The booming voice of our tour guide pierced the peaceful early morning desert air like a Muslim prayer call.
“Okay wake up everyone! The camels are here!” shouted Zuhair Zuriqat, a G Adventures tour guide in Jordan. His deep voice echoed off the massive rock façade nearby.
It was 5 a.m. Zuriqat continued to call out the names of those who had signed up to get on a camel and experience the dawn’s first rays bath the sea of reddish-brown sand and dramatic rock formations (jebels) of the Wadi Rum desert with soft, morning light.
“Pamela? Jay? Allan? Time to get up!” he shouted.
I shot out of bed like a lightning bolt and frantically shoved my belongings into my tiny backpack while holding my flashlight in my mouth. It was the second time in a week I had risen at the crack of dawn to experience some of Jordan’s magnificent treasures before the crowds arrived.
Feeling exhausted and deprived of sleep, I stumbled out of the swanky tent that I had slept in at a Bedouin camp in the desert with my 14 G Adventures travel companions from around the globe.
The air was cool and crisp. It was still dark outside, just as it had been when our group arrived at the camp the night before in the back of three pickup trucks that winded their way through the vast, silent landscape of ancient riverbeds, sand dunes and shimmering cliff faces that looked like the set of a Hollywood blockbuster.
I could hear the eerie call of a disgruntled camel as I made my way out of the private camp with the help of my flashlight. Before I realized what was going on, I was seated on a camel, holding on for dear life as the mighty beast awkwardly stood up and patiently waited for the others to saddle up their ships of the desert. I tossed off my sandals, feeling a sense of freedom I could hop off at any time onto a blanket of pillowy soft sand.
My eyes struggled to adjust to the darkness as the two camel caravans of ten people embarked upon the hour-long journey. The ride was smooth, the camels stopping occasionally to nibble on the few snippets of low-lying shrubs along the way. We had the place all to ourselves and it was magical.
Two local Bedouins wearing traditional Jordanian red and white shemaghs chatted non-stop in Arabic as they lead the caravans on foot through the stillness of the desert valley. Calmness swept over me as I soaked in the lunar-like landscape that begs to be photographed.
“What did you do today? Oh nothing. Just woke up and rode a camel through the desert,” said Darin Chartrand while his girlfriend snapped photos of him hamming it up for the camera.
Riding a camel through the desert at sunrise is like stepping back in time. It gives you a sense of the history going back thousands of years. Images of nomad tribes caravanning on camels across hundreds of miles of barren landscape flashed through my mind. I pictured Lawrence of Arabia spending time here during the course of the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War.
Bedouin tribes have been drifting across the sand long before Jordan existed. With an ability to carry loads as heavy as 900 pounds, the camel allowed them to cover long distances often at high speed. It also gave the Bedouins their independence from authority for centuries.
Fifty years ago, thousands of camels were roaming the desert areas of Jordan. Today, there are only a few dozen thanks to the arrival of jeeps and decent roads. The camels are now largely used for tourists, but some have been kept for their milk and racing, which has become a popular sport in the Middle East.
A visit to the unpopulated and isolated area of Wadi Rum allows a glimpse into the lives of the Bedouin people — the only permanent inhabitants of the area that’s remained nearly untouched for decades.
Mehedi Saleh Al-Hewaitaat is a professional guide in Wadi Rum. His grandparents and parents once roamed the desert, making a living from trading sheep, goats and camels.
According to Al-Hewaitaat, when the Bedouin lived in the desert several years ago, it rained more often than it does now. Life wasn’t easy, but the additional moisture provided enough grass and flora to feed their livestock.
With the arrival of Jeeps, also came less rain and slowly there was not enough flora for the animals. This made life in the desert more difficult than it already was, forcing the Bedouin to explore other options.
The Bedouin gradually began to move their tents into a village constructed by the Jordanian government. Instead of depending on sheep, goats, and camels for a living, they found a new income shuttling tourists around in their four-by-fours, showcasing the breathtaking beauty of Wadi Rum.
With the village came houses, along with an assortment of services and entertainment such as hospitals, running water, televisions, cell phones, and washing machines. The nomadic lifestyle of the Bedouin had finally come to a standstill. Their world as they once knew it was no longer.
“At first we liked the new things and how life is easier in many ways, however we do look back on the old life and think now that it was better then,” said the 24-year-old Al-Hewaitaat, who was born in the Wadi Rum village.
“All the new things have made some things easier, but new problems come as a result of the modern life and the new problems are bigger and more of a challenge for us than the problems we had in the past. I think if there was more rain, a lot of us would leave the village and go back to the desert.”
The Bedouin’s heavy grey tents made from goat hair are still sprinkled throughout the region. It’s a testament to their strong culture and religion they proudly share with visitors. They are always smiling, and never hesitate to offer a cup of tasty, sweet tea that’s surprisingly refreshing on a hot day.
Zuriqat refers to the Bedouin as the heart of the Jordanian people.
“They are the nicest people. For them it means a lot when we have a high season,” said Zuriqat. “They are so friendly with tourists and they don’t mind inviting them to their houses to show them the traditional Bedouin life.”
Spending the night in a traditional Bedouin camp amongst the peacefulness of Wadi Rum is an experience that soothes the soul into a tranquil relaxation. I’ve slept in canvas tents with paper-thin walls and used fowl-smelling outhouses several times camping in Canada, but the Bedouin camps in Wadi Rum are hardly primitive.
Nestled at the base of a massive rock façade, the private Al Zawaideh camp is lined with three rows of tents in a U shape that have private rooms and comfortable beds above the ground. There’s also a large eating area with comfy cushions, showers and flush toilets. Who knew they had plumbing in the desert?
Upon our arrival at the camp, the Bedouin had prepared a delicious traditional meal cooked in a hole in the desert sand known as zerb. It consisted of rice, baked potatoes, veggies, yogurt, pita bread, chicken and lamb so moist it melted in my mouth. The evening was topped off telling stories around the campfire while gazing in awe at the millions of twinkling stars that blanketed the night sky.
I used this time to reflect upon the day leading up to this moment of lying on cushions around a crackling fire. Wadi Rum is a maze of monolithic rockscapes, dramatically rising 1,750 metres from the sandy desert floor. There are massive arches to explore shaped from years of erosion and rock drawings 4,000 years old that sent my brain into overdrive.
The rising sun the next morning unveiled the brilliant shades of brown and red in the sand and rock formations silhouetting the boundless empty spaces. Our camel caravan stopped to admire the sunrise kiss the landscape and take photos near the end of our journey. I didn’t want to stop sailing our ships of the desert.
One of the Bedouin men leading the caravan grabbed everyone’s camera and began snapping photos like a paparazzi. The camels, as usual, appeared to be smiling.
“Look-ah-look-ah-look-ah-look-ah. Cheese!” he said enthusiastically as he darted from place to place shooting photos, creating a wave of laughter from the stunned tourists.
He repeated this several times and was beaming from ear to ear. Like the camels, I couldn’t stop smiling.
Wadi Rum is a short detour from the Desert Highway between Amman and Aqada. A side road leads to the entrance where you can find the Wadi Rum Visitors Centre, a police office and potential guides offering camel and 4 by 4 treks. The cost to enter the area is 5 JD. Camel trips are available that last from one hour to one day to five days. The area can be explored by foot, a hot air balloon, camel or in the back of a four-by-four.