Bedouin camping tents are set up at the base of cliffs in the Wadi Rum desert, where many movies have been filmed. Photo for The Washington Post by Amanda Orr
Bedouin camping tents are set up at the base of cliffs in the Wadi Rum desert, where many movies have been filmed. Photo for The Washington Post by Amanda Orr

In Jordan's desert, an adventure worthy of Hollywood

By Amanda Orr Time of article published Dec 17, 2019

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In a trailer for 'The Rise of Skywalker,' the 'Star Wars' movie that opens later this month, we see Rey racing across a desert landscape, light saber in hand, trying to outrun a spacecraft. 

The landscape looked familiar to me, and for good reason: I had visited this dramatic desert on vacation in Jordan. Wadi Rum is just four hours south of Amman.

After a long, flat and mostly unremarkable drive on the Desert Highway, you arrive at the crest of a hill to behold this remarkable site, also called the Valley of the Moon. It feels like you've landed on another planet.

Petra is widely known as the crown jewel of Jordan, but for adventure seekers, Wadi Rum is the star. From the enormous red, pink and brown sandstone cliffs rising up out of the sandy desert floor, it's readily apparent why this place has earned starring roles as Mars in 2015's 'The Martian'; as the fictional city of Agrabah in 2019's "Aladdin"; and, of course, as the fictional planet Pasaana for the final Skywalker installment.

As far back as 'Lawrence of Arabia' in 1962, filmmakers have flocked to this site for its magnificent scenery. For tourists, Wadi Rum also offers a chance to experience the traditional Bedouin culture of southern Jordan.

I had never heard the term "wadi" before arriving in Jordan: It refers simply to a valley carved by water. But Jordan is famous for its wadis, most of which are narrow canyons that provide great hiking and an escape from the sun. Wadi Rum is vast, the largest in Jordan, taking up 280 square miles, nearly the area of New York City, and extending south to Jordan's border with Saudi Arabia.

Day trippers can spend a few hours taking a jeep ride through Wadi Rum with stops to hike and scramble over rocks along the way. But it is the experience of staying in one of the many Bedouin-run camps that is truly unforgettable.

The author's children climb through Khazali Canyon, where ancient Nabatean inscriptions dot the walls. Photo for The Washington Post by Amanda Orr

But as wealth from tourism has spread through the community, many have moved to cement houses in the town of Rum just outside the park boundary. 

We opted for a two-hour tour, although with the vastness of Wadi Rum you could easily spend more time. We commenced our bouncy drive into the desert, and were all soon reaching for the grab bars and pulling out our scarves to keep errant hair and swirling sand out of our eyes. It's an exhilarating drive, and the kids in our group were certain they'd just boarded the best amusement park ride ever.

We had time to properly adjust our scarves at the first stop on our tour - the Lawrence Spring, supposedly where British officer T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) camped during the great Arab Revolt of 1917-1918 and where today's Wadi Rum camels rest and replenish their reserves with the spring water. It was Lawrence's time here that first drew Western tourists to Wadi Rum, although inhabitants date to prehistoric times.

Next, we were driven to a narrow gorge, where we ascended a few sandstone steps and entered a cramped passageway where ancient Nabatean inscriptions dating back more than 12,000 years are well-preserved on the canyon walls. These symbols and images of animals and humans are thought to be evidence of one of the earliest alphabets.

From there, we began the heart-pumping - and heartstopping - stage of the tour. We drove down to the base of a gigantic red sand dune dotted with a mix of children running to the top and adults slogging through the sand. At varying speeds, our group eventually made it to the top, and we were rewarded with a magnificent 360-degree vista.

(Note to self: Don't wear white on the next visit to Wadi Rum. We would find red sand in our shoes and bags for the next week.)


Wadi Rum Bedouin Camp

Rum Village, Jordan


This family-run option for tent lodging and jeep adventure tours is led by local guides. Traditional basic tents about $49 (about R700) per night for adults, about $28 for children under 12, free for children under 3. Dinner, breakfast and transportation to village included. Deluxe double tent with private bath about $282 per night. Half-day jeep tours about $84 per person for one, about $42 each for two, about $28 each for three, about $21 each for four to seven people.


The Washington Post

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