The first time we heard him say it was when the camel stumbled and threw the rider into a stream. Adnan, our Bedouin guide, chuckled, "As-sahara!" he said.
Later, we realized he said it often: when clouds drenched our clothes with rain; when hailstones the size of cherries pounded down on our unprotected heads; when we thankfully eased our creaking bones off our mounts each evening and hobbled painfully to our tents. On each of those occasions, and others, we could always count on cheerful Adnan. "As-sahara!" he would shout cheerfully. "That's the desert!"
Yes, Adnan, that is the desert: unpredictable, sometimes harsh, demanding; but also gentle, welcoming and—even in its rage—awesomely beautiful.
Now an organization in Amman called Camel Caravans is opening up the mountainous red desert of southern Jordan in all its beauty to western tourists in search of something different. It's an off-beat trip on camel-back into the land of Lawrence of Arabia. And it's designed for that growing breed of rugged individualists who think of tourism in terms of a safari in East Africa or a hike in the Himalayas, those who have "done"—and have done with—the capitals and fashionable watering places of Europe.
For Jordan, tourism has long been an important source of foreign exchange and the loss of Jerusalem and the West Bank in the war last June was a serious blow to this small country's economy. Thus Jordan has made special efforts to develop and publicize the country's remaining attractions on the unoccupied East Bank. Tourists can be lured back in substantial numbers, officials feel, to explore the extensive Roman ruins at Jerash, the unique tombs of Petra, crusader castles, the Omayyad hunting palaces and the fashionable beach resort at Aqaba, But the tourist caravan is their ace in the hole, an exotic drawing card which offers a rare travel experience and a fascinating opportunity to see a beautiful land and its proud people at close hand.
To put the new attraction to a test awhile back, a group of us in Beirut handed over $280 fees—a special introductory rate—to the various travel agents who offer the tour and set off for Amman. We made a stop at Kerak Castle first and spent the night at Petra, but on the afternoon of the second day we turned off the asphalt highway, scrambled into Land-Rovers and from the picturesque railroad station hotel in Ma'an, headed into the desert.
Throughout the afternoon, escorted by another Land-Rover of the Jordan Highway Patrol, we bounced along an unpaved truck trail cutting through patches of deep dust that rolled back like waves from a ship's bow. The trail stays close to the roadbed of the old Hijaz Railway to Medina in Saudi Arabia. Along the way we saw signs of the past and the future: in one dry river bed a blackened culvert blown up by Lawrence and the Arabs in their struggle to gain independence from the Ottoman Turks; in another crews of workmen building steel and concrete viaducts for a section of the railway now being reconstructed.
About sunset we pulled into an abandoned railway station called Fas-sou'a, near the edge of the high Jordanian plateau, and saw for the first time how carefully the trip had been organized. In the dusk the headlights of the Land-Rovers picked out a neat row of white two-man bell tents, a support truck, a large army-style canvas tent for the work crew and another for the kitchen. To one side were two small tents with portable latrines and showers. Each sleeping tent had a small rug, two folding cots, a flashlight, a Coleman lantern, a mirror, a bar of soap and box of Kleenex, towels and bedding. They even provided two red-checked khafiya—the Bedouin head cloths. Most welcome of all after a day in the desert was a basin of steaming hot water waiting before each tent.
By the time we arrived, the Bedouins had hobbled their camels, started a fire and had coffee and tea boiling on the coals.
Waiting in front of the kitchen tent was personable Tony Hallak, who, with his American partner, Ed Nevins, started working on the caravan idea shortly after the award winning Lawrence of Arabia hit American screens.
The camps, Tony explained over the grateful gaspings and gurglings at the hot water basins, would be taken down each day after the guests left and sent on ahead on the support truck. There were 25 on the staff, he said, nearly twice as many as the number of guests: three policemen from the Highway Patrol sent along to provide radio contact; two soldiers of the Bedouin Camel Corps; five camel drivers; five vehicle drivers and assistants, eight cooks and waiters, Tony himself and his assistant Jack Koschkarian, a genial Armenian recently of Jerusalem. Most of the staff, however, would move to the next camp by Land-Rover and would take a quite different route so as to avoid intruding the roar of engines into the desert silence, yet get there in time to pitch tents, heat the shower water and get the coffee boiling before we swayed in on our camels after the day's trek.
That first night at Fassou'a set a pleasant pattern for the next four evenings in a desert camp: the easy laughter of the Bedouins around the fire, the complaining of the camels as they chewed their cuds in the darkness beyond the firelight, a hot dinner served at a long table formally and incongruously set in the sand behind the tents, the spectacle of countless pin-sharp stars overhead, lightning playing on the horizon, and, very early, the feel of thick blankets as we slipped into exhausted sleep.
The next morning saw us "making friends with our camels" as the brochure explains it, a process that involves adjusting the foam rubber cushions beneath the woven saddle bags, stretching one leg across the kneeling camel's back and hanging on frantically as the mount lurches to its feet grumbling and protesting. Once up, however, riding a walking camel is as easy as sitting in a rocking chair. Unfortunately the chair keeps rocking and rocking and rocking.
