Fully Siq

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March 24th 2016
Published: March 24th 2016
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We set sail from Salalah and it was time for the dreaded six days at sea. We had to head down through the Gulf of Aden between Somalia and Yemen and then into the Red Sea. I’m sure I don’t need to mention the pirates in the area that could have potentially made it the most exciting part of the trip. We saw none, however. But the Aegean Odyssey was prepared nonetheless. Coils of razor wire were strategically placed around the ship where boarders could potentially target. Also on board were a small number of security personnel who looked like they were ex-military. We did not see them about much, but we were assured they were there. We also found out they were armed when on Saturday morning it was announced that we would be rendezvousing with another ship in order to offload the guns before we arrived in Jordan.

The rendezvous provided one of the few moments of excitement during the long period we were at sea. We also saw a heavily armed American aircraft carrier steaming towards Suez. And that was basically the highlights of our six days at sea. I managed to get some writing done, although
The're taking our guns!The're taking our guns!The're taking our guns!

Rendezvous in the Red Sea
not as much as I should have. I also managed to get some wine drunk, although probably more than I should have. I don’t know if those two facts are connected in any way.

It was with much joy that we headed into the Bay of Aqaba because we could see land for the first time in days. The bay had some interesting sights near the entrance where there are some coral islands and the consequent shipwrecks. Once those were passed, all we saw were rocky hills devoid of any vegetation. Arriving in Aqaba, Jordan’s only port, was therefore most welcome.

Aqaba is an interesting place, more for the geography than the city itself. From Aquaba you can (in theory) see three other countries – Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Jordan and Israel have a very small amount of coastland, enough for a port each.

We docked first thing on Tuesday morning. It was while waiting to disembark that I snapped a photo of a sea turtle. Unfortunately, I had my wide-angle lens on the camera but I took a few snaps anyway. Once I had changed lenses as quickly as I am able, I turned back to get a close-up and he was gone. Oh well, there were to be a plethora of wonderful sights to be seen that day.

Our shore excursion was out to Wadi Rum, a stretch of dessert made famous by a certain T.E. Lawrence during the First World War. Of course, he is better known as Lawrence of Arabia. Wadi Rum was used by Lawrence as a staging ground for his attack on Aqaba. Now that I have been there, I can see why it would make for an excellent base for the type of warfare Lawrence and his Bedouin allies engaged in.

We disembarked the ship and boarded our buses. The drive to Wadi Rum was about an hour, although there wasn’t a great deal to see along the way. The mountains inland of Aqaba were spectacular, but they soon gave way to a very bland landscape that had little of interest. That soon changed when we arrived at Wadi Rum. The visitors’ centre where we were to begin our tour was within sight of the famous Seven Pillars of Wisdom that were immortalised by Lawrence in his book of the same name.

Buses are not the ideal vehicle for travelling in the desert, so instead we were ushered onto what they called “Jeeps”. For most Australians, a better description would be utes. 4-wheel-drive utes, to be specific. We were not driving in air-conditioned comfort, however. Each of the vehicles had bench seats installed in the tray at the back and we rode out in the open. The jeeps did not travel excessively fast, and the weather is not hot in Jordan at the moment so it was a great way to see Wadi Rum. We were also surprised, and glad, that there was not an excessive amount of dust.

I and five of my fellow tourists climbed onto the back of a Toyota Hilux. Our driver was excessively proud of his jeep because it was much newer than most of the others. We saw him showing off the remote-controlled locking to other drivers at one of the stops. We then proceeded out in a convoy of jeeps past the Seven Pillars of Wisdom to our first stop.

I don’t know where the first stop was specifically because our guide wasn’t really giving us information besides when we had to get back into our vehicles.
Coral islandCoral islandCoral island

Bay of Aqaba
However, there was a large rock formation with a sand ramp leading to the top. Some people decided to climb to the top, but I was having enough trouble walking around in the sand of the desert so I decided to stay at the bottom and take photos.

