Perfect Petra, wild Wadi Rum and the delightful Dead Sea: How Jordan left me overjoyed - 14 September 2009

The Wadi Rum is the desert in the south of Jordan that runs into Saudi Arabia, made famous by Lawrence of Arabia when he led the Arab Revolt, and which he describes so poetically in the Seven Pillars Of Wisdom.

Jordan is perhaps my favourite country in the world and the Wadi Rum is a high point of any visit to this beautiful and biblical land. Lawrence described its 'impenetrable silence', and you can only truly understand what he means by spending a night wrapped (in a silk sleeping bag) in the desert's cradle-like quietness.

We had arrived at the visitor centre the day before, accompanied by our Bedouin guide Okla. After letting down the tyres on our Land Rover ready for desert driving, we set off into the almost Martian landscape of towering red cliffs and miles of rolling sand.

We stopped to drink some strong Turkish coffee in a small encampment, following the Bedouin custom of drinking three cups, no more, no less: the first is to welcome guests, the second cup means it is time to lay down your sword and settle any disputes, and the third is to put you in the right mood to enjoy yourself.

Driving through this magnificent yet inhospitable and implacable desert, you don't need the third cup. It is impossible to feel anything but elated (while at the same time recognising your insignificance in the order of things) as you drive deeper into the hostile and hauntingly beautiful terrain.

The best part of the whole desert experience was, according to Dominic, the picnic lunch. Okla and our driver Mahmoud collected stones and wood from the sycamore trees that seem to thrive in the desert, lit a fire and cooked a delicious lunch: chicken pieces smothered in olive oil and drowned in lemon juice. Flatbread charred on the fire, the salad freshly chopped with a yogurt dressing, and sweet tea brewed on the embers. It was the perfect meal in one of the world's most lonely places.

We drove to the ruins of the house that Lawrence used to escape to - aloof in its isolation with superb sweeping views across the sands in all directions, the weird moonscape littered with towering rocks. It was easy to imagine his brooding presence as he planned his campaigns gazing out over the surrounding empty spaces.

The camp we went to comprised a group of cabins with a large Bedouin tent for communal eating. There was one other couple camping - they were English and studying Arabic in Damascus. The conversation around the camp fire turned to cricket, with Dominic and his new friend immediately engaged in an unbelievably boring discussion about leg spin.

As dusk fell, so the temperature plummeted, the scudding clouds revealing a full moon whose eerie light caused extraordinary shadows to fall off the rocks and make strange shapes on the sand. The warmest place to go was clearly under the camel-hair blankets but the combination of the wind and the cold made sleeping difficult. With great difficulty, I extricated myself from the sleeping bag to go outside at about 1am to find everything bathed in a white lemony light: the wind had abated, and I stood and absorbed the penetrating stillness. I have never felt so alone.

At first light, we set off to Petra, the Nabataean city carved straight out of the sandstone rock face. The sheer scale is mind-boggling. What determined, crazed and inspired people the Nabataeans must have been.

The Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt, who rediscovered Petra in 1812, must have thought he was hallucinating as he wound his way to the end of the mile-long narrow gorge known as the Siq and caught his first sight of the Treasury building looming at him out of the rock face. It is perfectly positioned; you catch the first famous glimpse of the carvings framed through the narrow dark slit at the end of the Siq, then suddenly you are standing in front of a vast 130ft by 100ft facade, hewn into the sandstone.

I have never before been particularly interested in archaeology but I now find I have an insatiable thirst to know all that I can about the Nabataeans, and how they built this dream-like city. They understood about preserving water, knew all the secret water sources in the desert and controlled the spice route with this knowledge.

On either side of the Siq are carved water conduits, which carried all the water into the city. The excavation of Petra is still in progress; there are teams working all over the site and more and more exciting things are still being discovered. In 2004, more rooms were found at the base of the Treasury and these are still being excavated.

The scale and the grandeur of the city is breathtaking. There is a massive theatre built in the 1st Century AD, which had the capacity to seat more than 8,000 people and is carved deep into the mountainside. We climbed 845 steps to the Monastery building, even larger than the Treasury, with a facade almost 165ft square, perched on the mountain tops.

Peering in, you can just make out on the back wall some carved crosses from the early Byzantine Christian period. As a Roman Catholic, I found this evidence of Christianity so soon after its very beginnings incredibly moving.
There is a well-placed bar, where Dominic sat gratefully after his exertions. The walk down is much easier and gives you time to take in the extraordinary views.

