Adventuress Tamar from the Netherlands bought a donkey in Jordan and walked with it over 600km on the Jordan Trail through deserts and canyons to the dead sea. She shares how her donkey, Yustra became braver and braver and what Middle Eastern culture was like for her as a solo woman traveler.
Author: Tamar Valkenier
We walked 600 kilometers. Yustra (my donkey) and me. Through a country that many had warned me about: “It is completely dry there, a desert and moreover dangerous. Isn’t that in the Middle East?” It indeed borders on countries such as Israel, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. With only 10 million inhabitants, you can imagine that an influx of 1.5 million Syrian refugees alone will cause some issues. However, I was not put off and decided to see Jordan through my own eyes.
Jordan’s rich culture
Rich in history and religion, with influences from the Nabateans, the Ottoman Empire and the Roman Empire, the country has much to offer. Moses died before he could enter the Holy Land, Jesus was baptized there. You can float in the Dead Sea and swim in the Red Sea. You will marvel at the UNESCO site of Petra and visit the Bedouins in the desert around Wadi Rum. And despite all the disturbances in the neighboring countries, Jordan is an oasis of peace. I have never felt so safe and welcome.
To not only visit a country, but to actually experience it, I usually choose to travel slowly, very slowly. The highlight was a four-month journey through Mongolia with my own horse, camel and dog. I traveled the traditional way the nomads have been doing since the heyday of Chingis Khan. I was a nomad myself.
The Jordan Trail
This time I had my eye on the recently developed Jordan Trail: a long-distance walking route that leads from Um Qais in the north (against the border with Syria) to the Red Sea in the south. In the absence of physical trails, you are largely dependent on your GPS and your own knowledge and experience with navigation. I went alone and was overwhelmed by the hospitality of everyone I met: whether it was a Bedouin, a villager, a hotel owner or a policeman.
Everyone invited me for sweet sage tea, then for dinner, followed by “ah, we insist, you will stay the night?” My backpack was heavy with gifts to give back. I helped the women with foraging and learned a lot about edible wild plants. I helped with the milking of the sheep and the making of yoghurt and cheese. After all, I see many similarities between the various nomadic peoples I encountered around the world.
More than the usual invitation for tea
On day three, I sought protection from a group of men in the forest, afraid of the aggressive dogs on my path. This time we not only drank tea, but the invitation extended to their daughter’s wedding. Jehad has three wives and twelve children. I played with them, pulled funny faces, did yoga exercises and helped lighting the fire. The next morning we got up at five to go to the salon: my hair was cut, makeup was taken care of and I was given a beautiful Arabian dress. It was special to be allowed to participate with the women, I got to experience them without a headscarf. The family begged me to break off my journey and stay with them. Though difficult, I was able to convince them I needed to go.
No longer walking alone
I walked on, but no longer alone. The family had a beautiful donkey in the garden. I had used the time there to walk with her through the forest, to ‘test’, pack and ride her. She never kicked, she didn’t bite, looked strong and healthy and had a good character. I fell in love instantly! I half-jokingly asked Jehad if she was for sale and to my surprise he said ‘Yes!’. He asked a much too high price. But during the wedding I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind: what better way to travel through Jordan than with a donkey? I negotiated a more fair price (150 JOD – $210 USD), had bags and a stake made for her in the village and started a great adventure with my new girlfriend Yustra.
She quickly became the most photographed donkey in Jordan and I was received even more hospitably everywhere. We ate a lot of flat bread, humus, yogurt, olives and in the villages we feasted on falafel. Almost everyone I met also owned a donkey and I was regularly asked to trade or sell Yustra. A man was just fitting 18 goats into a van when he dropped everything to admire Yustra. But she belonged to me, she was not for sale. I took many bedouine on endless donkey rides on her.
Angels on the Way
Donkeys are known to be stubborn. And Yustra was also a female. She was docile and friendly, but also terribly stubborn at times. Just like her owner: me. We played the game of ‘who is the most stubborn of us two! We negotiated a lot with each other. However, I refused to hit her or otherwise hurt her, as the locals are used to. I had to motivate her in a different way and debate with her.
I regularly reminded myself of the Biblical story of Bileam, where the donkey sometimes took a different route because he did see the angel on the path while his driver did not. Every time Yustra refused, I left her free to walk around the angel. She was always willing to follow me, just not the way I asked her to go. I learned to listen to her and speak her language and proudly saw her grow up into adulthood.
Another Hiker on the Jordan Trail
I did not meet any other hikers until one day an angel named Graeme stood on our path. Graeme is a lawyer from Australia also hiking the Jordan Trail. I invited him to walk with us for one day. He immediately fell in love with Yustra too and joined us for the rest of the trip. He only had to touch her with one finger and she forgot her stubbornness, he protected her from children who wanted to jump on her and threw stones at her and was a wonderful, patient, always positive companion.
Yustra would stop walking if he fell back more than two meters. I taught him all the tricks of the trade until I finally graduated him cum laude (with honors) as a professional donkey driver. He learned how to pack her with weight divided equally to both sides, both left and right and front and rear. I taught him the knots for the different ropes and how we could prevent scrapes. I taught him to always carefully check the donkey pillow for sharp things after I slept on it under the starry sky, while Graeme snored in his tent.
There was no need to teach him to give her love, many hugs and massages. We got up before sunrise and often walked on until after sunset. We always looked for a camp-spot with plenty to eat for Yustra, that was the goal of the day, each day. Patience, perseverance and an ever-positive attitude are essential on a journey like this.
