I have just returned from expedition, an 8 day Nomadic Jordan itinerary with a school group from the Midlands. I'm happy to report it surpassed all my expectations!
I was lucky enough to be able to enjoy the expedition as a participant and see it through the eyes of the students. I met the expedition group at Gatwick airport – they were all very welcoming and clearly very excited to get going! The group was later aptly nicknamed by one of our local guides ‘High School Musical’- I will get to this later!
We checked in at Madaba after a quick journey from the airport. The girls were then treated to a 3 course meal, starting with Mezze, including hummus, fatoush (chopped salad) flatbread and more, this was followed by a chicken dinner with rice and roasted vegetables then a sweet dessert. Usually, I wouldn’t go into detail about food, but the girls all commented on how great the food was throughout the expedition so I thought this was worth mentioning!
We visited St George’s church in Madaba, the city of mosaics, stopping en-route to see how the sand bottles with their intricate designs were made. The famous 6th century mosaic map was interesting, and our guide explained what the mosaic was used for and showed us how the map depicts biblical towns in their correct locations. We continued to Mt Nebo, one of the most holy sites in Jordan, allegedly where Moses first caught a glimpse of the holy land and where he was buried. It was fascinating to see religious groups becoming overwhelmed with emotion on Mt Nebo whilst taking in the panoramic views which, although slightly hazy, extended all the way to to Jerusalem.
Our day continued to the Dead Sea - having seen this in so many guide books and on TV we were all intrigued to experience it ourselves. You almost don’t trust the water to hold you up, and everyone instinctively kicks their legs and flaps their hands to stay up, it’s only when you relax you realise you really do just float! The girls had a game of ‘Simon Says’ (with a real Simon!) doing all sorts of things you wouldn’t usually be able to do in a ‘normal’ sea such as waving your hands in the air whilst standing vertically in the water. Then came the getting ‘mudded’ on the beach, the minerals are said to have healing properties and are often used in skin treatments (and can be bought for a hefty price internationally) but really, it was just good fun everyone getting covered in this thick black mud. We did however, find out the hard way that it was much easier to put the mud on than it was to get off again!
The following morning we arrived in Petra in the dark and the group was looking forward to seeing what this mysterious wonder had in store for them. The walking pace through the Siq was slow until we were nearing the treasury where I sensed a subliminal ‘I want to see it first’ excited mentality! Of course, the first glimpse is amazing; our guide told everyone to keep their heads down and to look up together…this lasted all of two seconds as no one (including myself!) could resist a quick peek at that iconic image as it slowly came into view.
After a photo stop at the treasury, and some history explained by our guide, we trekked away from the charming jewelry sellers and decorated camels and into the quiet vast sandstone valleys until there was no one else in sight, surrounded by amazing scenery and nothing like I had ever seen before. We explored Petra further, passing the Broken Pediment Tomb, Zantur, The Renaissance Tomb and more. The girls stopped in one tomb to show off their musical talents and attempt an ‘everlasting hum’ as the echo was so great.
We trekked up the rocky slope to one of the highest accessible places in Petra, the High Place of Sacrifice, where a local took great (a little too much!) pleasure in demonstrating the sacrifice of Mr B…nominated by the girls, I don’t think he will let them forget that in a hurry! The colours and patterns in the rocks throughout Petra were fascinating, bands of yellows, reds, greys and browns run through the sandstone, formed deep underground by the deposition of various iron and manganese compounds. It is worth visiting for the geology and archeology aspects alone, let alone the Nabetian and Roman history!
The coach journey to the Wadi Rum was a quiet one and most of the group slept to revive themselves after the first full day trekking (approx 7 hours) and for the 4 days desert trekking which lay ahead. We took the Kings Highway to our desert camp, a beautiful and peaceful camp with comfortable tents and bathroom facilities (even though the showers were a little cold!) We arrived just before sunset and were able to sit and watch the scenery change colour – oranges, pinks, reds all splashed along the desert landscape. We were introduced to Harb, Mohammed and Sayeed, our Bedouin team who would accompany us and guide us through the vast Valley of the Moon, Wadi Rum. The girls were treated to some after dinner entertainment in the form of a lute player and Arabian music - the girls needed very little encouragement to get up and dance, it was great seeing the group bonding with each other so quickly (they didn’t all know each other at the start) and having a great time.
