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Wadi Rum: Desert Drama in Jordan

“Arrakis is Arrakis, and the desert takes the weak.” —Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Dune (2021)

One thing I love about good movies is the way they can transport us to far-off places, whether real or imagined, for a much-needed dose of escapism. Bama and I recently watched Denis Villeneuve’s epic adaptation of Dune, the 1965 science fiction novel by Frank Herbert. Neither of us were familiar with the book or the complex fantasy world that it spawned, but we found the film visually stunning and thought-provoking in equal measure (could there be a future where computers and AI are banned?). Much of Dune is set on Arrakis, the inhospitable desert planet that happens to be the universe’s only source of Spice Melange – a valuable, life-extending psychedelic drug that enhances human intelligence and makes interstellar travel possible.

The sweeping grandeur of this desert environment on the big screen hit us with a surprising familiarity. This was because we’d been to one of ­­­­the three filming locations that stood in for the fictional planet: Wadi Rum, a UNESCO World Heritage site in southern Jordan. (The others were Wadi Araba, also in Jordan, and the seemingly endless sand dunes of the Empty Quarter outside Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE.)

Wadi Rum, of course, is no stranger to Hollywood filmmakers or international audiences. It was Lawrence of Arabia, the classic 1962 biopic starring Peter O’Toole that single-handedly put this part of Jordan on the map, but more recent movies shot here include The Martian, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and the live-action remake of Disney’s Aladdin. All brought the cinematic beauty of its raw, otherworldly landscapes into clear focus.

It goes without saying that the Wadi Rum we visited back in October 2019 was not quite the deadly environment portrayed in Dune: there are no unsurvivable storms with 850 kph (528 mph) winds or giant sandworms lurking beneath the surface, ready to pick up on any rhythmic vibrations of a human or Spice-harvesting mobile factory. And instead of hostile Fremen dwelling in hidden cave systems, we encountered the famously hospitable Bedouin people.

But the shots of make-believe Arrakis brought back the sensation of feeling infinitesimally small, of being dwarfed by the scale of the desert. Bama and I instantly recalled being caught out in the intense dry heat on a camel trek that lasted several hours longer than it should have. We had grown increasingly sore and uncomfortable as the sun rose higher and higher in the sky, and desperately wished for the ride to end. Had city life made us soft?

Bedouins are already expert camel riders by the time they hit their teens

An informal eatery or rest stop in Wadi Rum

Inscriptions left by the Thamuds, a tribe that lived in northwestern Arabia between 800 and 400 BC

Seeking shade

A cinematic landscape

Hikers reaching the top of a tall sand dune

Is this Mars?

In all our previous travels, we had never known what it was like to be in a desert, and both of us figured that Jordan would be a great place to start. From Petra we headed south to Wadi Rum, a protected area spanning 740 square kilometers (just over 285 square miles), about the size of Singapore or New York City’s five boroughs. The plan was to stay two nights at the Bedouin-owned Rum Stars Camp, which included a guided camel trek and a day-long 4×4 excursion taking in all the key sights.

Small group tours can be a bit of a gamble – sometimes you luck out and end up with a fabulous bunch of like-minded people. But this was not one of those times. For the entire day, we shared the open-top 4×4 with four young Italians who spoke only among themselves. (It made for a very awkward picnic lunch.) Our attempts at breaking the ice, at sparking some sort of basic conversation, proved fruitless. Fortunately, Bama and I had better luck with our driver-guide Abdurrahman, who, after finding out we’d come from Indonesia, posed us a surprising question. “So, are they really going to move the capital?” Not many people outside the country are aware of the ambitious plan to relocate the Indonesian center of government from the world’s fastest-sinking city. But somehow, the news had reached a well-informed Bedouin in the middle of the Jordanian desert.

Abdurrahman drove us to the foot of a tall orange dune so we could walk up its steep flanks to admire the views over our austere surroundings. Then we were shuttled between sandstone formations sculpted by wind and water into fantastical shapes: a giant button mushroom, natural arches, a massive hand rising from the ground, smooth-sided chambers hollowed out of the soft rock. Exploring the latter, I imagined it was like being inside a wheel of Swiss cheese.

