AS THE fat, orange sun dips gently from the sky, turning the rippling, ochre-hued dunes of Wadi Rum a deep rusty red, I wonder briefly if I’ve accidentally been teleported to Mars. The Wadi Rum desert in Jordan, aka the Valley of the Moon, is the closest most of us will get to exploring another planet, so it’s no surprise that Hollywood flocks here in droves to film intergalactic movies like The Martian and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
I scan the darkening horizon for signs of life… OK, in the hope of seeing a real-life wookiee. Instead, a trio of camels led by a young Bedouin lollop in the distance, their shadows elongated by the drooping sun.
Last month, Easyjet launched a new route to Aqaba, a seaside and diving resort. It’s regarded as one of the best diving spots in the Red Sea, with several dive sites. Even if you don’t dive, it’s worth taking a boat trip to snorkel with the resident turtles, rays and rainbow-hued tropical fish. Aqaba’s Old Town, set behind the more modern waterfront, has a true Arabian vibe, with covered souks and a crumbling medieval fort once fought over by Lawrence of Arabia and the Ottomans. However, the seaside city also serves as a great base for exploring Wadi Rum, an hour’s drive east, and Petra, around two hours north.
For the full desert experience, I’m staying overnight at SunCity camp (approx £248pn, suncitycamp.com) in a geodome tent, which only adds to Rum’s other-worldly vibe. After a traditional Bedouin dinner of zarb — meat and veg cooked in a dug-out, underground oven — I spend the rest of the evening slumped on a bean bag, mesmerised by the Milky Way, which shimmers like a shower of talc on a coal-black blanket. Before I know it, it’s 5.30am and I’m back in a truck with my driver Abdallah, who, dressed in a traditional farwa, a heavy goat-hair cloak, bounces us over the dusty dunes to a special spot to watch the sun rise. As he rustles up a quick fire to make thick, bitter Arabian-style coffee, I kick back in the sand, not a single soul around, and watch as the great fiery ball slowly rises once more.
There are various ways to explore the desert, from Arabian horses to the back of a dusty Toyota pick-up, but this morning I’ve treated myself to a ‘Bedouin Uber’, a camel ride through the dunes back to camp. With my traditional red keffiyeh scarf flowing in the breeze I feel like Florence of Arabia, my humped steed tiptoeing gently through the dunes.
Next up is the ancient city of Petra, probably Jordan’s best-known attraction. Exciting, yes, but it’s also home to the oldest bar in the world, the Cave Bar, set in an atmospheric 2,000-year-old Nabataean rock tomb.
Reluctantly, I snub a round of raki in anticipation of a 7am start in the old city. From my hotel, it’s a good 20-minute ramble down a dusty road to the Siq, a narrow kilometre-long gorge that leads into the ancient city. But it’s not a lonely stroll.
‘You wanna ride my mule?’ whisper numerous long-haired, kohl-eyed men in heavy cloaks like Bedouin Jack Sparrows, as they lead tourists on bored, be-whiskered mules. Wandering through the cool shade of the Siq, I gaze up through the sandstone chasm, a red glow against a laser-blue sky, until there it is: Al-Khazneh, or the Treasury, a remarkably well-preserved 2,000-year-old temple carved into pale red rock, better known to some (me) as the home of the holy grail in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. But there’s much more to Petra than the Treasury and visitors need a good day or two to do it justice.
Sadly, I have mere hours so I climb some of the 600 steps to the chillingly named High Place of Sacrifice, visit the Roman amphitheatre and see numerous tombs carved into the red rock, all while swerving rogue donkeys, camel caravans and friendly strays.
Near the amphitheatre, I meet bookseller Rami, whose mother, Marguerite van Geldermalsen, a nurse from New Zealand who visited Petra in the 1970s, fell in love with a Bedouin man and never left. She’s written a book called Married To A Bedouin (marriedtoabedouin.com) about her life living with the tribes in Petra.
Hearing Rami tell his mum’s story surrounded by these ancient ruins, I can certainly see the attraction. Jordan is a marvellous, magnetic country, brimming with gentle Arabian charm, so go now, before the hordes descend.
Three top experiences
The Inca Trail of the Middle East
Proper adventurers can go the full Lawrence of Arabia and tackle part of the new Jordan Trail, a 400-mile hiking route. Billed as the Inca Trail Of The Middle East, it’s split up into eight sections, each around 50 miles long. Try the particularly picturesque Dana to Petra section. Nine-day treks from £1,322 (excl flights), experiencejordan.com
Battle of the Gladiators in Jerash
Witness chariot races and gladiators in full leather-skirt regalia in the ancient hippodrome of Jerash, one of the best-preserved Roman cities in the Middle East. Earthquakes buried Jerash for centuries until it was rediscovered in 1806. This daily show is a way to learn about life as gladiator in an authentic Roman setting. From £13, jerashchariots.com
Dive the Red Sea
Aqaba benefits from balmy temperatures and a year-round diving season. It’s home to some of the best dive sites in the Red Sea, with shipwrecks, sunken tanks and blue holes. Check out Yellowstone Reef and the aptly named Aquarium, both in the protected Aqaba Marine Park, where you’ll spot feathertail stingrays, hawksbill turtles and even whale sharks. diveaqaba.com