Wadi Rum, also known as The Valley of the Moon, is breathtaking at every hour of the day and night! Communicating its exceptional beauty goes beyond the written word, and photos fall short of providing an adequate visual description. I guess one way to depict Wadi Rum is envisioning a combination of Grand Canyon rock formations and Namib Desert sand dunes – but that doesn’t quite do it either… Regardless, vivid memories of time spent hiking in the desert and at Wadi Rum Stillness camp will remain etched in my mind forever. The exceptional area has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011.
Nabataeans and Bedouins
In prehistoric times, Wadi Rum was inhabited by Nabataeans, who first emerged during the sixth century BC. Their trade routes passed through the area, and they carved petroglyphs into rocks, depicting camel caravans, hunting warriors, and animals.
“Petroglyphs and inscriptions illustrate 12,000 years of human occupation in the Wadi Rum desert, telling stories about the history and evolution of the Arabian Peninsula.” wadirumnomads.com
Alameleh Inscriptions are drawings left by the Thamud people who lived in the Wadi Rum desert from around 800 BC. Wadi Rum is sometimes described as a “big, open-air library,” and the cliff and rock inscriptions are Jordanian national art treasures.
Today, Wadi Rum is home to nomadic and semi-nomadic Bedouin families belonging to several tribal groups. The Al Zalabieh Tribe makes up the majority of people living in Wadi Rum Village, the only settlement inside the protected area. The Zalabiehs are largely responsible for tourism services and operating most jeep and camel tours. The guides speak their native language, Arabic, but are also fluent in English, with a basic vocabulary in many other languages.
“Even though most Wadi Rum Bedouin have become villagers, they maintain goat herds for milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, and meat. Part of the year, some families return to a wandering existence with their flocks. Few Bedouins are able to continue a truly nomadic existence today, and their traditional lifestyle is fast disappearing.” wadirum.jo
Bedouins are good communicators and gracious, friendly people with an easy-going attitude and sense of humor. They enjoy life, love their desert home, and are patient with tourists who visit to experience the magic they relish every day. The desert scene was a major change from Amman. Living in their world for a few days was a special, reflective time and taught me much about desert life and the Bedouins.
“Wadi Rum allows you to get lost in its large landscapes and horizon lines.”
The weather was fantastic – not too hot during the day and refreshingly clear and brisk at night. Spring is a good time to visit the desert. Normally, annual rainfall in Wadi Rum occurs about 15 days per year, amounting to around 2 – 4 inches.
During sunlight, moonlight, and ever-changing desert shadows, I was in awe of the red sandstone and multi-colored granite formations. Spread out over crimson-pink sand, under blue and star-studded skies, these formations were “created by millennia of geological and climatic processes“. A distant backdrop revealed camels, goats, and sheep grazing in desert valleys between patches of green vegetation. Beauty aside, the serene quiet of desert life is extraordinary. It allows your mind to escape the manmade background noise of modern civilization, improving the quality of life.
Fellow Desert Campers
Our group was continually changing, as new people arrived and others departed. The tourists were mostly Europeans – French, Dutch, Swiss, Belgian, German – of various ages. I was the only American and solo traveler. There were between 15 to 20 people at a time, and we gathered around a fragrant fire in the main tent to socialize and eat breakfast and dinner. The first evening, we were treated to authentic Bedouin music played on an oud – sometimes referred to as an “Arabic guitar“.
There are about 150 different campsites throughout Wadi Rum. Accommodations at Wadi Rum Stillness exceeded my expectations, blended perfectly with the desert surroundings, and were immaculately clean and comfortable. Some people slept under the stars. The latrine walls and floor were built with the most beautiful stonework I’ve seen – surely quarried from local rock.
Jeep and Hiking Tours
During the day, we split up for jeep / hiking tours. The open vehicles accommodated four to six people, and I shared one with three young German women from Munich and Frankfurt. They were excellent companions, and I enjoyed laughing, talking, and hiking with them. Our guide, Mohammad, kept us on our toes with his epic sand dune driving. A few times, he seemed to delight in sending us flying, and it was fun! After breakfast, we departed at around 8:30. Later, after watching the glorious desert sunset, we returned to camp to shower, socialize, and enjoy dinner.
The excursions were fast-moving and action-packed. We visited famous desert sites, but also discovered secret Bedouin places off the beaten track hidden in “less-frequented, wild parts of Wadi Rum“. Each site visited seemed more spectacular and beautiful than the other.
We made four or more daily hiking stops interspersed with tea breaks, lunch followed by a brief siesta, and sandboarding on selected dunes. I really wanted to try sandboarding, but didn’t : o)... Some of the many sites we saw at Wadi Rum include:
- Burdah Rock Bridge
- Khazali Siq Fissure
- Al Hasany Dunes
- Ain Abu Aineh
- Jebel Rum
- Jebel Umm Al Ishrin
- Alameleh Inscriptions
- Barrah Canyon
- Rakabat Canyon
- Lawrence’s Spring
- Kharazeh Canyon
- Lawrence’s House
- Siq Umm Tawaqi
- Thamudic and Kufic Rock Art
- Seven Pillars of Wisdom
- Makharas Canyon
- Umm Fruth Rock Bridge
- Umm Mugur Canyon
- Nuqra Canyon
- Bedouin Dam
- Wadi Sabet
- Al Qattar
Lawrence of Arabia
Several Wadi Rum sites were made famous by Thomas Edward Lawrence, also known as Lawrence of Arabia. He was noted for his role as a British liaison officer during the Arab Revolt of 1916–1918. The renowned 1962 movie, Lawrence of Arabia, starring Peter O’Toole was filmed in Wadi Rum. Lawrence “liaised between Arab and British command and breathed new life into the campaign, providing gold, guns, and much-needed new ideas”. He came up with the “clandestine guerrilla warfare tactics that hit the Turks hard where they were most vulnerable and won the war”. The movie received seven Oscars, including best picture and director. Most of the tourists were too young to remember it.