Wadi Rum, as it turns out, is also dotted with the traces of 12,000 years of human habitation. At the sheer-sided mountain called Jebel Khazali, we strolled past a solitary fig tree into a narrow canyon created over millennia by winter floods, in search of its Thamudic, Nabataean, and early Islamic inscriptions, alongside petroglyphs depicting humans, pairs of feet carved into the rock, and animals such as ibex, lions, and elephants. For us, these relics provided a fascinating visual record of Wadi Rum’s early inhabitants, not to mention traders passing through with their caravans and pilgrims en route to Mecca.

Spot the camels

Approaching the sheer rock faces of Jebel Khazali

Camels at rest; entering the narrow gorge at Jebel Khazali

Ancient petroglyphs on the sides of Khazali Canyon

Not quite the Wild West

The communal dining tent at Rum Stars Camp

Looking out from the middle of the same tent

A delicious “zarb” dinner of meat and vegetables cooked in an underground oven

The camp’s firepit and Bedouin-inspired tents during the day

It might be because Italy is so incredibly old, but our four companions were nowhere near as taken with the archaeological sites as Bama or myself. The Nabataeans who lived in this arid region 2,000 years ago were experts at water management, and the remains of a cistern marked out by hefty stone blocks are a mainstay on any Wadi Rum itinerary. But not because of its age or history. Today, it’s erroneously known as “Lawrence’s House”, which stems from the belief that it was used as a campsite by T. E. Lawrence when he joined the Arab revolt against Ottoman rule during World War I. The builders of Petra also left the ruins of an ancient temple dating to the first century BC, but sadly we never got the chance to visit.

Shortly after walking through the Al Mahama Canyon, one of our final stops of the tour, Bama and I came across James and Nadia, a recently married couple from Washington, D.C. we’d seen that morning at Rum Star’s office in Wadi Rum village. By pure chance they had been put on another 4×4 with far more amicable French companions. We were hugely relieved to finally encounter fellow travelers we could connect with in a shared language. That night, after we had checked into Rum Stars’ solar-powered desert camp, the four of us shared a table in the communal dining tent. The buffet-style dinner was an introduction to zarb, a traditional Bedouin cooking method akin to a barbecue, usually a combination of meat and vegetables roasted for hours on a three-tiered grill over hot coals in an underground oven. On this occasion, we were served succulent chicken, potatoes, carrot, and zucchini, nearly all with perfectly charred edges. It was a feast fit for a king, in part because of the generous assortment of side dishes: spiced long grain rice, couscous, cucumber and tomato salad, pita bread, and a dollop of fresh labneh (strained yogurt).

This hearty meal was preceded by cups of sweet tea and an introduction to Salem, one of the three brothers behind Rum Stars Camp. He must have been in his early forties; standing in the relative darkness in his spotless white thoab (tunic), with a beard and shoulder-length hair tumbling out from his keffiyeh (headdress), Salem appeared like a prophet. He regaled us with stories as we sat on embroidered cushions around the campfire, tongues of orange flame crackling and perfuming the dry desert air with the fragrance of wood smoke. “In my parents’ time, there were no cars here,” Salem explained. “They had to bring in everything by camel.” Now that the Bedouins had fat-tired 4x4s, procuring supplies like water and fresh fruit and vegetables was no longer a challenge.

One of several natural arches (or rock bridges) in Wadi Rum

Another desert camp at Wadi Rum

In the back of the open-top 4×4

Stopping for a picnic lunch; a natural chamber carved out by water

It’s easy to see why Mushroom Rock got its name

The Al Mahama Canyon

Our gracious host then told us he’d never traveled abroad, and he did not care much for Aqaba, a coastal city of 150,000 just an hour’s drive to the west. “I was in Aqaba twice, and after two hours I got a headache. It is too busy, too noisy, too chaotic – it’s not for me.” I imagined Salem in Jakarta, confronted with the din of traffic from the cars and motorcycles clogging the major avenues, the roads being broken up by hydraulic hammers, the music and excited chatter at amusement parks, the neighborhood mosques blaring entire sermons at full volume through their loudspeakers… Yes, he would most certainly detest Indonesia’s overcrowded capital.

