Not super-fit but certainly determined, Susan Ward pedals her way 500km across Jordan and finds that the rewards match her efforts.
Pedal and mettle needed to see what's missed on Jordan's beaten paths
It is day four, and I am manoeuvring a gravel path that in no way qualifies as a road. From the edge of the great eastern plateau of Jordan, I peer into Wadi Araba, a 300 metre canyon of stone and rocky outcroppings. This is no grass-filled valley bisected by a gentle stream. Beyond, the canyon is desert - flat and without the dunes to which I am accustomed. I stop my bike to admire the view.
Thanks to knobbly tires, good balance and being cautious, I manage to stay upright and not careen into the abyss. This ancient, back road of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a far cry from the smooth and seamless Yas Marina Circuit, where I typically cycle. The Tuesday evening Safe Cycling events at Yas made me feel bold enough to attempt the Dead 2 Red, a 500-km ride from Madaba to Aqaba. It is my first trip to Jordan and I will see it by bicycle.
Early Sunday morning our group of 11 meets in the hotel lobby to connect with our guides from Jordan's Terhaal. Most of us opt to rent a nearly new mountain bike from Terhaal. All experienced cyclists, we are keen to head out on the roads and discover Jordan. The atmosphere as we prep is one of nervous anticipation.
The group is diverse and ranges in age from 17 to 57. There's a family from Nottingham: Ed (a solicitor), his wife Laurie (a university professor) and their daughters, Hannah and Izzi, both students. Paul (also a solicitor) and his wife Sharon join us from Ireland. Our five singles - two women and three men - include myself, Lisa (an accountant from Canada), Phil (semi-retired, from the UK), Duncan (a former UK field hockey superstar) and Iñaki (an IT Manager from Northern Spain). Iñaki is tall, lean and supple - built to bike. Is he in Jordan as a warm-up for the Tour de France?
Overall, the group is convivial and there is a healthy enthusiasm to achieve our personal goals. We are accompanied by a bike guide, Raslan, and an operations coordinator, Atef. They provide routes and logistics, bike repairs, first aid, non-stop enthusiasm, historical and cultural information, plus drinks, snacks and lunch to keep everyone fuelled.
Our starting point is Madaba and I arrive the day before we start biking to explore the "Mosaic City". Some mosaics date back to the sixth century, including those in the Greek Orthodox church of St George. They are interesting and well preserved. However, Madaba has a slightly empty feel for me, despite the attractions that lie within.
I leave Madaba and it is an easy pedal on secondary roads to Mount Nebo, from where I look to the west, to Ramallah and Jerusalem. No rain for the first two weeks of April has left it dry and barren.
Continuing on, I travel past isolated farms to the villages of Main and Libb. Part of my journey today is on the ancient route known as the King's Highway, a nicely paved road with little traffic and gentle, rolling hills with pastoral scenery. I arrive in late afternoon at our destination of Mukawir, safe and sound and happy to get off the bike to relax.
Relax? No, not exactly. Our guides include plenty of additional, non-biking activities including a meal with a local family. We set out on foot to visit Mukawir Castle (built in 90BC and famous as the home of King Herod and prison of John the Baptist). This requires a 700-metre climb (with tired legs) to the ruins on top. Once there, the group sits together, has some tea and takes in the sun setting over the Dead Sea. In the twilight, everything is still. I close my eyes and listen carefully to capture sounds coming from Jordan's time-worn hills.
"Sahtain wa 'afiya - to your health," announces Noufan, our host, as he sets out a meal for our group, which resembles a hungry wolf pack. From inside his home, out come numerous platters including mansaf, the national dish of Jordan, and a special aubergine, potato and onion feast for the vegetarians. Mansaf is made with seasoned meat cooked in a sauce made of fermented, dried yogurt known as jameed. There is much fanfare when the mansaf is served on the platter of rice. Lisa, the foodie in the group, explains: "Meals here are a celebration, combining heartfelt generosity and a communal atmosphere." We compliment this Jordanian hospitality: no guest leaves Noufan's home without being completely full.
Day two begins in Mukawir and from the hills, 250 metres above sea level, it is a steep descent on semi-slick roads to the banks of the Dead Sea, at 125 meters below sea level. Arriving at the Mujib Nature Reserve, I gingerly step over the shoreline of dried salt and enjoy my refreshing float in the Dead Sea, taking in the panorama: mountains on one side and the West Bank on the other.
