A journey deep into the desert
A strip in the east of Jordan usually goes unnoticed by many travelers. It is a territory in which the desert is the main character and shows a face as beautiful as stark. And as in every desert, there is always an oasis. In eastern Jordan, we will find exciting wildlife, remote hidden lodges, people of diverse backgrounds and cultures, and water! Come and explore the magic of the desert.
Our journey begins at dawn in bustling Amman. From the capital, we face the rising sun along a road with signs to the nearby borders of Iraq and Syria. It is curious how Jordan remains an island of peace in the Middle East.
As we move eastward, the landscape becomes more and more arid. An ocean of earth and sand is furrowed by a line of black cement. We are on the “Petrol Road,” a road built under British rule to transport oil from Iraq to the port of Haifa. Even today, individuals are selling Saudi or Iraqi gasoline on the roadside. Like Abu Amjad Al Shurafat, with whom we talked at the foot of his house, next to his water truck and his flock of sheep. “It used to be the oil road; now it’s the water road. Over the years, all the Bedouin tribes moved here following the water route and the schools built along it.” His son appears with a coffee pot and does not hesitate to serve us. Jordanian hospitality is felt at every step.
“We’ve arrived!” Bader our guide exclaims. “Where to?” The driver asks, puzzled. Around us, there isn’t anything remarkable in this featureless desert. “To the left is the Badiya cave,” answers Bader.
After some instructions we put on our harnesses and abseil down ten meters to the base of the hole. We walk into the darkness between rocks and fine beach sand until the sunlight fades and the ground turns mud. How can there be water in the desert? The ground becomes increasingly slippery as we progress between galleries and rooms. Have you ever felt absolute silence in total darkness? Listen: You can feel the drops of water moving across the basaltic rock. “Look up, friends,” says Bader. Suddenly, a miracle happens: the cave’s ceiling seems to glow with the reflection of our headlamps. Tiny stars of delicate white sparkle with the water droplets and form constellations of light. It is stunning.
At Azraq, there was a wetland to which vast flocks of birds migrated from Europe. There was so much water that there are photographs from 1965 of fishermen casting their nets with water up to their waists
An oasis reborn
Welcome to Azraq Lodge, a former military camp converted into a ten-room hotel. Located on the outskirts of Azraq, the complex was also once used as a base camp for Anglo-Jordanian scientific expeditions. The reason? At Azraq, there was a wetland to which vast flocks of birds migrated from Europe. There was so much water that there are photographs from 1965 of fishermen casting their nets with water up to their waists. By now, the paradise oasis has practically disappeared. Little by little, more and more water was extracted for other uses, drying out the lagoons and wetlands until they disappeared. Thanks to the work of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), part of this ecosystem has recovered, and today, you can visit some of the lagoons in the Azraq Wetland Reserve.
“My grandfather helped destroy this place,” Jaafar Aloqili tells me, pointing to a photo of his grandfather posing next to a large pipe. We are at the reserve’s visitor center, where Jaafar is a ranger. The place is as beautiful as it is sad. Watching herds of water buffalo wander through the reclaimed ponds makes you imagine what the area was like in its better days. “Yes, it is a sad story,” Jaafar says, while pointing his thumb to himself. . “That’s why his grandson is now trying to restore it.”
“Watch out for snakes, sir.” Are there many? “Oh yes, quite a few. Even cobras, which are not the most dangerous. The warning comes from Laith Safadi, a safari guide at Shaumari Nature Reserve.
Shaumari is one of the ten national parks and reserves managed by the RSCN. And the ideal place to jump by is to get into the flora and fauna of an ecosystem that, for the uninitiated, seems inert. But nothing could be further from the truth: in the reserve alone, there are up to 193 types of plants.
We quietly approach a herd of grazing oryx. They don’t mind our company. A cloud of dust in the distance gives away a group of wild donkeys: “They are not like the oryx; they are skittish and fast, and although we have tried, they will allow us to approach them.”
Laith jumps out of the Jeep and picks Artemisia leaves. “This is a desert medicinal plant: antioxidant and very good for the stomach. Tea time! ” He lights a small fire, adds the leaves to the kettle, and brings the water to a boil. Something startles him, and he points to the sky: “Look, at that hawk, he is hunting!”
A cloud of dust in the distance gives away a group of wild donkeys: “They are not like the oryx; they are skittish and fast, and although we have tried, they will allow us to approach them”
“Maʹrša voagӀijl. Welcome,” we are told in Chechen as we arrive at a beautiful house on the outskirts of Azraq. Wait a minute. In Chechen? That’s right.
Interestingly, there has been a community of Chechen families in Jordan and Azraq for over a century. And we have been invited to share a meal with the Shehani family. It is one of these community tourism experiences that every traveler should have while in Jordan, to learn more about its cultural diversity.