Everywhere there are camels, horses and donkeys, so if you are too tired or too lazy to walk, for a few dinars you can ride or be driven in a cart. This was something Dominic seriously considered on the long climb up. But he was worried that the donkey might have had a heart attack carrying his immense weight!

It was noticeable that the animals were all well cared for. You could sense the natural affinity between man and beast - and the whole Bedouin history of interdependence and mutual respect between man and animal.

We drove from Petra to the Dead Sea, where we stayed in great comfort in the Hotel Ishtar. It is built on a stupendous scale and is rather intimidatingly grand, although Dominic said he felt perfectly at home as he decided which of the several restaurants we should visit that evening.

The Thai restaurant was particularly good, as was the buffet, while the sushi bar served the best sushi I have ever eaten. The only one we did not like so much was the Italian restaurant, where the food did not quite work and the endless musak was loud and intrusive.

We found a quiet spot and sat watching the sun sink into the sea (in fact into the lowest point on Earth, as the Dead Sea is 1,300ft below sea level. When the sun disappeared, we saw the lights of Jerusalem glittering across the other side of the sea.

Dominic did not feel quite so at home the next morning when, after a swim, or rather a float, in the salty, mineral-laden water, I insisted we cover ourselves with the sulphurous mud from the sea bed.

The idea is to leave it on for at least 20 minutes, when it will be well baked by the sun. It has therapeutic qualities, is rich in minerals, and is supposed to help with aching joints and skin diseases. When you rinse it off your skin feels clean and baby-soft. I went straight back into the water. There is something compelling about bobbing around like a champagne cork in a milkily opaque sea, filled by the River Jordan flowing from Galilee.

If you want a proper swim, the hotel has three large pools and several small ones. One is especially imaginative, meandering under bridges and around a little island - a proper pool in which to exercise without having to bore yourself rigid doing laps. If you are feeling really lazy, just go to the spa, where there is a Dead Sea pool in which to float, or a pummelling pool where you sit and the water does all the work. Dominic loved this.

And he loved even more the heated stone bed to lie on after his so-called exertion. While he was lying there, I had a Dead Sea salt body scrub which was a perfect end to a very lazy day.

We were to spend our last night with friends in Amman and so on the way we visited Mount Nebo, where Moses was shown the Promised Land. The last time I had been there was with my father, so it was for me a double pilgrimage.
This is the most important biblical site in Jordan, and its resonance to Jews, Christians and Muslims is exemplified in the olive tree planted there by Pope John Paul II shortly before he died. It has three branches entwined, representing the three Abrahamic religions.

The view remains virtually unchanged since Moses stood there, and on a clear day you can see Jericho, the River Jordan and across the Jordan valley. There is a sense of holiness and peace as you stand on the cliff edge, next to the Moses memorial church, gazing over to the hills of Jerusalem.
It is interesting to then go straight to Madaba and look at the 6th Century Byzantine mosaic map on the floor of St George's church. Stories from the Bible are accurately depicted. Having seen Lot's cave by the Dead Sea two days earlier, here it was picked out in a mosaic made well over 1,000 years ago.

You can see the Garden of Gethsemene and Jerusalem, with its six Byzantine gates which remain standing to this day. Our guide said it was through this map that experts found the location in the River Jordan where Jesus was baptised.

Just 330ft from the church is the fabulous restaurant Al Saraya, situated in the courtyard of the converted late-Ottoman house Haret Jdoudna. We had a dazzling array of meze dishes and could quite happily have extended lunch into dinner and started all over again.

In Jordan, the centuries roll away - you see nomads living as in biblical times, wandering through the desert with their tents, goats and sheep. There is a sense of time suspended, and the frenetic pace at which we live in the West seems not only light years away, but slightly insane. It is a country, for me, to visit when I need time to think, to take stock, and just to be.

Whether that is in the vastness of Wadi Rum, floating in the Dead Sea or standing at the top of Mount Nebo is irrelevant - just the being there is enough.
And I can thoroughly recommend a silk sleeping bag!

Travel Facts

On the Go Tours (020 7371 1113, offers a six-night trip to Jordan including four nights at the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea (www., one night at Wadi Rum desert camp and one night at Petra, all transfers and B&;B throughout with return flights from £1,125.
For flights with bmi visit or call 0870 6070 555.
For information on Jordan, visit