Jordan beyond Petra: Unsung adventures beyond the big-name attraction

Photo of Suzanne Morphet

The Rose City is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World and Jordan's biggest drawcard for travellers, but this tiny country has a surprising array of other attractions.

The cool water that was ankle deep half a kilometre back now pushes against the bottom of my lifejacket. 

The canyon we’re hiking up has narrowed, the current grown stronger, the boulders bigger and the water much deeper. Up ahead, the thunder of waterfalls reverberates off the high sandstone walls.

We’re deep inside the spectacular slot canyon of Wadi Mujib, one of Jordan’s nine protected nature reserves. 

Shafts of sunlight reach down to illuminate layers of rock compressed over the millennia. We stop to gaze up in wonder as the walls converge overhead in a swirl of sensuous shapes and colours.

When we return to our hotel at the Dead Sea in the early afternoon, I’m on a hungry high — physically famished and mentally elated. 

While devouring a heaped plate of salads, roasted meat and vegies, I share my morning’s experience with Carmen Scholten, a local tour operator who customised a six-day itinerary for me and nine other adventure-minded travellers.

When I confess I had never even heard of Wadi Mujib before coming to Jordan, she nods knowingly. 

“People think once they’ve seen Petra, they’ve seen everything,” she says, referring to the ancient Nabataean city that is Jordan’s greatest single attraction. “But this country has enough adventures to offer for a two or three-week holiday.”

Our journey begins near Madaba, known as the city of mosaics for its centuries-old stone art. It’s an odd choice, perhaps, for a group itching to be active, but driving to the top of Mt Nebo orients us to Jordan’s biblical landscape.

We learn Jesus was baptised in the valley below on this side of the Jordan River, and that Moses climbed this very mountain after wandering in the desert for 40 years with his bedraggled Jewish brethren.

At the Church of St George, we view the oldest known map of the Holy Land, made in AD560 from more than a million tiny coloured stones. Then, mindful of the historical weightiness of this land, we hit the road.

By evening we’re in Wadi Rum, a desert valley in southern Jordan that T.E. Lawrence (whose story is told in Lawrence of Arabia) described as “vast, echoing and godlike”. 

The UNESCO World Heritage site is studded with mountains that morph from beige to burnt orange to rosy red. Rock walls bear inscriptions and petroglyphs from 12,000 years of human occupation.

Riding a camel over sand dunes at sunset sounds like a modern Middle Eastern tourist cliche but these dromedaries and their Bedouin owners are for real.

When one cantankerous animal lies on its back, kicks its feet in the air and bellows its discontent, it’s like watching a toddler throw a temper tantrum in public.

“They are comfortable (to ride) but you really have to relax into them,” advises our English-speaking guide Gail. 

With a lurch and a heave, my ship of the desert rises under me, back legs first. When fully standing I realise it’s no wonder camels often seem disdainful of people. From this great height, they can only look down on us.

The next day we explore a tiny patch of Wadi Rum on foot. At 8am, the heat already feels intense. Walking in deep sand is hard work and soon I’m wishing I was back on a camel. 

We stop to rest at a Bedouin camp where a smiling young man in a white ankle-length thoab and headdress offers us sweet tea flavoured with cardamom, sage and cinnamon.

Later, we follow a herd of goats deeper into the desert. The goats wisely stay in the shade at the bottom of mountains, grazing on shrubs and thorny bushes, and herded by a small, white dog. 

When we turn off into a wide open valley, we feel the wonderful emptiness that Lawrence described so poetically. There’s no one else in sight and no sound but the echo of a dog in the distance.

Back on the road, I’m looking forward to cooling off in the intensely blue water of the Red Sea at Aqaba, Jordan’s only port city. Wedged between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and within sight of Egypt, Jordan’s 25km stretch of beachfront is known for its spectacular fringing reef.

I thought all reefs were suffering from climate change, but this one doesn’t seem to be. The coral is as colourful as a flower garden in spring and so close to the surface that in places we have to swim around it. One day we take a small yacht to two of Aqaba’s more distant dive sites. At one, dense clouds of glassfish hang motionless while three venomous lionfish lurk near a ledge, as beautiful as they are deadly.

Heading north again, we veer off the main highway and follow the old trade route known as the King’s Highway. 

It takes us up steep inclines with big views over the Great Rift Valley. We’re en route to Petra, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.

The next day we’re up before the sun to enter this popular attraction before everyone else. The narrow entry siq with its curving red walls is splendidly empty. 

Without hordes of other visitors, it’s easy to imagine traders riding through here on camels laden with spices from India, incense from Arabia and silk from China.

Carved out of the sandstone rock, Petra’s vast complex of tombs and temples, and its gorges and canyons defy a quick study. Despite erosion from rain and windblown sand, the extensive ruins are magnificently preserved.    

We learn even the Nabataean water channels continue to divert water during flash floods.

After climbing 800 steps to the Monastery (pictured at top) — which is even bigger and more impressive than the more famous Treasury — we leave Petra by the “back door”. 

From here, a path connects to the Jordan Trail, a new walking route that stretches 650km from the Roman ruins near Umm Qais in the north to the Red Sea in the south.

“It’s a highway now,” deplores one of our local guides, which makes me laugh because — despite the recent widening of the trail for tourists — we encounter some narrow sections with steep drop-offs that have a woman in our group clinging to the rock wall. 

The views are stunning and the rock formations keep us in awe most of the way to Little Petra, where we sleep soundly in woven goat-hair tents at a Bedouin camp.

Our tour ends at the Dead Sea, just down the road from the waterfalls of Wadi Mujib. Wrapped in mud — a signature spa treatment here — I ponder all we’ve seen and done. We’ve had fabulous adventures, some I’ve experienced nowhere else, but it feels like it’s only been a taste. 

For a tiny country, Jordan has much to offer, and I realise that Carmen Scholten was right — a week here is not enough.

Fact File


Suzanne Morphet was a guest of the Jordan Tourism Board.


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