“Mohan, there is a company called AOL specializing in arranging tours to challenging destinations. And they have a self-driving road trip in November end in Jordan. Prakash said that it was an incredible experience,” my wife Mamatha said while we were having lunch at home one day in June 2018.
“Oh, I see,” I said. My ears were getting suddenly attentive by the word driving.
“Your niece Sudha’s husband Shashi took the same tour last year, and he Sudha told me that he loved the whole experience.”
“They charge only US$ 4000 per person. You should go.”
I wondered for a while as to why she said “you” instead of “us.” Then better sense prevailed upon me. If Mamatha suggested a travel plan or a tour and if more than 6 weeks had passed since our last outing, it only meant that the decision was already taken. Still, I had to express my delight at her suggestion, clap my hands for her forethought, be grateful to her innovativeness and initiative, and of course, transfer funds to the agent.
We should go then,” I said, genuinely meaning it.I googled and this one search result about Jordan made me jump up and confirm my booking to the trip;
“I was in awe of that place. It was really special. One of the most spectacular and beautiful places I have ever seen. It was like nothing I’d ever seen anywhere else on Earth”… Matt Damon, the lead actor of the famous Hollywood blockbuster film, “The Martian” on Wadi Rum desert Valley in Jordan.
Also, all three Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judiasm and Islam have significant roots in the country of Jordan.
The weeklong self-driven tour across Jordan that was slated was commencing on the 23rd of November.
The tour involved a driving 900 Kilometres (550 Miles) during our five-day travel in a 4 X 4 Land Cruiser from Amman all along the Wadi Rum desert sand dunes. We would be going through the lost city of Petra, culminating in the Dead Sea.
It was 10:30 at night on that cold November night when we reached Bangalore airport, and our flight was at 4:25 in the morning. The Etihad (means united in Arabic) flight took off precisely at 04:25 a.m. from Bangalore. The flight to Abu Dhabi took about four hours, and we had a Six-hour layover before our onward flight to Amman.
Mahmood, our tour guide was wearing a grey suit and after receiving us took care of the emigration formalities by interpreting our answers to Jordanian. Then, he put us in a Toyota Corolla and banged his hand twice on the fender seeing us off.
Sheraton Amman is situated in an area that is surrounded by American hotels and the U.S. embassy.
That evening we spent strolling around the city of Amman. We had booked a conducted tour to Jerash the next day since our road trip was commencing the day after the following day.
Jerash is a city in Jordan. It is one of the most complete examples of a Roman provincial town to be seen anywhere. To me, Roman city ruins mean scenes from the films “Benhur” and “Gladiator”.
I loved the 1-mile course they used 2000 years ago for chariot racing. The hippodrome at Gerash (A hippodrome was an ancient Grecian stadium for horse racing and chariot racing). Once home to up to 15,000 sport-loving spectators for chariot races, gladiator battles, this 245m long and 52m wide arena was a thrilling and exciting sight.
It took my mind back to what life as a Gladiator might have been. The hippodrome at Gerash (A hippodrome was an ancient Grecian stadium for horse racing and chariot racing). Once home to up to 15,000 sport-loving spectators for chariot races, gladiator battles, this 245m long and 52m wide arena was a thrilling and exciting sight.
We walked along the Main Street with 260 columns on either side that was the main thoroughfare and was the proverbial “high street.” The street of columns served as the city’s, and it is believed to serve as one of the city’s primary centres of commerce. The deep cuts left by numerous chariots still remain carved in the great paving blocks.
We rested after returning late to our hotel since our group of 39 members, most of us from India, had a get-together at Kempinski in the evening.
The tour leader briefed us about the trip; safety issues and a nominal deposit were blocked towards possible vehicle damage.
“We will be starting from Amman tomorrow and driving all the way to the Dead Sea over five days. We will return to Amman from the Dead Sea in a bus. We will go to Madaba tomorrow and go to Wadi rum on the second day and stay there for another day driving off-road and sightseeing the whole day. We will drive to Petra from Wadi Rum and stay there overnight. We will drive to the Dead Sea the next day and spend two nights after that before we return to Amman,” announced Sanjay, the leader and partner of AOL.
I skipped dinner and retired early to bed while Mamatha enjoyed her dinner with the group.
After a terrible breakfast with the typical constraints of a buffet spread of a group booking, we gathered at 9 in the morning the next day.
14 Land cruisers with a left-hand drive that looked exactly the same were lined up in front of the hotel the next day with cars numbered 1 to 14. Car Keys were handed over number-wise, and my car number was 5 with the group of 4 British behind me in Car no. 6 and a family of three from Pune in Car no. 4 in front of me.
The 4 x 4 was huge, and though I had driven a left-hand drive in the U.S., it was only for short distances. It took a while to get the hang of the left-hand drive. But on more than a few occasions, my rear-view driver Bryan had to come to my Car and tell me that I was drifting to the right. 85 percent of Jordan is desert, with the lowest point on earth situated around the Dead Sea.
Jordan has borders with 5 countries, namely Israel, the West Bank, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and a sea border with Egypt on the Red Sea (Gulf of Aqaba). Geologically, 90% of Jordan is limestone, except Petra and Rum. Petra and the Rum Valley are made of sandstone, hence the reason they were easily carved into.
