Wadi Dana – Valley of the Rising Sun

Jordan is a composite of valleys and gorges, gullies and canyons, gulches and sand. Dry, warm air is blown through every nook and cranny, a stark contrast from the moist, muggy air I’ve grown accustomed to breathing in the south of India the last two years.

In fact, the only real similarity between Kerala and Jordan in my mind is how different they are (if you have been to both and think they are birds of a feather, let’s agree to disagree) – particularly climatically. I took advantage of my enhanced ability to physically exert myself without rapidly dripping sweat as often as possible during my time at Feynan; I accompanied the guides on as many activities as possible, and also did a fair bit of hiking on my own.

One of my favorite (as well as most convenient) hikes was from Feynan up the first valley to the north-east: Wadi Dana. I spent at least 24 hours walking in this valley on my own – and probably nearly that long with guides and guests. It was a boon to watch the lodge’s Bedouin guides walking through the lands they grew up in, as well as learning about the area’s natural bounties from them; every hike yielded a treasury of information on goat udder infection remedies, headache alleviation; arthritis, diabetes, and chronic headache treatments – all sourced from plants that appear to an outsider’s eyes as weeds growing from the cracks in the mountain. I learned how to sanitize my hands with “Bedouin Soap”, how to find a decent snack when feeling peckish, and what type of branch to use to make a splint if one of your goats breaks its leg (although I wasn’t taught how to actually do so, I was in someone’s tent and watched it being done), as well as several other folk remedies and fixes based on native plant life.

The Wadi Dana trail is somewhere between 13 and 16 kilometers long – starting from close to 1500m in altitude (most people start from up in Dana), and descending about 1200 meters to end up at Feynan. This sounds pretty extreme when done backwards – in fact, the first 12 or so kilometers are quite pleasant, but the last few going up are the knockout – the trail is more of a climb than a walk. Nevertheless, the hike is beautiful both ways, particularly in the very early morning.

I had the privilege to witness the sunrise from both ends of the valley – on different occasions. In Dana, the sun rises behind you as you set out, with the mountain’s shadow being cast shorter and shorter as the hour grows longer (all links in this post are my photographs). While this is impressive, it isn’t anything to write home about compared to the sun’s first rays spilling through the valley ahead of you as they crest the mountaintops behind Dana. The first time I saw this light, it took my breath away, and I had to stop to sit down and watch the light pouring over the scenery, the colors seeping out magnificently.

Although I’m thrilled with the pictures I took, they don’t begin to do the real thing justice. On one occasion I set out at 5:30 in the morning, in order to progress at a very relaxed pace. This was in late spring; before summer really kicked in, so the valley was relatively uninhabited. Two weeks later, summer homes (tents) began filling the valley at the slightly higher altitudes for two reasons: first, there is more vegetation for the goats and sheep to browse on. In Wadi Feynan, little grows, and that which does is eaten quickly. The higher altitudes become rapidly more and more biodiverse, as well as densely vegetated.

There aren’t any pastures in sight, but goats at least don’t have to climb trees to get a meal (but believe me, a motivated goat can do that too). Secondly, the lower elevations get hot in the summer. Really hot. The wind tunnel has a significant cooling effect, and the Bedouin know this.

Although the Bedouin are most famous as nomads, their hospitality is a close second. Today, the former is less and less prominent, but the latter isn’t going anywhere. I was really struck by how warm and welcoming a family is to absolute strangers – few people in the Western world are inclined to inviting a dusty traveler into their home for tea on sight. With the Bedouin, it’s unspeakable not to do so. In fact, hospitality is an extraordinarily significant element of their culture – but I’ll talk more about that in a future post.

For now, my experience with authentic hospitality in Wadi Dana at dawn: I left Feynan before the sun came up, so I didn’t expect to see anyone on the trail at all. And besides a few desert sheepdogs, I didn’t – for about forty minutes. As I climbed out of a minor wadi and back onto the trail east, I ran into a woman who seemed to be about my grandmother’s age – dressed all in black, and walking my direction. I was never fully briefed on etiquette, particularly concerning women, but we stopped about two meters from each other. I decided I couldn’t go wrong with a universally acceptable greeting: “Salaam!” She replied in turn, with a monosyllabic invitation: “Chai?”

She turned on her heel without waiting for a reply, going back in the direction she came from without another word. She seemed unperturbed by the fact that the sun hadn’t come up yet, and whatever the reason for her original walk, it lost priority to a (not so weary) traveler. It was about 200 meters along the trail to her home – an open black tent sheltered from the elements, clearly not the family’s summer home.

There were several dozen goats penned up near the tent – she let them out before leading me to the mats around a dying fire with a teapot next to it.  My hostess growled something in Arabic, and a younger woman emerged from the tent with a tin of milk in hand. She too seemed entirely unsurprised by a total stranger’s presence at six in the morning. They both sat across from me, putting the pots back on the embers. A third woman, this one closer in appearance to my mother’s age, walked out from behind the tent, tending to goats. She glanced my way, and continued her work. Being unable to communicate, I felt a bit awkward sitting around doing nothing. I spent about ten minutes enjoying the beautiful sunrise and the rich tones seeping out of the mountains, as well as the soothing birdsongs proliferating in the morning air. The tea, sweeter than usual with fresh goat milk, was an encouraging booster, and I went on my way.

A little water in this environment goes a long way – although most river valleys are dried out in the summer and experience only flash flooding in the winter, a few minor streams were present in Wadi Dana in mid-May. It was truly inspiring to see from a distance – snaking paths of sheer greenery stood out from the comparatively flat and monotonous mountains and levels surrounding the streambeds. What looked like a trickle of water to me was enough to sustain enormous stands of bamboo, oleander, and a dozen other plants I’m unable to name. Those in turn nourish dozens of species of insects and birds, and ultimately, maintain the equilibrium of life within the area.

The rest of my walk uphill was pleasant but not comparable to the first two and a half golden hours. I ran into a shepherd named Salaame and walked with him until he stopped to graze his goats (he caught up with me when I was resting under a tree a few hours later). I saw birds and lizards, grasshoppers and various other insects, and of course, goats. Most of the interesting wildlife in the reserve is either crepuscular or nocturnal – excepting a few fascinating reptiles, such as this Sinai Agama (seen on a separate occasion, this time walking down from Dana to Feynan at midday).There are chameleons in the reserve as well, although I was never fortunate, or possibly sharp-eyed, enough to see one.

As for the last few kilometers uphill… well, let’s just say I don’t want to talk about it.

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