Welcome to Jordan!
Jordan is one of the countries that we were looking forward to most when we decided to do this journey. Being unable to cycle through Syria made it an obvious country to miss out because we could very easily have just flown from Turkey to Egypt. However, wanting to ensure that we cycled as much of our route as was safely possible, Jordan was firmly on the agenda and we are so incredibly glad that it was!
Before arriving in Jordan we had been in contact with the Jordanian Tourist Board (JTB) because we had an article planned for publication in Total Women’s Cycling. The JTB agreed to support our stay in Jordan and arranged some hotels for us. A couple of weeks cycling without camping was a very welcome break for us and we really hope that we can help to encourage more people to visit the country with the article as it really is a truly fantastic place and we both feel passionately about trying to help them encourage more people to come and visit. Don’t worry though, the hotels did not take much away from how tough the cycling was and we will be back in the tent and roughing it again for the remainder of the adventure!
“Welcome to Jordan!” were the first words we heard when we arrived in Jordan and they were continually shouted to us all the way through our journey down the country – and we really did feel very welcome. Thankfully our bikes and bags arrived safely in Amman airport. Our bikes had been packed into cardboard boxes we’d picked up from a bike shop in Cyprus and our panniers had been packed up into large builders’ sacks that we then wrapped up with gaffer tape (we love gaffer tape, it fixes everything!).
We bought our VISAs from the immigration desk (even the immigration officer warmly welcomed us!) and sought our way into the city to find our hotel. First we tried to get a taxi but, after a conference between the many taxi drivers at the airport, they all decided not to drive us into town because our luggage was too big. Thankfully a nice man from Syria came to our rescue and suggested that we take the bus (he even bought our tickets for us). Our new friend told us where to alight and helped us get our bags out of the bus but we quickly realised that we were still some way from our hotel. Resisting the urge to build our bikes there at the side of the road and cycle there (not the best of ideas on a really busy inner city ring road!) we eventually found a couple of taxis to take us the remaining few kilometers and, after a lot of faff, we were loaded up into two cars and ready to go. Just before setting off, I noticed that James had started to take his bags out of his taxi and we were back to square one. Apparently his taxi driver offered a lift to his friend and, because he would not agree to split the fare and James was not going to budge, he was turfed out! We eventually arrived at the hotel in time to build our bikes and have some dinner.
The next morning we were on the road early to weave our way out of Amman on some quieter roads. The driving in Amman is crazy and the city is built on an incredibly steep valley so there were quite a few sharp hills to start our day off but it was not long before we were onto the main road out and heading towards the Dead Sea. Much like Turkey, the main roads in Jordan also have a large hard shoulder that we could safely cycle in. Riding to the lowest place on earth is as great as it sounds as it’s downhill all the way! We were there in no time at all; excited about floating in the Dead Sea.
It is a really extraordinary experience swimming in the Dead Sea – all of your natural instincts tell you that your legs should stay below the water however, as soon as you are in the water, your legs are instantly propelled to the surface and you can lie flat on the water. It is completely surreal and incredibly relaxing – you just need to be careful not to get the water in your eyes as it feel a little like you have had acid thrown into your eyes – as James found out!
The next day was my birthday so it was a real treat to wake up in a lovely hotel and enjoy a buffet breakfast (no comments please Michael and Catherine!!) but it wasn’t long before we were on the road knowing we had a big hill climb ahead before we arrived in Madaba. Once we turned off the road next to the Dead Sea we started to climb and it was tough. The temperatures were high and the climb was gruelling – much harder than we had expected. You can read how tough is was on James’s blog post about cycling from the Dead Sea to Madaba.
From Madaba, we were then headed to Karak, a town famous for its castle, and got on the road early knowing that we had another tough day ahead of us. The landscape in Jordan is breathtaking and seems to change around every corner however it is the views that are most striking – most of which are created by the gorges, called wadis. Little did we know that, on this day, we were about to take on the most iconic wadi in Jordan – the Wadi Mujib is dubbed “Jordan’s Grand Canyon.” The photos go only some way to illustrate quite how hard the climb was.
