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In my humble opinion, the greatest movie ever made is Lawrence of Arabia. Shot on location in Wadi Rum on 70mm film, a forerunner of IMAX, it is a fantastic story with amazing acting, directing, and cinematography. It tells the story of TE Lawrence and the Great Arab Revolt in WWI against the Turks. I’ve probably seen Lawrence of Arabia about a dozen times and couldn’t wait to go to Jordan to visit Wadi Rum and to walk where Lawrence and Auda ibu Tayi walked.
As it turns out, TE Lawrence never lead the Arab armies through Wadi Rum. They actually went around it when they attacked Aqaba. Nonetheless, it made a great location to film and the fact that history wasn’t quite like the movies didn’t dampen my desire to visit.
Getting to Wadi Rum from Aqaba isn’t easy considering it is one of the larger tourist attractions in Jordan. It is about an hour drive from Aqaba and your options are to either take a cab or try to grab a mini bus. There are no organized buses which go to Wadi Rum. I did meet some people who hitchhiked to the highway/Wadi Rum crossroads I took a mini bus along with ten Wadi Rum locals and a former wrestler from Ukraine. The Ukrainian guy was the most frugal traveler I’ve ever met. He managed to spend 45 days in Egypt and only spend $300. He ended up walking through Wadi Rum alone and slept outside, something I thought was pretty dangerous given the conditions in the desert and the fact he only had one bottle of water.
I arrived at the Wadi Rum visitor center not having any reservations or any idea of how things are done or what there was to do. Thankfully, the visitor center is very organized and is set up to take care of tourists. There are several Bedouin camps in Wadi Rum which are run by locals in the area. The visitors center acts as a booking agent for the Bedouins. You can just show up and they will radio one of the camps and set you up, as well as arrange transportation. Most people only stay one night in the camps but I stayed two so I could go explore some of the nearby desert during the day.
I took a jeep tour of the area around Wadi Rum as went out to the camp. It wasn’t worth it as I would have been driven out to the camp for free. The stops we made weren’t that great and the photos I got from it were pretty poor due to the lighting conditions. I was able to see some of the camel watering stations and some ancient script written on some rocks, but beyond that it wasn’t much more than I would have gotten just driving to the camp.
I ended up staying at the The Bedouin Meditation Camp, which really has nothing to do with meditation. The man who ran the camp was Zidane al Zilabieh who was a really nice guy. The camp was his family business and he went out of his way to treat all his guests well. The tents were Bedouin style, or at least what passes for a Bedouin tent in the 21st century. The walls of the tent were heavy black rug/blanket type cloth with rugs covering the floors. There were beds, matresses and heavy blankets for everyone so you don’t have to sleep on the ground. The first night I was there it was very cold and windy in the desert and I was kept very warm.
Dinner was cooked Bedouin style in a pit covered in sand. Food was chicken, rice and potatoes; simple but good. They also served tea before sunset. They had some old seats from cars set up on a dune where you could watch the sunset while drinking Bedouin tea, which is actually really good. The tea table was used in my May 2009 desktop wallpaper photo. The stars in the desert are some of the brightest you will see anywhere on Earth. What I saw was on a par with the stars I saw in the Outback of Australia or on islands in the Pacific.
The next day my primary activity was to go on a three hour camel trip through the desert to take photos. We left at 10am and my guide walked the entire time, which I sort of felt bad about. I had assumed that he would be riding a camel as well, not walking. If he was going to walk, I could have saved the money and just walked myself. My camel riding experience was oddly enough helped by Lawrence of Arabia. There is a scene where he is told to wrap his legs around the saddle so you don’t ride like you would on a horse. It worked well and was much more comfortable than letting your legs swing on either side. It also turns out that taking photos in the desert during mid day isn’t very good. Of the 240 photos I took, probably less than 10 were worth uploading, and those were just photos of the camel or odd rock formations. The light is just way to harsh.
I left Wadi Rum for Petra which is a much easier trip than coming from Aqaba. There is a bus every morning which goes from Petra to Wadi Rum village and back. The bus was mostly empty and reasonably priced. The trip to Petra is about 90 minutes which includes stops to pick up and drop off locals.
I highly recommend Wadi Rum if you are going to Petra. If you can, stay overnight in a Bedouin camp rather than just a day trip where you drive around and drive back to Aqaba. Even though the scenery is breathtaking, the Bedouin experience is what really makes Wadi Rum worth while. I had luck just showing up at the park, but if it is peak tourist season, you might need to reserve a place at a Bedouin camp ahead of time.