‘This creed of the desert seemed inexpressible in words, and indeed in thought’ T.E. Lawrence

We wipe the sand speckles from our eyes and adjust to the outside humidity which swelters you in the midday sun. It seems we have arrived on Mars. A barren, sparse landscape of muted browns and golden yellows, broken up by huge impending rocks which shape the landscape imposing their fierceness on the endless blue which opens above our heads. After hours of driving from the salty banks of the Dead Sea, through canyon lands, mountain villages and vast open roads, we have arrived in the dunes of Wadi Rum, a desert like no other. Nearly 100 years since Lawrence of Arabia drove across this arid terrain in a Ford Model T, it seems he had been right all along, for the words to express this place seem difficult to come.

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I’d arrived in Jordan a few days before, invited by Ford to recreate the steps of this infamous mission in some of their newer model trucks and SUVs. Although it’s dark when I arrive and we pass through Amman towards the Dead Sea, I breath in that rich and humid Middle Eastern air, already it’s laced with spices, foreignness and the possibility of adventure which always comes with travelling to this part of the world.

We stay in the most beautiful hotel I’ve ever seen, on the banks of the Dead Sea, and framed by the mountains of Israel which sit over the waters imposing their grandness and reminding us of the conflict which exists all around, as we bask in the simplicity of 5* living and the bubble of peace that is Jordan. I’m not used to this type of travel, usually opting for £5 a night guesthouses in busy towns, taking every moment possible to interact with the local culture and people, but being right on the edge of the Dead Sea does have its advantages, and I canvas my skin in mineral rich mud and effortlessly float in the 33% salty waters. I’m at the lowest point on earth, 400m below sea level, the holy land, a place of pilgrimage not just for religion but for skin restoration and pure relaxation.

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The next day I am eager to get on the road and out of the confines of the hotel, which no matter how beautiful, feels fully detached from the Jordan we see as we drive towards Aqaba. We follow the Dead Sea, passing locals caked in mineral mud and salt factories, until we twist up through the mountains and inland towards the desert. The landscapes are overwhelming, constantly evolving and forever showcasing the beauty and contrasts of this tiny country.

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Through the window I catch glimpses of the hundreds of stories flooded through the streets of Jordan. The children running shirtless laced with black mineral mud, bright eyed and screaming words I do not understand in Arabic. The hundreds of dogs who live on the rocky ledges as we climb up to the mountain passes, the roadside fruit sellers, the veiled women, and the youth in their western clothing and fluent English tongue.

Through each town or village we pass through, I admire the square houses, the singing mosques and the life on the street corners. At one petrol stop I grab a falafel wrap from a street stall, it’s laced with hummus and tabouleh and tastes like it was made with every ounce of the smiling man who hands it to me’s soul. It’s true that navigating Jordan is best done by road, for in the short time I have on this visit, I see an incredible amount of life and beauty in the hills and deserts of this country.

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Lunch is served in a Bedouin camp lined with red fabrics, a rich aroma of Arabic coffee fills the tents and food is brought up from a desert pit and served with tea stuffed full of fresh mint leaves. I top my desert pit roast vegetables with lashings of hummus, lemon juice and arabic bread, like every meal in this country, it’s the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten.

I relish in observing some of the Bedouin lifestyle, watching them bring up smoked meats from ground ovens, and listening to the repetitive melodies of local folk music. It leaves me wanting much more, to hear stories of their culture and to camp out under the desert stars.

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But we drive on, first to the seven pillars, often referred to locally as the ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’, a play on the book which T.E. Lawrence wrote about his trip to the region, a term he in fact took from the bible. The pillars are a huge impressive structure, dramatic in the emptiness of the surrounds, they suddenly rise up into tall overturned stalactites. The desert is constantly unpredictable, and our next stop proves to be the most surprising of all.

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We stop at the first building we have seen since we entered Wadi Rum, an uninspiring concrete box reading, ‘Wadi Rum Station’. Indeed, the desert has its own train station, both for cargo and for the small tourist train which runs up and down the tracks. The rocking train carriage wobbles up and down guarded by men in khaki clothing and heavy rifles.

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It’s all for show, as is the ‘hijacking’ of the train which comes as we holt to a stop. Out of the desert comes herds of men on horseback waving Jordanian flags in the wind and firing pellets into the air. It’s a playful take on the attack by Lawrence of Arabia and his army on the Ottoman empire, and at the end the actors stand grandly on horseback waving their flags, as proud of their beautiful country today as they would have been back then.

jordan4Finally, minutes before nightfall, we do conquer Aqaba, with sunset views and a celebratory boat waiting for us at the harbour. I wonder if Lawrence of Arabia was treated to such a reward, but he undoubtedly was equally as blown away by the beauty of the Red Sea, a tranquil cove and one of the Middle East’s most essential trading waterways.

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What does the desert hold? Often it can seem so huge, so mysterious, and so arid that we feel unable to fit our emotions and stories into it. As Lawrence of Arabia found, words to describe these vast and lonely landscapes can become inexpressible. But I sense there’s more to Jordan today than that, and as the end of my short visit draws to a close, I’m left craving more of the real culture of Jordan.

I want to see more of the country that I glimpsed at through car windows, as we drove through midnight Amman, or that of the lost city of Petra (which unfortunately had been closed on the last day of our visit). I want to taste more street side food, wander markets, step inside those singing mosques and meet the locals to learn more about their culture and history.  It gives me a great excuse to return, and maybe then, the words will come more easily.

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I was hosted in Jordan by Ford, who provided excellent hospitality and wonderful driving vehicles. All opinions expressed here are my own. Thanks to all at Ford at Visit Jordan for the wonderful stay.

All photographs by Annapurna Mellor.