Extreme Sport | From Desk Till Dawn

Canyoning in Jordan

Scaling ancient rock formations and abseiling down dramatic waterfalls, Tarquin Cooper experiences a little-known geological wonder of the Holy Land.

September 11 2010
Tarquin Cooper

Ancient civilisations have come and gone, like sands in deserts or the passing caravans of Bedouin tribes, but what they have left behind in Jordan is a delight for the visitor. As part of the Holy Land, the country has long been a magnet for cultural tours and pilgrimages; the River Jordan is where John the Baptist is said to have baptised Jesus, while Petra, a sixth-century BC city sculpted into the rock, is an ancient wonder. And what the human hand did not carve, the wind and elements have chiselled to completion.

The huge desert cliffs of Wadi Rum are spectacular, providing the scene for David Lean’s epic film Lawrence of Arabia. But there is another geological wonder of the country, relatively obscure and, until now, accessible only to the most adventurous travellers – its canyons. These steep-sided, narrow gorges carve their way down the mountains, part of a complex network of river systems that feed the Dead Sea – realms of waterfalls, verdant springs, stunning rock formations and fantastically dramatic cliff descents. Without a profound physical and mental commitment, it’s impossible to visit; but the reward for mustering enough of both is to access a secret world.

Friday 1400 I skip out of the office early and catch the day’s only direct flight from Heathrow to Amman. As night falls, we fly directly over Beirut and on to the Jordanian capital, landing at 9pm. A massive Mercedes is waiting to take me to the Landmark hotel. A light bite to eat, and it’s straight to bed.

Saturday 0700 Atif, a retired Jordanian policeman turned professional outdoor guide, picks me up for the three-hour drive. En route we stop off at a roadside stall for what he calls some “knock knock”. Knock knock? He turns round and mimes rapping on the side of my skull.

“Knock knock! Wake up, brain!” Forget frothy, milky imitations – this is spiced Turkish coffee, thick as syrup and strong as Neopolitan espresso, and served with a piled-high tablespoon of sugar to take the edge (only just) off its bitterness. My jet-lagged brain is duly jolted with the caffeine it needs at this hour.

Saturday 1000 At a lay-by we meet our Bedouin guide Eid, with whom we swap our civilian vehicle for a 4x4. Then it’s a half-hour bone-shaker of a ride across a field of desert boulders to the start of our canyon. It’s already almost 35º.

Our plan is to spend the day hiking steep hills up to Wadi Barwas, overnight in the mountains at a traditional Bedouin camp, and then descend Wadi Al Feid canyon the following day. With 10 waterfalls, 600m of descent and a horizontal distance of eight miles to cover, it is one of the most challenging itineraries in the region.

Saturday 1200 After climbing a well-worn trail that gently, then quite steeply, ascends, we come to a clearing beside a spring surrounded by bushes of blossoming pink oleander. It’s too hot to continue. Eid rustles up a fire to boil the kettle while Atif and I chop tomatoes, onion, garlic and peppers to deep-fry in rich olive oil. The result, served with flatbread tossed on the coals and eaten by hand using the bread as a scoop, is absurdly tasty – probably because, not in spite, of its rustic simplicity. We drink sweet tea and quaff water straight from the spring; I doze off underneath the branches of a wizened Phoenician juniper tree in a state of satiated contentment.

Saturday 1430 With the sun just a little lower in the sky, it’s safe to continue – but it’s still ferociously hot. Sweat is pouring out of me but thanks to the blazing wind and the air – devoid of even a trace of humidity – it dries instantly; the only sign of it is the salt deposits that collect on the rim of my sunglasses. As we climb, the sandstone rock morphs into extraordinary shapes suggesting prehistoric and otherworldly sculptures. Like children watching clouds, we pick out faces and creatures among the shapes. Layers of salt trace white lines into the rock, while centuries of wind have carved and polished great scooping declinations and windows in it. From a distance, a cliff looks as if a pot of treacle has poured down its face and set in place.

