'The desert is my office': What it's like to quit your job and be self-sufficient in the wilderness

We speak to the freelancers giving rise to a new meaning of 'off the grid'

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Deep in the sandstone canyons of Petra, Ghassab Al Bedoul wakes up as the sun rises over the lofty mountains surrounding his rural home. Here, he has no alarm clock, no commute, no bills and no worries – man-eating neighbours aside.

Al Bedoul, 44, is one of a number of people across the world waving goodbye to the stresses and strains of modern life and heading for the hills to live off-grid and be 100 per cent self-sufficient.

“I live in a cave just outside of Petra with camels, hyenas, wolves and goats,” he says. “The desert is my office.”

Ghassab in Petra mountains. Courtesy Ghassab Al Bedoul

Al Bedoul was born in the cave he now lives in and even went to school in the mountains. However, aged 22, he left Jordan to study in Germany. 

He lived and worked in the European country for 17 years, embarking on a successful career in health care, while moving between bustling towns and cities. But 12 years ago, the Bedouin began to miss the simple life among nature and decided to abandon the corporate world.

“I have no electricity here and I cook all of my food over fire,” he says. “The only light in these mountains at night comes from the stars. For me, it’s beautiful. You cannot experience the same freedom in the modern world.”

Ghassab at Petra’s ancient mountain city. Courtesy Ghassab Al Bedoul

The Bedouin have inhabited the caves around Petra for hundreds of years. Some historians believe people have lived in the ancient city, carved into the side of a mountain, since 7,000 BC, and tourists from around the globe descend on the ruins every day.

Only a 10-minute drive from the ruins is where Al Bedoul’s family made their home hundreds of years ago. Now, his family have moved to a nearby village, and the 150-square-foot cave and property belong to Al Bedoul, though he is very accepting of visitors.

“I signed up to Couchsurfing when I returned to Jordan and I’ve had thousands of people from all over the world stay with me in my cave,” he says. “I want to share my home and show people this wonderful landscape and way of life.”

'We really wanted was to build our own home out in nature'

For some, off-grid living means really pushing the boat out. For 28 years, Canadian husband and wife Catherine King, 64, and Wayne Adams, 72, have lived on their self-built island alongside coyotes and bears in the Tofino wilderness. 

Catherine King and Wayne Adams. Courtesy Catherine King and Wayne Adams

Their half-hectare home floats near Vancouver Island, and is built completely from recycled materials, though, Paradise Cove is anything but basic. As well as a two-storey house, the island also features  four greenhouses, a private beach, a lighthouse, a candle factory, a dance floor, a fire pit, two boat houses and a gallery to display their art. 

The couple grow, fish and trade with neighbours for food and even have fresh running water, which is piped in from the forest, while solar power comes from panels and a back-up generator. 

The freedom we enjoy here is something you cannot even imagine as part of city life

Before moving off-grid, King worked as a professional dancer in Toronto, while Adams worked at a fish plant, but it was always their dream to live among nature. 

“The freedom we enjoy here is something you cannot even imagine as part of city life,” says Adams, a wildlife carver. 

“I was 43 when we started building our island. We have both lived in cities and many places, but what we really wanted was to build our own home out in nature without interfering with it.”

The entire structure floats using recycled fish farm materials tied into the shore with huge ropes fashioned into a spider web formation to stop the island blowing away during the inevitable storms. 

And, while it is hard work and requires meticulous maintenance, King and Adams insist they would not have it any other way. 

“Going back to a big city would never be an option for me”, says King. “We live by the rhythms of nature. I cannot ever imagine our lives being dictated by the corporate world.”

'We still have Netflix and Disney+'

That dream of achieving serenity is also what sparked British couple Matthew and Charis Watkinson into quitting the city for the good life in the countryside. They swapped their Dh140,000-a-year jobs as vets in Essex to live a zero-carbon lifestyle in rural Wales.

“There are two main positives for us,” says Matthew. “One, it is extremely fun. And two, it just makes complete financial sense.”

Watkinson family. Courtesy Matthew and Charis Watkinson

The pair bought a three-acre plot of land and built their home called Beeview Farm in Pembrokeshire for well under Dh400,000, and now live mortgage-free.

They grow their own fruit and vegetables, rear up to 140 chickens, cook using a horse manure-powered cooker and use solar power for electricity. “We have not gone full hippy though,” says Matthew, 43. “We still have Netflix and Disney+.”

We are extremely happy, life is incredibly fun. We often ask ourselves: 'Why aren't more people doing this?

Children Elsa, 6, and Billy, 2, go to local schools, while the couple sell eggs and run classes and tours so others can follow in their footsteps to generate cash for supplies. 

They balance modern convenience with traditional convention, and have reaped the rewards during the coronavirus lockdown.

“The queues outside of supermarkets just showed how fragile the system is and how much we depend on others to survive,” Matthew says. 

“When we saw that, we were very glad that we had come here.

“We are extremely happy, life is incredibly fun. We often ask ourselves: ‘Why aren’t more people doing this?’”