By Ron James
As avid world travelers, my wife Mary and I are always on the lookout for exotic locales to visit. In the last few years we’ve traveled to breathtaking otherworldly places like the Ganges in India at sunrise; the ghostly limestone islands and caves of Vietnam’s Halong Bay and the moonscaped lava fields of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands.
But our most recent trip topped the exotic scale. We spent three days on Mars. Well not exactly; but we visited a place that could – and has – passed for the Red Planet.
Our destination was Wadi Rum, a nearly 300-square mile patch of stark, very Martian-like desert in southern Jordan. T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, called Wadi Rum “vast, echoing and God-like.” And the description fits its long desert valleys punctuated by spectacular red sandstone mesas and peaks that change colors with the passing of the moon and sun. It’s both amazingly beautiful and a little spooky.
For decades this Valley of the Moon has lured film makers seeking a stand-in for Mars for space thrillers like “Red Planet,” “Mission to Mars” and “The Last Days of Mars.” Perhaps none is more famous than David Lean’s work of art, “Lawrence of Arabia,” that recalled British office T. E. Lawrence’s many visits there during Arab uprisings at the turn of the 20th century.
Today movie fans are thrilled by the mega-hit “The Martian” where Matt Damon plays a Mark Watney, an American astronaut and botanist forced to become an interplanetary MacGyver when he is stranded on Mars. Damon has earned a lead actor Academy Award nomination, but Wadi Rum, where key scenes were shot, deserves an Oscar for best dramatic location
“We shot exteriors at Wadi Rum,” explained director Ridley Scott in an interview published in Space.com. “To me, it’s the Eighth Wonder of the World. … And I didn’t do anything but shoot it at the right time, from the right positions, then added a bit of red dust to everything. So our film world looks pretty accurate — at least I’m hoping Mars looks a little like that.”
A few months before we landed in Wadi Rum we had never heard of the place, it could have been a crater on Mars for all we knew. “The Martian” was new in theaters and promotional pics showed Damon sitting in the stark, red Martian landscape. We never dreamed that Mary soon would be perched on that same spot.
Getting There is Part of the Adventure
When our daughter-in-law suggested that our visit to family in Israel in October include a long weekend in Wadi Rum, we agreed to join a group trip she was helping to plan.
There are a few ways to get there. Many travelers visiting Jordan’s most famous destination, Petra, can get a bus or cab which takes about two hours. From the major port of Aqaba, the journey is about an hour. Check with this site for times and information – http://wadirumjeeptours.com/transport-in-jordan/ .
Our group of adventurers car caravanned from Israel to Jordan, an 8-hour trip that passed though some of the most historic and iconic places on earth. Among them is the lowest point on earth (1,378 feet below sea level), home of the Dead Sea. To our eyes, it resembled California’s Salton Sea, though much larger, deader and sporting check points populated by very young bored men and women with very badass guns.
We skirted the Dead Sea cruising about 50 miles though the Jordan Rift Valley with Jordan visible across the Dead Sea on one side and stark mountains pockmarked with caves on the other. Along the way is the entrance to Qumran Caves Scrolls where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls.
Tired and shuttered resorts dot the sides of the well-maintained highway seemingly hundreds of yards from the water where hardy tourists bob in the alkaline water, escaping the dry heat. The shrinking sea is leaving these once popular attractions high and dry. When we made a pit stop at one, nasty sulfurous smells assaulted you, making anything at the snack bar less than desirable.
After passing the imposing, somber mountain of Masada, climbed by many young Israelis as a rite of passage, we leave the Dead Sea for more bad lands, in this case sites of the former kingdoms of Sodom and Gomorrah which were consumed by fire and brimstone. We didn’t see either although we did pass a massive horizontal rock column (salt?) with a sign touting Lot’s Wife.
We are now close to the Ancient Red Sea city of Aqaba, the only port city of Jordan and the tourist gateway to Wadi Rum and Petra. The border crossing into Jordan can be an ordeal as all papers are triple checked and fees are collected. It took our group several hours to cross.
