Exploring Bedouin Deserts
Away from the “hustle and bustle” of the sea swept shores of Egypt and Jordan there is another world of sand, completely different from over the mountains. And the ancient culture of the people, the Bedouin, reflects their surroundings in a way that only ancient nomads can. With a couple of different experiences in a couple different countries I’ve gotten the smallest glimpse into people as varied as any other.
The day of arrival in the city of Sharm El-Sheikh, on Egypt’s North Eastern Red Sea shore, was hot with and extra warm sense of welcoming. The sign outside the airport does say “WELCOME TO THE CITY OF PEACE” after all, and in Arabic, English, and Russian to boot, and in that order.
With all of the industry that has been built up along the highways, the theme parks surrounded by many businesses on every street, it’s not difficult to imagine this place filled with people, talking, cheering, and laughing. But it was empty. Streets barren with an eerie silence. With the misunderstanding of increased danger in these countries, tourism has faltered, leaving once thriving areas deserted.
That first early evening, hours before the sun would set, we were picked up at our hotel, SUNRISE Montemare Resort, picked up another couple, from Cairo, celebrating their recent marriage, and driven between 20-30 minutes out to a ATV (all-terrain vehicle) rental place. As part of the tour we already had paid for the rental, but the workers attempted the up-sell with professional photos of us on the quads. We opted out of that since our guide took photos of us with our phones, not the best quality, but it works.
With true desert fashion sense, and face protection, in mind our guide also wrapped our heads in the scarves we brought. Covering all but our eyes.
As a more experienced quad driver I followed the guide as we rode down a worn and crusty highway and then off into pure desert. I tried not be too close or even follow the same route as he rode because I was looking for the possible jumps along this rough, but well traveled road. Even as we made our way further and further outside “civilization” we could still see the locals, riding around the desert on their ATVs: motorcycles, quads, anything, just like we were.
For anyone who might has been getting tired and/or experience too sore of hands to continue holding down the throttle. We had a rest stop in a Bedouin campsite. A family set up a small café where we could buy some tea or snacks, but since we were leaving soon we just enjoyed the shade on squishy pillows.
After about 10 minutes we continued on to the final destination, a stage in front of a two level audience area complete with areas for hookah and tables for the Bedouin dinner that we would be served before the performances start. Like in the café earlier the colorful fabrics of the rugs, pillows, and tapestries stand out among the beige desert sand and mountain ranges.
Before the sun went down we were taken to the top of a hill nearby were we could take photographs of the landscape.
And then my mother and I then took our second camel ride of the trip. It was fully guided, we were kept on ropes the entire time, so sadly I wasn’t able to break out the camel or get her to go any faster than a leisurely stroll. Although riding slowly did make it easier to take pictures while riding.
Once the sun had slid behind the western mountain range our guide, the couple, and my mother and I were relaxing on the cushions around the table drinking Bedouin tea, the best tea I’ve ever had. Dinner is called and the show begins.
Dancers of different styles grace the stage, including: a belly dancer, a Tanoura dancer, and one man who danced with knives, swords, and even fire.
Before heading back we walked away from the lights of the stage and stared deep into the night sky, identifying and learning about the constellations that glowed so brightly above our heads.
As the night drew to a close we rode the quads back to the bus and eventually said goodbye to a few new friends.
A protected area in southern Jordan with a long history of habitation and acclaim, not just for it’s natural beauty either, most would recognize the landscape due to it being the backdrop in two little known movies called The Martian and Lawrence of Arabia (and months after we left, Rouge One: A Star Wars Story).
Around 13:00 we stopped for lunch at a beautiful, open air, air-conditioned restaurant. Just like in Egypt the colors, this time mostly reds, stood out from the washed out colors of the desert around it.
My mother and I were both given the wonderful tea and the food was placed on the table in front of us. The dishes looked, and tasted wonderful, but I couldn’t help feeling a slight tinge of guilt. It was Ramadan, and even though my mother and I are not followers of Islam and therefore do not fast, our guide and the restaurant owners and workers did, so eating in front of them felt a bit callous (but we did anyway).
With lunch over, I ran over to the horses that were saddled up and ready to ride. Of course I chose the younger one, that was said to be more difficult to control, but that didn’t faze me, my horsemanship lessons would definitely pay off.
Making a large circle around and through a mountain range, at first the horses were stubborn at wanting to go any faster than a walk, but once we left the “trail” the horse I was riding was much more willing to leave the other two in his dust. We galloped across the land and with the wind rushing by me I hadn’t felt that kind of freedom in so long. Every so often the horse and I would slow to give the others a chance to catch up, or in the case of the longest galloping section both my feet fell out of the stirrups and I was forced to hold on only with my thighs (thank gawd I have always had mighty thighs). Continuing on the trek, we came to a canyon. Still riding the horses we made our way through the rough terrain, which was complete with large scattered bushes, a shallow river with a small waterfall, and collapsing rock faces. Maybe it was the increase of danger, but this was my second favorite part of the ride, after the loss of control while the horse was in its full gallop only 20 minutes before.
Because time insists on moving forward the exploration ride came to an end, and now we would be going on another trip, further this time, in a car.
While riding around the desert in the back of a covered truck we made periodic stops to get better views of the set pieces of those films and to simply take in the amazing rock formations.
There was a point in which I wanted to climb up a canyon wall, but the guide wouldn’t let me. Even if I took off my shoes, we didn’t have any of the necessary safety equipment – boring.
I, therefore, had to settle for climbing up rocky hills instead, still wearing my wedge sandals. As I climbed the rocky pebbles fell out from under me, so I had to sometimes use both hands to maintain my stability. Other areas were covered in sand, while this may look easier to climb to the untrained eye the sand was so fine that it would sink as soon as a step was made and the displaced sand would slide down the hill, so I stuck with the rocks I could see.
From the top, the ‘Martian’ landscape was laid out ahead of me. The red sand was a bit less saturated than in the movie and small bushes had grown in random locations. This made me a bit upset; that, while filming, the crew pulled out every single bush to create the Mars landscape. They ruined the homes of animals that lived out there; they created a situation where too much weathering could hurt the future of the area. But they didn’t care, as long as they got the shot.
We moved along, taking in the vast desert ahead of us, passing wild camels, and staring at bugs on the ground. Within the next couple hours we came to a semi permanent Bedouin site for another short break with more tea and a history lesson.
Lawrence of Arabia, or T.E. Lawrence, actually lived among the Bedouin people here. Naturally they would choose this area to film when they made the movie, released in 1962. And unlike turning a landscape into another planet, here they had places were the real man stood, where he led the Bedouin peoples in working together to solidify their independence. The one camp where we stopped was not only home to T.E. Lawrence for a time just to be with the peoples we wanted to help, but also because it classifies as an archaeological site, which he studied.
Being an archy myself I was fascinated by the petroglyphs on the canyon walls. They are so intricate and perfect that it’s hard to imagine that they are thousands of years old, the writing as well. I adore when people currently live among the ancient marks and highly respect it all as well. We can all learn from people like this, the feelings of harmony are both amazing and wonderfully overwhelming.
Before we left we looked at the more modern rock carving created by the Bedouin people in the late 1910s for their Lawrence of Arabia, who was honored with the same title as a tribal chief.
While we weren’t bestowed with such an honor, we had been welcomed into the lives of kind people, and were given a breif look into how they live. Then, just like the hero from a western, we left the camp, riding off into the sunset, to explore another day.