It was one of those roads that you dream about at home when you are watching the TV and see people cycle/drive down epic switchbacks with stunning views. That is, until you are sat at the top of one side of the canyon contemplating the road ahead – it was incredibly daunting with all the weight we are carrying on our bikes. Riding up steep, lengthy climbs like this on our touring bikes often reduces us to 5kph which is very painful indeed but we survived in one piece. Once you get into a rhythm it’s just a matter of switching off and surviving, knowing full well that it’s only a matter of time before you will eventually reach the top – and reminding yourself that if you stop, it will be much harder to walk up than cycle. Luckily we chanced upon a café near the top where we stopped to top up our water and enjoy a tea with an incredible view. It was an incredibly long day and by the time we arrived in Karak the sun was setting.
We were staying with a lovely chap called Mohammed who was opening a hotel in the town early next year so we stayed in his house and had a lovely evening. In fact, we were even treated to a glass of red wine, which was most unexpected until we discovered that Mohammed is perhaps the world’s only non-believing Christian called Mohammed!
The next day saw yet more wadis in blindingly hot temperatures. Being such a hot day, and with fatigue in our legs from the past two days the hills pushed us both to our limits and on the last climb of the day I came to a stand still. That was it. I’d had enough and I honestly did not think that I could go a millimeter further. Twenty minutes later after a good cry, some sugar and encouragement from James I felt ready to get going again. It wasn’t the smoothest of starts however as we had stopped on a hill and I am not very good at hill starts on my bike – nor parking it – so it took some time for me to get the courage to get going without feeling like I was going to fall off. I’m sure there are plenty of jokes about female drivers that I could insert here.
We finally made it to the top of the hill where we were greeted with a surprise! Khaled from the Jordanian Tourist Board was waiting for us at the top of the hill where there was a panoramic view of the Dana Nature Reserve, which was where we were to spend the night. A fire was lit, we shared a pot of very sweet mint tea and watched the sunset while discussing our time in Jordan and learning some more about the difficulties the tourist board are having in encouraging visitors.
The Dana Nature Reserve is stunning and Jordan’s largest protected area. It’s home to four separate ecosystems, an impressive amount of plant and wildlife and you can see why it’s been the location of a number of films. If we had some more time we could have easily spent a few days exploring this area but we had to make do with a sunrise walk into the gorge the next morning before getting back on the road towards Petra.
Words cannot do justice when trying to describe Petra. It is one of those places that really make you marvel at the human race and what we are capable of. Petra is an ancient city carved into a valley of pink sandstone that dates back as early as 312BC as the capital city of the Nabataeans. The city is within a mountain range, which form part of the eastern flank of Arabah and runs all the way to the Gulf of Aqaba. UNESCO describe the site as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage” and we would agree.
There was hardly anyone there when we visited – perhaps 300 people when, in the past, there would be over 3,000 visitors a day. It was great for us as we felt we had the place to ourselves and, at times, we didn’t see any other tourists. Sadly, though, it’s a sign of the unjustified problems that Jordan is having with tourism. We managed to walk through the stunning Siq and into the city where you see the postcard sight, the Treasury building before exploring the tombs, Amphitheatre and market areas where the Romans had opened up the city as an important trading city. What is quite extraordinary is learning that when constructing Petra the Nabataeans we able to control the water supply into the city by collecting the flood waters into and artificial oasis using dams, cisterns and conduits. Quite extraordinary when you consider the scale of the place and that this was all taking place over 2000 years ago without any modern technology.
