It is close to midnight when we get off the bus at the Desert Highway customs checkpoint. While the bus continues south, Katy and I need to get to Rum village tonight. From there, we will start our hike early morning to arrive on Aqaba's beach three days later.
The officers’ amused looks make me suspect that two blonde girls with large packs must not be a daily sighting. “A bus to Rum? You must have missed the last one, but you can wait and see if one passes by.” Two desk chairs are rolled up and soon we find ourselves hanging out with the men in the terminal, indulging in fresh dates from their family farms.
When asked why my bag is so heavy, I show them the tent, food and six litres of water. “That’s why my belly is so big,” one of them nods. “I drink a lot of water!” The men burst out in laughter, but before long regain their focus on the gravity of the matter: “But, will you be going without a man? How will you find the way?” “We have our GPS.” Silence.
As the only thing passing by seems to be time itself, we give up on waiting for a bus. The officers help us hitch a ride with a lovely family heading to Disi and off we go.
Our good friend Khaled
“Where are you staying?” the father immediately asks. Our plan of pitching the tent in the outskirts of the village at night likely won’t sit well with him. In my two years in the country, Jordanians have always been very protective of me. To not worry our driver, Katy promptly responds: “We’re staying at my friend Khaled’s house in Rum.”
Khaled – a Bedouin whose desert camp Katy had stayed at two years before – is our closest contact in the village. “Great, give me his number so I can let him know you are on the way.” After quickly refreshing Khaled’s memory, Katy hands over her phone and Khaled is notified of our forthcoming arrival.
When the road splits, the family leaves us at a police check point a bit before Rum and wishes us well. Not much later, we are ushered into a second car and oblige to our driver’s request to call Khaled again. “Khaled, I have your foreigners, you better pay me or else,” I overhear, but before I get the chance to panic, he laughs: “Oh, don’t worry, Khaled is my friend. I am just messing with him.”
When we get to the village, we find Khaled waiting for us in front of his house. I feel embarrassed for the way we have disrupted his evening and am expecting some questions about our sudden arrival. Khaled doesn't hesitate, however, and offers us a place to sleep in his office. No need to walk out of the village and set up our tent in the dark. He even offers us some extra blankets to make sure we will be comfortable. Hospitality at its finest.
"Take my gun"
After a short night, we set off into the desert. The whole village seems to be looking out for us and several jeep drivers offer us a ride back: “Where are you going? On foot? Without a man? You will get lost. Do you have enough water? Come back to the village with us. No? Then take my gun with you.”
With a friendly pass on the opportunity to accidentally shoot myself in the foot later, we plod on through the soft sand, startled only by a snake shooting for the dunes. When we reach Wadi Waraqa late afternoon, we set up camp, collect firewood, rehydrate our rice dinner and enjoy the silence.
A Saudi village in Jordan
We descend into the valley and locate the well that is indicated on our map. When Katy pulls up the rusty bucket, a yellowish liquid spouts through the holes. Emergency water at best.
We follow the narrowing valley until Titin appears on the horizon: a sleepy Saudi town that ended up on the Jordanian side of the border after the two kingdoms swapped land in 1965. We are greeted instantly by bleating goats and chickens scurrying left and right. Not another human being in sight, however, and we must find water before continuing our hike into the arid mountains.
Eventually, a young man in dishdasha passes by with a toddler. He guides us to the only shop in town and rushes off to find the shopkeeper. Soon, our new best friend unlocks the metal door and shows us his wares: five shelves displaying biscuits, rice and canned goods, and a fridge filled with soda.
We cannot hide our disappointment at the lack of big water bottles, so the shopkeeper offers to refill our empty ones in his house. When we insist on paying him, he refuses steadfastly. Instead, we purchase a feast of Sprite, Pepsi and canned tomato sauce to liven up our cold soaked couscous.
For the next hour or two, we escape the hot afternoon sun on the doorstep of his shop, admiring photos of his Saudi bride. “I drive down to see her every chance I get,” he says, holding up his passport chock-full of Jordanian border stamps as proof. The entire male population of Titin passes by to great us. One elderly man has his eyes firmly fixed on my hiking poles and, after a quick demonstration, is delighted to give them a go.
When it's time to wake up from our food coma and continue, we quickly realise we have underestimated the scramble required to reach our campsite. The final ten kilometres bear witness to a stream of exhaustion-induced curse words, as I move forward on autopilot. The little energy I have left, is spent on declining the friendly herder’s offer to let us sleep on his farm five times. When we arrive, I am too tired to eat, but ever so grateful to no longer be on my feet.
Over the hills to the industrial site
The spectacular scenery more than compensates for the effort spent clambering over the spiky peaks the next morning. As the Red Sea emerges in the distance, the finish line is in sight.
The real difficulty starts when we leave the mountains behind and enter the industrial site that separates the desert from the beach. For several kilometres, we plough our way through heaps of trash under the scorching sun. Despite our best efforts at stretching whenever we can, every inch of my body aches.
When Aqaba’s surf hotels finally appear, my feet sigh in relief. The most refreshing plunge in the sea washes away the sweat, the tears and the extra layer of skin on my big toe. We did it. We crossed the desert, manlessly.