Coming from a place as boisterous as Jakarta, we loved the sheer, powerful silence of Wadi Rum. Its quietness demanded contemplation. I began to understand why desert environments are so well suited for meditation and prayer, how they have always attracted holy men seeking a connection with the divine, away from the distractions of the outside world. On our camel trek, we often heard nothing but the clack-clack-clack of our camels’ hooves as we traversed rocky ground. The single-humped dromedaries were noiseless in the sand, plodding onwards at a steady pace. Despite my discomfort, I came away with a better appreciation for these ever-dependable, if loudly flatulent, ships of the desert.

It would not be a stretch to say that Wadi Rum can be even more arresting by night. Our visit coincided with the full moon, which rendered all but the brightest stars invisible. Only when Bama and I awoke at five in the morning, after the moon had set, could we glimpse the full beauty of the Northern Hemisphere’s constellations. Opening the door of our tent revealed what appeared to be ten thousand lamps flickering in the heavens. Never in my life had I seen Orion or the Big Dipper with such clarity. Bama pointed out Ursa Minor, with Polaris, the North Star, gleaming like an exclamation mark at the tip of its tail. It seemed as though everyone else in the camp was still fast asleep, and this particular moment in the pre-dawn stillness – of coming face-to-face with distant galaxies adorning the untainted skies above Wadi Rum – is one of my fondest memories of Jordan.

A vision of Arrakis

Waiting for sunset

Day’s end

Dusk at Wadi Rum

Ships of the desert

The ancient Nabatean cistern known erroneously as “Lawrence’s House”

The view from my camel

Thamudic petroglyphs depicting camels

One last shot of Wadi Rum’s otherworldly landscape

30 Comments Post a comment
  1. Beautiful pictures James, now I want to see the movie! Maggie

    November 30, 2021
    • Thank you, Maggie! I hope Dune is still playing in cinemas over in Canada – it’s an absolute masterpiece and totally riveting even if you’ve not read the novel.

      December 1, 2021
  2. You have wonderfully captured Wadi Rum. It´s one of my Bucket list, hopefully to see this beauty with my own eyes.

    December 1, 2021
    • I hope you get there soon… Wadi Rum is a must-visit and the desert camping experience can be pretty luxurious. If you’re planning a camel trek, my advice is to do one super early in the morning or late in the afternoon, and make sure it doesn’t last more than an hour or two!

      December 1, 2021
      • I tried desert camping and riding a camel when I was living in Kuwait but I really wanted to do it again with my daughter …someday! Thanks for the tip.

        December 2, 2021
      • You’re welcome!

        December 2, 2021
  3. How good is Wadi Rum? I just loved my time there. Your photos bought back wonderful memories!

    December 1, 2021
    • I’m glad you also had the chance to go there – it was easily one of the most surreal places I’ve ever been to. And so strikingly beautiful too.

      December 1, 2021
  4. I had a trip to Jordan planned for the end of March last year, and because of the timiing, it has been postponed indefinitely. So I’m really glad to read more about Jordan and see these photos.

    December 1, 2021
    • That’s such a shame… I really hope your trip gets the green light once this pandemic is well and truly over. Looking back, I can’t believe how lucky I was to visit just a few months before international borders were shut en masse. My next post will likely be on Petra, but it will take a while for me to go through the hundreds of photos I took there!

      December 1, 2021
  5. The “ships of the desert” are nicer to look at than to ride for any length of time. James, I remember the discomfort too, when we rode them in Egypt. Too bad you had such anti-social tour companions, but your guide sounded interesting and erudite. I can imagine your surprise when he asked you about the status of moving the Indonesian capital. I have not seen or read Dune, but you have piqued my interest. I can certainly see why Wadi Rum has been used in so many films. The sandy, red-hued landscape is stunning and I find it incredibly soothing to look at. Dusk over the desert, with those purples and pinks, is spectacular.