Across the border, we quickly weave through Aqaba and climb into large mountains, eventually passing through a barren wasteland of dirt and squat concrete huts that may have been for the goat herders and their families. We get a glimpse of what’s ahead as massive mountains and hills sculpted into fantastical windblown shapes rose from the desert floor.
A small sign and a dirt road between two imposing sandstone plateaus led to our home for the next three nights, Bait Ali Lodge. The expansive resort was flanked on one side by steep escarpments of sculptured sandstone hills; the other sides merged into the endless desert sands and mountains. Even the kids in our caravan were silent as got out of our cars and took in the enchanted scene that looked a lot like Mars with a deluxe Bedouin resort.
You can spend a day in Wadi Rum, but that would be a shame, because the place is downright magic in the mornings, evening and night. There are a number of camps scattered though the area, all run by Bedouins, and all reflecting their history and culture to some degree. A few are the real deal, offering the “Bedouin” lifestyle to hardy tourists who don’t mind cold water, no-flush toilets and a mattress on the ground with a blanket and no sheets.
After our experience at a similar camp in India, we look for creature comforts like a good bed, private bath with a flush toilet, heating and air conditioning and maid service. We found a perfect match at Bait Ali, which had accommodations ranging from elaborate tents with beds and shared showers and toilets to adobe looking cottages with king sized beds, modern baths and flat screen TVs. We chose the latter.
Still there was one glitch that made for an uncomfortable first night. We noticed what smelled like pesticide when we first entered the room. This was not unusual in many of the countries infested with bugs we have visited — and usually the smell dissipates in an hour or so. But when we returned after dinner, the smell was still strong even though I turned the air conditioning fan to high when we left. After a fitful night highlighted by burning sinuses and eyes, I went to the front desk and requested a move.
Without any drama our luggage was moved into another cabin with the same amenities. The offending cabin, we learned, was constructed of recycled wood, in this case scavenged from old railway ties soaked is creosote. This tar has serious consequences, I later learned from a Google search. I took two stars off my Trip Advisor review for the camp for the loss of a good night’s sleep; it would only have gotten only one star if we had croaked.
It was a bit off the tourist season so our group had the run of Bait Ali; but it also meant that the folk dancing and music programs usually held were missing. Instead, loudspeakers in the common areas played western pop hits mixed with some disco, which was a bit off putting considering the exotic surroundings. Other than that, the resort was beautiful, spotless and the staff was friendly and accommodating.
The room rate included a hearty buffet breakfast that had an egg station and a chef making fresh Jordanian shrak bread, similar to very thin flour tortillas. Dinners had more Bedouin flare. Each night about dozen or more dishes or mezze were laid out for the buffet line including colorful and tasty salads and appetizers with equally colorful names like koubba maqliya, labaneh, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, as well as a wide assortment of olives and pickles. The star of the meal was wood-fired meats including chicken and lamb. Yogurt was served with every meal.
We loved the traditional wood-pit roasted lamb, but didn’t get the ultimate Bedouin feast, stuffed camel which is served at weddings and grand occasions. This delicacy is composed of a medium-sized camel stuffed with a sheep or a lamb – kind of like a very large Turducken.
Tea, coffee and juices were included with the meal. Unlike other camps in Wadi Rum, the dining area had a full bar that provided mixed drinks, wine and beer, Carakale from Jordan’s first craft brewery. Beer, by the way, was invented in the area by the Sumerians over 5,000 years ago. Bait Ali (which I think means Americans will pay anything for alcohol) charges a fair bit for their offerings, about the same as the Ritz Carlton, but without the peanuts.
After dinner some of our group hops into vans to visit the nearby observatory – but the rest of us just sip our pricey beverages and observe the universe without telescopes. The air is crystal clear and no city lights make the heavenly views just that. The Milky Way looked like a solid band of silver set with billions of diamonds; shooting stars evoke oohs and ahhs from the kids and grownups.
The next morning, I arose early to shoot photos of Wadi Rum at sunrise. It was beautifully still and peaceful as I climbed up the narrow path up the butte that bordered the camp. A golden glow edged the mountains in the distance. At the top I surveyed the landscape below. In the distance, the village of Wadi Rum sparkled with morning lights as the Bedouins were rising to get ready to entertain their guests with ATV, jeep and of course camel rides.
