If you have a romantic heart and an adventurous spirit, then you have to ride an Arab horse across the desert of Wadi Rum at least once in your lifetime.
Wadi Rum, in the far south of Jordan, is also known as Valley of the Moon. It is an enchanting place where massive rocky outcrops rise majestically out of the desert floor. The rocks have the appearance of melting chocolate and the colours in the sandstone are like a muted earthy rainbow. It is a landscape like no other.
I have ridden twice now in Wadi Rum with Equus Trails. Both trips were spectacular and different. I met old friends and made new. That is the wonderful thing about horses – they bring people together who enjoy a challenge whatever their age.
Initially I was anxious about my riding ability and crossing the sort of terrain described. I remember on the first trip, the briefing session was held in a fabulous Bedouin style restaurant in the capital Amman. I thought that I was the most inexperienced rider of the whole group and asked Ishmael, who owns the local tour company out there, to make sure that I had a very quiet horse.
The next day we left Amman and set off in a mini bus down the Desert Highway, which is the main motorway through Jordan, from Syria to Saudi Arabia. The journey was full of sights new to our Western eyes. We passed convoys of colourful trucks transporting goods to Saudi and at the side of the highway in the scrubby desert were small settlements of concrete very basic single storey dwellings. We could see children running around amongst the goats and donkeys and camels. We passed a local farmer with a camel sitting calmly in the back of his 4WD Pickup. Our driver waved to him and he pulled in at the side of the road for us take photos of his strange and unconcerned passenger. We stopped at a roadside tourist shop to buy typical Arab scarves known as kufeyyas, which would prove indispensable against the harsh sun and later we picked up some dates and huge blocks of ice from a local supermarket.
We arrived at the edge of Wadi Rum and the horses were waiting for us. I looked at them nervously wondering which one would be mine and hoping it would be very quiet. The tack was a curious affair of blankets and pads covered in fabric your Grandmother once had on her settee, plus the saddle and a very basic bridle. We were told to sit with legs well forward and reins held high in one hand. The horses responded to body movement and very light neck reining. They jogged in the gait typical of their breed, which took a bit of getting used to. My mare was very quiet and didn’t jog but liked to roll in the soft sand without any warning. When we had got used to our horses and the style of riding, we quickened the pace. Just a shake of the reins and we were cantering fast across the desert floor, weaving in and out of the desert broom bushes. It was exhilarating. My horsemanship fears soon disappeared and by the end of the week, I had progressed from my quiet mare to one of the liveliest horses on the trip.
Each day was different as we rode around the desert through deep red rock canyons and ascended the airy heights of enormous rippled dunes. We stood on the very edge and marveled at the scenery below. We saw the Seven Pillars of Wisdom made famous by T.E Lawrence; we found secret water springs used only by the Bedouin; we passed camel trains and goat herders; we saw rock paintings thousands of years old. Only very occasionally did we see tourists but most of the time we were on our own. The horses were game and lively and gave the whole journey a sense of gaiety. When we came to a stretch of flat desert, we galloped all together in one long row, one arm raised like Arab warriors charging.
Once we spied a Bedouin tent complete with Toyota and camels in the distance. One of the crew phoned the sheik on his mobile and we were invited over for coffee in his tent. We asked if we could meet the women of the tribe and the female riders only were allowed into their separate part of the tent. We communicated with the women in sign language and by drawing pictures and realized that we had the same wants and needs whatever culture we come from. I felt that we had witnessed something very special that the normal tourist doesn’t usually see.
At the end of each long day in the saddle, when we were tired and hungry, the cook and crew had already set up camp. I was always amazed by the places they found for us to spend the night. The crew consisted of a very good cook and assistant, horse handlers, maybe a local vet and drivers. There were normally about two or three 4WD pickup trucks, which carried food and water for the horses, for the riders and also all our bags and camping equipment. They stayed discreetly out of the way when we were riding unless needed for water etc and they went on ahead to find resting places and overnight campsites. Sometimes a rider decided a rest was needed and so swopped their horse for a seat in one of the trucks.
Camping was the most wonderful fun and I was surprised at how everyone forgot about their complex lives at home and wanted to stay in the desert forever with few or little possessions. We were fed ample freshly cooked food that was delicious and wine, beer and soft drinks were provided. We all sat around the fire exchanging stories and learning about the Bedouin way of life. We heard the men singing love songs to the horses to keep them calm. One night, members of a local tribe visited us and we had a really enjoyable and spontaneous evening. We found the Bedouins to be a very proud and hospitable race with a great sense of humour.
On each trip, the crew made us a makeshift shower so everyone could have a thorough wash. I remember how wonderful it was to feel clean and refreshed. I sat on a high rocky ledge above the horses with a can of cold lager to watch the sun go down and the colours of the desert change.
Although tents were provided, most of us liked to put our sleeping bags on the rocks or just on the lovely soft sand. I stayed on my high rocky ledge and lay there watching the bright stars shooting across the sky and feeling completely at one with the mysterious nature of Wadi Rum.
At the end of the second trip I sadly said goodbye to my horse and the crew at the edge of the desert. We were taken by minibus to our luxury five star Hotel in Petra near to the famous Nabatean city. I strode into the reception area with its marble floors and Persian rugs, feeling hot and sweaty and covered in red dust. The staff did not bat an eyelid. That night I rolled over and fell out of my king size bed because I had got so used to sleeping on the ground.
The next morning a guided tour of Petra had been arranged for us. I spent the whole day there and then realized I was late for an appointment at the famous Brooke Animal Hospital, near the entrance. There was no time to walk so I hired a camel and trotted fast through the ancient city with the owner running behind me. When the camel reached the Treasury I had to leave it but was then given a horse to ride at top speed to the hospital. I just made it in time to have a tour with the Head Vet and give a donation to the charity. Indiana Jones eat your heart out!
The next day a few of us hired a car and driver and were taken down to the famous port of Aqaba on the Red Sea. It has one of the finest corral reefs in the world and we spent our last day, before the flight home, snorkeling and relaxing on the beach. It was a fitting end to a fantastic holiday.
My riding trip to Jordan was over but will never be forgotten. And hopefully, there will always be another adventure waiting for me out there in the desert.