Petra – Off The Beaten Track
I draw in a deep breath of fresh air, as Musa and I step out of the car, and immediately feel small in the vast landscape that seems to stretch all the way to eternity. Musa, my Bedouin guide, will guide me into Petra through the back door, so to speak. We’ve just been to Little Petra, and on his instructions we have been dropped off in what feels like the middle of nowhere. A whole day of hiking on off-the beaten track paths in and around Petra stretches out like a deep, contented sigh.
The sun is hot on my back, despite the lingering coolness of the previous night. It has been ages since I hiked in the mountains anywhere, and I can feel excitement stir in my body. The silence that wraps itself around us floods through my whole being. Every now and then Musa points to something interesting: an unusual rock formation, a lone Bedouin tent, a distant desert landscape beyond the mountains. I drink in the silence, while following the light tread of my guide, with my own heavier one.
Soon the sand and loose gravel give way to what feels like a never-ending series of rock stairs that lead us ever higher and higher. Musa promises me a spectacular view in a favourite spot, when he notices my quickening breath. I am not hiking fit, and despite a regular yoga practice, my body is ill-prepared for this day of hiking. Yet, my whole being hungers for it, and rejoices in the feeling of freedom.
Later, sitting in Musa’s promised spot, I gaze around me in awe. He has delivered on his promise, and as we sip from our water bottles, he regales me with stories from various previous hikes, his life in this eternal landscape, and how he is teaching his oldest son the secrets of the land his forefathers have called home for generations. He points towards a white speck on a mountain top – the shrine that was built to mark the grave of Aaron (Haroun in Arabic), Moses’ brother. Here, history lives on, as if the passage of time has been mere seconds.
Soon we are on our way again, and my thoughts quickly lose themselves in the rhythmic crunch of my footsteps. I nearly bump into Musa, when he comes to an abrupt stop. “Can you spot The Monastery?” he enquires. I look around me, and strain my eyes. Nothing. I shrug and smile. He grins with deep satisfaction, before pointing towards the rock face to our left. And as if by magic, one of the iconic images of Petra, materialises before me, when I squint, and although it is still only a speck on the horizon, it is unmistakeably real.
It is here in the shadow of Ad-Deir (The Monastery) that we are supposed to say goodbye to one another. Musa suggests another option. If I agree, we could follow the tourist trail, down about 800 stairs to the Basin Restaurant, but from there diverge from the beaten track at Qasr al-Bint, and use a path, rarely chosen by the majority of tourists, which would take us around the back to the High Place of Sacrifice, and from there again along a trail that will bring us to the dam, not far from the official entrance into Petra. He picks up a discarded free tourist map caught against some dry vegetation, and shows me more or less where the proposed route will take us. I readily agree, as I’ve set the next day aside to explore Petra proper, and we strike an amicable deal.
I am glad when we leave the clumps of tourists behind, which we encountered on the short hike between the Monastery and Qasr al-Bint. They feel like a rude intrusion on a day of solitude and silence.
Musa is a fount of information, but he uses words sparingly, as we traverse the mountains that fill his existence and daily life. We make regular stops in shady spots and overhangs. For me to catch my breath and gaze out towards a landscape so filled with stories that it practically reverberates, and him to roll and leisurely smoke a cigarette. The rock-hewn stairs we encounter seem to lead to heaven. I stop counting how many times we ascend and descend as we pass by caves still inhabited by the odd Bdoul Bedouin, ones that have been abandoned long ago, past the Triclinium, Roman Soldier’s Tomb, Garden Temple Complex, and Lion Monument towards the High Place of Sacrifice, where we stop for a rest and cup of tea.
The sun becomes hotter the higher it glides through the cobalt blue sky, and the shady spots sparser, yet we regularly stumble upon a welcome breeze in the most unexpected places. I welcome nature’s own ingenious air-conditioner by flinging out my arms, and embracing as much of the coolness as I can. The temperature, flirting close to 40C, is not ideal for a full day of hiking, but I embrace it with the knowledge that today will be one of those special days I will treasure for the rest of my life.
When we leave the High Place of Sacrifice, my legs start to rebel against the seemingly endless distance. They feel heavy and uncooperative. I silently long for the icy chill of the air-conditioner in my hotel room, and cold water, as I take the last sip of water from my water bottle, more suitable for making tea than quenching thirst. On a map everything looks flat, easy and possible. How deceptive! I beg for a break after a while, and when we find a rocky overhang, we welcome the shade by lying on our backs, soaking up the relative coolness and silence. We linger, lost in thought for almost 30 minutes. “Yalla?” Musa eventually asks. With a deep inhalation, I muster up the last dregs of energy. “Yalla! Let’s go.” I answer with more gusto than I feel. Soon, the terrain becomes more friendly, and before long we, once more, join the clumps of tourists and endless streams of Bedouin plying their trade by offering rides on their donkeys, camels, horses, and horse-drawn carts.
Visited: August 2015
# Only the registered tourist guides from the Tourist Office are officially allowed to guide within Petra. The informal Bedouin guides will take you to all those places lying outside of Petra proper. If you are not keen on hiking, you can always ride a donkey.
# Remember to take enough water with you when you hike the off-the beaten track trails, wear sunscreen, a hat, and appropriate shoes.
# I organised my hike with Musa through Raami Tours, although you won’t struggle to find an informal guide once you step into Petra. If you are a female travelling alone, it is perhaps far wiser to organise a guide through a reputable agency.
# If you are interested in the lives of the Bdoul Bedouin, who have called this area their home for generations, read Marguerite van Geldermalsen’s book Married to a Bedouin. It tells the story of how she fell in love with one of the Bedouin, got married, and lived in one of the caves in Petra, until the government relocated everyone to the village they still reside in today. It is Marguerite’s oldest son, Raami, who is the owner of Raami Tours.