How hard can desert trekking be? It’s just sand.

If you’re used to trekking up mountains, you might be forgiven that walking in the desert is, well, a walk in the park, but with more sand and less grass. It was actually my biggest fear on booking my trip to the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan: that I would be (a) bored and (b) not physically challenged by walking on the flat in the sand. Turns out I was mistaken on both counts. I’ve walked up sand dunes before, and I’ve also tried running on beaches in soft sand, so I should really have known better. But the body has an incredible ability to forget pain and suffering (this is actually a biological fact, because otherwise the human race would die out due to the horrors of childbirth, or so I’m told).

Sand. And some big rocks.

Sand. And some big rocks.

So let’s get a few things straight. There is indeed a lot of sand in the Wadi Rum. And sometimes it’s flat and stretches for miles. But there are also a lot of big rocks. And lots of hills. And most of the sand is soft and difficult to walk on. Especially when it constantly fills your boots, no matter how tightly you tie the laces. You could wear tight trousers (or at least, trousers with tight legs, that cover the top of the boot) as our guide did, or gaiters, but in temperatures of more than 30 degrees C, you have to really care about sand in your boots to do that. You can see why the Bedouins wear long robes and trousers though (not that they tend to wear walking boots anyway). So, if you don’t want to have hot legs, you have to be prepared to walk with a lot of sand in your boots, which can get quite uncomfortable. I stopped to empty mine approximately every hour. Here’s how much sand was in just one boot after an hour’s walking.

DSCN6421I’m also not a big fan of sand generally, because my experience of it is mostly limited to beaches, where things get wet. And wet sand gets everywhere and stays there. I have a particular horror of sand in my food. Crunching my teeth on a piece of sand sends shivers down my spine (as does crunching on a piece of eggshell). But luckily, while the sand in the desert gets everywhere, it’s so dry that it brushes off again very easily, so no need to worry. I say that, but you still find sand everywhere for weeks afterwards. Luckily I had the foresight to pack everything in Ziplock bags. And they say sand is a good exfoliator for the skin, so I tried to take the positives.

Similarly, while walking on sand is incredibly tough on the leg muscles, I consoled myself with the thought that it was doing both my fitness and muscular development a world of good. Well, I tried to. What I mostly said to myself while walking was “I hate sand. I especially hate soft sand. And walking uphill in soft sand.” It became a constant trial to try to find the hardest bits of sand to walk on, which was mostly the road, but not always. When I say road, I’m exaggerating a little bit. What I really mean is “place where a vehicle has driven or where many people have walked”, as these tended to be the most densely packed bits of sand.

Camping on sand was also interesting. On the one hand, there were no problems with driving tent pegs into rock-hard ground. Certainly no need for a mallet. It turned out there weren’t any tent pegs either, since pegs don’t tend to work very well in sand. And there were no guy ropes either, for the same reason. In Morocco when we had camped, we hadn’t used tent pegs either but had tied the tents together by means of the guy ropes. This wasn’t an option here, since there were no guy ropes. But since we had the whole desert to camp in, we had been able to spread out the tents over a wide area and avoid listening to snoring or other nocturnal noises. So how did we anchor the tents? If we were lucky, we could find some rocks to anchor them at the corners. There were, however, two problems with this. First, there weren’t very many rocks, so we had to fight over them. Second, people tended to use rocks to cover up the results of performing bodily functions. So it was with great caution that you dared to pick up a rock, for fear of what it was hiding!

My luxury tent, anchored by rocks

My luxury tent, anchored by rocks

The eagle-eyed amongst you will spot that my tent was what an estate agent would describe as a luxury bijou residence. It certainly wasn’t big enough to swing a cat in (luckily I didn’t have a cat) or even a small mouse (I didn’t have one of those either) and if I’d been any taller than 5 foot 4, I wouldn’t have fitted in it. Luckily I’m 5 foot 3 3/4, so all was well. My mattress didn’t fit in it, but with a bit of ingenuity (brute force) I managed to bend that into shape. Everyone else had regular tents, so I was just the unlucky one. But I actually came to love my luxury abode and defended it with pride whenever anyone dared to criticise it. At least there was no danger of being attacked by wild animals, as a wild animal wouldn’t have had room to come inside my hobbit-sized tent.

The others all had human-sized rather than hobbit-sized tents

The others all had human-sized tents

And on the subject of wild animals, that was another danger I hadn’t been expecting. On the first night I heard what sounded like a fox or hyena prowling around my tent, but dismissed it as nocturnal paranoia. The next morning, however, our guide told us that it was actually true, and a fox had indeed visited our campsite in the night. He might have been making it up, but a friend who lives in the region confirmed that both foxes and hyenas do indeed frequent the area. I’m fairly glad I never actually saw one. I’m pretty sure I also heard desert mice sliding down the roof of my tent and then clambering back up again, but that might have been just the wind. Luckily, if there were any mice, they never found my stash of mango and apple cereal bars inside the tent, so all was well.

In case you’re in any doubt, the wild camping in the desert was fabulous, and much more fun than the posh Bedouin campsite we stayed in the first night, even if that did have the luxury of proper old-fashioned iron beds and enough space to swing a whole camel, or possibly even two.

my posh Bedouin tent

inside my posh Bedouin tent

While glamping Bedouin-style (who knew the Bedouins were so middle-class?) was a good way to break us in gently on the first night, it didn’t really feel like a true adventure until we were on our own in the middle of nowhere with nothing but hyenas and foxes for company. I’m sure Lawrence of Arabia and Indiana Jones never had a plumbed-in loo and running water.

Indiana Jones

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