By Ashley Davies
“IF YOU hear a helicopter, run.” Normally, if given advice like this in the Middle East, you’ll be wondering why the heck you’re wearing a fleece rather than a flak jacket, but these are half- joking words of warning about possible flash floods.
They come so fast, and bring with them so many rocks and boulders, they actually sound like helicopters. Yikes!
If I’d paid more attention in geography classes, perhaps these devastating events wouldn’t seem an intriguing notion to me, but I learn that a sudden amount of rain can feed through the many mountain ravines, the fast-flowing water joining forces in a single canyon and coming down so quickly you only have a few seconds’ notice.
We’re standing beside a craggy canyon at the Wadi Feynan desert in Jordan, and storms are gathering. Many roads have been closed due to the ferocious sand storms and a very selfish part of me really, really wants to see a flash flood. Alas, or perhaps fortunately, it is not to be.
We’re taking a hike to see the sun set over the desert on ancient, rust-covered hills. They’re inhabited by Bedouins, many of whom still live in tents, farming goats.
Guided by Nabil Tarazi, who manages EcoHotels, owner of the Wadi Feynan eco lodge where we are staying, we meet a Bedouin elder who, with a twinkle in his eye, answers our deeply personal questions about his life.
Yes, he has more than one wife. Completely normal, if you can afford it. Toilet? In the desert. Mobile phone? Definitely.
The ethos of the eco lodge is to make as little impact on the environment as possible. It is built on the site where archaeologists excavating the area used to camp, and employs only the local Bedouins.
The building is simple but beautiful, the only electricity solar-powered lights in the bathrooms. Our bedrooms are lit by candles in alcoves decorated with mirrored mosaics and it’s all incredibly romantic.
After supper, we retire to the roof, where beds are laid out for star-gazing (or sleeping in the summer). The clear sky, studded with bright planets, is breathtaking, offering dozens of shooting stars for the uninitiated. There’s enough going on overhead to make Professor Brian Cox perform pirouettes.
The following day it feels like we’re in a different world, even though it’s just a few hours’ drive away – floating on the Dead Sea.
Now I know what it feels like to have the buoyancy of a duck, thanks to the 30 per cent salt content in this, the lowest point in the world. The water is said to have excellent healing properties for skin complaints such as eczema and psoriasis (some hotels cater specifically for people with these conditions), and we layer on the mud that is said to rejuvenate the skin.
We’re staying at the Marriott, one of several luxury hotels around the edge of the Dead Sea, but there other ways to enjoy the salty goodness if you’re not staying on this coastal area.
The recently opened five-star O Beach is an achingly swanky spot, where you can rent super-smart cabanas for the day, with food included and luxury treatments on hand.
Freshly rejuvenated, we hit the road to explore some of Jordan’s many historical sites. The country attracts Christian, Jewish and Muslim pilgrims due to its rich religious heritage.
First stop is Mount Nebo, where God is said to have shown Moses the promised land. From its peak you can see the River Jordan, Jericho and Jerusalem.
Another important stop is Bethany, where John the Baptist lived, and where he baptised Jesus before the latter spent his 40 days in the wilderness.
The next day we get up early for the trip we’ve all been anticipating – to Petra, one of the seven New Wonders of the World. Carved entirely out of sandstone by Naboteans in the sixth century, this place is breathtaking.
You walk, take a camel (or “Bedouin Ferrari”, as we are repeatedly told) or pony ride through a couple of kilometres of high, narrow ravines before reaching the heart of the “rose-red city”, with its temples, tombs and magnificent Treasury. Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade was filmed here and it’s a miracle there’s only one tourist shop exploiting the link.
After much walking, oohing and aahing, we head for Aqaba, on the Red Sea, to stay in the most beautiful hotel I’ve ever visited – the Kempinski. The rooms are all white to draw the eye to the sea and, thanks to the bathroom’s glass wall, you can see the water from the bath. Complete and utter bliss.
The hotel restaurant’s luxurious buffet is so well put together you need to remind yourself to have some dignity to know when to stop. It even has a “banana station”. In fact, throughout Jordan the food is fabulous – and a huge treat for vegetarians as well as meat lovers.
Restaurants tend to start you off with a tempting, colourful mezze of various types of hummus, aubergine, salads, little cheese pies and moreishly light pitas, and then when you feel full to bursting, the main course comes around, laden with lamb kofta and various kebabs.
This is a very, very hospitable place, and no matter how much exercise you do, you’re bound to return heavier. Alcohol is available but incredibly expensive, but it doesn’t matter because the most addictive drink is lemon with crushed ice and mint.
One last adventure, the following day, takes us to Wadi Rum (also known as the Valley of the Moon), an ancient desert and mountain range once inhabited by TE Lawrence. Braving the winds that have tried and failed to ruin our trip, we jump in the back of a 4×4 and tear around the desert, giggling with delight.
Although the heat in this part of the world can slow down your adventures during summer, it’s an excellent spot for a bit of winter sun, while temperatures are comfortable exactly when it’s unbearably cold in Britain. And don’t be put off by flash floods. Honestly.
Royal Jordanian runs daily flights from London Heathrow to Amman, starting at £450 return, including taxes. Rates are subject to availability and may vary according to season.
Royal Jordanian also runs two daily flights between Amman and Aqaba from only 2£5 one-way if booked with the London-Amman-London RJ flights (08719 112 112, http://www.rj.com).
Jordan Valley Marriott Resort & Spa (www.marriott.co.uk), from 100 for a double room. Feynan eco lodge (www.feynan.com), from £74 for a single room. Kempinski Hotel Aqaba (www.kempinski.com), from £150 for a double room. O Beach Worldwide Resort, Dead Sea (www.obeach.net)
This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 23 January, 2011