Into The Great Big Open

Around the planet by motorcycle

The city of Petra was excavated (not technically built) by the Nabataeans in the 3rd century BC,  and from here they controlled trade between Syria and Arabia, levying taxes and extorting protection money from passing caravans. The pink sandstone rock has been transformed into full-fledged city, with religious structures, dwellings, livestock pens, and storerooms. After devastating earthquakes in the 6th century, the city was abandoned. In the 12th century, Crusaders built a stronghold here, but for the next 500 hundred years it lie lost to the modern world, until being discovered (quite by accident) by the Swedish explorer Burckhardt in 1812. (Of course the local Bedouins have likely never considered it “lost”!)

After paying the entrance fee, wincing at the US$85 cost of a 2-day pass, there’s a short walk to the Siq, a 1.2 km slot canyon that leads to Petra proper.

The Siq.

Deeper in the siq, there are channels carved into the walls for capturing and redirecting rain runoff from the rocks. Eventually, something interesting appears through the bends in the canyon.

Despite its name, the original purpose of the structure remains unknown. According to local legend, pirates hid their treasure in the sandstone urn near the top of the facade, which has been pockmarked by bullets.

Further along are the Royal Tombs, ca. 70AD.

Inside, the mineral-leaden sandstone has weathered to show beautiful colors.


The Urn Tomb, ca. AD70, reached by climbing several flights of stairs over a series of arched vaults:

The interior of the Urn tomb is unadorned, decorated only by the colorful sandstone.

The theater (ca. 1st century AD), with seating for 6,000+ spectators. Above the uppermost row of seats are the remains of tombs that were destroyed when Romans expanded seating capacity.

A curious camel makes a move for my banana snack!

I was too busy dodging mama camel to get a photo of the cute baby.

Petra was amazing, and the two days were well spent seeing the usual tourist bits, and also hiking up steep trails to enjoy the sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. And I still didn’t see everything!

Wadi Rum

Further south I wanted to visit Wadi Rum, home of Bedouins and former stomping grounds of Lawrence of Arabia. I found camping at the village of Rum in a large sandy lot surrounded by brown sandstone cliffs, and with a few restaurant and markets close by decided to call it home for a few days.

Typical view of Wadi Rum. Sandstone, camels and 4×4 trucks.

Before I could complete setting up camp, I was approached by several Bedouin offering jeep tours into the desert, from young teenagers with new Landcruisers to soft-spoken older fellas with beater pickup trucks. Riding a motorcycle in sand is not my forte (by a long, long shot), so I signed up for a 3 hour tour with one of the guides with a  beater puck-up.

The first stop was at Lawrence’s Spring, where I scrambled over the boulders and up the slope to take in the view.

View from Lawrence’s Spring.

Further along, we stopped at the natural bridge at Um Fruth.

Um Fruth sandstone bridge. My driver was kind enough to take photos, dozens of them. When I climbed back down he handed my camera back he said with a grin, “Like Japanese! Click-click-click-click-click!”

We stopped for tea at a Bedouin tent, reclining on dark, colorful rugs and warming our hands near the coals of a low fire.  Next stop was Khazali canyon, a deep, narrow fissure containing rock inscriptions and small pools of stagnant water.

Entrance to Khazali canyon (which has bisected Jebel Khazali).

Standing water prevented me from going very far into the defile, but I got far enough to see the inscriptions.

Nabataean carvings in Khazali canyon.

A stop at the sand dunes wouldn’t be complete without getting temporarily stuck.

Sand dunes at Wadi Um Ishrin, about 100 meters high.

It was an excellent tour, and leaving the driving to a professional allowed me plenty of time for photos and gaping at the landscape.

View of the environs of Wadi Rum

Back at camp I met two rock climbers, Lasse from Denmark and Chris from England.  While they spent the day climbing I tinkered with the moto: adjusting the valve lash, checking electrical connections and the tightness of fasteners, setting the spark plugs gap, and generally looking it over. Fortunately, I had help from a feline visitor.