“Wadi Rum: Vast, Echoing, and God-like” British Officer T.E. Lawrence
Keeping up with 20- and 30-year-olds was tough and potentially dangerous, but I know my limits??? Hiking that involves rock scrambling requires substantial wrist and hand action, so it was especially challenging for me. My broken left wrist hasn’t fully recovered and is still sore and too weak to make a firm grip. To my disappointment, I had to forego more difficult climbs and settle for watching the others.
Most of the hikes were relatively short, but they all included scrambling on loose rocks, and moving through deep, unpacked sand. Extended sand-dune hiking – especially uphill – is hard work. With only one hand to hoist myself up, jumping in and out of the back of the truck was also a little challenging. Sometimes I rode up front with Mohammed, and listened to Arabic music, while he enlightened me with his thoughts on Bedouin life.
“Located southeast of Jordan along the border with Saudi Arabia, Wadi Rum formed over a billion years ago.” arabiannightsrum.com
Mohammed always found a perfect place for lunch. Born and raised in Wadi Rum, he knows every inch of the desert. It’s a vast area, so we covered only a small part of it during our outings. One day, the Saudi Arabian border was visible in the distance.
Sandstone Formations, Arches, Hikes
Sandstone formations at Wadi Rum sometimes seem surreal. Depending on your level of imagination, they form faces, animal figures, and more – a heyday for Rorschach test psychologists. Some – mushroom rock, cow rock, and chicken rock – have been named. We stopped at several interesting arches and saw a rock climber scaling a massive sandstone wall.
“Fewer than a thousand people a year go rock-climbing in Wadi Rum, and yet, according to amateur climber Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent, this magnificent landscape is the ultimate playground for it.” aventure.com
Flora and Fauna
In spite of its dry, barren landscape, Wadi Rum is home many to plants and animals. Most desert animals are nocturnal, and avoid the daytime sun. There are foxes, wolves, hedgehogs, antelope, jackals, and “mouse-like gerbils”. We saw small fox tracks in the sand. Mohammed said desert wolves living in the area are terrified of humans and stay far in the distance.
Plants are essential for desert survival, and Bedouins are expert at using them for food, fire, medicine, and cleaning. Trees in Wadi Rum include Acacia, Fig, and Tamarisk. Short, woody shrubs are the most prominent vegetation, and there are three main species – White Saxaul, Jointed Anabasis, and Hammada salicornica. The shrubs “provide an important food source for grazing goats and camels, especially in the summer, when succulent desert plants dry up”. Some shrubs were abloom with small delicate desert flowers.
The “sparse desert scrub harbors a surprising variety of small birds,” including the buff-colored Desert Lark, Mourning Wheatear, White Crowned Black Wheatear, African Rock Martin, Tristram’s Grackle (Starling), and Jordan’s beautiful national bird, the Sinai Rosefinch. In early spring and autumn, Wadi Rum becomes an “important flyway for birds migrating between Africa and Eastern Europe”. Migrating birds of prey include hundreds of Steppe Buzzards, Honey Buzzards, and Steppe Eagles.
Reptiles are “widespread in Rum,” and include poisonous vipers, like Cerastes gasperttii and Echis coloratus. I saw a few lizards when climbing in the rocks and think they were Blue Agamas. I also spotted several black beetles scuttling along the hot red sand. Scorpions are dangerous, and Wadi Rum has several varieties of the scary insects. Muhammed said he had been bitten by scorpions a few times. A sting from poisonous scorpions can be fatal, if not treated immediately.
We explored so many canyons, sand dunes, rock bridges, and arches I lost count and failed to note all the names. Um Fruth rock bridge is a popular, well-known photo location. There was a line of people waiting to have their photo taken.
Arabic and Bedouin Food
Food served at Wadi Rum is traditional Arabic and Bedouin. Breakfast includes cheese, hummus, yogurt, halva, eggs, bread and jam, honey, fruit, tea, and coffee. Mohammed prepared lunch at a desert campsite with salad, rice, bread, gallayah bandora (a traditional Bedouin dish), and more…
For dinner, we enjoyed zarb, Bedouin barbecue prepared with chicken, goat, or sheep meat and vegetables – carrots, onions, potatoes, tomatoes – cooked in the sand. The desert cooking method involves digging a hole in the sand, cooking down wood to coals, placing food over the coals, and covering the hole with sand. Zarb is traditionally served on large communal plates, accompanied by flatbread, rice, salads, and dips. Bedouin meals always include delicious Bedouin black tea, served lightly sweetened and sometimes with sage (winter) or mint (summer).
Another popular dish, Mansaf, is considered “the heart of Bedouin cuisine“. It’s made with goat milk, rice, spices, and lamb meat. Mansaf “originates from Bedouins who lived in the Arabian desert“. It’s served during celebrations and on special occasions.
Again, words and photos are inadequate for describing the experience of Wadi Rum – I’m still reflecting on my time there. I highly recommend visiting this peaceful, unique part of the world. You won’t regret it!