Road to Civilisation
Losing yourself in the Jordanian Trail
I remember the first time I went to Jordan, I arrived and was totally enamoured by the sound of the prayers reverberating around the city. It felt intense in a romantic way. That’s what you feel whenyou go into Petra for the first time. It’s all encompassing, it’s emotional, it’s these vast landscapes and these monuments where so much manual labour has gone into carving out these rock caves and temples. It feels like something much bigger than you has been happening there for a long time. You feel unimportant in the grand scheme of things.
Those memories returned as we drove into Petra for my second visit. We arrived in the evening and drove to the Bedouin campsite. And then came a gradual slowing down. The pace of life here is not fast. You make coffee and it takes 2 and ½ hours, the heartbeat steadies, the blood flows a little slower, you mellow into the desert way of being..
There are multiple histories here. There’s the distant past; it’s the place where Aaron, the brother of Moses, is buried, it’s the place where Petra was a marvel of rock architecture with the Treasury and the library taking pride of place, all made possible in this arid landscape thanks to a water storage system where every drop of water was stored in a complex system of underground reservoirs.
Then there’s the more recent history of the Bedouin. Till 1985, they lived in caves near the monuments. Then in 1985, they move them all out of Petra and they live in the town of Wadi Musa. Haboob, our guide would tell us about the transition from cave-dwelling to living in concrete houses. He said that all the old ladies who used to live in the caves moved to the houses and saw the water coming out of the tap thought it was magic. But still they miss the caves. They were naturally cooled and had a sense of history that their new homes will never have.
Seeing this interaction between tourists and locals, this taming of the landscape, I realise I’ve been here before in spirit. In my project Universal Experience, I visited Chinese landscapes which had been transformed into fenced off Instagram events, places where there are roads that lead back to civilisation. In Petra, there is that same feeling but with a tourist trade that makes an even bigger stamp on a place’s identity.
In Petra the tourism business is very knowing. It’s like you enter and you’re part of the game. You feel these obsessions with recreating moments of history. They could make it so it’s very self-contained but it does feel like a bit of a game, the game is who can get the most money out of the tourists.
That idea of the universal experience was so apparent in Petra, it was something I wanted to get beyond. That’s what photography can do. It asks how you can get beyond the idea of a place, to the place itself, how you can escape the romanticism and fetishisation of the Bedouin people, to the people, with all their charms and contradictions, themselves.
We left Petra the next morning, and within minutes the town, the history, the people, the theatrics had gone. We had only walked about 400 metres, and suddenly there is nobody there. It’s like stepping into a void, going through a wormhole to this land that nobody ever visits. We start walking along these sparse rock faces and we found ourselves in the bottom of the valley. It’s arid, it’s flat and it’s hot and very quickly you begin to feel its energy, the power of the earth undimmed by the distracting clamour of human energy. We are walking into desolate empty spaces, we are walking into the wilderness, the pace has slowed even more and there is not a soul in sight.
We walk 18 miles that day. My feet are sore from walking, my arms exhausted from photographing landscapes. It’s the end of the day and out here the end of the day is a beautiful time. I look up and see stars and I’m out in the elements under a biblical sky. The Bedouin people make a campfire with pillow mats and Iight the campfire. We eat the traditional meat and rice dishes they cook, and we sit and drink a whisky or a gin with the Bedouin. This is not the kind of walk where you go into a tent and hide away at the end of the day.
In this world, in this land, to be with people means you survive, so why would you want to be alone. That’s the way the thinking goes. So I sit by the fire, I talk, and I eat, I drink, and I listen. The Bedouin are entertaining, open and interested in different cultures. Beneath the brilliance of the desert stars, Haboob tells us about the celebrities he has shown around Petra; George Clooney was very handsome and Will Smith, he was the nicest of all, Haboob says.
This is a big part of the attraction of the trail, talking and hanging out with the Bedouin. They have a way of thinking that is sometimes very traditional but they are so charming, welcoming and full of humour that you start to see the vanities and absurdities of your own life. And so you slow more and slip a little bit into their way of being, a way that is at one with the landscape. The desert becomes part of you. You feel its textures, hear its sounds, feel its shifts and slides, it quietly engulfs you.
Even after one night, it feels we are a long way from civilisation. And in some ways we are. This is not a populated land. Between us and the end point of the trek, near the Red Sea town of Aqaba, there are no cities, towns or settlements. At night the only lights we see are those from the camp fire or in the small tents we sleep in overnight.
We feel quite separate, the world feels like it’s a long way away. Because the trail has been so recently opened, there aren’t paths to follow. We are walking along cliff edges with the Bedouin to guide you on what they describe as the walk of Laurence of Arabia.
Suddenly I find myself surrounded by a landscape that I’d never seen before. It feels like an alien landscape, a series of canyons that go on forever. This is the sublime landscape, invigorating but terrifying at the same time. Here the scale of the landscape, the looseness of the rocks, the lack of a trail, and the sense of space as it goes off into infinity remind me of my mortality, my insignificance in the face of everything.
And then we stop and the guys make tea, and there is a comfort in this wilderness, a feeling they are sharing a very intimate and special experience with you, this experience of the desert, a desert that we are part of but can never dominate..
We drink tea and walk some more. It goes on and on and you keep on expecting it to end and it doesn’t. Then suddenly you find yourself walking into sand dunes, the land has changed, the colours have changed. There are pinks and yellows, tones that are both warm and cool at the same time. And then suddenly there is a scrap of vegetation, a branch, a tree, a tuft of grass and you realise there is a fragility of life here and you are part of it.
This is one of the first times the trek has been done and it feels as though people haven’t been there before you. It’s not an experience that’s easy to find now. It’s an experience where the attempt to find freedom, to be an adventurer or an explorer for those two weeks of the year goes beyond the trivial.
And we walk some more. The scenery doesn’t change as the walk becomes a meditation on myself, an evaporation of many things I think I hold dear. Then we emerge onto this very flat plateau where it feels like we’re in the middle of nowhere. Petra feels like it was a long, long time ago.
We’re coming to the end of the trip and there is a decompression, a disappointment that all this is going to end. We arrive at Wadi Rum and it is supposed to be a really spectactular day in this valley of panoramic vistas and statuesque mountains, but for once it is an overcast day, it is stormy.
We’d tried to camp the night before but it had been raining so much we stayed in a hotel, in a very nice hotel out in the middle of nowhere. Compared to the tent, it felt very luxurious. We ended up driving around Wadi rum in the end, taking in the expanses, the pools of light coming through the clouds, sunbeams that were almost biblical in the precision in which they picked out the cliffs and rock formations of the valley.
It’s the end of the day, the end of the trip and the landscape are reminding me of Bolivia, you go to the end of wadi rum and through these landscapes that look like the flatlands of the Bolivia.
Walking on the Jordan Trail was like climbing over the fence of the universal tourist experience and entering the wilderness. Coming off the Trail feels like returning to a world you had forgotten. We walk through this old army village and suddenly there’s a lot of security in this area. There are camels, there is human presence and it feels like you are going back to reality, back to the human world. I’m looking forward to a hot bath and a soft bed. But at the same time there’s a feeling inside me that won’t quite go away, the call of the wild, the sight of the stars, the flash of the sun.