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?
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.
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.
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. ◊