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The red planet

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Suzanne Sng on 03 Mar 2019

The Straits Times

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The otherworldly landscape of Wadi Rum in Jordan, with its strange rock formations and soft red sand, often stands in for the planet Mars in movies

 

Gingerly, I inch across the stone archway, barely a metre wide at its narrowest.

 

Below me, far, far below me, the famous dusky red sands of the Wadi Rum desert of Jordan undulate and stretch as far as the eye can see.

 

However, I am unable to enjoy the dramatic view as my entire field of vision is laser-focused on the rocks just in front of me.

 

With no safety harness or even a handrail to hold on to, I concentrate on taking baby steps across the rock bridge which is at least five storeys above the desert floor.

 

Hunched over, shuffling my feet along, with my arms half-extended in front of me - I probably look like a geriatric zombie.

 

I am vaguely aware to my right, somewhere slightly below, our guide Mohammed is perched like a nimble goat on a ledge narrower than the width of his worn rubber sandals.

 

As he takes a video of my tentative steps for posterity, he calls out, encouragingly: "Keep going. Don't look down."

 

His words have the opposite effect because, of course, I look down - and immediately freeze with vertigo.

 

Cold sweat dribbles down my back, despite the blazing desert sun overhead. My hands are clammy and my knees wobble like I had just done an hour of spin class.

 

All I can think of as I stand paralysed at the slenderest point on the archway is how often in the past I had tripped over my own two feet.

 

Headlines flash across my brain, such as "Singaporean tourist plunges to death in Jordan desert".

 

Turning back is not an option, as I have lost the ability to walk backwards, do a 180-degree turn or control my limbs whatsoever.

 

My partner, who grew up climbing trees and hiking up mountains in Cape Town, has already pranced ahead of me and sprung onto the boulders at the end.

 

Like a triumphant explorer, he stands with his hands on his hips, surveying the land that lay before him.

 

Luckily, he notices feeble old me, still rooted to the spot in abject fear behind him. The archway being too narrow for two people, he takes me by my hands and proceeds to coax my leaden feet to move while himself treading backwards with a confidence I can only admire.

 

When we reach the other end after an eternity (actually just 10 seconds when I watch the video later), I hug the giant boulder for dear life even as Mohammed snaps the obligatory "I was there" photo.

 

After a painfully slow descent, I retreat to the Bedouin tent pitched strategically below to welcome thirsty climbers.

 

Rectangular and black, the traditional dwelling of the Bedouin tribes is woven out of black goat's hair and lends much-needed shade.

 

A wizened tribesman in the traditional garb of thoab and serwal (cotton robe and wide trousers) gestures for us to make ourselves comfortable on the sandy cushions while he bustles with brisk efficiency over a rudimentary fire pit to make tea.

 

I gratefully accept the steaming hot brew - made with black tea leaves, a mix of desert herbs that tastes like sage and mint, and teaspoons of sugar - served in a dainty little glass.

 

It is addictive and surprisingly refreshing, and I find myself accepting a second, and then a third, glass.

 

LIFE ON MARS

 

Later that day, our tireless guide takes us to an even higher, more imposing stone arch called Jebel Umm Fruth or Middle Rock Bridge (the earlier one which had daunted me is merely Little Rock Bridge).

 

I wisely volunteer to stay on solid ground to take photos while my partner, who has never met a pile of rocks he does not want to conquer, scrambles up to a height of about eight storeys without hesitation.

 

I take his word when he tells me that the view from the top is jaw-droppingly spectacular. Even at ground level, the desert of Wadi Rum, also known as the Valley of the Moon, lives up to its otherworldly reputation.

 

Everywhere I turn, it looks like a scene from The Martian (the 2015 movie was almost entirely filmed here).

 

Just Photoshop away those two 4x4 vehicles in the distance and what you have are perfectly clear skies, incredible rock skyscrapers as old as time and silky soft red sand stretching to eternity.