“Since I was a little boy, I remember that foreigners have been welcomed in this house,” says Ahmed Al Shehani, the head of the family, who combines Chechen attire and the traditional Jordanian headscarf called shemagh. We enter his house, and he introduces us to his sister, Khadijah Al Shehani, and nephews, one of whom is dressed in the traditional costume of Chechen warriors. “From this moment on, you are not tourists to us; you are our guests,” he says. The living room has pictures of traditional Chechnya with shepherds and horses. How did your family get to Jordan from Chechnya? I ask, intrigued. “Our grandfather emigrated 120 years ago. In the second half of the 19th century, the Russian Empire was fighting against the peoples of the Caucasus. As a result, 5,000 Chechen families were expelled from the Ottoman Empire. In 1903, the Ottoman authorities sent the first 700 Chechen families to the Transjordan region. The Chechen immigrants settled in unpopulated areas more suitable for agriculture and closer to water sources, like in Azraq. In this paradisiacal place, my grandmother used to tell me that thanks to the water this place was abundant with agriculture, livestock, horses, and even huge flocks of birds. But as the area degraded, with less and less water, many people left.”.
Ahmed Al Shehani, the head of the family, combines Chechen attire and the traditional Jordanian headscarf called shemagh
In the kitchen the women are preparing two typical Chechen dishes: mantesh and galnash. “These are meals that are usually cooked once a month, but it depends on how good the cook is at home,” Khadijah says with a smile. Together with, her sister and daughter she patiently teaches us how to delicately knead the subtle shapes of the wheat and corn dough with precise techniques. But it’s one thing to see it and another to do it. It looks easy, but my results could improve after a few tries. They are laughing at me, but finally, I get some halfway acceptable pieces and hear their applause: “Well done!”.
The white desert
The desert’s vastness becomes more palpable as we drive along the highway toward the border with Saudi Arabia. Just before the border, we turn off on a dirt road onto what looks like a road to nowhere. But we know our destination: Wadi Dahek, the white desert.
After a few kilometers in which the evening light works its magic, we face a plain with striking white walls on the horizon. A herd of camels roams free. It is a beautiful scene, and there is no one but us for miles around to witness it. The closer we get to the cliffy white walls, the better we can appreciate the funny shapes the wind has carved into them. See the dog? And that flying saucer? Look, a sphinx! The clouds turn pink, and we try to savor every moment of light in the landscape.
“Not even many Jordanians know about this place; it’s quite unknown”
“Not even many Jordanians know about this place; it’s quite unknown,” Bader says, as we set up camp in the twilight. As it gets darker, only the orange lights of the border reverberate in the distance. The moonlight is a powerful spotlight that reflects on the white sands. We don’t even need our headlamps. Apart from the gurgling of our driver’s water pipe, we only hear silence, although a wolf, jackal, or hyena could howl at any moment now.
WideOyster Trip Selection
For hours, we only passed trucks loaded with Iraqi diesel. The only people we saw were policemen at checkpoints and scattered Bedouin shepherds with their herds in the middle of absolute nothingness. How do they manage to survive from day to day?
We turn off onto a dirt track marked with black stone milestones and drive to the rhythm of the sunset as gigantic cumulonimbus clouds form on the distant horizon. The landscape is desolately beautiful. It is easy to feel insignificant and vulnerable. “Now this is the middle of nowhere,” my fellow photographer Frits observes quite accurately. We are driving to Burqu on a trailroad through an ocean of sand and rocks.
Burqu Lodge is a former hunting lodge that has been converted into a modern and austere hotel. Don’t expect great luxuries, although comfort is a miracle in the desert. “Why would anyone want to come here?” asks our driver. For us, the drive alone has been worth it. The day ends with a a spectacular thunderstorm over the skies of Iraq.
Kilometers and kilometers of track in which the landscape seems to be always the same
“Where are they taking us?” I ask. We woke up well before dawn to have breakfast in the desert. But the sun has already gained strength, and we have yet to arrive anywhere… Kilometers and kilometers of track in which the landscape seems to be always the same, although the trained eye notices the subtle changes in every little detail: the color of the sand, the shape of the rocks, the appearance of bushes, shrubs, and… water! They say that one of the beauties of the desert is that it is a place without expectations, but the appearance of a lake is the last thing we expect.
Our hosts deploy several carpets on the shore. They gradually fill small trays with local delicacies: labaneh, zaatar, hummus, duqqa, halaweh, maqdous, etc. We savor every bite, watching white butterflies flutter in the rural scene. “Do you like the desert?” we are asked. Of course, we love it! But some landscapes do not need to be praised. They say the desert is an excellent place to get lost and find oneself. That is precisely the magic of the desert. And the charm of Eastern Jordan.
Jump into an Unknown World
The RSCN manages and protects a national network of protected areas to conserve Jordan’s biodiversity and support the development of local communities, while promoting greater public support and action for the protection of the natural environment in Jordan and neighboring countries.