We then walked up to a site called the monastery, which was on top of a relatively steep climb, but it was more than worth it for the views across to Israel. Then we also managed another of the trails and clamber up to a place called the High Place of Sacrifice. It was on this trail where we really felt like we had Petra to ourselves, I think that we saw about 8 people in 3 hours. This route weaves its way up into the mountain side past hundreds of caves, ancient rock carvings and buildings that have been excavated. On the summit is an ancient place of sacrific. From the top you are able to fully appreciate the sheer magnitude of Petra and marvel at quite how impressive it is that all this was created around 2,500 years ago. Once back at the bottom we fought the urge to take a camel or donkey back to the park gates, which were another 4km away! It was an action packed day but a day we will never forget – and one my brother Harry will be jealous of, as it was the set of his favourite childhood film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
From Petra it was back on the road – 100km to the desert at Wadi Rum. We arrived at the visitor centre where you go to pick up your park permits and before long we had been whisked away across the desert in a 4×4 to our Bedouin Camp where we would spend the night. Wadi Rum is beautiful and unlike anywhere that I have been before – the sand is a striking red and pink colour and you do feel like you are on Mars – it’s no wonder that it has been used as the set of the new Matt Damon film, The Martian, which we believe is out at the cinemas at the moment. We had a great night under the stars and I saw the milky way for the first time properly while James took photos (if you are reading this Kev, apparently the photos are not quite good enough yet as James says that the wind was wobbling the tripod) but I have no doubt we will get lots of practice elsewhere.
The next morning two camels arrived as we were to ride back to the village instead of taking the 4×4 to complete our desert experience. (Before you ask we could not take our bikes into the desert, they don’t ride too well in thick sand!). To be honest, we should have both known better having ridden camels before. They are unnecessarily painful. I lasted around an hour before getting off and chose to walk the remaining hour while our guide hopped on my camel – not that easy in thick sand with cycling shoes on but considerably better than riding the camel. James gallantly remained on his camel much to my amusement because as soon as the guide got onto my camel he decided that it was time for some camel racing – not sure James found it quite so amusing after screaming for the camels to stop as it was so very painful in all the wrong places.
It wasn’t long before we were reunited with our bikes and on our way on the final leg of our Jordanian adventure – the Red Sea. The route was 80km, slightly downhill; easy. Not so much…this area is notorious for strong winds which if they are behind you I imagine will allow us to cycle at some amazing speeds however, if they form a headwind – as they did all the way to Aqaba – they slow you down to 14kph downhill riding in granny gear!
The Red Sea is home to amazing coral reefs and is famous for its scuba diving. I love diving and, although I’ve not been underwater since 2008, I was keen to do a couple of dives as they were really reasonably priced. What was slightly concerning, however, was that I was allowed to dive without showing a certificate whatsoever and James was soon below the waves having never SCUBA dived before in his life! I’ve got enough experience to know that we were in a safe environment with an instructor who seemed to know his stuff when it came to the actual diving. We lived to tell the tale so all was good.
Sadly, from Aqaba, we could not continue our journey overland into Egypt, which was incredibly frustrating as we could see Egyptian land across the water. The British Government advise against travel to this area (except Sharm El Sheik) which therefore meant our insurance would become invalid if we did so much as broke a toe so we reluctantly took a bus back to Amman (with our bikes underneath) to take a short flight to Cairo.
In Amman a lovely British expat called Jason hosted us. He’d seen our blog and got in touch as he’s a cycle tourist himself and he kindly to invited us to stay. We were very well looked after and we’re incredibly thankful to Jason for his kindness and hospitality. When we arrived we discovered that he’d already been to the hotel where we had left our bike boxes to pick them up and had also arranged a day trip for us to the Roman ruins in Jarash and for a drive through the mountainous pine forests of northern Jordan. The true spectacle, however, was the lift he gave us to the airport where we managed to fit two bike boxes in the boot, our luggage on the back seats and James and myself on the front seat of the car!
We loved our stay in Jordan; the cycling has been incredibly challenging but rewarding at the same time and we’ve seen the beauty and magnitude of this great country. We’ve met some awesome people and Jordan will remain a collection of fond memories for us both.
If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog post, please donate to World Bicycle Relief. Every penny goes to the great work the charity does in Africa – not to fund our expedition in any way.