Adventuress Jess embarks on a journey to follow the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia. She not only falls in love with the sight of Petra, but also with the unique landscape of Wadi Rum and the outstanding hospitality of the Bedouins there. She shares why horse riding in Jordan is a must for any horse rider’s bucket list. Especially since riding Arabian horses in the environment they are bred for is a unique and exhilarating experience.
Author: Jess Rogers
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In the Footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia on Horseback in Jordan
There are many reasons to visit Jordan. From Petra, the ancient Nabatean capital which has been dated to around 300 B.C., to the stories of T.E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia (as he is better known). T.E Lawrence made Jordan famous with his book “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” which shares his account of the Arab Revolt of 1916-18, and the subsequent 1960s film of his life. Not to mention the Wadi Rum itself, an area of over 700 square kilometers of spectacular scenery. The iconic red rock and sand dunes are featured in many films, even playing substitute for mars in “The Martian.”
Of course, for true equestrian adventuresses, a trip to the Middle East would not be complete without a trusty Arabian steed. The Arabian horse has long been a part of the lifeblood of Jordan, and the Jordanian Arab, at one point under threat from cross breeding, has gone from strength to strength in recent years following the Royal Stable’s breeding program. Like all Arabians, the Jordanian Arab is hardy, sure-footed and spirited, which makes them the ideal companion for a desert trail ride.
Let the Adventures Commence
Arriving in Amman after a five-hour flight from London, my first thought was how pleased I was to be back in the Middle East. The wave of heat as I stepped off the plane, and the faint smell of desert in the air was a reassuring welcome. After a smooth transit through the airport, it was a half hour or so drive from Amman to Madaba, our meeting point for the trip that would take us nearly 200 km through Jordan on horseback.
Madaba is an ancient town to the southwest of the capital Amman. It is famous for its collection of Byzantine-era mosaics, the most famous of which is the map on the floor of St George’s Church. After catching up on some sleep and waiting for the rest of the group to arrive, I headed off alone to explore Madaba. With a mixed population of mainly Christians and Muslims, with a large number of western visitors each year, Madaba has a relaxed and welcoming vibe. Its labyrinth of streets pulsing with the hustle and bustle of life.
The adventure began for real the next morning. After a brief tour of “Little Petra” on foot, our small group of five met our companions for the next six days: five horses, a mix of Arabians and Arabian crosses. I was instantly eyeing up a gorgeous chestnut Arabian stallion who I was delighted to discover was to be mine for the duration of the trip. Amir (meaning “prince” in Arabic) instantly won my heart. An endurance horse, he was a delight to ride. His smooth paces and long stride meant he was super comfortable to ride over long distances. Sweet natured and surprisingly calm for an Arabian stallion, we affectionately nicknamed him “grandpa” at the beginning of the trail but soon realized he had a feisty side once his hooves reached the desert sand.
Our first ride gave us a chance to get used to the horses and we spent a relaxing two hours exploring the hills around Petra, with our first glimpse of the ancient city, before settling into our camp nestled against an ancient rock-face. There is something magical about sitting around a campfire as darkness falls, the soft whinnies and snuffles of the horses nearby, and the stories shared as the carpet of stars is unveiled overhead. Suddenly the lack of Wi-Fi, toilets, or beds is immaterial. It is just you, your companions (both human and equine), and the vast powerful landscape sprawling in front of your eyes. There is no better way to reset and realize life’s priorities.
The Charms of the Ancient City of Petra
The next morning, we crawled out of our sleeping bags at 5am. A quick “chai” (Arabic tea, heavily sweetened with sugar and often flavored with sage or mint) and we each set to work on brushing and tacking up our horses. In a scramble to be riding before sunrise we quickly mounted and waved goodbye to the boys in camp as we trotted off along a mountain pass. After a short while, we wound our way down towards Petra. Just as the sun was rising up and flooding us with golden light, we cantered through the entrance of Petra like its inhabitants thousands of years ago would have done. The thunder of hooves reverberated around the ancient red rock as the occasional early-bird tourist dived out of our path. Pulling up with an array of snorts and laughter, we arrived at the treasury, the most famous site within Petra.
