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Friday 10 Apr
Wadi Rum, Jordan

An existential desert

Wadi Rum is an improbable desert landscape which is famous for its association with Lawrence of Arabia.

Chris and I arrived with the intention of avoiding the generic drive/camel tours, because we really just wanted to see the desert. However, after hitch-hiking to the village, we were approached by a random Bedouin who offered us a half-day tour, which turned out to be cheaper than the others and which would leave us with some time to explore on foot. We spent an afternoon seeing the main sights (rock formations, ancient inscriptions, Lawrence's house...) and climbing sand-dunes (a uniquely fun and exhausting exercise). Then we spent the night in a bedouin camp: the whole family had moved from their house in the village to their tent in the desert to create a semblance of home for us to participate in. This was artificial but worthwhile, as we got to spend the evening sitting around the fire with smoke in our eyes (goat-hair tents don't have chimneys), drinking tea while Chris tried to converse in the local variety of Arabic. There was a full moon, so the desert and the surrounding slabs of rock were eerily visible and the silence outside was really impressive.

The next day we decided to stay and explore. Since there are apparently no maps, we planned our expedition by scanning the imposing screen of rock which occupied the horizon and choosing a likely-looking canyon to walk into. Maybe we were just lucky, but there was actually a trail of some kind leading into this particular fold in the mountain. Bedouin cairns indicated the way up in a slightly incomplete and confusing manner: they weren't clear enough for us to actually find the way, but they led us to believe that there was a way. As we progressed further into the teeth of the mountain we passed through stages of walking uphill, scrambling, bouldering, and finally being frankly stuck. Through painstaking investigations of the surrounding cliffs we got past being frankly stuck and eventually ended up at what seemed like the top of the saddle. We could see out to the desert on the other side, through the caverns of space between the various cliffs which were formed from rock which basically looked like a many-layered cake with melted icing dribbling down it. It was so peaceful that we could hear the echoes of bird calls and the flap of wings in the dusty heat.

After warming up in the sun for a while we fumbled for a way down to the other side. By this stage we had accepted the fact that our walk had turned into a borderline rock-climbing experience, and we were prepared to assess any potential route on the basis of whether it was scary or not (whether it was difficult or not being very much a secondary consideration). Through inept and intimidating downclimbing, we made it quite a long way down the cliff. The crunch came when, after failing on several different routes at a particular point, we decided to jump to a ledge two or three metres below. We accepted the titillatingly dramatic situation of not being able to turn back. Later, we came to a point where there was really no way down and peering over cliffs looking for one was not all that fun. It was time to panic!

This is one of those experiences which becomes unbelievable as soon as it is over. The existential intimidation of being trapped in a dangerous situation of your own making is suffocating. The question is, what are we going to do next? Will we try increasingly desperate ways to get out of here, knowing that with failing confidence we will never have the judgment needed to manage a difficult climb? Will we give up and try to call for help by attracting the attention of someone on the canyon floor below, and surrender to the pathetic feeling of defeat and irresponsibility? There is no escaping the very unhappy list of possible choices and the fact that they must be faced straight away.

In the end, we made it up one of the ways we had failed to come down. We built a small platform of rocks to make the first step easier, passed the backpack up through the most difficult part which required squeezing through a chimney, and swallowed our despair. The feeling of relief afterwards was almost farcical.

After recovering our nerves and eating bananas we found the way back down, which was a little bit more confusing than we remembered, but we were back in the village by sunset and in time to find that the two appalling and overpriced supermarkets had sold out of bread, forcing us to make a meal out of bad vegetables, olives and tinned baba ghanoush.

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Perambulation 2009

Travel blog by blex

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