My Donkey – a great partner
She was a great partner for making contacts with the locals, she drew everybody in like a magnet, asking me who’s donkey this is and what we were doing. When I told people that I bought her in Um Qais and was on my way to Aqaba, most couldn’t believe their ears. Even in the touristy Wadi Rum they had never seen a tourist with their own donkey and we were invited to stay in the Bedouin camps for free.
Surviving on our own
In between those encounters, however, we had to survive on our own and it wasn’t easy. The trail is tough and I only had five weeks to complete the intended 600 kilometers. The north was much more mountainous than expected: almost every day we climbed and descended hundreds of meters. It was also cold, I was glad that I had packed my winter sleeping bag in the nick of time, it was necessary! Sometimes the temperature fell below freezing and I sheltered from rain, thunder and hail in the tent.
The weather was exceptionally bad for the month of March. However, I was happy with the rain, because that produced lush fields of grass for Yustra. For weeks I walked through bright green fields, oceans of flowers, through forests and bushes. Not exactly the Jordan I expected. We made a trip to the Dead Sea with its lowest point on earth. It is a lot hotter there and we had to protect ourselves from heat exhaustion. On our ‘rest day’ only Yustra rested and we dived into one of the many canyons, where oases of palm trees and waterfalls greeted us. We saw a fox running away and admired a bright blue lizard. The creature had the color of Indigo, which was once exported to Europe from these regions.
April fools day
We also visited the ruins of Dana and the adjacent bio nature reserve, where unfortunately the Arabian lion is already extinct. On April fools day we crossed the nature reserve, and we took the opportunity to tell everyone that Graeme was a professor at the University of New South Wales in the department of biomechanics and that we were researching this donkey. We took measurements and later on a team with a treadmill would be waiting for us. I almost started to believe that Yustra was a true robot donkey, as she climbed rocks and jumped over obstacles I hardly thought possible. I was so proud!
The rock city of Petra
Finally I arrived in the mind-blowing UNESCO site of Petra where I investigated the possibility of trading Yustra for a camel (to cross the upcoming desert) and soon all the local camel drivers knew who I was. We negotiated, cuddled camels and made test drives. We had a unique experience in the rock city that overwhelmed us in beauty and history. I get dizzy with amazement thinking that this has been a bustling trading town since 7000 years ago, I see the caravans moving through this beautiful nature. And what is left of it is unreal, the carved rocks form a museum that tells of a time we can hardly imagine.
It raises more and more questions: how did they make this, how can it still look so beautiful after thousands of years, why did it fall into oblivion, why did it take until the 19th century before it was ‘rediscovered’? I love the fact that bedouins still inhabited the area and the goats climb up and over ‘The Monastery’. Many caves are now used as stables. The colors remind me of Marc Chagall and the shapes of Gaudi and Dali. The men all look like Johnny Depp: with Bedouin coal under their eyes, they look like pirates. A camel costs at least 1500 JOD ($2,100+ US dollars) and with just two weeks to go I decided to keep my Yustra and take her to dip her hooves in the Red Sea.
Entering the desert
Nature became more and more beautiful the more we walked south. However, it also became more arid, until we finally ended up in a proper desert. I had never realized that a desert can take so many different forms. We walked on a different planet every day. The rocks changed color like chameleons. Sometimes we walked through high colorful canyons for a whole day, sometimes we plowed through deep sand. I was warned that donkeys have a hard time in the sand. Yustra however ran over the soft sand like a child, she loved it! It was a challenge to find enough water. Sometimes we drank from smelly pools after we sifted out the little tadpoles. We added extra tea bags to cover the fowl taste. We now walked between 25 and 30 kilometers a day and I felt fitter than ever.
I loved every second of it. I got to know Yustra very well, her personality, her preferences, her capabilities and her fears. This way I better and better could take care of her and make sure that she had just as good a time as I had. I was a mother and very proud of the progress she made. Where she was too scared to cross the smallest streams, we later walked through cold wild rivers, water up to her shoulders.
My little Donkey grew up fast
While she did not dare to step over the smallest ledge, she later jumped like a horse over meters long or high obstacles. Guides we met told us they have never seen a donkey so brave and flexible. Once in a while the terrain was so challenging that I myself could barely cross it, but Yustra climbed in and out of the canyons like a goat. My little one grew up and was stronger than I could have ever imagined.
I managed to find a good home for her with a beautiful family in a lush nature reserve, where she would help the son herding his sheep. It was painful to have to let her go, but I am grateful for the time we had together.
I have seen my child grow up and show her the world. I have tasted nature, culture, history and love for a beautiful animal. It was a special trip on so many levels. I absolutely recommend you to visit this beautiful, safe, interesting and hospitable country.
Find out about horse riding opportunities in Jordan by downloading our free Equestrian Adventuresses “Riding in Every Country” Catalog. Next to Jordan, you will find Horse Riding Adventures in more than 400 stables located in over 180 countries.
Tamar is a true Adventuress and has many more stories and tips to share. Listen into our podcast episode with Tamar to hear, of course, about Jordan. But also learn about her adventures in Mongolia and an upcoming journey to the Mongolian reindeer tribes.
Additionally, if you would like Tamar to organize or guide an adventurous journey like this for you, contact her on: www.tamarvalkenier.com