We got back on the jeep and my limited experience of four-wheel-driving in the sand had me at odds with my fellow passengers. We had parked at the top of a sand dune, and our vehicle was at the highest point. They felt that we would not be driving down the dune, but I begged to differ. Even in my limited experience, I had driven down steeper and larger dunes. Sure enough, when the driver set off, we headed straight down the dune. It was good fun sitting on the back.

Our next stop was crowded with camels. Apparently we could have purchased a ride to the next stop on one, but our driver had decided to park well away from our tour guide so we missed the details. The main point of the stop, however, was the Bedouin rock paintings there. Mostly they seemed to feature camels, but all things considered, that’s probably not surprising.

The next stop, and the destination for those who went for a camel ride, featured a different type of rock art. Carved into a couple of rocks there were sculptures of T.E. Lawrence and according to our guide the others were King Abdullah and the leader of the Bedouin that worked with Lawrence. They were carved in 1917, so it was definitely a piece of history and Lawrence himself would have seen them made. Also at this stop was a Bedouin tent where some of us had a cup of mint tea and others had a look at the Bedouin handicrafts. It was here that I saw one of the few things living in the desert – a few of the biggest black ants I have ever seen.

Once again we jumped back onto the back of the Hilux and zoomed off into the desert. I don’t know if the photos really do it justice, but the jebels and rock formations that rise from the desert floor are absolutely massive. Really, words fail to describe how beautiful the Wadi Rum is. Driving around on the back of the jeeps with these formations towering above us was something else. I tried to take photographs with people and vehicles in them in order to give a sense of scale, but no doubt they fall short.

Our final stop was at a Bedouin camp, which was really a restaurant inside a series of very large tents. We were not eating, however. For us it was another mint tea and some biscuits, both of which were quite nice. Those, and the toilet facilities, were to tide us over for the trip back to the ship in Aqaba. We had quite a bit of time here so I spent a bit of time walking around the car park taking more photos. I have to say, Wadi Rum was the most enjoyable excursion so far. While I would have loved to drive one of the jeeps around the desert all day, it was a very fun morning. This tour was a last-minute addition after the itinerary was changed to exclude Egypt. I’m not sure it quite replaced visiting the Valley of the Kings, but it was a pretty good replacement nonetheless.

We headed back to the ship where a late lunch was served. Having eaten, I joined many others in trying to catch the shuttle bus into Aqaba. It was supposed to be running every 30 minutes but it took 45 for mine to arrive. Of course, this was peak time so many others were waiting too. Fortunately there was space for us all and we eventually arrived in town.

My first task was to get some local currency (dinars, which I thought was cool because it is no doubt takes its name from Roman denarii) out of the ATM. With that done, my next task was to do a certain piece of souvenir shopping I wanted to do in Jordan. I won’t say anymore as it’s a surprise for people back home. But with that done, I planned to walk along the seaside down to the giant flagpole and Aqaba castle. The seaside was… interesting. Aqaba is a big tourist destination for Jordanians because it’s their only access to the sea (other than the Dead Sea). There were a few Jordanians enjoying their seaside, including one lady in full hijab that was paddling her feet in the water. There were many small boats offering rides out into the bay, but I declined.

I was hoping to visit Aqaba castle, but by the time I arrived it was closed. I didn’t miss it by much, but there you go. As a result, I don’t even know what time period it relates to or anything like that. It didn’t look very spectacular, so I probably didn’t miss much. By this time I was pretty tired and I felt quite dirty, although that was probably from Wadi Rum rather than Aqaba. With the debacle of the shuttle bus, I also was keen not to miss the last one so I headed back and luckily the bus was there waiting. I didn’t spend much time in Aqaba, but from what everyone else said it was probably enough. The shops were quite unimpressive apparently.

Once back on board the Aegean Odyssey, I had a shower and some dinner. Then, despite being quite tired and having an early start on Wednesday, I couldn’t wait to go through my photos of Wadi Rum. I was pretty happy with how they turned out so I had trouble deciding which ones to include in the blog. Therefore there are quite a lot. I had trouble deciding which ones were the best so many look quite similar.

