As with all the best laid plans, my trip to Dana ended up being a bit different to how I had imagined. For a start I was battling a stinker of a cold and when I turned up at the bus station in Aqaba, I was led to believe that all buses headed in the Dana direction had left for the day. It was 7.45am – I’m still not convinced… I negotiated a pretty reasonable taxi price and Mosa and I set off. I was happy to discover that I had met a non-smoking Jordanian man – a rarity around here. After a petrol stop in someone’s garden, we were off. Being in the taxi afforded me a much better view of all the countryside than I had had the previous week from the bus. Mosa was a comedy character and whilst listening to “Feroux” music, we discussed the political situation in Jordan. King Abdullah was mentioned regularly, always with a flourish of finger kissing – he was quite the fan. These protesters are just troublemakers who should shut up and go home.
Dana was just as beautiful and remote as I had imagined. However, my peaceful retreat only lasted for a couple of hours until a 30 strong party of American expat families arrived. Any group of that size is going to dominate and as they had brought all their own gear, they took over the communal Bedouin tent. I finally finished off The State of Africa and prepared myself for a less demanding Jodi Picoult novel which Zoe had kindly given me before the Exodus group set off back to Amman.
The best way to escape the noise of the camp was to get out hiking. My three days were taken up with blowing my nose (a lot), eating the lovely food prepared by Khaled, chatting with the campsite staff about Dana and its challenges as well as the political situation in the region and setting off on a variety of the self guided hikes. Every corner you turned, you were presented with completely different geological rock formations. Dana Nature Reserve has much to offer – guided and self guided walks of varying lengths and difficulty. I felt that I had the reserve to myself. I didn’t spot an ibex but other people did. On the last night, a group turned up who were starting a four day walk to Petra via Feinan Eco Lodge. Their arrival into Petra was to be from behind the monastery and not through the main entrance – now that sounds like a good idea!
On the afternoon of the 3rd day, the families departed and the camp was back to how I had expected – plenty of space to lounge around on the mattresses in the Bedouin tent and only the noise of the birds for company. There were 13 of us at camp that night and we had our post dinner cup of tea around a roaring fire chatting with Yamaan who was leading the hiking group to Petra. Yamaan had previously worked with the RSCN and was a passionate advocate of bringing sustainable eco-tourism to Jordan. It also turns out that he is an award winning guide!
Leaving Dana, I was determined to get the bus and it was necessary that I achieve this aim as a taxi to Madaba would have been completely out of budget. The campsite manager arranged a taxi for me to the nearest town with a bus station (Tafila - about 30 mins away) and I was prepared for the bus into Amman and then out to Madaba where I was spending my last pre-Africa night. The way that buses work here is that they leave when they are full. Mine left about an hour after I arrived at the bus station. Just after I boarded the bus, a young student asked if I was travelling alone and if she could come and sit with me. It is a big deal here for a woman to have to sit next to an unrelated man so she was ensuring herself a comfortable journey.
Samah was delightful. Studying English at Tafila University, she was keen to practise her English. It is unusual to bump into a solo female foreigner and so this was an opportunity not to be missed. She showed me her English text books and we talked about different areas of the UK which are interesting to visit. It is her dream to visit England and so she hopes to marry an open-minded man who can make this happen! She was disappointed with her university course as it is all about regurgitation and doesn’t require much thought or participation. As I finished my novel during the journey, I presented it to her and she asked me to write a few words in the front.
When I explained where I was going, she said that there would be no need for me to go into Amman but that I would be able to get off the bus early and take a shorter route to Madaba. She would take care of finding someone on the bus who was also going to Madaba. During a toilet stop, she approached all the other girls but they were all going to Amman. She bravely approached a young man and it turned out that indeed, he was headed to Madaba. Samah could not have chosen me a better companion.
Mohammed took charge when we got off the bus by the side of the busy dual carriageway. Some men approached saying “7JD to Madaba”. I thought this sounded like a good deal but Mohammed had other ideas. We set off to cross over various sections of dual carriageway with our bags (and swapped half way over as his bag was lighter than mine!) and were joined by a policeman. It would be difficult to work this for yourself but we needed to go and stand at another area of the dual carriageway. We had to let one bus go by as it was too full but when the 2nd one arrived, Mohammed loaded me and my luggage into the first row of seats. The driver looked unimpressed that I only had a 10JD note to offer and waved me on (the fare was only ½ JD - we dealt with it later during a petrol stop).
Shortly before arriving into Madaba, a lady got onto the bus and looked unamused by me taking up the front seats. She sat further back but as people got off, she moved forward. It turned out she had excellent English and had visited the UK and the US. We talked about my trip to Jordan and before I knew it, she was asking me if I would like to marry her son… he has a Green Card! I explained that I couldn’t possibly leave London and so she repeated for me again “but he has a Green Card!”. She seemed to be envisaging our new life divided between Jordan, London and the US.
Fortunately we soon pulled into Madaba and Mohammed was in charge again. He had told me earlier that I would need to take a taxi to my hotel for about 1JD (~£1). When we got off the bus though, he seemed to be ignoring the taxis but I just decided to trust him as he had been so helpful so far. We walked up the street and spoke to one taxi driver. I presumed that he was negotiating the fare for me but later realised that he was getting directions. Told to stay put on the corner, Mohammed ran over to his father (who had come to collect him) and asked if they could give me a lift! I pulled out my very best “a’salam alaikum” for his father. During our ride, I heard him explaining about the ludicrous amount of JD the bad men at the roadside had wanted: “7JD for Madaba”.
And so here I was, safely deposited to my hotel in Madaba thanks to the kindness of various Jordanians. But time marches on and this morning I took my first malaria tablet. Hopefully it won’t react badly against the Panadol cold and flu tablets. It feels strange to be thinking about boarding an aircraft this evening. I’ve had to re-arrange my baggage to make sure that I have nothing unsuitable in my hand luggage.
Some of presents from FactSet have really come into their own in the last few weeks: the sink plug is used almost daily and the Swiss Army Knife has opened a few bottles of wine for the "Red wine and crisps club" at Wadi Rum and in Aqaba and helped fix someone’s glasses. I started getting used to the binoculars in Dana and am now ready for the “Big Five”! The washing line and mosquito net are sure to get their first outings very shortly.
A few thoughts on travelling in the Middle East will follow - either from the airport tonight or from the pool in Nairobi tomorrow :-)
Adding a link to a few photos : Dana Nature Reserve
Adding a link to a few photos : Dana Nature Reserve