From Burning Desert to Sapphire Sea

One minute I’m standing on a high rock, staring into a lunar desert whilst desperately trying to even up my tan lines; two hours later I’m staring down at a school of damselfish drifting over a coral reef. I’m still struggling to get my head around it.

Sunrise feels far longer ago than this morning. After putting the finishing touches to last night’s report, I left the others sleeping in the campground and set off alone into the desert once again, this time to see the sunrise. I made it to the other side of the valley in time to catch the first rays of sunlight bursting over the cliffs. The sand was full of tracks: the footprints of beetles, snakes, camels and four-wheel drives crisscrossed the valley floor. There was even a lone skink trail halfway across, both satisfying and amusing on a more personal level (for the record, it’s an old family joke about lesser-spotted three-toed eagle-eyed skinks that gets wheeled out whenever yours truly gets boorishly specific about animals). The others were mostly up and about by the time I returned, and in perfect time for half an hour’s meditation before breakfast. The hefty futur Ahmad and his brother Khaled prepared for us was a kingly feast: fresh bread, helwa, jam, hummus, falafel and hard-boiled eggs (there’s no escaping them!), and that’s without mentioning four glasses of that lovely sage and cinnamon-infused Bedouin tea. Dee-lish. God help my teeth over the coming year, because Spain and the Arab world most certainly won’t.

The jeep tour of Wadi Rum was a pretty standard exploration of the main sights, as you might expect: the early Nabatean rock art, Lawrence’s house and the rock arches. I needn’t elaborate much; such sights, stunning though they may be, are better detailed in guidebooks. Besides, Langelsby’s got it covered. I highly recommend you go for a tour if you’re in the area, though. On a more personal note, I found it profoundly ironic that I finally found a haven for wildlife, in what must be outwardly one of the most inhospitable landscapes on the planet. Desert larks, white-crowned wheatears, rock martins and rosefinches followed us from rock to rock whilst the ever present grackles, the tricksters of Wadi Mujib, whistled noisily overhead. No sign of the nocturnal denizens of the desert, but a welcome change from scabby cats and pigeons. The naturalist in me will never be suppressed. So says the lesser-spotted three-toed skink, at any rate.

On the knowledge that wrangling a bus from Wadi Musa to Amman might be beyond us, we arranged with Ahmad, our kohl-eyed Bedouin guide, to take us as far as Aqaba instead, where buses to Amman would be easier to achieve. Aqaba may be your run-of-the-mill beach resort these days, but it has a notch on everything I’ve seen before: the Red Sea. Sapphire would be a better name by far. I’d heard stories and seen pictures, but I’d never really believed quite how deep a blue the Red Sea was. Quite by accident, and with no small meddling from my heart, I found myself physically incapable of passing up the chance to go snorkeling.

Water sports and I don’t have an easy history, let’s say. Ask the population of Whitstable, who watched me capsize a kayak twice and have to be towed ashore (yeah, that still smarts). Swimming’s just about my favorite sport, being both an important skill and the only sport I’ve ever enjoyed, but I have breathing issues – something to do with my nose – which makes most other water sports more problematic than entertaining. Snorkeling has always been a dream of mine, though. Not as technical as scuba and easily doable for somebody with breathing issues. I say that, at least. It’s easy in retrospect.

The first forty minutes were tortuous – not because very salty water kept leaking into my mask, or because I was panicking over the oddity of breathing through a tube, but because the scenes opening up below me were nothing short of some of the most breathtaking sights I’ve ever seen (ouch, that was a bad pun). Stacks of frilled and fringed coral giving way to deep, sandy gardens shimmering in the crystal sunlight. Black sea urchins stretching their tapering spines out of crevices. Angelfish, surgeonfish, triggerfish, even clownfish, frolicking just inches in front of me. It was like living a wildlife documentary in the flesh. By the time I’d finally worked out how to breathe properly – ironically, the key to it was simply calming down and having faith in the tube – we only had five minutes left in the water. But those last five minutes were magical, even more so than the stars over Wadi Rum. Who could possibly feel lonely, or even give loneliness a second’s thought, with scores of brightly colored fish teeming about so close to? Those were my brightest moments.

Christ, but I feel like a tourist right now. I’ve just tackled three of Jordan’s biggest attractions in two days flat: Petra, Wadi Rum and the Red Sea. I didn’t really give Petra much clearance, did I? Mm, I’ll leave that one to the girls over at Langlesby Travels (

It’s been a busy weekend and a half. It feels unreal, somehow. But I don’t regret it for a second – and for once, l don’t even feel ashamed. I am a tourist. Jordan thrives on tourism. I guess I’m finally beginning to accept that. And about time too! Travel is no more and no less than the best thing you can do with your life, and it’s such a shame to have it spoiled by something you could never change, even if you wanted to. BB x

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