The ascent of Jebel Burdah
Together with Lisa Thomas,(now Mrs Lewis) Peter Bennett and Rachana Nagaraj,(now Mrs Bennett)I visited Jordan during October 2000.
Our first week was spent touring all the ancient and natural wonders of the region and the third week was earmarked for diving in the Red Sea. The middle week was reserved for our desert adventure.
We had given up our hire car at Petra and after a few days walking around one of the most amazing sites in the world, we were ready for our trip to continue.
We had arranged a good price with Mohhamed the taxi driver to take us to Wadi Rum, the village used by Lawrence of Arabia as his base during the First World War. The journey took us over barren high plateaux leading away from the Great Rift Valley toward the eastern Desert. The villages we passed through were not much different from those seen by travellers hundreds of years earlier, until we met with the modern Desert highway. This broad modern motorway sped us along, closer by the minute to the distant mountains we could see breaking the horizon ahead. As we neared them, they looked like a climbers paradise; High sweeping walls rising almost sheer from the sandy floor as if they were islands floating in a yellow sea. I had my nose pressed against the window eagerly soaking up the view, not realising that these were merely scruffy outlying peaks that wouldn't hold a light to the real thing.
We turned off the road onto the Wadi Rum Road. Leaving behind the many heavy lorries made the journey seem quieter at first but this was soon to be shattered. The first sign of the impending "feeding frenzy" for our tourist Dinars was the sudden flashing of the Mercedes headlights behind us. Our driver pulled over and the car behind us stopped. Out climbed a Bedouin, full-length robe and shamag headdress. Were there any Welsh hostages taken in Beirut? Were we to be the first? Don't forget, helicopter gunships and tanks were firing in anger at people only a modest drive away.
He approached our car and held an animated discussion with our driver. It turns out Mohammed was instructed to drive straight through Wadi Rum and go directly to this man's tented camp where he would then see to our every need. When we relayed back to him that we already had plans he presented us with an embossed and edged business card complete with email address in case we should change our mind.
Waiting for the next tourists near Wadi Petra Cafe
We arrived at the quaintly named "Guesthouse" and were greeted by an army of Bedouin who all insisted we should speak to them. Arabic, German, English, French, they all shouted at us to take their Jeep for a desert trek. Several camels wandered by, bellowing at the hordes of tourists in the guesthouse. The buses would drop them off, (the tourists, not the camels) whereupon they would be ushered into the restaurant, fed good but tremendously expensive food and then shoved onto camels or jeeps for their desert safari.
We were dropped off just outside the melee at the nearby Wadi Petra restaurant. The owner was a friend of Mohammed and the staff would look after us. Nevertheless several others followed us into the little garden trying to get our business. We were invited to camp free at the Wadi Petra and given several glasses of Arabic tea to welcome us. We took up their offer and were soon greeted by "Mohammed" the jeep driver and climbing guide. (This is a different Mohammed, just one of at least two-dozen Mohammeds we met).
He was a distant relative of the hotelier from Petra and had been rung up and told to give us a good price as we had already conducted business with the family.
We spent the next three nights camping alongside the restaurant. The noisy camel in the yard next to us was easy to cope with compared to the basic sanitary facilities we shared with the restaurant staff. The meals we ate there were basic but good, with the overwhelming advantage of being absolutely gargantuan and dirt-cheap. We were so surprised at the quantity and the low bill agreed before the meal that some amongst us thought that we were being set up for a scam. (Two solicitors and two coppers, a very suspicious team indeed). We were pleasantly surprised when "Bilal" the manager explained we were getting the special "Climbers" rate as opposed to the tourist rate.
We did some scrambling and walking amid fantastic scenery around the village. Unfortunately the topos were not as good as we had hoped and we soon came to realise that the rock was absolutely lethal. Huge rocks would crumble like concrete powder as they were stood upon. That week had seen the only rain for several months and the thinner flakes of sandstone had become very brittle.
We were eventually joined by Xavi, (pronounced Chabby). He had been told we were going to hire a jeep to take us into the desert to one of the remote areas and asked if he could share our costs, travelling with us. Pete and I salivated when he told he was a mountain guide living in the Pyrenees, whilst the girls swooned over his Catalunyan good looks.
The next morning saw us load the jeep early and set off into the village. We stopped at a small house, which turned out to be the petrol station of sorts.
Mohammed put a large plastic jerry can onto the roof of the jeep, stuck a plastic tube into his mouth and deftly siphoned the contents into his fuel tank.
From his nearby house two worryingly identical containers were loaded with our drinking water and we were off. A bone jarring fast drive into the desert took us away from the early morning sounds of the Muezzin calling to prayer. Already there were other jeeps criss-crossing distant horizons and the occasional early walker avoiding the full glare of the later sun.
We pitched our tents at the base of Jebel Burdah, "The mountain of cool breezes," and set up our camp.
Ascending the North Ridge
We set off up the North Ridge following a scrambling route to "Burdah Rock Bridge", a famous natural arch high up on the mountain. The first section of scrambling took us into a shattered cwm with lots of cairns placed across it. If you wanted to follow the cairns you could have gone in any of ten different directions. Again the topo and description weren't as easy to follow as we had hoped. The route finding was quite maze like with several seemingly correct ways leading to sheer blank walls or rounded domes that went nowhere. We met another party who were descending and they got us back on the right track.
By now we were into the hot part of the day and the rocks, being quite grey in this area, reflected the heat like an oven. We crossed an upper basin that had a surface like the moon. Barren, lifeless grey rock, sandy floor and shattered "onion peelings" formed by the desert erosion were surrounded by pillars and domes which sometimes cut down your line of sight to a few metres. We began to seek out shade for a water stop and as we did so, realised we were within sight of the bridge. Rach and Pete decided they would wait at the bridge while the rest of us went on to the top, some 90 minutes further.
A short section of unprotected climbing up the side of a steep dome took us onto the ridge above the East face. We moved right into an upper valley and then scrambled back onto the ridge. By this time we were able to enjoy the breezes for which this mountain is named. We followed the ridge over several false summits until we could finally see down the other side. Several big blocks crowned the summit in a giant Adam and Eve fashion. We sat there at 1,574m, basking in the hot sun while we slowly cooled down from our exertions. The view for 360 degrees was superb. Hundreds of rock islands rose up from the desert floor. Some we could identify from our guidebook, and others we would never know the names for, marched on into Saudi Arabia. We began to pick out countless peaks which we were sure people didn't climb for years at a time, if ever. The only people who went to some of these places were the goat-herders we occasionally saw, looking exactly as if they had stepped out of a child's Bible stories book.
Chilling out with a brushwood and camel dung fire
Eventually we had to leave. If route finding had been hard in the daylight, imagine the pleasure of a night time descent.
We made our way back to the others and then eventually back to our camp, only getting frustrated with the route finding a handful of times. That night saw us light our brushwood fire and sit under a fantastically starlight night. Rach sung beautifully while I sung terribly, occasionally sipping from the Whisky we had brought with us. A brilliant end to a brilliant day.
Nigel Lewis enjoying the view from the summit.
Love it or loathe it
Whilst some climbers rave about Wadi Rum, others have vowed never to return. Whatever your feelings about the climbing, it is a beautiful wilderness area well worth visiting, especially in the company of good friends and loved ones.