Words: Phillippa Stewart
Photography: Phillippa Stewart

From hiking in the footsteps of smugglers to learning the Bedouin secrets to happiness – writer Phillippa Stewart explores Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert.

“Pip, there’s something you need to know”…

This is never the start of an entirely comfortable conversation. Even less so when that conversation is taking place in the middle of the desert, with a man you’ve only spent an hour with. My hiking partner, Leon McCarron continues:

“Apparently, smugglers use the route we’re planning on taking. Locals have recommended we take some Bedouin guides with us to smooth things over if needs be.”

Fabulous. What was supposed to be a casual three-day hike from Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert to the town of Aqaba on the shores of the Red Sea is shaping up to be more risky than I’d anticipated. Luckily, as we skirt the Saudi Arabian-Jordanian border, I am in good hands. Along with our Bedouin guide, Sulieman, whose camel impressions are extraordinary, my hiking partners are professional adventurer Leon McCarron (who has cycled from New York to Hong Kong, walked across China, ridden a horse across Argentine Patagonia and is now walking the Middle East) and Matt Harms, an experienced hiker and Program Manager for The Abraham Path – a walking route across the Middle East.

More: Read about Leon’s Middle East adventure

As our journey unfolds, we don’t get shot, encounter any smugglers or get arrested. And although I get blisters and sand in my shoes, I also pick up these nuggets of wisdom on the way…

1. Simplicity is the key to happiness

This may be a rather sweeping statement but I am pretty convinced that simplicity is the secret to happiness. Carrying what you need to survive strips back the extraneous crap with which we adorn our lives. Chuck it. Granted, in life we may need a bit more than a few pairs of pants, socks, sleeping bag and suncream – but not much more. Before a trip I always lay out what I think I need and then cull, cull, cull. The same applies back in the real world; work out what you actually need in life and leave it at that.

2. Nature is the best therapy

“I’m not built for the city,” Sulieman declares as he dangles one-legged on a rock.

This is closely followed with the nugget that his favourite thing about the desert is that he, “Likes to be able to sh*t where there’s a good view or a sunrise.” Which is fair enough, really.

But Sulieman is right, we’re not designed to be cooped up in fast-paced urban environments, 24/7. Make time to get out, feel the sand in your shoes and sleep under the stars. There’s nothing quite like staring up at a sky full of them as you doze off – praying that you’ve not bedded down on top of a scorpion, spider or snake, of course.

3. Trust in people

I’ll admit it, once I’d heard that we were following a path that is popular with smugglers I wasn’t entirely relaxed. We’d picked our way over barbed wire, passed a burnt-out car and were making camp for the second night when a car sped towards us, parked up abruptly and left the headlights shining in our faces. I kept my head down in my sleeping bag and pretended to be asleep as frantic talking ensued. I imagined the worst – any second now I would be carted off, arrested for some unknown crime. My mum would be furious.

Then, as suddenly as our interloper arrived, he disappeared, leaving me to a rather sleepless night alone with my thoughts. Speaking to Sulieman in the morning he explained that our visitor was a local Bedouin and was asking if we wanted to join them for tea and dinner. My learning here? People are inherently good. The numerous offers of tea I received in the country should be indicative of that. When the chips are down it’s good to remember that 99% of humanity is bloody fine.

4. Be a free thinker

A common response to me telling people that I was going to Jordan went along the lines of: “You’re going to Jordan? Isn’t it dangerous? Isn’t the entire Middle East screwed?”

No, actually, it’s not. While I (or the Foreign Office) wouldn’t advise travelling too close to the Syrian border in the north, don’t write off an entire country – or region. Speaking to locals you slowly build a picture of a dwindling tourist industry based on a culture of fear – often misplaced in Jordan’s case. Do your research into countries, make sensible judgment calls, speak to locals on the ground, but keep an open mind.

5. Say ‘yes’ more

Ostensibly I was taking on a hiking journey with a man I’d met for all of about one hour, his mate and some local Bedouin. It’s so easy to come up with reasons not to do things but you should get into the habit of saying ‘yes’ more. Hiking with people I barely knew meant there was a lot to talk about, learn and discuss. I came away with new friends, good stories and a far deeper knowledge of the Middle East – all as a result of saying ‘yes’ to an adventure. That’s worth a blister or two.

Hit up Red Bulletin Adventure for more travel inspiration.

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04/2016 redbulletin.com

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