    December 1, 2021
    • I completely agree, Caroline – next time a camel ride is offered I will give it a miss! Maybe I’m stereotyping here, but I assumed that Italians would be warmer and more open to chit-chat. Perhaps the four travelers we “met” just didn’t feel comfortable speaking in English. There was the option of paying another US$50 each to have a private tour, but Bama and I felt we couldn’t justify the extra expense after spending quite a bit on flights and accommodation.

      December 1, 2021
  6. The otherworldly landscape and the local food really made up for those grueling hours of the uncomfortable camel ride. Taking an expression often used by Indonesians to describe such scorching heat, it was as if there were ten suns above our heads. But I’m not complaining. Little did we know that the world would completely change just a few months afterward, and it will take some time before we can do international travel again without the pandemic-related hassles.

    December 1, 2021
    • Absolutely, Bama. I remember just how relieved I was when our camels finally took us back to the camp and we could run into the main tent for some much-needed shade and cool water! And I’m so incredibly grateful that we got to spend some time in Wadi Rum at the end of our trip.

      December 1, 2021
  7. What a great experience. But I’m wondering—when I’ve watched a Japanese show and seen sites I’ve visited I get a warm feeling, but during a fictional movie set where I live, they kept showing a scene of what was supposedly the family’s house, but I knew that no one lived in that building, it was offices and I could no longer get into the fictional movie. How was it for you while watching Dune?

    December 2, 2021
    • That’s a very interesting anecdote – it makes me wonder how I would react in the same situation. I have a feeling the filmmakers of Dune deliberately went far off the usual tourist routes when they shot those scenes in Wadi Rum, which explains why we didn’t spot any of the landforms we’d visited like Jebel Khazali and Mushroom Rock. But we certainly recognized the general landscape… Wadi Rum just has this special look that lends itself so well to fantasy movies.

      December 2, 2021
  8. James, I love this post so much! I remember that you went to Jordan around the same time as me. When I read over your post, I realized I stayed at the exact same place! I loved it so much. I only wish I had more than one night and a short afternoon there. It truly was a magical place. Beautiful photos as always. I didn’t get out at night as we had dinner and then we saw only a little bit of sunset. I love the photo of you up on the rock at sunset. I really loved Jordan. I’d love to see Egypt someday.

    December 2, 2021
    • Wow Nicole, I had no idea you also stayed at Rum Stars Camp! Wasn’t it fabulous? I remember Bama and I seeing your social media updates while we were in Amman, and then it dawned on us that you were in the exact same locations but just a few days ahead of us. Just imagine if things had aligned and we happened to be your 4×4 tour companions – now that would have been so much fun!

      December 2, 2021
  9. That is some fancy “camp!” We were not lucky enough to be able to spend the night out in Wadi Rum, but I do remember having the very same feeling as you when “caught out in the intense dry heat on a camel trek that lasted several hours longer than it should have.” I thought our ride to a lunch tent would never end, and I had some additional concerns as we were out there in the middle of nowhere with only an 8-year-old boy leading the two of us. (Obviously, we were safe in his hands!) I wish we had allowed the extra time to stay in a place like this and experience the even deeper silence of that vast red space at night. Thanks for sharing more about your trip; I remember so well when you took it.

    December 2, 2021
    • It’s funny, isn’t it – our digs must have been palatial in comparison to the bona fide camping tents you stayed in during your Himalayan treks! I didn’t take a proper photo of the inside, but it had actual beds with mattresses and a fluffy pillow and blanket. And nearby there was even a well-maintained block of (flush) toilets and showers that was spotlessly clean. Imagine that! The idea of an 8-year-old leading your camel trek made me chuckle. We spent so long on our camels and passed so many camps along the way that it eventually felt like the guide was taking us round in circles. If I don’t get derailed by the holidays and other commitments, the plan is to publish a post on Petra in the next few weeks. Fingers crossed!