One of the modern Seven Wonders of the World, it is not hard to see why Petra is on the must-see list for many people (and if it is not, it should be). The ancient city’s most famous monument is the treasury but it is actually a vast site with many more hundreds of monuments to see. One of the most spectacular sites is the monastery – well worth the climb up over 800 steps. The sheer size of the monument is hard to comprehend until you stand next to it. We spent over eight hours, covering close to 20 miles exploring the city on foot. Although admittedly, we had a very eccentric guide who insisted on stopping every 30 seconds to either profess his love for us or to point out rocks that looked like animals… We also befriended several local Bedouins (the nomadic people common across the Arab world) manning souvenir stalls which treated us to a full master class in tying our scarves in the traditional manner and applying “eyeliner,” which was actually a charcoal paste Bedouins traditionally apply around their eyes to prevent sun damage. It is also conveniently used by the enterprising modern man to attract women!
Following in Lawrence of Arabia’s footsteps in the Wadi Rum
It was time for the trail ride to begin in earnest; we would cover 193km in the next five days. Leaving Petra behind, we rode from the mountain of Taybeh to the village of Rajif, witnessing herds of goats, camels and the occasional donkey, tended to by the locals.
Our campsites were rustic but had everything we needed. After the first night we opted to sleep without tents, sleeping together in a lattice of bodies cocooned in sleeping bags on mattresses next to a rock formation, or in a dried river bed for shelter. Is there any better way to sleep than under the dazzling night sky, with your horse next to you snorting softly in the night breeze? Occasionally when arriving at a new camp we were surprised with a special treat of a shower. This was actually an ingenious combination of a bucket of water warmed over the campfire, a cup and a plastic sheet tied to the rocks to provide a curtain.
One of my favorite camp stops was that of a local Bedouin family. We were kindly permitted to stay in one of their permanent tents and were treated to a hilarious evening. Unknown to the majority of us, our guide and hosts had plotted a trick and had actually dressed one of our group up as a wife in full traditional dress with veil. Totally unaware, we were happily meeting the two “wives” and daughters, thinking their giggles were excitement to meet us. After we realized one of our group had been “missing” for quite some time, the surprise was eventually revealed – the joke was certainly on us!
Lost in the Starlight
Soon it was time to leave our new Bedouin family and head south, across the Desert Highway and into the Wadi Rum. We continued on for days, in perfect harmony with our horses, enjoying long canters in the sand. One evening, as the sun set behind the famous red rock formations of the Wadi Rum, we paused for photos before heading around the corner in the promise of finding our camp. The adventure was only just beginning however, as a mix up in the plan for where we would camp resulted in a few hours detour in the dark. At last our slightly frazzled guide tracked down some phone signal and led us to our camp for the night. We all quite enjoyed our adventure of being temporarily lost in the starlight of the Wadi Rum, but were equally relieved when we finally reached camp.
A memory I will never forget is our final evening in the Wadi Rum. We nestled around our campfire to eat, exchanging stories of past travels and life at home. Soon our guides had Arabic music blasting from the back-up jeep filling the mountains around. We danced long into the night, exchanging children’s party games once we tired of dancing. The surreal experience of playing the limbo in the Wadi Rum with new friends will stay with me forever.
With one last long exhilarating canter through the mud flats on the edge of the Wadi Rum it was time to accept that our desert adventure had come to an end all too quickly.
The Wadi Rum will forever hold a special place in my heart. It is amazing how such a short amount of time can change one’s perspective and have a lasting impact. In just a few days, I experienced the true warmth and generosity of Arab hospitality. I rode a beautiful, majestic horse through the spectacular landscape he is born to thrive in. I laughed, I cried, and made new friends. The biggest takeaway for me was how much I loved the raw experience of the desert. I think there is a part of many of us that crave the freedom that comes with such a wild environment. The simple happiness and generosity of those that have so little (to western eyes) but give so much, is a message I try to carry with me in “normal” life. Experiencing nature and connecting with those around you, that is what really matters.
Jess will be returning to Jordan in November 2020 to escort a group of like-minded riders to compete in the Wadi Rum endurance ride. All Equestrian Adventuresses welcome!
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