Jordan’s breathtaking Valley of the Moon
Wadi Rum - In south-western Jordan, a desert landscape with bright, breathtaking shades of red and strange rock formations as seen from space makes Wadi Rum look so alien that it is nicknamed the Valley of the Moon.
Granite and sandstone mountains, some as high as 1,700 metres above sea level with near-vertical slopes, line valleys filled with red and orange sand in the area that found fame as the home of The Martian, Hollywood’s blockbuster movie starring Matt Damon in the leading role of an astronaut stranded on Mars.
“There’s no desert like Wadi Rum,” said Amman banker Adnan Abu Jawad, 39. “With the spectacular red sand, it feels that one is on Mars, not planet Earth.”
“The mountains are so rocky that they’re easier to climb and the area is so nice, with its Bedouin inhabitants being so friendly to visitors, plus the hotels, the food and services are clean, affordable and worth every penny you pay,” he said.
The out-of-this-world valley cut into the rock with its dusty red environment and surrounding deserts doubled as Mars through the eyes also of The Martian director Ridley Scott in addition to directors Brian De Palma and Antony Hoffman in Mission to Mars and Red Planet, respectively.
Wadi Rum was also the filming location for the Oscar-nominated Jordanian film Theeb, which featured actual Bedouins.
Wadi Rum has served as the site for various film adaptations of Lawrence of Arabia, the true story of the British archaeologist, military officer, and diplomat Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935) who joined the locals during the Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire. He made several references to Wadi Rum in his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
Away from Hollywood glamour and serving as another planet, Wadi Rum had been a desired destination by many. It, however, like many sites in Jordan, has seen a drop in the number of visitors.
Wadi Rum visitors totalled 92,033 in 2014 but amounted to 65,841 in 2015; foreign tourists dropped from 77,203 in 2014 to 50,927 in 2015. Local tourists slightly increased from 14,830 visitors in 2014 to 14,914 in 2015, according to Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities statistics.
“Unfortunately, it is true. Many factors are at play, such as political upheavals around the region or lack of awareness to the importance of the site, such as littering or insufficient numbers of restrooms,” said Mohammed Sabah al-Zalabeh, a local tour guide with more than 20 years’ experience in Wadi Rum.
Zalabeh who had the idea of opening the Sunset Camp, an overnight Bedouin camp for visitors 12km from Rum Village in the heart of the protected area of the Wadi Rum desert 20 years ago, said there are many reasons to visit the wadi.
Tourists go to Wadi Rum to enjoy camping under the display of the stars and enjoy the true life of Bedouins. Whether visitors take their own tent with minimum facilities around, or stay at one of the superior hotel-run campsites with full amenities, they can be sure of an unforgettable experience.
Besides the sites to tour, there are activities such as concerts. Daily activities include a fire lit in the desert, riding camels, horses or all-terrain vehicles known as quad bikes. An international hot-air balloon event takes place each autumn and draws thousands of foreign participants.
“Tourists visiting Wadi Rum have a host of sites to enjoy, starting with the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, named after the famous book by Lawrence of Arabia, Khazali canyon, a deep, narrow crack in the mountain side, containing many rock inscriptions, several rock bridges, Burrah canyon, Siq Um Tawaqi and, of course, the amazing sand dunes,” Zalabeh pointed out.
Wild life flourishes in Wadi Rum with hundreds of bird species, including vultures, harriers and eagles, in addition to camels, wolves, foxes, hares, jerboas, wildcats and the Sinai agama lizard. There are also snakes and scorpions.
Jordanian tourism officials attended May’s World Conference on Tourism for Development in Beijing with the hope of luring Chinese tourists to the kingdom. In 2015, the number of Chinese tourists who visited Jordan reached 23,000, a figure 16% higher than in 2014.
Tohama Nabulsi, director of media and communications at the Jordan Tourism Board, said that among the obstacles that limit tourism between Jordan and China is a lack of direct flights between Amman and Beijing, the language barrier and dietary preferences or what the official coined tourists’ “loyalty to Chinese food”.
Thaer Qandah, 46, an employee who has a strong passion for photography, said that Wadi Rum and the surrounding areas are great for professional-quality shots.
“It is truly amazing!” he said. “The desert and its inhabitants make excellent subjects for photography. I try to go there whenever I have the urge to shoot some photos and I am really proud of one image of a blue lizard that lives there.
“There are so many ways you can improve the experience of visitors to that area and so far I think they are doing a lot of things to make sure that the tourist comes again or at least says a few good words but still there is always a place for improvements and presenting something new.”