four designated as world heritage sites, Petra is undoubtedly the jewel in a magnificent crown.
But there was more to come. With the Petra box well and truly ticked, we headed for the desert and two nights in Wadi Rum, where the activities included riding a camel, scrambling up rocks to watch the sunset, flinging myself with childish abandon down gloriously red sand dunes, and churning yoghurt in a bag made from a goat's stomach with the Bedouin.
When I came home I found twists of camel hair lodged in the laces of my hiking boots. And my washing machine was still spitting out red sand weeks after my return. Jordan had literally got into the fabric of my being, so I'm heading back next month.