Each car had a radio, and Tushar led the convoy sitting in Car No. Sanjay followed the convoy sitting in Car No. 14. Tushar gave us a heads up about upcoming turns and curves. The motorcade with 14 cars going one behind the U.S. Presidential Convoy made a fantastic sight on the road. The first hour of driving was mainly in the city and the outskirts of Amman, and by noon we had hit the highway.
I was driving on the famous King’s Road that was more than 2000 years old. Moses led the exodus taking them to Mount Nebo, which takes you to river Jordan where John the Baptist baptized Jesus, and Prophet Muhammad (MPUH) walked.
It was around eight at night by the time we reached the eco-lodge. Hailed as one of the best 25 eco-lodges globally by National Geographic Traveller Magazine, the award-winning, solar-powered Feynan Eco-lodge is located amidst natural landscapes.
Within minutes after having accomplished answering my nature call in the pitch-dark toilet and jumping into my bed merrily rubbing my two feet together, I heard knocking on the door.
“They are having a get-together upstairs. Ma’am is also there, and she told me to call you,” said Nupur clasping her two hands. I smiled at her and said nothing. There was no way in hell that I was going up even if Jesus Himself was giving an audience.
I was done for the day.
The next day started with an early breakfast of burnt Omelettes and Jordanian bread. We set out at 9, and Tushar declared,
“Today’s driving will be the most challenging. We will be driving along with the Wadi rum dessert that involves a full day of off-road driving on sand dunes. Just stick to the Car’s track in front of you and maintain a minimum speed to avoid getting stuck in the loose sand. Use H4 mode”.
At around 11 in the morning, we came across a path going uphill covered with almost a foot of loose, fine, and dry sand. All the fourteen cars lined up in a row, and Car no1 tried to drive up but came back a few times, and it took several attempts before it could go up. Finally, car no. 2 came back and got stuck in a bush. It had to be pulled out using ropes and the service pick-up vehicle. After several failed attempts, the Jordanian staff had to drive up the cars. Finally, when my turn came, I was able to take my Land Cruiser all the way up in one go.
The track was probably set, or I went back far enough to gather the right amount of momentum required to take it up the 20 feet heap of sand. One way or another, I felt a surge of thrill that I was the first Car to do it at the very first attempt.
The drive through Wadi Rum was one of the most beautiful landscapes, the likes of which I had never seen.
Thanks to the several hours of driving through the desert, I slept like a log.
Day 4 started with my rock-climbing endeavour alone. I climbed the sandstone peak that was about a100 feet in height, and the view from the top was breath-taking. The desert is one of its kind, with spectacular sandy scenery o earth. Miles and miles of desolate valleys of red and white sand dunes stretch as far as the eyes can see.
Within a few miles of starting our journey arrived at the location where the movie Martian was filmed.
I went and sat on the exact spot where Matt Damon sat contemplating. Our two nights stay at We stayed overnight at Wadi rum space Village. The experience was truly unique and out of this world.
It is a couple of hour’s drive from Wadi Rum to Petra. Our drive on day 5 would be through the canyons of Wadi Rum to one of the wonders of the world that was discovered only 200 years ago; The Lost City of Petra. It became one of the Seven Wonders of the World when it was chosen in 2007 by a vote of 100 million people. To ensure that you do not visit Petra without knowing the entire history, I made a mistake. Let me elucidate its background.
We set out for the Lost City of Petra from our hotel, located next to the main gate leading to Petra. Walking around 2 miles through the narrow and winding path between the canyons with mountains rising above felt extremely exciting and rejuvenating.
After passing the final bend of the narrow canyon that led into the site, I was suddenly in front of the awe-inspiring spectacle. A towering rock-cut façade, its sun-struck sandstone is gleaming through the darkness of the canyon. The spectacle makes you realize, with astonishment and wonder, the immensity of the monument that towers above you.
We left early in the morning on Day 5 for our final destination, the Dead Sea, where we would be staying for two days.
We stopped at Mount Nebo on the way to the Dead Sea.
It was noon by the time we checked into Hilton at the Dead Sea. The hotel is constructed just a hundred yards away from the tip of the Dead Sea, and they have a private beach. Needless to say, the location was Fantastic. We spent the whole day walking around the beach and enjoying the surroundings, and admiring the sunset.
Keen to float in the Dead Sea, I asked Mamatha if she wanted to join me at seven in the morning the next day. She agreed, and we thanked ourselves for the wise decision. The floating experience in the Dead Sea was thrilling, but the little water that got into my eyes burnt like hell.
Many research studies back up claim that Dead Sea mud can relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and more.
“You will look ten years younger after a therapeutic mud bath in the Dead Sea,” said the handsome young man pointing to the large lump of black mud kept aside. So, remembering Cleopatra’s belief in miracles of mud and I gave it a shot.
After handing over our vehicles on the last day, we returned to Amma with 8 of us in one bus. I sang a couple of Beatles songs, much to the merriment of the British. Our flight was scheduled to depart from Amman the following day.
I will undoubtedly revisit Jordan since it has history, great food, culture, ruins, and a magnificent desert with Canyons and Mountains. It is a small country, and the people are friendly, welcoming, and eager to show you the best of their country.
This is the Middle East, not the one we see on Television full of war and extremism. On the contrary, Jordan is full of warm hospitality from people who are keen to impress.