In a trailer for The Rise of Skywalker, the new Star Wars movie, Rey is racing across a desert landscape, lightsaber in hand, trying to outrun a spacecraft. The landscape looked familiar, and for good reason: I had visited this dramatic desert on vacation in Jordan.
This place, Wadi Rum, is four hours south of Amman after a long, flat, and mostly unremarkable drive on the Desert Highway. Just beyond the crest of a hill is something otherworldly, something the opposite of unremarkable.
Petra is widely known as the crown jewel of Jordan, but for adventure seekers, Wadi Rum, also called the Valley of the Moon, is the star. From the enormous red, pink, and brown sandstone cliffs rising up out of the sandy desert floor, it’s readily apparent why this place has earned starring roles as Mars in 2015’s The Martian; as the fictional city of Agrabah in 2019’s Aladdin; and, of course, as the fictional planet Pasaana for the final Skywalker installment.
As far back as Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, filmmakers have flocked there for its magnificent scenery. For tourists, Wadi Rum also offers a chance to experience the traditional Bedouin culture of southern Jordan.
I had never heard the term wadi before arriving in Jordan: It refers simply to a valley carved by water. Jordan is famous for its wadis, most of which are narrow canyons that provide great hiking and an escape from the sun. Wadi Rum is vast, the largest in Jordan, taking up 280 square miles, nearly the area of New York City, and extending south to Jordan’s border with Saudi Arabia.
Day-trippers can spend a few hours taking a jeep ride through Wadi Rum with stops to hike and scramble over rocks. But it is the experience of staying in one of the many Bedouin-run camps that is truly unforgettable.
In planning our visit, we were overwhelmed with the number of options for camps (more than 70) and were briefly tempted by the fancy biodome-style camps (some with air conditioning and hot tubs) that have landed on Wadi Rum in recent years (and are not locally owned, drawing scorn from the people who live nearby). But after looking through websites and reviews, we ultimately opted for a traditional camp, simply named Wadi Rum Bedouin Camp.
Once we had made our reservation, the owner, Mohammed, who was born and raised in Wadi Rum, emailed us instructions to arrive at the Rum Village Rest Stop by 2 p.m. on our arrival day. There, we would meet our guide for a jeep tour of desert highlights before heading to the camp for the evening.
A row of four-wheel-drive pickup trucks was waiting at the entrance to the rest stop. We slowed to a halt, rolled down our window, and spoke to the first driver we saw. "We’re here for Bedouin camp," we said cautiously.
"Yes, I’m Mohammed’s cousin. He told me to come meet you. Come with me."
Carrying only what we needed for the day and overnight, the six of us climbed into the back of the truck, which was outfitted with a shade cover, ready to explore. Our driver wore a traditional dishdasha (a long white robe) with a kaffiyeh (a red-and-white scarf) atop his head. We had purchased similar scarves for ourselves, and it did not take long for us to see how essential they would be in the desert.
We would meet many of Mohammed’s relatives during our stay — the camel herder, the cook, and others who popped in and out of camp with various messages and supplies. These extended Bedouin families all used to live a nomadic life in traditional goat-hair tents within the confines of the Wadi Rum protected area, herding goats and camels. People have lived here since prehistoric times.
But as wealth from tourism has spread through the community, many have moved to cement houses in the town of Rum just outside the park boundary. Mohammed told us that there were just five Bedouin families still living in the desert.
We commenced our bouncy two-hour drive into the desert — nowhere near long enough to explore the vastness of the park — and were all soon reaching for the grab bars and pulling out our scarves to keep errant hair and swirling sand out of our eyes. The kids in our group were certain they’d just boarded the best amusement park ride ever.
We had time to properly adjust our scarves at the first stop on our tour — the Lawrence Spring, supposedly where British officer T.E. Lawrence (yes, Lawrence of Arabia) camped during the great Arab Revolt of 1917-1918 and where camels rest and replenish their reserves with the spring water. It was Lawrence’s time here that first drew Western tourists to Wadi Rum.
Next, we rode to a narrow gorge, where we ascended a few sandstone steps and entered a cramped passageway with well-preserved Nabatean symbols and images of animals and humans dating back more than 12,000 years on the canyon walls.
From there, we began the heart-pumping — and heart-stopping — stage of the tour. We drove down to the base of a gigantic red sand dune dotted with a mix of children running to the top and adults slogging through the sand. At varying speeds, our group eventually made it to the top, and we were rewarded with a magnificent 360-degree vista.
(Fashion hint: Don’t wear white on a visit to Wadi Rum. We would find red sand in our shoes and bags for days.)
Our next stop was hyped as a must-have photo op: a natural rock bridge with an ascent that provided another adrenaline boost. Our guide scampered up the slope of rock effortlessly with the children, while the adults in our group climbed on hands and feet and avoided sliding to our deaths.
The remainder of the tour was, thankfully, passive sightseeing — with the exception of one final treat for the kids. Turning around in his seat, our driver did a quick visual assessment of our group and decided that we might enjoy a little drag racing with another guide. He was half right — the children gleefully bounced around in the back of the pickup; the moms, not so much.
Soon enough, we arrived at the camp. In our tent, our host proudly pointed out the thick cotton quilts his mother had made and then guided us to the recently upgraded men’s and women’s bathrooms. Showers were available, but after learning that water must be trucked to the camp each day, we decided to pass.
We joined the other guests in the central dining tent, where we had traditional Bedouin tea with local herbs (sage, thyme, and rosemary) and a healthy dose of sugar. After, we were encouraged to climb up onto the cliffs behind the camp to view the stunning sunset, the sky filling with opaque pinks and reds and oranges as the light reflected off the dust in the desert air.
We clambered back down to the camp for dinner and gathered in a circle as the cook and his helper dug in the sand to reveal the handle of a large pot. After carefully clearing away the sand, they pulled out a traditional meal of zarb — lamb, vegetables, and rice — that had been cooked underground, Bedouin-style. We ate this along with Middle Eastern mezze (hummus, olives, and eggplant dip) and salads.
After a full day (and with full bellies), we headed back to our tents. But the desert had a bonus in store for us: the night sky, glittering with a jillion stars. Even in my most remote travels away from the light pollution of cities, I had never seen such a sight.
With morning came another surprise. At breakfast, we were startled to hear deep grunts and groans, which turned out to be camels waiting to return us to our car. For most of us, this was the first time riding a camel, delighting our laughing hosts, as we climbed up and captured the experience on video. The slow walk back was a different amusement ride and an opportunity to experience the magnificence of Wadi Rum.