A green walk through Jordan

Cover Susan Hack encounters rare wildlife, sheer canyons and swift waters while hiking through Jordan's extensive nature reserves.

A hiker negotiates the stony path on the nine-hour trail from Feynan.
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I'm hiking with 32-year-old guide Mahmoud al Nawasreh through Jordan's Mujib Nature Reserve, a range of limestone mountains where perennial rivers have sliced the cliffs and flushed minerals into the Dead Sea, the lowest, saltiest body of water on earth. The reserve is famous for its wet canyon trails, that, ironically in a country 92 per cent desert, require swimming as well as hiking. "We know when a flash flood is coming because the water changes colour and the flow becomes turbulent," Mahmoud tells me, pointing out the tamarisk trees flattened by the last scouring, caused by rains far upstream. Wadi hikes may only be undertaken in the warm, dry months between April and October, to minimise flood risk.

The amount of life in desert rivers is surprising, too. In an ankle-deep portion of the Mujib River's pebbly bed, a red crab waves its claws at me, an emerald green frog clings to a single reed, and a pair of finger-sized yellow and black striped fish escort their tiny brood. In the night, says Mahmoud, it's possible to see striped hyena and perhaps a rare Syrian wolf. He points out the claw marks a sand cat left when it came to drink.

The 220-square km reserve is managed by Jordan's Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN), which in partnership with the government is adding nine new nature reserves to an existing six, all designed to protect Jordan's unique and surprisingly varied ecosystems while developing tourism that benefits traditional communities. "Subsistence farmers or herders have no livelihood in a modern context, says Chris Johnson, the director of the RSCN's ecotourism arm, Wild Jordan. "We want to build a new nature based economy."

Visitors stay in RSCN eco-lodges, eating meals and hiking with locals. The reward for travellers is a deeper connection with a landscape famous for antiquities sites such as Petra, and which has been economically and spiritually significant since the earliest days of civilisation. Water is my reward midway through Mujib Reserve's nine-hour Malaqi trail, leading from a sun-exposed plateau where Nubian ibex, once hunted to local extinction, have recently been reintroduced, down to the malaq (junction) of the Mujib with the Hidan River. Wading up the Hidan between the walls of a siq, or slot canyon, Mahmoud and I leave our backpacks on a dry rock ledge and slip into a green pool in which the water comes halfway up a natural bowl excavated by swirling currents. The midday sun filtering down on to the surface reflects shimmering ripples on the rock wall's pink and russet fresco of iron and other minerals.

We swim and clamber over boulders against the increasing depths into more pools linked by a succession of fast-flowing waterfalls. Fearing hypothermia, I've brought a wetsuit, but the water is unexpectedly warm. Mahmoud explains that the nature reserve lies 410m below sea level, close to the earth's crust; the Hidan originates in a hot spring. Whirlpools spin me, and I brace my arms and legs against the rocks to avoid being flushed down a water-polished stone chute.

We turn back, swimming, wading, and fording downstream past banks lined with tamarisk and pink oleander, into another siq leading to the lip of a 20m waterfall where pitons are hammered into the rock wall. I must put on a rock-climbing harness and summon enough courage to abseil down, my life literally hanging in Mahmoud's hands as he belays. I trust him - he guided King Abdullah II and his younger brother on this very route when they made a film to promote adventure tourism in Jordan - even as he jokes about being too tired to support my weight.

The end of the trail is a gravel delta, where the Mujib no longer flows into the Dead Sea but into a pipe bound for drinking taps in the capital Amman. Today more than 90 per cent of the flow from desert rivers on both sides of the Dead Sea is being diverted for drinking water, agriculture and industry. As a result the Dead Sea surface is dropping at two metres per year, a dramatic symptom of the regional water shortage.

I can see white salt layers left like bathtub rings on the receding shoreline from my private terrace at Mujib Chalets, the RSCN's 15 room eco-lodge on an isolated Dead Sea promontory with stupendous views of cliffs and a beach covered with salt-encrusted red rocks. Environmentalists are predicting that without intervention the Dead Sea could evaporate into a series of small stagnant pools within five decades, and the Jordanian government has proposed building a pipeline to feed the Dead Sea with Red Sea water.

