Do you want to go to Shag ar-Reesh?” What an offer. “Shag: canyon. Reesh: feathers. The Canyon of the Feathers. It’s that way.” Chris – wiry, enthusiastic, English – pointed over my shoulder into the cool blackness beyond the terrace railing, where the bats were wheeling. It sounded very Indiana Jones. A nightjar began its churring call nearby.
[Original story page here]
I’ve been coming to the Dana Nature Reserve, in the mountains of southern Jordan, for 10 years, and it never fails to amaze. The reserve encompasses a sizeable chunk of land, from 1,500m above sea level at the Dana Guesthouse – where Chris and I were sitting, perched over the dramatic Dana Valley – down to the scorching deserts of Wadi Araba. We watched the sunset illuminate the west-facing valley all the way to the horizon. Lights twinkled in Israeli towns across the border, perhaps 50km away. A foxy bark rose from the twilit valley below us. Dana is breathtaking, and one of my favourite places in the whole world.
Sitting on the same balcony the next day, watching the rays of the morning sun light up the valley, Chris and I drank tea – served sweet and milkless in little glasses – with Raed, the reserve manager, and caught up on some Dana gossip.
You don’t immediately think of the Middle East as a destination for ecologically minded tourists. The region is an environmental disaster, characterised by poverty, general ignorance and poor legislative safeguards. Palestinians and Israelis, it might fairly be said, have had other things on their minds. But the countless discarded plastic bags blowing across the Syrian desert and the degradation of Egypt’s Red Sea coral reefs testify to a depressing unwillingness on the part of governments to tackle environmental issues.
Jordan, to its credit, is quietly working wonders. Grassroots environmental education – led, in the main, by the visionary Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) – has led to the establishment of new reserves, and unprecedented legislative controls are now in place. Investment is flowing into public transport and recycling projects, and Dana has hit the headlines as an example of environmentally sound sustainable development.
As we finished our tea, Ali, a sunny young chap who worked in the guesthouse, bustled up to clear our glasses. With a combination of hand signals and winks (he is deaf and mute), Ali joshed that Raed was a devious character not to be trusted, which got a laugh from Raed, who then let loose a stream of gestures and silent mouthings. Ali vanished, reappearing with the twinkle-eyed Abu Yahya, our guide for the walk to Shag ar-Reesh.
To be honest, I’m not much of a walker, but even I was captivated by the setting. We set off amid flower-filled meadows, surrounded by the rock domes that characterise the Dana heights, following a zigzag trail coiling down from the ridge.
As we reached a col and began to climb into the Canyon of the Feathers, Abu Yahya explained why the place was so named: not for the raptors that soared overhead, but for the sharp pinnacles of rock that flank the gorge, feather-like. The summit, dotted with evidence of settlement by the Nabateans – the people who built Petra, just 40km to the south – offered a spectacular panorama.
Chris and I stayed another night at the guesthouse, taking our balcony seats for a repeat performance of that jaw-dropping sunset. The next morning, amid much hand-shaking and complex gesture-jokes from Ali, we left to go our separate ways. I was heading north, to hook up with a small tour group; we were going to be hiking on the fringes of the RSCN’s Wadi Mujib reserve.
Mujib is one of the many canyon systems that cut through the mountainous eastern flank of the Dead Sea. Our target was the Wadi Zarqa Ma’in, just outside the northern boundary of the reserve and renowned for its warm waters. Several thermal springs rise near the spa resort of Hammamat Ma’in, from where a high, narrow gorge is passable on foot for the 8kms to the Dead Sea.
We set off in a jovial mood. The trail was of moderate difficulty, perhaps two-and-a-half hours of rough walking on the rocky stream bed. Very familiar with the dangers of dehydration (with the kidney stones to prove it), I drank plenty of water at breakfast. I filled my belly to sloshing-point just before setting off and carried three litres with me.
The first half-hour was fun, paddling down the steep-sided gorge ankle-deep in warm water, passing lush grottoes of ferns and palms, brightly green against the dun-coloured cliffs. Our guide, Ali, led the way; I let the fitter folk stay with him while I stuck nearer the back with Kamel, the tour group’s guide.
We’d negotiated one small waterfall by rope, and were taking a break, when I started to feel strange. I was sweating, but not, I thought, excessively. With the combination of the warm water underfoot and the sun climbing higher above the breezeless gorge, it was certainly hot, but I wasn’t struggling. Just as I was sitting back, entertaining thoughts of how lovely it would be to stay here for a while, Ali called us onwards.
I don’t remember much about the next four hours. I have a mental picture of myself at one point hunched in a hot little cave in the cliffs, my clothes saturated with sweat and warm river water, with an oddly calm sense of resignation; I simply knew I wouldn’t be able to stand up again, let alone walk another step. I could have happily fallen asleep. I called out to Kamel, but he didn’t respond. I did this, I think, three or four times before I realised I had been speaking Hebrew instead of Arabic.
When he came over with David, one of the group, I mumbled, “I’ll just stay here for now. You come back for me later.” When they demurred, I was filled with certainty at the most logical course of action. “Well, can you call the air force, then? A helicopter can come and lift me out.”
After less than one hour’s walking I’d gone from capable and reasonably intelligent to confused and incoherent. Twenty-odd years of experience in hot climates counted for nothing: I had become seriously dehydrated.
Between them, David and Kamel somehow talked me into getting up and putting one foot in front of the other. I finished all my own water and several people in the group gave me swigs of their supplies, too; someone handed me a chocolate bar, someone else some nuts and fruit. I consumed the lot; but although I must have appeared exhausted, my energy levels weren’t low. Physically, I was strong enough to do the walk; mentally, I was feeble as a child.
For much of the rest of the way, Kamel volunteered to be a leaning-post: he supported my weight, told me where to step and cajoled me onwards with chat I couldn’t return and jokes I couldn’t raise a smile at. In a funny kind of a way, he saved my life.
A day or two afterwards, fully recovered, I was with the same group at Rummana, a campsite in the Dana hills. Several people wanted to tackle the three-hour trail around the head of the valley back to the guesthouse, a walk I’d done myself six years previously. I figured I’d already ruined one day for these poor folk and ducked out.
Kamel and I loaded the truck with their gear, drove the long way back to the guesthouse and headed straight for that wonderful balcony, with its mesmeric views. Ali greeted me like a long-lost brother and brought a pot of tea. As we sat there, under Dana’s spell again, I realised how much I loved Jordan’s countryside – and how much I’d underestimated it.