Jared Savage

Jared Savage is the New Zealand Herald's investigations editor.

Jordan: Dusty, dry and divine

Holy sites, ancient ruins and a friendly culture help make Jordan a small oasis of peace in a tumultuous region, writes Jared Savage.

Resorts overlook the Dead Sea, where you can float on your back until the high salt levels make you itch. Photo / Rebecca Savage
Resorts overlook the Dead Sea, where you can float on your back until the high salt levels make you itch. Photo / Rebecca Savage

Camels are much bigger when you're up close and personal. And a little bit grumpy.

But with our Bedouin guide leading the way, his leather sandals flip-flopping through the desert sand, it was simply a case of hanging out.

After a few minutes, you forget about falling off the beast and start soaking up the sights of the Wadi Rum in Jordan. Beneath cloudless skies, sand dunes stretch to the horizon, broken only by towering outcrops of red sandstone.

"Vast, echoing and God-like" is how Lawrence of Arabia described the region. The peace is interrupted only when our guide stops, hands the reins to me and says: "You are Bedouin now."

He's already smiling.

I start to protest but the camel has other ideas, immediately picking up the pace and heading for the nearest shrub.

Must be lunch time. The other camel in our convoy catches up and the pair jostle for position. Lagging behind, our guide looks unperturbed and pulls out his cellphone. Music blares and he starts to shuffle-dance in the dust, all the while grinning.

He knows that we're in no danger and follows from a distance for the next 15 minutes. The camels, stubborn as they are, have slowed down as we enter the shadows of a canyon.

The reins are handed back gratefully as we near the camp and we thank him for what became a highlight of the trip.

"You're welcome," was his reply - the most common phrase you will hear in Jordan.

The locals are among the most polite and friendly people you will encounter. No surprise, then, that Jordan has good relationships with neighbours Syria, Israel, Egypt and Iraq.

The ongoing tension in the region has hurt the tourism-dependent country of six million people, despite the peace within its own borders, which is not rich in natural resources such as oil and water. But those put off by the turmoil of the wider region are missing out on a true gem.

Jordan is a small country with a rich history; most of the country can be visited easily in day trips by car. Hiring a car and planning a trip by yourself is possible, but it's worth researching tourism companies that provide packages complete with drivers.

From the capital of Amman, home to 3 million people, the ancient ruins of Jerash are only a 45-minute drive north. Hidden for centuries under sand before being excavated in the past 70 years, Jerash is widely considered to be one of the best preserved Graeco-Roman cities in the world.

Archaeologists are still working on the sprawling site, and it's worth paying for a guide to help bring the ruins to life.

Many sites in Jordan are considered holy to Christians, Muslims and Jews, including Mt Nebo where Moses was said to have seen the Promised Land before he died. The mountain is now owned by Italian monks and overlooks the Jordan River Valley, the Dead Sea, Jericho and Jerusalem.

Further south is Karak Castle, one of a dozen Crusader strongholds still standing in Jordan today. The citadel was overthrown by the great warlord Saladin and is well worth a look inside. Torch-carrying guides will reveal where 1000 soldiers lived, ate, fought and died together in grim conditions.

"This is where the water flowed into the cistern," explained our guide, pointing out broken ceramic pipes. "The beer and wine came out of those ones," he added with a straight face, pausing before laughing at our confused expressions.

No trip to Jordan would be complete without visiting the lost city of Petra, one of the seven wonders of the world.

Take your time and plan to spend the day there. About 60,000 people visit the site each year, so don't expect to be alone.

Carved into the rock face by the Nabataeans, an industrious Arab civilisation that settled there more than 2000 years ago, Petra was an important cog for trade routes that linked China, India, Egypt, Greece and Rome.

The entrance to the city is called the Siq, a narrow path that meanders between two cliffs and ends at Al-Khazneh, or the Treasury. It's a special moment when you emerge from the shadows to come face to face with the towering facade.

Hours will be consumed exploring the city and bartering for trinkets.

You will be asked where you are from. And when you say New Zealand, don't be surprised if the Bedouin shout "Kiwi".

This is because of Marguerite van Geldermalsen, formerly of Nelson. She visited Petra in 1978 and married one of the Bedouin people living in the caves at the time. More than 30 years later, Marguerite still lives with them although the government resettled the tribe after Petra became a World Heritage Site in 1985.

She wrote a book, Married to a Bedouin, and briefly left after her husband's death. But she returned - and still has a thick Kiwi accent.

There's lots of walking in Petra but make sure to save some energy for the 900 rock-cut steps that will bring you to the gigantic first-century monastery. Don't be put off by the effort. The Deir is a highlight.

Jordan is not all dusty archaeology and desert. Aqaba, at the tip of the Red Sea, is a hot spot for snorkelling, diving, fishing and sailing. There's none of that at the Dead Sea, but that might be exactly what you're looking for. Luxury resorts line the eastern coast and offer everything needed for relaxation.

Floating on your back in the Dead Sea is a novelty that doesn't wear off for at least 20 minutes - when the high concentration of salt starts to itch. And at 400m below sea level, the temperature is generally 10C warmer than the rest of Jordan. Compared with the harsh English winter from which we came, that's a comfortable 22C. You're welcome.

Tips for getting around

* Get a package deal for flights, hotels and tourist sites with a driver to take you from place to place.
* The Jordanian dinar is a strong currency, similar to the British pound
* Tipping is considered courteous for good service from guides
* Jordan is liberal by Middle Eastern standards, but women should still dress conservatively.

Must see and do in Jordan

* The ancient ruins of Jerash
* Mt Nebo, where Moses saw the Promised Land
* The Crusader stronghold of Karak
* The lost city of Petra
* Cruising the Wadi Rum desert in utes or on camels
* Relaxing at the Dead Sea

CHECKLIST

Getting there:
Emirates' daily flights out of Auckland reach Queen Alia International Airport in Jordan after connecting via Dubai.

Further information: Tour operators for journeys to Petra and for camel riding can be found at visitjordan.com.

* Jared Savage's travel was assisted by Destination Jordan UK.

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