“What is the coolest thing you’ve ever done?”
Is a question Joel and I often test each other with. And for over a year, for both of us, it has always been a toss-up between snorkelling with whale sharks and encountering Petra. I say ‘encountering’ because going to Petra is not like visiting a place. One doesn’t ‘visit’ Petra – it is something to be experienced, something immense and ancient to be immersed in or overcome by. It is an unbelievable, unimaginable corner of the earth and when confronted with it, is an indescribable and overwhelming couple of hours of your life.
Petra is an ancient city in the South of Jordan carved from the brilliant red rock-face of the Jebel al-Madhbah mountains, established as the capital of the Nabatean people, possible around 312 BC. The first Western guy who came across it called it
“a rose-red city half as old as time.”
HOW WE GOT THERE
We were planning a trip to Israel for a wedding and we decided that it is ‘now or never’ – we must go and conquer/survive Petra.
But getting there was quite a trip itself.
There are many tourism companies that will offer you a two or three day trip to Petra from the border city of Eilat. I am not sure whether they are an okay deal or way too expensive. Either way, we decided screw them, we are doing it ourselves. We drove about 2h30min from Mesada to Eilat in Israel. Eilat is a relatively small port/resort town that lies on the tip of the red sea, sandwiched between Jordan and Egypt. When we arrived there it was time for the Game Face – no toilet breaks, no effing around – we need to get to Petra.
We just parked our car in some field by a hostel and pretended we belong there, we threw some clothes in a backpack, and we set out to find a taxi to the border. After we were dropped off at the border, got our passports stamped, shuffled through security, we were out on the other side (which is a Jordanian town called Aqaba)! So far so good!
Then came the time to get a taxi to Petra.
The taxi drivers on the Jordanian side of the border are called the taxi mafia. And for good reason, too. These guys are the most badass taxi drivers I have ever encountered. Play your cards well, and your 2+ hour drive to Petra will be a near-pleasant experience, but if you mess it up, you’re in for a real shitty trek (as we discovered on the drive back).
On the long and deserted walk from the border office to the taxis, it was only us and another couple, so we (aka Joel) decided to make some chitchat. Eventually it happened that these guys will split a taxi with us – which is the beginning of the most exhausting language sandwich I have ever been in:
It turns out they are a Polish-German couple with limited English. We are a South African-North American couple with limited Polish (like negative-Polish). So the overlap there is German, which two of the four of us can speak.
Speaking and understanding German doesn’t come second nature to me. It requires a constant and fierce concentration – but once this guy found out I spoke German, he had all kinds of stories.
The main thing is that these mafia taxi drivers are constantly trying to take you for a drink (tea) somewhere at his cousin’s place, or selling you some other tourist experience. So he would speak to us in English, and then I would translate in German, and then the German guy discusses it with his Polish wife, and then she gives the verdict in Polish, he speaks to me in German, I discuss it with Joel in Afrikaans, I give our verdict again in German, and finally we either confirm or deny it with the taxi driver in English. And this was my life for the next 6 hours.
In the end he did manage to sell us on something: a desert truck drive around the minuscule town of Wadi Rum. So we veered off course for about 40mins, stopping, on the way to Wadi Rum, at the train which they used in the Lawrence of Arabia films, now just abandoned in the middle of nowhere in the desert of Jordan. When we arrived in Wadi Rum (very very very small – we were the only tourists around) everybody spoke quick arabic and we got out of the taxi and into our desert truck.
This little detour proved to be a lot of fun and recommended by the twocats crew, if you have the time. We had a wonderfully warm and friendly driver, zipping around through the scarlet sands, climbing on and rolling down dunes, we stopped for some tea somewhere, a soft and cooling breeze gently sifting the sands, and complete and utter silence every time the truck stops and we watch some men on camel in the hazy distance. After about two hours of this side-adventure we headed back to the ‘gates‘ of Wadi Rum where our then-friendly taxi driver waited patiently.
It was a couple more hours (a beautiful drive, at least) until we arrived in Wadi Musa – the main gateway town to Petra.
Then it turned out our European friends had no plans for sleeping anywhere. So, after some more fun rounds of English/Afrikaans/German/Polish/Arabic telephone, they finally decided they’ll just stick to us and go where we are going.
WHERE WE STAYED
We were going to the Seven Wonders Bedouin Camp, which was AMAZING. We arrived to the sight of a hundred lit candles tucked in the nooks and crannies of the looming boulders, the smell of aromatic bedouin-style cooked meals, and kittens! (It seems we cannot escape cats!..or cats cannot escape us?)
BEING IN PETRA
The next morning Seven Wonder’s van took us to the commercial gates of Petra, which was swarming with tourists. We bought our tickets, picked up some maps, and headed off for the red city. It was a long walk before we finally reached the official ancient gateway – a wall of colossal steep rock rising up sharply before you, with a slender crevice as a passageway. It’s a couple of kilometres inside this crevice, which offers cool relief to the burning heat every else, before it abruptly ends and it feels like you have stumbled upon the ruins of an ancient civilisation:
The gigantic treasury, carved from the mountain, materialises almost without warning in front of you. There’s frustration of not even having enough space to step back and it in – it’s like you are submerged in it; like you have been swallowed by the mountains.
And there’s more cats!
Once you’ve entered this part of the city it’s a full day (or two full days) of hiking and gawking and not being able to believe your own eyes.
A couple of hours later we decided to make the 900-step ascent to the monastery and beyond. At this stage I was unfortunately feeling slightly ill, and I convinced Joel to go up on a donkey. If I was feeling fine, we probably would have walked it, but I am glad we got to go up with the donkeys – it was quite an experience!
Even higher up is ‘High Place’, which, if you are able to manage more hiking, offers incredible breathtaking views to the Jordanian peaks and valleys over 1000m below. There you can find merchants making wonderfully refreshing lemonade and take a quiet rest in there tents, cooling down in the breeze.
Despite being a major tourist destination, Petra doesn’t feel crowded, due to its sheer immensity. And there’s a quiet pleasure in know that when you leave and night falls, and probably long after we will be gone, these manipulated mountains will still stand – silent, resolute, and strong – not needing our presence in order to be spectacular.