Bike maintenance with help from Accident Cat.

This fellow showed up at camp one day in quite a sad state: Dragging a broken, lifeless leg back leg, a bent tail, an oozing jaw infection and one bulging blue eye the color of bright sapphire. The climbers christened him Accident Cat, and by all appearances he was not long for this world. But every day the cat would appear like an apparition, plowing a crooked groove in the sand where paw prints should have been, meowing for food and attention. I would feed him a can of tuna each day, then fill the empty can with fresh water, and after supping he would nap in the shade of a nearby shrub, only to reappear at dusk for a social visit. Worst was the bulging, bright blue opaque eye, which seemed on the verge of popping out at any moment. But he kept on keeping on, and last I saw him he was pestering the latest campground arrivals, garnering shock, sympathy and food. Long live Accident Cat!

Next stop was Aqaba, where I would catch the ferry bound for Nuweiba on the Egyptian Sinai.

My first stop in Jordan was Jerash, home to ruins that I found more interesting than those at Palmyra. Exploring them had to wait a few days as I dealt with a bout of the flu, complete with sore joints, aching head, fever, sore skin, and lethargy. I found a hotel with campsites 7km west of town, and having time to kill, thought it would be a good time to change out the drive chain and sprockets on the bike.

New chain and sprockets

Doing something like this when ill is no fun, but I took my time, triple checked everything and took lots of rests during the operation. The old chain and sprocket set had lasted about 12,000 miles, which is not bad considering that I’d been lazy about chain maintenance. Having sorted that, I moved to a hotel in town to recuperate, and was there for three nights, eating lots of fruit, drinking water and watching movies on satellite TV.

When I felt better, I spent a day in the ruins. There is archaeological evidence of the site being inhabited in Neolithic times, but it came into its own starting in the time of Alexander the Great. Like Palmyra, it flourished under Roman rule, later converted to Christianity, and finally Islam in the 7th century. When trade routes changed, the city lost prominence and its importance and population dwindled.

Hadrian's arch, constructed for the emperor's visit in AD 129.

The hippodrome, where chariot races are still held today! The reenactment comes complete with all of the correct livery for man and horses, and the announcements are even done in Latin. Retired military veterans man the chariots. Sadly, I was not there on race day.

Reconstruction of a hydralically-powered rock saw, the oldest in the world, beating the Europeans by 1,000 years.

Another view of the rock saw.

Collonaded street (cardo maximus) connecting the Northern Tetrapylon (foreground) with the north gate. The handsome town of Jerash is built on a hillside in the background.

The huge Oval Plaza (forum), 90 by 80 meters, with 56 Ionic columns surrounding the paved limestone plaza.

On my way to the Dea Sea, I popped by to see the baptism site of Jesus and the slow, muddy Jordan river. Just a few meters away was the Israeli border, where guards took photos of the tourists, who were taking photos of the guards.

Bobbing in the Dead Sea was fun, and a little strange, with enough buoyancy to make sinking impossible.

This was the "low point" of my trip.

Next stop was Madaba to see Byzantine mosaics, including a 6th century map of Palestine, the oldest in existence. True to form, I arrived after dark and stopped on a street corner to ask direction. I was invited into a shop for tea and a chat with the owner and his friends, and eventually was given precise directions to the touristy part of town.

The next morning I went cross-eyed looking at mosaics!

Part of the 6th century mosaic map, with 157 captions and featuring all of the biblical sites of the Middle East, from Egypt to Palestine.

Tons more mosaics in the extensive Archaeological Park. Also the first documented "wet willy" (bottom right corner).

South of Madaba, I picked up the scenic King’s Highway.

Beautiful desert landscape south of Madaba

Eventually descending into the majestic Wadi Mujib.

Wadi Mujib

At a pullout I bought some fossils for friends back home, and over tea, tutored the young Valentino-wannabe salesman on the best ways to compliment western women.

After a stop in Karak to see the castle, my destination was Wadi Musa and Petra. Got to find the Holy Grail before the Nazis get their paws on it!