Saturday 1630 We arrive at our encampment to meet the rest of the team: Rakan, the co-founder and operations manager, Mohammad, Raslan, a couple more Bedouins and a goat – as it turns out, soon to be our supper. As the sun moves to the west and below the hills, the goat is dispatched in the local manner, cooked in a broth, and served on a bed of rice with traditional Bedouin unleavened bread. We sit in a circle and eat with our fingers. For Bedouins, eating is business: when you’re done, you get up and leave.

Outside, Rakan briefs me on the next day’s itinerary. “It will be a challenge. Other tours don’t do this canyon. If you can’t abseil, you just can’t do it. And if you get stuck – you’re stuck. But that’s the thrill. And it’s beautiful, really magical.”

As we prepare to bed down, he offers me the tent, but I opt to sleep outside; the blackened sky with its infinity of stars is far too good to obscure with canvas.

Sunday 0600 Breakfast consists of bread, dates, eggs, olives, hummus and yoghurt – and more sweet tea. Within the hour, we’re walking towards the canyon system that will eventually emerge into Wadi abu Sakakin – the Valley of Knives.

The path descends gently for about half an hour, until we come to our first waterfall. This we bypass by climbing down, face to the rock, like sailors descending ladders on a ship (except, of course, without the aid of any ladders). We wade through a narrow chasm in waist-high water then suddenly come to a precipitous edge – the first of nine abseils.

Rakan rigs up the ropes to bolts drilled into the granite, clips me on, and unceremoniously sends me over the edge. That initial moment of leaning back into yawning space, when all one’s faith is invested in an untested rope and harness, is tremendous – somewhere between exhilarating and utterly awful. Then come the resistance, the stabilisation and the reassuring realisation: it does work. I take a few awkward steps and then relax into the slide down. At the bottom I look up at the sheer face of the 20m waterfall. We’re committed now.

The gorge narrows again. We clamber over fallen trees, rocks and debris and pull ourselves through dense scrub. Here the canyon is at its steepest, and most treacherous – but the sun can’t penetrate and it is mercifully cool. Soon we’re at our next abseil. I clip on and rappel down the ropes, landing in a pool of chest-high water. And so we slip into a routine, the guides alternating at the front, fixing the abseils while I’m either descending or following the stream. Until the big one.

It’s a 60m descent down a sheer cliff that opens up into a vast, natural amphitheatre of peaks. The exposure is immense; my heart is hammering with a speed I can’t attribute to exertion. I watch nervously while the others, one by one, clip on, step over the edge and disappear from view. Then it’s my turn. I lean back onto the rope and step backwards. The first few metres are slow, with the heavy weight of the rope. Then gradually it frees up, becoming lighter, and soon I’m taking great, thrilling leaps of several metres out into space, landing further down the face each time. Halfway down I stop – there’s a unique thrill to admiring the view at leisure while the only thing between you and a sudden plunge is a rope. I take care with the steel abseil device; it’s scorching hot. Only a few more descents; they blur into a seamless stream of waterfalls, pools and thrilling steps off cliff edges.

Sunday 1200 With the last of the abseils over, we finally relax. I find a tiny patch of shade in the midday sun and collapse. After lunch, more tea and a doze, we set off for the walk out of the canyon. After an hour, we stop at a pool where the rocks have formed a natural slide and frolic. It’s somehow extravagant, in one of the driest countries on earth, to be able to flaunt its most precious resource. In the searing desert heat, this is pure, indulgent luxury.

Sunday 1530 Our Bedouin driver greets us with a box of cold drinks and a huge watermelon. After two days of heat and dust I’m ready for some of the trappings of civilisation – but not London, quite yet. I put in for a night at the Six Senses at Ma’In, a luxury resort with a formidably cool and comprehensive spa, set around the site of thermal hot springs, just up from the Dead Sea. A long soak in therapeutic waters is precisely the treatment my body needs.

Monday 0500 Crawling out of bed – at this hour, after the past two days’ exertions – is one of the most challenging moments of the weekend. But I must get to Amman for the 08.30 to Heathrow. I’m back at noon, early enough to put in an afternoon appearance at work – and, far more importantly, to show off my hard-won tan.

See also

Middle East, Jordan