Stargazing & Sunrise-Chasing: Wadi Rum

After Petra, the next stop on our trip last weekend was Wadi Rum, a beautiful area of Jordan’s southwestern deserts, known as the famous site for many films (The Martian, Lawrence of Arabia, etc.).  We camped at a Bedouin campsite for the night, and had a full night and day of truly incredible desert activities.

Thursday, September 22nd

After we arrived late to the bus at Petra (read about that here), we rode for just a couple hours to Wadi Rum, an area with no really obvious beginning but you know when you’re there.  We drove to Captains’ Desert Camp, a touristic Bedouin-style campsite nestled between huge sandstone rocks, where we would camp for the night and join activities in the morning.

Captains’ Desert Camp

As soon as we arrived, we all paired off into tents, which were made of heavy goat hair and had three single beds – only two of which had mosquito nets.  There was one little light and a table – not much to see – so we put our bags down and went back outside where the real beauty is.  The rocks that the camp is nestled between make it feel like you are anchored to the last steady refuge in an endless sea of sand and stone cliffs that rise and fall in the distance.

Sunrise at the camp

The camp itself was very cool – huge goat hair tents and rugs covered the large gathering & eating area, where we enjoyed traditional Bedouin sweet tea by the fire and then a huge dinner of makloubeh with delicious thin, salty pita bread.  After dinner there was dancing – dabkeh, a Jordanian tradition – with Bedouin instruments and singing.

We all stayed up deep into the night staring up at the sky as we had never seen it before – with hardly any light pollution and in the middle of a clear desert sky.  I could see the Milky Way with my naked eyes, which was incredible.  It looked like faint silvery ribbons twisting through the sky and weaving the stars together for one enormous and beautiful nocturnal necklace.  We looked and talked and one of the girls played a wooden flute, and it was a beautiful night.

Unfortunately, falling asleep was a different matter.  Even though I had woken up at sunrise, spent all day riding donkeys, climbing cliffs, running through the desert, and dancing with strangers, I still wasn’t tired enough to cancel out the anxiety of sleeping so close to the ground in the true desert.  My mind kept wandering to snakes and killer ants and tarantulas, not to mention the constant presence of potentially-diseased mosquitoes, and it refused to rest.  Plus, I have never tried to sleep under a mosquito net before – and it is a claustrophobic person’s nightmare.  I couldn’t get it in any way where it wasn’t resting on my face at least a little bit, and it had huge holes in it anyways.  Eventually, Michaela and I both put in earplugs, eye masks, and split a sleeping pill in half to try to combat all these buggy thoughts running through our heads.  It worked!

Friday, September 23rd

We did get to sleep, but then we woke up hardly 5 hours later to my loud alarm that I had to set to make sure we got up in time to watch the desert sunrise.  We rolled out of our camp beds, which had gotten extremely cold overnight, threw on sweatshirts and shoes and trudged out to watch the sunrise.

The early rise was worth it.  We stood at the edge of the desert highway and watched the sun roll up over the distant sandstone cliffs slowly and gently, shedding light on the burnt red desert and starting to warm us up.

Almost everyone else went back to bed after seeing the beautiful sunrise, but I knew I wouldn’t have been able to sleep anyways.  Along with the other girls who were still up we started to just wander around outside the campsite, checking out the desolate land that had seemed so spooky and foreign in the moonlight.  We did yoga in the desert.  As the sun rose slowly higher above us, we did sun salutations and felt all the stress and kinks from the bus, the donkey, the camp bed all flow out into the incredible complete silent stillness of the desert morning.  It was beautiful and spiritual.

After a while we noticed one of the other girls had quickly climbed all the way to the top of one of the big rock hill-cliffs that the campsite sat at the foot of.  We wandered over and saw that it was actually quite an easy climb – basically just walking on a steep incline with no real vertical climbing involved.  We started ascending the cliff, and a skinny wild desert dog jauntily ran ahead of us towards the top.  After about just 10 minutes, we were at the top and had an amazing view of beautiful Wadi Rum as the sun continued to rise.  We talked and chatted and enjoyed the relaxing feeling of being at what felt like the top of the desert.  Also, from up high, we could see a huge oval track about half a mile away where camels were being raced!  It was amazing to watch such strange but majestic creatures, which usually move so slowly and gracefully, racing at top speeds while Bedouin betters tailed them in 4×4 trucks around the track.  The dust they kicked up created its own rosy cloud over the track at dawn while the camels ran and ran.

Eventually we climbed down for breakfast, which was refreshing and delicious.  The yoga and the cliff and the camel races felt like it had been a whole day already, but after some eggs and coffee I was ready again for more adventure.

Our first activity for the day was camel rides across the Wadi Rum desert.  I was quite nervous to get on one of those beautiful creatures since they are actually quite tall and don’t seem like they can truly handle a person riding on them.  Nonetheless, when our guide pointed me towards a camel, I sat right on it and it immediately stood up in a terrifying and jolting two seconds, since the back legs stand up completely first somehow, and then the front legs.  But there I was, on a camel!

Me on a camel

Riding the camel was a little painful at first since I was already sore from riding a donkey up and then down a steep mountain the day before, but I quickly got used to the camel’s slow, slightly jolting steps and threw my legs up under its hump, which was quite comfortable.

The camels took us deep into the desert, which was breathtaking in a way that I hadn’t expected and can’t really explain.

We eventually got off the camels at the base of a huge sand dune, which many of the people in our program willing chose to climb up (I had already spent my cliff-climbing energy for the day).  About half of us sat that one out in the shade and hanging out with the camels, looking at the beautiful, endless desert.

After that, we were treated to rides through the desert in the open trunks of 4×4 trucks that whipped through the desert and over the dunes to show us some of the coolest parts of Wadi Rum – ancient camel carvings by desert nomads thousands of years ago, the desert used as Mars in “The Martian,” a rock where T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) had carved his likeness and name.  It was awesome.

Eventually the trucks took us back to the campsite where we were reunited with the other half of our program (the Diplomacy students, including my roommate Ester) for one last lunch at the campsite.  We ate together and talked about our respective trips, and then we packed up all our stuff from our mosquito-filled rooms and loaded onto the bus.

I was sorry to say goodbye to such a beautiful place marked by so many surreal experiences in such a short amount of time.  But, I was tired, sunburnt, and eaten alive by mosquitoes, so it was also time to get some rest.  It was a trip I will always remember!!

My camel

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