 

Other sci-fi movies including Red Planet (2000) and Prometheus (2012) were also shot here, but perhaps the most famous film is Lawrence Of Arabia, the 1962 classic about British army officer T. E. Lawrence during World War I.

 

Several noteworthy sites in Wadi Rum pay tribute to the man, including Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a mountain named in honour of Lawrence's book of the same name, and Lawrence's Spring.

 

After a morning of hurtling around the vast Unesco World Heritage Site - at 74,000 ha, it is larger than Singapore - Mohammed takes us in his 4x4 vehicle to a secret lunch spot, hidden in the shady crook of a steep cliff.

 

There, sheltered from the gritty winds and fearsome afternoon sun, he spreads out a mat, builds a fire and proclaims "Mohammed's Restaurant" open.

 

Within half an hour, he has prepared a spread, including roasting the chicken he had killed that very morning on his farm.

 

Ravenous from a morning of exploring, we dig in with bare hands, tearing apart that tender chicken flavoured with paprika and other mystery spices Mohammed refuses to divulge, and scooping up mounds of hummus with pita.

 

Post-lunch stupor threatens to overwhelm us as we recline with heavy bellies on the mat, but our guide has many more sights - and terrifying climbs - in store for us in the afternoon.

 

We head to Khazali Siq, a 100m-deep canyon which is one of the area's must-see sights.

 

At some points, the cool canyon walls are so close that you can touch both sides with your outstretched hands. We shuffle along a ledge the width of a shoe rack and vault across glistening pools, carved by ancient tribes to collect precious rainwater.

 

Mohammed, who grew up in the cliffs and caves of nearby Petra - another bucket-list Unesco World Heritage Site - is in his element here.

 

Hitching up his pristine white robe, he shimmies up the canyon simply by bracing one foot on each side in quick succession, reaching a dizzying height in just a few leaps.

 

On the walls, he points out, are Nabatean carvings, such as camels, horses and feet, as well as Islamic inscriptions about God and the prophet Muhammad.

 

Even though they date as far back as 2,000 years, they are remarkably clear due to their sheltered position.

 

GLAMPING UNDER THE STARS

 

Our final stop as the sun starts to dip low is the red sand dunes of Umm Ishrin.

 

This is the perfect place to kick off my shoes and wiggle my toes in the yielding soft sand.

 

The steep incline to the top is a challenge, though, as I find myself taking two steps forward, one step back.

 

Sand-boarders and day-trippers clamber up alongside, while more sure-footed climbers race downhill at speeds which qualify as breakneck.

 

The view at the top is well worth the intense calf workout. The rippling sand glints peachy pink in the setting sun and I feel like a space explorer, casting my eyes over an alien landscape.

 

Red sandstone and granite outcrops in the distance look like they once had intricate dancing figures carved into them, now mercilessly eroded by wind, rain and time into vaguely human forms. Mohammed informs us it is purely the handiwork of Mother Nature.

 

That night, we sleep under the stars. Instead of the abundant Bedouin camps scattered across the desert, we choose a "bubble tent", made out of thick clear plastic and furnished with all the creature comforts, including a bed, a hot shower to wash off the grit of the desert and blessed air-conditioning.

 

A colony of these space-age contraptions clusters below red cliffs, creating what looks like a settlement on Mars.

 

The fact that we have to enter and exit our tent through an airlock (to prevent the air inside from gushing out and causing the bubble to collapse) adds to the feeling that we are part of a space expedition.

 

Sometime in the middle of the night, I'm roused from sleep by a nudge from my partner, who whispers: "Look at the sky."

 

Prising open my bleary eyes, without even stirring from under the blankets, I see more stars sprinkled across the night sky above than I have anywhere else.

 

I know it is impossible to capture the twinkling vastness of it all on my puny camera, so I don't even bother.

 

We simply lie side by side, staying awake until the stars evaporate, one by one, in the light of the rising sun.

 

• Suzanne Sng is a former Straits Times journalist based in Paris as an independent editorial consultant.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

 

 

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