Everyone made the most of the shower facilities in the morning as this would be the last time in a few days! We started trekking in the Wadi Rum at a surprisingly reasonable time of 9.30am. I thought we would have had to leave much earlier in order to beat the midday sun, however our fantastic Bedouin guides were excellent at judging the ‘feeling’ and capabilities of the group – how far to walk, when to take rest stops, where to find shade and so on. This made the trekking challenging, yet at a pace and level comfortable enough for the team to be able to take in and enjoy the desert on their nomadic journey.
Of course there were occasions where the trekking was hard - however our guides had planned for this and after the hardest section they had fizzy, cold drinks waiting for the group at camp! Their knowledge is incredible to the point of being able to pinpoint exactly where the sun would be in the sky when the group reached their next ‘checkpoint’. The scenery is breathtaking and it is like journeying into another world. It is hard to convey or describe the feeling of being in such a vast landscape. Our Wadi Rum trek took us in a circular route through the vast Lawrence and Barrah Canyons, past Mushroom Rock, down to Um Froth and Lawrence House and into Um Ishrin Canyon for our last night of wild camping. The final half day trek took the group back to our starting point and our original desert camp.
Each afternoon (approx. 5pm) when we arrived in the camping area, chosen by the Bedouin, they had already started the campfire burning and greeted everyone to a cup of tea on arrival which was, to my delight, the Jordanian drink of choice! The crunchy sesame cookie was also a treat to look forward to and the group (and the FFE Leader) vowed to track these down on return to the UK! This particularly musical group then helped collect more firewood, ate very good food, sang and laughed, learnt Arabic words, numbers and writing from Harb, and told stories until the sun went down, just like the Bedouins do!
Tents were provided in each night, however the group's enthusiasm to immerse themselves fully into desert Bedouin life meant they were only used for getting changed in, and the group slept under the stars on mattresses in sleeping bags each night. It was nice waking up in the night and seeing nothing but thousands of twinkling stars overhead, and hearing the wind bouncing off the canyon walls. One night was particularly windy, we all woke up covered in sand with blankets strewn across camp. The girls took it all in their stride, and continued to sleep outside for the remainder of the trek. Some woke up extra early each day to meditate during sunrise!
On our last evening wild camping in the desert, we were joined by some Bedouin musicians who came to entertain and teach the group some Arabic songs. The relationships between the Bedouin is wonderful to see - all genuinely really happy in each other’s company. They then announced the arrival of the traditional Jordanian meal of Mansaft, a meal of lamb, cooked in a yoghurt sauce, and served on a large sharing tray on top of a mountain of rice. We were shown the proper way of eating with our hands which is surprisingly difficult!! This experience was a highlight for a lot of the girls and they all (literally in some cases!) got stuck in!
All of the group absolutely loved the desert experience and commented on what they had learnt, the quality of the food and the expertise of the guides. This was reciprocated by the Bedouin who also had a fantastic time with the group, both parties genuinely sad to be leaving the other!
After lunch we travelled to the coastal town of Aqaba. The girls ventured out into the town whilst I stayed at the hotel with someone who was feeling a little unwell, but they all came back carrying bags of goodies such as nuts and sweets, and told tales of haggling and trying samples of teas and spices. I went out for a walk on my own when the group returned, and noticed that passers by made a conscious effort to say ‘Welcome’ with a friendly smile. That evening, straight after dinner, the girls surprised us by actually asking to go to bed (although we did later discover some of the girls had stayed up late making an Olly Murs music video!).
The next day, the team ventured out into Aqaba again in their small groups to do some more shopping and sightseeing. There is a really relaxed and friendly atmosphere throughout, with stall sellers giving you a cheery smile as you walk past. Our central point was a local restaurant which served another Jordanian specialty – lime juice mixed with ground mint, truly refreshing!
Sadly our journey was coming to an end and we travelled back to the airport with memories and photos to last a lifetime. The girls still had enough energy at the airport to make another music video, this time getting the teachers involved! I spoke to some of the group about their experiences, and in all cases, the girls loved the desert, bonding with people they may not have before, spending time with the Bedouins and immersing themselves into the Bedouin and Jordanian ways of life! The teachers said how good it was to see the group adapting to their new surroundings and taking everything fully in their stride.
I would love to return to Jordan, and I can see why my colleague David loves it so much. It is a friendly and peaceful nation and I really hope lots of school groups have the opportunity to experience this fantastic expedition!