Wednesday morning was an early start, but it was going to be a big day. Many passengers were disembarking for the last time, but for those of us continuing to Athens we had to leave for our destination early because it was a couple of hours drive from Aqaba. The destination, of course, was the most famous location in Jordan: The Hidden City, or the Rose Red City - Petra.

The first part of the drive was the same as the one to Wadi Rum, so there’s not much more to say. Further on, the landscape continued to be, for the most part, fairly uninteresting. It wasn’t quite the desert I imagined, but most of it was pretty arid. The views were more spectacular once we began climbing. The highest point, according to our guide, was 1,500 metres which isn’t insignificant. After a couple of hours we arrived in the town of Wadi Musa and if you didn’t know a major tourist destination was nearby, you soon would because of the proliferation of hotels in the town.

Once our bus driver squeezed our bus through the tight and windy city streets, we arrived at Petra. First stop was the toilets of the visitors centre, but as the site of Petra is quite large I knew the 5½ hours we had there would not be enough. So I asked my guide if I could get my ticket and head inside. The look on his face suggested I had offended him by not wanting to stick with the tour. But I don’t know if I will get another chance to visit Petra, and we had a very informative lecture a couple of days ago by David Kennedy of the University of Western Australia so I just wanted to get stuck in and not be held back by the less abled members of our group.

As it turned out, I had to wait until we got inside the gate, but once in I was away. I had to walk past a group of young Jordanian school girls and they were most impressed by my bright pink (sorry, magenta!) Sydney Sixers shirt. I have never had so many girls shouting “beautiful” at me before! The first section was a downhill walk for about a kilometre. Along the way were some interesting cube-shaped carvings known as Djinn blocks. Although the Bedouin believed they were inhabited by spirits, they were probably just tombs. There was another tomb on this part of the walk and while spectacular, it was just a taste of what was to come.

The next section was a remarkably different landscape known as “Al Siq”. It was a narrow defile through the sandstone rock. I was very glad to be away from the group as I managed to get some photos without people in them. Unfortunately, many photos didn’t come out too well because of the drastic contrast between the bright sun and the shaded rock face. Those that did probably don’t do it justice. At one point I was just looking around saying to myself, “This is amazing!” I then realised I hadn’t actually seen Petra itself yet!

The end of the Siq is the most famous site in Petra – El Khazneh, or The Treasury. I suppose any description is bound to be a cliché, but such is the way with iconic locations. The introduction of the Treasury is itself part of the cliché because you walk through the narrow Siq and ahead just a sliver of the Treasury is visible between the narrow gap. Continuing on and the spectacular carved façade was unveiled in all its glory. I’ve seen many photos, but it is not the same as seeing it in person. The workmanship, and just the scale of the Treasury, is amazing. Of course, it was not actually a treasury, but a tomb. This tomb was clearly that of an important person or persons, although I’m not sure who. Probably a king of the Nabateans who built Petra, I suppose.

After much gazing and photo-taking, including a selfie (one of the downsides of leaving the tour group was I couldn’t get somebody I trust to take a photo of me), I headed further into Petra. Although not as narrow as the Siq, the high rock walls continued for a bit and there was many “buildings” and tombs carved into the rock. Once out of the defile, the first spectacular sight was the theatre. It looks much like a Greek theatre, but it was apparently Nabatean. I expect it was influenced by the Greeks, though.

After the theatre I ran into others who had decided to give the guided tour a miss. My plan to get well ahead of the others was foiled by the constant diversions on either side of the main road. Even the relatively plain sights were amazing. I did escape the crowds a little by climbing the stairs to the Royal tombs. These would have been every bit as spectacular as the Treasury, I think. However, their exposed location has left them much more weathered. Even still, they were quite the sights to behold. The fact that most of the crowds didn’t head up the hill was even better!