      December 3, 2021
      • YES! Circles – I swear we were led in a giant circle! Haha. And I love glamping as well as my dingier digs on long treks. Just make it any kind of tent for me, please!

        December 6, 2021
  10. This was a great read James. I so wish our visit to Wadi Rum had been as enjoyable (despite the unfriendly Italians). We were on an Exodus Travels tour of Jordan and were rushed through Wadi Rum for no reason. After two full days at Petra the next day we hung around there with nothing to do all morning before driving on to Wadi Rum. We then had an afternoon tour, a quick stop for afternoon tea in a Bedouin tent, then to camp where we set up our beds, had a 10 minute seriously uncomfortable camel ride to one of the escarpments for sunset. The best thing was the zarb dinner. So good! We were rushed off to Aqaba the next morning, even after the guide had told us previously that there’s not much to do in Aqaba. At some point he also mentioned that there’s not much to do in Wadi Rum! Oh really? How about time to simply be there in all that silent grandeur, time to just take in the incredible surroundings? I’m still bittah 😂
    Alison

    December 3, 2021
    • Ah, Alison – now that you mention it, I do remember you and Don being rushed around Wadi Rum and being given very little time to take the place in. Your guide on that trip sounded like he shouldn’t have been guiding in the first place. I’m all for candid assessments but it’s so reductive to judge a place by what you can “do” there. I once had a similar experience on a tour in Japan when our guide told us that all Japanese castles were the same! That was his answer to my mum’s question about why Kyoto’s Nijo Castle (with its gorgeous ornamentation and “nightingale floors”) wasn’t on the itinerary. After that my family decided to return to Japan a few years later and travel on our own terms. And we did of course visit Nijo Castle!

      December 3, 2021
      • Oh I remember Nijo Castle, and I remember the gorgeous interiors. Nuts to omit that one!

        December 3, 2021
  11. James, your evocative words and photos had the exact same effect on me that Dune had on you. There’s nowhere else quite like that surreal red desert, is there?

    I so regret not having spent a night in Wadi Rum over two visits. Our first trip was an add-on to our Egypt itinerary so we were short of time but I was so upset to have missed it on the FAM trip sponsored by the tourism board. Would’ve gladly traded the five star night in Aqaba for this lovely camp.

    December 4, 2021
    • Thank you so much, Madhu. In a way, I can’t believe it took me this long to actually write about Wadi Rum, considering Bama and I were there more than two years ago now! Its surreal rust-red landscape and the blanket of stars after dark were totally awe-inspiring… I envied the local Bedouin for being so close to nature and having Wadi Rum as their natural playground. Fingers crossed it will be third time lucky for you when it comes to staying in a desert camp!

      December 4, 2021
  12. What an amazing visit to Wadi Rum. Quite the desert experience for you. It’s always a surreal experience to visit a place that you’ve seen in the movies, and Wadi Rum sounded like it is different from the screens and stands on its own. Good to hear the you managed to make some talk with the tour guide Abdurrahman. Sounds like he is knowledgeable about the area and life abroad. Amazing to hear how some of the rock and sandstone formations resemble different objects, especially the one where you thought of as cream cheese. Salem also sounded like a great tour guide and knows how to tell stories.

    I am so, so jealous that you and Bama got a clear sky and saw many constellations! Good on the two of you, right place at the right time. Seemed like the distant galaxies smiled down upon the two of you 😊🌠

    December 14, 2021
    • Hi there Mabel, thank you for the lovely comment – I must have missed it in the frantic lead-up to the holidays. Wishing you a wonderful new year with lots of joy, good times spent with friends and family, and a few chances to go interstate or perhaps even travel abroad!

      January 6, 2022
  13. I many like your beautiful blog. A pleasure to come stroll on your pages. A great discovery and a very interesting blog. I will come back to visit you. A soon.

    April 9, 2022
    • Merci beaucoup! I do appreciate the lovely comment and your likes.

      April 24, 2022

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