The back of a camel is too broad to let both feet hang down—and there are no stirrups. The easiest way to ride, as the camel drivers demonstrated, is to wrap one leg around the tall saddle horn and tuck that foot beneath the other leg which is allowed to dangle. You can also wrap both legs around the horn and sit Indian fashion, rest one or both legs on the camel's neck, ride side-saddle for a change and even kneel back with the feet stuffed into the saddle bags. As for your hands, you can hold the reins gently, grasp a camel stick or clutch the saddle horn in desperation. But once you are accustomed to the camel's constant rocking gait you can almost be lulled to sleep. The ladies in the group were at first enthusiastic about the reducing possibilities of the ride and one talked of canceling her membership at a Beirut reducing salon.
We had not ridden far that day when the desert showed us a quite different aspect from the placid one we had seen before. The tall clouds which had been sailing the flat horizon suddenly closed in on us and blotted out the sun; the lightning which had played in the distant evening sky crackled overhead; thunder echoed and re-echoed about us like the report of Lawrence's cannons; and great black curtains of rain came sweeping over the dusty, barren plains on both sides. Unprepared and exposed, we wrapped our khafiyas tight around our heads, urged our camels into a straight line, their backs turned to the gale, and waited. It came swiftly, raindrops clicking across the flint desert like a million tiny hoofs, drenched us instantaneously in one shivering bucketful and moved on beneath the arch of a brilliant rainbow. "Hiyee, Hiyee!" Adnan shouted, "That's the desert!"
Soon the camels were picking their way carefully down the flooded course of one of the small wadis leading down from the plateau. From time to time we caught sight of the railway construction where the roadbed descended in a great hairpin curve. In the valley below, fruit trucks bound for Saudi Arabia waited on the trail for the muddy torrents of water to subside.
We turned away from the old railway and the truck trail and at dusk found our tents waiting beside the rugged stone outcrops of Batn el-Ghoul, "the ghoul's belly." The highway patrolmen went hunting and returned with just one rabbit—from an area that just fifty years ago teemed with gazelles, ostriches and ibexes.
The next morning—we had already lost track of the days—brilliant sunshine again bathed the rocky escarpments and the golden sand covered with a mosaic of red-brown cinder and flint. We plodded on, alternately dozing, daydreaming or staring with fascination at the dramatic mesa country. For lunch the Bedouin guides led us to a rocky overhang in a dry wadi where ancient floods had undercut a low bluff. Their purpose was to offer a refuge from the sun but as soon as we arrived, a Beirut housewife wrought a small miracle that made us appreciate the shelter. "I'd love a drink of water with ice," she said. Moments later the sky darkened again, giant hailstones began to fall and Adnan's voice came booming over the rattle of the storm: "That's the desert!"
In the afternoon we threaded our way among thunderheads, slanting columns of light and sudden squalls of rain and hail. Flash floods raged down distant wadis and row upon row of jagged red mountain ridges faded into the mist. In the evening we camped on the edge of a great mudflat now a lake several feet deep.
The next day was clear again, but the storm had left the desert wet in places and our camels, nervously treading slick patches of clay, made better time than the truck which bogged down six times during the morning.
By then we had all decided that we were well on the way to becoming thoroughly professional camel drivers. Thus at lunch that day we had begun to think that instead of making the spectacular journey into Wadi Ram by Land-Rover as scheduled, we might keep our camels for another day. By evening, as we made camp at the base of the towering 1000-foot cliffs that guard the entrance of the great valley, we had decided. The Land-Rovers would drive in on the new gravel road on the far side of the valley and meet us at about noon at the Camel Corps fort. Then they would drive us rapidly out of our desert isolation to Aqaba to spend the last of our seven days relaxing at a comfortable hotel on the Gulf.
Dinner around the campfire that last evening in the desert was especially festive. We were camped near the homes of our Bedouin guides and the tribe's shaikh and the village schoolteacher joined us for the traditional Bedouin feast of lamb and rice smothered with a yoghurt sauce. Beneath a full moon we ate and talked and joked. The Bedouins sang and danced and questioned us closely: why would American tourists leave the comforts and conveniences of the city to ride camels in the desert?
We explained that sometimes man feels the need for peace and they said, yes, they understood that but why had we come here to their desert where life is hard and the sun is hot? We mentioned the beauty of the sand, the red mountains, the grandeur of Wadi Ram which Lawrence had extolled in his writing and into which we would ride the following morning.
"Yes, yes, and you are always welcome here," they said. "But surely there are many other places of beauty? Our desert can be hard. Here there are sand storms and cold winds."
"Who knows why we come?" we continued. "Perhaps it is the purity of the air, the stillness of the night, the clear star-filled sky, the friendly welcome of the Bedouins..."
There was a pause when we had finished and then the strangely subdued voice of Adnan broke the silence.
"Yes," he said. "That is the desert too."
William Tracy is Assistant Editor of Aramco World Magazine.