Instead of heading back down to the main road, I decided to stay up on the hill in order to get some overview photos of Petra. I was craving a sugar hit, though, so I was very glad I had packed some mini chocolate bars in my bag. A couple of small chocolate bars later and I was on my way. Not only did I get good overview photos, but further along the hill was a Byzantine church. It was probably a cathedral because Petra was a bishop’s seat during that period. It has only been recently discovered and investigated and there is a modern roof protecting what has been discovered. When I investigated inside, I could see the reason for the roof. The floor had some beautiful mosaics.

From the church I headed back down to the main street, but I was at the far end. From there, the main destination for those with plenty of energy and/or enthusiasm (for me it was definitely the latter) is El Deir, or the Monastery. I was under the impression that the track involved 2 or 300 steps, but I later heard 500 or 800. My guide book says 800. I didn’t count them, but it was definitely a lot! I took it pretty easy though and eventually got to the top. And I didn’t cop out and hire a donkey to take me, either. Reaching the top was an achievement in itself, but the destination was worth all of the exertion! The Monastery is probably another tomb, but like the Treasury it is very well preserved. And it is as spectacular as the Treasury, in my opinion.

After a well-earned rest it was time for me to head back down. Despite being somewhat easier, I probably saw less of the surroundings on the way back down because I had to be very careful where I placed my feet. The word “step” used when describing the ascent to the Monastery is quite misleading in places. The footing is very uneven and could be quite dangerous if you are not careful. What made it worse for me was that I was quickly running out of time and could not afford to dawdle.

I should mention that along the way there are stalls set up by the local Bedouin selling souvenirs. Most of it is pretty crap, but they are persistent. Not that they bother you too much on the way up, but they do tell you to visit on the way back. On the way back, they called “keep your promise and visit my shop”. It was here that the bright pink shirt was a hindrance because a few of them remembered me and insisted I had promised to view their wares. One lady had caught me during one of my rest stops on the way up so I couldn’t really ignore her on the way back. I ended up haggling for some souvenirs but I’m sure I still paid way too much.

I made it back into Petra and it was nearly 2:30. I had one hour to get back to the bus – approximately 4 kilometres and uphill the whole way. I figured I could make that no worries, but I also wanted time to do a bit of souvenir shopping once I reached the visitor’s centre. I hurried through the main colonnaded street, skipping the museum and Large Temple along the way. I then ascended the hill towards the Treasury as fast as I could manage on the loose surface without twisting an ankle or two.

I was back at the Treasury at 2:50 but I decided it would be for the best if I took a horse-drawn buggy through the Siq. Not only would it give me a chance to rest, but it would save me some time. I ended up being scammed a bit on the price, but it was worth it. This was obviously peak hour for buggies so I think he wanted to get back to the Treasury as quickly as possible. As a result, we went through the Siq at quite a pace. I have to admit, though, it was great fun. I was jostled around a lot, particularly on the parts which have the original paving. In no time at all, I was through to the end of the Siq and only had the 1km walk back up to the visitor’s centre. I did it as fast as I could and had time to browse the bookstore for the book David Kennedy recommended. Again, I was probably ripped off but I was in no shape to haggle this time.

I arrived back at the bus with very sore feet, but mostly in good condition, all things considered. I have no idea how far I actually walked but it was a lot. The time pressure was what made it hardest though. I would have loved to have an extra couple of hours. But in the end, Petra was amazing and I am so glad I came. If the rest of the trip is boring, it will still all be worth it because of Petra!

And Jordan? Well, it is safe and peaceful so there is no reason not to come and visit if you get the chance. The people were possibly not as friendly as the Omani, but the Omani have a reputation in the Middle East as being the most open and friendly so that’s not a harsh comparison. Don’t come to Jordan for the beaches, but the history here is spectacular. Wadi Rum and Petra are reason alone to make the trip.

Once everyone was back on board the Aegean Odyssey, including the newcomers replacing those who left in Jordan, we headed back into the Red Sea. We are currently at anchor waiting for our convoy into the Suez Canal tomorrow. I can’t wait!

Additional photos below
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25th March 2016

Beautiful photos
Beautiful! Beautiful! 😀 Great storytelling again, witty and funny. Sounds like the places were amazing and that you did have a great time as well. You did lots of walking! Keep the stories coming David!

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