My trekking experience has been largely confined to mountains, both in summer and winter, but I’ve been toying with the idea of a desert trek for some time now. Inspired by a program about the Atacama Desert and more recently by the camel trek made by Ben Fogle and James Cracknell across the Empty Quarter in Oman, not to mention getting very wet and cold on a recent weekend trip to Snowdon, I decided to book a trip with Exodus to the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan.
As usual, I had a number of stupid concerns about the trip before I went. First, after my recent exploits up Kilimanjaro and to Everest Base Camp, I was worried that the trek wouldn’t be hard enough (regular readers of this blog will know that I like to spend my spare time pushing myself to my limits, and preferably beyond them, so a trip that doesn’t stretch my physical abilities doesn’t really feel worthwhile to me). I was a little worried that the desert might be a bit boring, being more used to mountains and spectactular scenery. I naively thought that I’d just see miles of sand stretching ahead of me, and that it might get a little dull. I was also worried that I’d be bored by a day in Petra, as standing around looking at ruins isn’t really my idea of fun (and I have an extremely low boredom threshold). Finally, after my experience of climbing Mt Toubkal, I was a little concerned about the guide and whether he would be as unfriendly and unhelpful as the Moroccan guide on that trip.
It turned out that, like most of my worries, these were all fruitless. I was concerned on the first day when our guide Zuhair announced that we would be walking very slowly, and even took me aside to warn me not to walk too fast (I think he noticed my Tigger-like energy and enthusiasm on the first morning!). But it soon turned out that there were lots of hills to tax me, that walking on sand is much tougher than walking on regular trails and rocks, and that he actually set a very decent pace. The others did tend to walk a little slower, and I found myself frequently walking ahead with Zuhair and then waiting for the others to catch up, but that suited me fine as it meant I got longer to rest in the shade! My second fear, that the desert might be boring, was completely unfounded, as there was a constant supply of fascinating rocks in varying shades of colours to look at.
The third day was spent scrambling on the rocks at Jebel Burdar, and was a test of skill as well as fear as we made our way, with the aid of ropes, up to the top of the imposing arch. One could certainly never be bored up here!
There was also never a dull moment spending time with such an interesting group of people (8 girls and 1 guy), representing professions as diverse as a (female) judge and (female) pilot. My worries about Petra were also unfounded, since it was actually one of the toughest days of walking that we did, and because our guide had decided to take us a scenic route involving lots of clambering up and down rocks, so we barely stood around at all.
The ruins were also far more interesting than I had been expecting, and from our high vantage point we had some fabulous views looking down on the Treasury and amphitheatre.
My final worry about the guide was largely unfounded. He wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and if you were used to a Western guide (as some people were) and the notion that “the customer is always right” then you might have been a little disappointed. But that’s such a stupid notion in the context of trekking. Of course the guide knows better than the customer in most situations involving the trip itself – he’s been there dozens of times, he knows what to expect, where are the best routes, how long something will take, how to ensure safety and so on. The trekker who’s never even been to the country before, let alone on the exact route, has no idea about such things. So I can understand why guides get upset when their judgement is questioned. The other aspect, where Western guides seem to differ substantially, is that guides in the Middle East and Asia do not treat you like children – they expect you to be on time, to be able to look after yourself, to keep up with the pace of the group, and only to ask for help when it’s really required. They also tend to be much less personal – Western guides will ask me about my various medical conditions, for instance, whereas on this trip, it was assumed I could look after myself unless there was a real problem. Which is fair enough, but it’s good to be aware of such things in advance.
And what of the weather, and the food, and wild camping, and how to go to the loo in the desert, and a million other questions that you might be wondering about? Did I get travel sick riding a camel (as people had warned me about)? What about wild animals on the campsite at night? And who stole my missing mug? I’ll save those and more for another post.