But the grim future and usual Dead Sea resort hordes seem far away as I relax in my terrace hammock. Rested, I walk down to the beach. The water feels thick and slippery, but unlike the Mujib, where rangers suggest weak swimmers wear life preservers, it's impossible to sink in its syrupy brine. From Mujib the next day I drive south, past the cave where Lot is said to have retired after his wife turned to salt when she unwisely looked back at Sodom and Gomorrah. Skirting Wadi Arabah, the flat plain linking the Red Sea to the Dead Sea coast (and site of the proposed pipeline), I'm headed for my next destination, the Dana Nature Reserve, which encompasses an area the size of Gaza including Wadi Feynan, the ancient world's copper mining headquarters. From the floor of Wadi Arabah, the reserve rises some 1,500m on to the plateau of biblical Edom, passing through four separate ecosystems, all surrounded by mountains veined with iron ore and bright green malachite.

On a site abandoned in the 1960s by government scientists trying to revive copper mining stands the RSCN's Feynan Ecolodge, designed by the young Jordanian architect Ammar Khammash, who tells me later he "wants to heal wounds in the landscape". The colour of stones washed by centuries of winter rain, the ancient-modern looking building subtly references elements of the region's architectural heritage, including the monolithic forms of Nabatean tombs and heat deflecting stones set perpendicular to the wall, a technique with roots in Yemen. There is no air conditioning or electricity, but courtyards and terraces funnel breezes while hot showers and bathroom light bulbs are solar powered. At night the lodge is lit with candles made by local Bedouin women. The menu is vegan except for eggs, and goat and cows milk and yogurt; no foreign products such as Coca-Cola are served, and everything is purchased locally.

Feynan is the best example of the RSCN's philosophy of meaningful employment for locals, innovative water and energy-saving architecture, and business-savvy marketing. Most of the staff grew up in tents made from goats' hair. "We don't call this place a business, we call it our home," says lodge manager Hussein Suleiman al Amarin, 31, a member of Ammarin tribe that has lived in these parts for the last 300 years. Tribal politics have marginalised the Ammarin from Petra, the ancient Nabatean capital and Jordan's most popular antiquities site. "In the old days more people worked in agriculture, there were more fruits, sheep and animals, and we considered every tourist as our guest," says Rabi Mohammed, a guide and former Petra Police chief, who happens to be here shepherding a group of Germans. "Today the atmosphere has changed. There is more money, and competition. Tourism is Jordan's oil, but is also ruining our culture because young people no longer have traditions and don't finish their education."

In Dana, by contrast, the attitude of locals towards tourists seems completely professional, friendly and unjaded, and still connected to the old indigenous life. After I check in, a young Feynan guide, Ahmed al-Ghasmeh, invites me to meet one of his father's friends who has just returned from the local goat market. As we sip tea and glasses of salty goat milk, the older boys of the family, clad in jeans and T-shirts, carrying geometry textbooks, arrive home after an eight-kilometre walk from school.

If a child can walk 16km round trip, I think I can manage the 14 kilometres to the Dana Guesthouse, one of three accommodations in the reserve, located on a canyon rim in a 19th-century Ottoman village perched amid rock-terraced gardens of plums, figs, apricot and walnuts. Hiking guide Talib Khwaldeh, 47, is too polite to tell me that most reserve visitors choose to do this scenic walk in the more sensible, downhill direction. "Bedouin children are not like city children," he says as we start out through a sandy wadi lined with oleander bushes and more goat hair tents. "They are very brave. They get hot, and they do not complain. They get tired, and they do not complain. This is because they tend the goats and have a lot of responsibility at an early age." The hike lasts an exhausting nine hours. As the path grows steeper and detours through slot canyons, Talib insists we stop to drink bottled water every half hour, usually under a Ziziphus tree, sometimes known as the crown of thorns. "Drink when you are relaxed, and take your water in three sips, just as the Prophet Mohammed taught us," says Talib. "If you stop often you will feel you haven't walked. But if you wait until you are tired, you will not be able to continue."

