Armchair travel: Hiking the highlights of the Jordan Trail


[25-08-2021 11:15 AM]

BY Juliette Sivertsen

A naked woman could once walk from Ajloun to Damascus without anyone seeing her. Or so the local lore goes, dating back to the medieval times, as a way of describing the dense forest known once to cloak parts of Jordan.

Bordered by conflict zones and war-torn countries, Jordan is a haven of peace in the Middle East, shaped by jebel and wadi - mountains and valleys that seem otherworldly and provide depth, dimension and magnificence to the land.

Today, only about 1 per cent of the land is forest - but the reserves that do exist are home to hundreds of plant species, birds and reptiles.

When international travel resumes and you're ready to head out into the wilderness on a remote adventure, hiking the Jordan Trail can be a life-changing experience.

To tackle the full 650km takes roughly 40 days. But in 2019 I was able to sample some of its highlights, with a 10-day abridged itinerary with World Expeditions. The expedition took us across the nation, staying at local guest houses, hotels and Bedouin camps along the way, experiencing the finest of Jordanian hospitality.

Here are some of the hiking trail highlights to inspire you for future adventures.

Ajloun Forest Reserve

Pre-Covid, Ajloun was tipped to be one of the next major hiking destinations in Jordan. The city is landmarked by the 12th-century Ajloun Castle, one of the few Muslim castles in Jordan built to defend against the Crusaders.

Twenty minutes away from these historic ruins is the Ajloun Forest Reserve, known for its fertile soil and nooks for picnics. From our cabins in the woods, trails meandered through and around oak trees, pine, pomegranate and wild pistachio trees.

We took a short and pleasant sunset hike along the Roe Deer Trail in the cooler evening temperature, but there are longer hikes in the park, including a more challenging trek up to Ajloun Castle.

From the highest peaks of the reserve, views stretch far out across the hill country and Ajloun highlands, with the distant haze of the capital Amman clinging onto the colours of the sunset at dusk.

Bergesh Forest

This is the largest forest in Jordan at 25,000sw km but it is also young - only 150 years old, created to rejuvenate the land that had lost its green cover.

Hiking in the Bergesh Forest is rated as "medium" difficulty, and our trek was 8km. Our military man-turned hiking guide, Mohammed, took us along dried river beds and by oak, apple and maple trees, dodging giant holes in the earth, where people have tried to dig for antiquity gold.

Digging up and taking antiquities is considered a severe crime for this archaeologically rich nation, with punishments equal to the penalties handed down to drug dealers. What lies beneath the land is seen as belonging to all the people of Jordan, not any one individual.

The final stage of the hike passes through the ruins of a Roman cemetery with an estimated 500 graves, indicating a settlement of around 1500, who lived here about 2000 years ago. At the end, we found some shade under an oak tree until our transport arrived.

We were taken back to Mohammed's village in Orjam, where his wife, Maisoun, runs a homestay for travellers and Jordan Trail hikers. She prepared a feast of Middle Eastern fare for the hungry hikers.

Wadi Dana Trail

The Dana Biosphere Reserve spans 320sq km, making it Jordan's largest nature reserve. Formed by water and wind, Dana's canyon is so vast and diverse, it travels across three climates. It has wild plants and animals characteristic of the desert at its lowest point, as well as Mediterranean forests and the dry plains of Russia at the higher altitudes.

It's hard to comprehend there are nearly 900 plant species living here. From our clifftop accommodation at the top of Wadi Dana, the canyon below looked like an expansive abyss of rocky, dry and inhospitable land.

But on the slopes and between the crevasses, the diverse flora provides a home to 190 bird species, 37 mammal species and 36 reptile species, including endangered species such as the Arabian wolf and spiny-tailed lizard.

The trek through the Dana Biosphere Reserve was the most gruelling of the entire 10-day expedition - mainly downhill for nearly 18km with little shade from the Middle Eastern sun, starting from the abandoned, stoney-house village of Dana.

A word of warning for those with dodgy knees - the constant downhill trodding on a gravel road will leave you in need of an ice pack and a good dose of anti-inflammatory at the end of the day.

Nawatef Trail

Clinging to the side of a cliff face, I finally understood the brief at the bottom of my brochure about the Nawatef Trail stating "No fear of heights".

Nawatef is a short loop trail in the Dana Biosphere Reserve and for the most part, fairly gentle. But the views are wild as the sandstone and limestone rock formations below resemble a rolling field of giant mushroom tops.

But there are a few moments towards the end where scrambling is a necessity, as well as putting an awful amount of trust in the grippy-ness of my hiking boots on the sandstone. Our local guide promised us the rocks are "sticky" and we wouldn't fall while descending a rockface at a seemingly 45-degree angle.

Petra

The red-rose city of Petra is an archaeological marvel, but exploring its many ruins requires reasonable walking fitness.

The journey to the famed Treasury takes at least an hour on foot, past old tombs and through a rocky ravine known as the Siq.

But the Treasury is only the beginning of Petra's wonders, with thousands of other tombs and ancient settlements from Nabatean, Byzantine and Roman empires waiting to be explored. The hiking is mostly flat, sandy and repetitive, with little shade, but there is some climbing required to get to the Royal Tombs.

Just when you think nothing more could astonish you, along comes the journey to the magnificent Monastery - via a laborious 900-step climb to the 45m tall carved facade. But remember, what goes up must come down.

Jabal um ad Dami

We had an early start in the Wadi Rum desert to reach Jordan's highest peak, before the harshness of the sun made it too unbearable to climb without risking severe dehydration.

The journey from Sun City Bedouin camp began well before sunrise, and it was the only time I felt freezing cold in Jordan.
After 90 minutes on the back of the ute, me huddled into my group trying to stay warm, the desert eventually began to lighten.

The actual hike itself wasn't long, but it was the constant scrambling and clambering up over rocks and in the heat that took its toll. We were glad to have left while still dark, for the early morning sun was still fierce enough to deplete my energy stores and there was no shelter from the sun apart from the occasional overhanging rock to hide beneath.

We had to stop frequently on our ascent to hydrate, the journey broken up by spontaneous outbursts from our singing Bedouin guide, Suliman.

From the peak, at an elevation of 1854m, the 360-degree views extend across Jordan, the Red Sea, Israel, Egypt and across the border to Saudi Arabia. Standing next to the Jordanian flag flying atop the mountain, my cellphone pinged with a message welcoming me to the Saudi data network.

Suliman pulled out a black scorched kettle - the mark of a well-travelled Bedouin - and lit a small mountaintop fire to boil the water for our sweet mint tea.

It was our final hike of the expedition and our knees tested us one last time on the downhill trek to base.

*nzherald




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