There was a lot to do in Wadi Rum. Day trips in 4×4 trucks, SUVs and vans, driven by the local Bedouins in full native garb, took adventurers to the film locations for a number of films including The Transformers, Lawrence of Arabia and, of course The Martian. Because of my painful experience with a camel (story to come) that morning, I didn’t make our scheduled desert trek that day. But Mary did and that’s why you see her – not I sitting in the very spot Matt Damon sat on in the movie. I also missed a visit to the supposed home of T.E. Lawrence while he campaigned with the Bedouins so many years ago.
Mary and our friends had a great time rolling around the giant red dunes and sipping tea with the Bedouin guides who told stories about their experiences as part of the film crews in the recent movies. The braver families crossed the natural sandstone bridges sculpted by wind and weather over the past millennium. If I could have walked a bit better I would have loved to have been a part of the fun.
Before I share the story of my camel ride, I want to recall one of the best actors of our time… and surly one of the most interesting off screen. Before our ride I remembered a PBS Terry Gross interview with him about his time in Wadi Rum where he starred as T.E. Lawrence in in the 1962 film epic Lawrence of Arabia.
“I loved the desert, I really did,” explain Peter O’Toole. “I was there three months before filming started and the idea was to learn to ride a camel. [It was] impossible. What you see is a European perched uneasily on the top of this huge brute, snorting and galloping. … I found after a while my bottom was bleeding from bouncing up and down on this snorting great dragon.”
“I went to Beirut buy to buy sponge rubber and it was, I remember, mucous membrane pink. And I arrived back to my Bedouin friend with this lump of thick, thick rubber and I stuffed it, shamelessly onto my saddle. … But after a while they looked and they saw it was quite comfy, too, and they could bounce more easily on sponge rubber than you could on wooden hump, so they began to ask me to buy more. So I was requisitioning tons of this damn stuff, yards of it. I think I introduced sponge rubber into Arabian culture. … They called me [in Arabic] ‘the father of rubber’… I had a transistor radio plugged into my ears and I had a cigarette going and I had a little bottle of something in the saddle bag. I was quite comfy.”
I tell this story because unfortunately there seems to be a dearth of sponge rubber in Jordon or I must have inherited the same wooden saddle that bloodied O’Tool’s backside. This was not my first camel ride; we had a quite nice ride at the Pushkar Camel Festival in India a few years back. But this ride… this was the camel ride from hell.
I must say that my Wadi Rum camel was a beauty – a pleasant face, long eyelashes and pretty friendly as camels go. But the saddle was made of wood featuring a 3 inch hardwood slat running down the middle from the horn to the butt end, all covered with a thin layer of cloth to disguise the terror to come. I knew there was something wrong when I first boarded the camel, which is an adventure in itself. But I said to myself, it’s only an hour ride, if the little kids in our group can handle it, I could do it.
Our caravan headed out toward the lovely mountains shimmering in the desert heat. The first ten minutes were tolerable… I tried to take my mind off the meeting of my bottom with that hardwood board. Then the pain began to get serious and my prostate was getting the beating of its little life. The mountains began to get larger “my god,” I shouted to our Bedouin guide who was walking “we’re not going to those mountains are we?” He smiled a knowing smile and everyone laughed — but me. Our guides, I guess, had decided to give us the deluxe long tour and we were at least 45 minutes out before they decided we had had enough and turned us around to head back to the camp.
I wanted to cry. I tried to go into a Zen like state and that didn’t really help much… kind of like white knuckling it during a root canal without pain killer. I was so relieved when we finally returned to the camp, I laughed slightly idiotically like I just had the time of my life. My understanding camel tried to be a gentle as possible as it did its thing to get me off its back. My legs were so weak and rubbery I could hardly walk back to our little hut in the desert where I took a horizontal position on or king sized bed with 300 thread count sheets for the rest of the day.
In the end — so to speak — I felt close to Matt Damon, Peter O’Tool and even Lawrence of Arabia. We had shared the same Wadi Rum. Our Wadi Rum adventure would be a memorable one, and good for a story and a laugh. We all experienced the isolation, beauty and adventure of Mars on Earth — only Damon didn’t have to ride a camel.