Each rock seems to have yellow-green scorpions lurking underneath; I'm afraid to sit down when Talib mentions that scorpion stings kill 500 people in Jordan each year. He distracts me with stories about the Prophet Mohammed and his family which all share the theme of endurance and self-denial. We eat our lunch of herbed white cheese wrapped in fire-baked bread in the shade of a wild pistachio tree, and Talib lauds its many uses: nuts full of caffeine-strength energy, sweet-smelling sap, breeze that filters through its fringing branches. "See how she grows back to try to survive here," he says pointing to the trees trunk twisting back from a cliff. "May God protect you and send you rain and keep you safe from people who want to cut you!"

After a day's rest in the capital Amman, where the RSCN has its headquarters, I drive 110km into the eastern desert bordered by Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Managed by the RSCN, Azraq Wetlands Reserve is one of the most surprising places in Jordan, a 12-square kilometre oasis along a chain of caravanserai erected during the Ummayad Caliphate, which ruled the Islamic world from Damascus after the death of the Prophet Mohammed. The caravanserai would have sheltered pilgrims and traders on the route from Damascus to Mecca, while Azraq's grasses and ponds have attracted birds migrating between Africa and Europe for eons. My guide Hussein al Hammoud, a local resident and RSCN bird expert, points out European bee eaters, a glossy ibis, obscure warblers and jewel-like green and blue kingfishers.

With tall reeds blocking out the surrounding desert, Azraq reminds me of the Florida Everglades. Walking along the wooden boardwalk over the barbel-filled streams, I'm startled when Hussein tells me the oasis has shrunk to less than a 12th of its original size because of over-pumping for agriculture that accelerated in the 1970s. Nationwide, the draining of aquifers, necessitated by the siphoning of Jordan and Yarmouk river water by Israel and Syria, is a major cause of Jordan's water shortage. During Ummayed times, when the climate was wetter, and the oasis even larger, caravanserai sat among lush gardens, and within the reserve we pass round basalt ruins, the remains of an aristocratic women's swimming pool. Today young people from Azraq are moving to Amman for work because, despite boreholes and some 500 illegal wells, there's no longer enough water for farming. Jordan today is one of the most water-poor nations in the world, and in the capital water is in such short supply that the government supplies household taps for just a few hours one day a week, and in some places in summer not at all. Azraq was a favourite getaway for the late King Hussein, a nature-lover and the RSCN's first patron. One of its first tasks was to rescue the oasis, convincing the government to pump scarce water in, not out, establishing a new, if smaller, equilibrium.

I sleep that night in the RSCN'S new Azraq Lodge, converted by Ammar Khammash from a 1940s army field hospital. The main lounge is now decorated with antique leather couches and 19th-century Orientalist photos and the former commander's office serves as a screening room for documentaries on Bedouin life and desert ecology. Guests stay in a modern wing where the architecture suggests a modern art gallery with walls bathed at night in blue light. A local Chechen family, descendents of 19th-century refugees fleeing Russian persecution in the Caucacus, prepare lamb dumplings, buffalo milk yoghurt and other delicacies. After dinner I sign up for a night game drive to see captive oryx and onager, a stripeless desert zebra. I finally drop off to sleep in my bed, the blue and gray camouflage duvet slyly references the lodge's military origins.

The next morning, when the front desk manager mentions that the RSCN is helping the governments of Lebanon and Syria to create nature reserves and eco-lodges, I decide I'll be doing a lot of hiking in coming years. I hope, too, that the RSCN's lessons and partnerships expand beyond the region. Tradition does not have to be incompatible with modernity. Ecotourism does not mean complete privation, nor luxury excess.

In Jordan, the RSCN has taught local people not to sell postcards and souvenirs, but meaningful experiences. travel@thenational.ae