En route south, I am passed by numerous tour buses heading to popular sites in Jordan. The passengers look comfortable, but I want a different kind of experience, where I am closer to the sights, sounds and smells. As I arrive in Al Mazra'ah, school is over for the day and children run towards my bike. They are visibly surprised to discover a middle-aged woman but rebound and embrace an opportunity to test their English with a tentative, "Hello. What is your name?" I reply and ask the same in broken Arabic. The children and I leave this brief encounter with smiles all around. I smile because I am not on that tour bus.
I leave the main road and contemplate my next leg: a 25 kilometre winding climb to our finish point, Karak. We stop for a snack and I consider my options: attempt the hill or immediately accept a ride in the support vehicle. I call it a day and undertake the steep climb to Karak by motor vehicle. I am comfortable with my decision - I know my capabilities. My lesson this day is that distance is less important than ascent, which on this trip averages 1,000 metres to climb per day. Without hills of any significance in Abu Dhabi on which to practise, I am ill prepared to cycle up to Karak.
I am not the only one to grab a lift up this killer hill. Out of our group of 11, only Duncan, Iñaki and Raslan arrive by bicycle.
Karak has a busy feel, unlike Madaba. There are many visitors, and numerous (simple) hotels and restaurants, souvenir shops and coaches. We hurry to visit the castle before it closes and for the first time I feel more tourist than cyclist. Built in 1142, Karak castle was one in the series of crusader fortresses running from Aqaba to Jerusalem. A museum within the castle grounds provides exhibits and information that help me to visualise life behind the walls, including the maze of endless hallways and tunnels created to protect the inhabitants 800 years before.
I relish the thought of cycling downhill from Karak, but there is too much traffic and day three begins with a transfer to a safe starting point. I start south on the King's Highway, past agricultural fields and several small villages, then connecting with a newly paved road. It is an easy, freewheeling downhill ride to Al Hassa dam.
What goes down must go up (at least for cyclists in Jordan). From the dam it is an 800-metre climb to our lunch stop near Ayma. The climb is made easier with lots of hydration. A variety of fluids are always in great supply, cheerfully provided by Atef in the support vehicle. Less abundant are washroom facilities. I convince myself that I am being eco-friendly and a minimal-impact visitor without flush toilets. I also convince myself that hand sanitiser will suffice until the next sink with soap and running water.
After lunch we bypass Tafila, going onto Jeep tracks and farm trails, where I give way to shepherds moving their livestock. I am happy to let the sheep and goats cross in front of me, but less happy about the dogs that accompany the flock. They are aggressive and completely ignore my threats, whistles and shrieks. Today's lesson learnt is that my best protection from territorial canines is to keep pedalling.
Along with this "dog day", I encounter the first headwinds of the trip and my progress, while steady, is slow. I eventually make it to our destination for the day, Dana Biosphere Reserve. Duncan and Iñaki are almost always in the lead. They have boundless energy, their own bikes, which they shipped to Jordan, and infinite technical skill. The more demanding the terrain, the more they rise to the challenge. After three days of cycling, I am stronger but not in their league.
Day four starts clear and cool and we leave Dana very early for Petra. Our accommodation in Dana is rustic, and I am already looking forward to a room with my own shower. We are back on paved roads, so I make better speed today. Before long, we arrive at Shobak Castle, Jordan's first crusader fortress built in 1115. Like Karek, it is perched on the side of a hill 1,300 meters above sea level. But unlike Karek, it is isolated and off the beaten track. There's not a tourist or a souvenir shop in sight, which adds to the medieval atmosphere.
To visit Shobak, I leave my bike behind I don a head torch, descend into a dark well and proceed through a tunnel. For the next 20 minutes, I scramble on hands and knees up a near-vertical shaft of what once were stairs, until I see the light of day. I remind myself this is a holiday. When I finally make it to the top of Shobak, I enjoy the artefacts including cannonballs and Islamic calligraphy, both well preserved.
From this position, I see many small, stone homes blending in with the yellow and beige tones of the hillsides. Slightly larger than a hut and without utilities, they are inhabited year round. This is not a wealthy country and travelling the back roads offers me an intimate view of the simple life of many Jordanians.
I begin a stretch of off-road cycling on very difficult terrain. We could take the King's Highway to Petra, but instead travel along Wadi Araba. The trade-off for a more challenging route is the grandeur. The cyclists in front of me appear like dots against the enormous canyon backdrop. I have difficulty catching up to them, but they provide so much motivation. Their cheers when I make it up a difficult hill and encouragement to get back on the bike after a nasty fall help me to face the physical demands of getting to Petra.
The pay-off for the really tough day is an entire day off the bike to explore the wonders of Petra. Beautiful and awe-inspiring as it is, there is a lot of walking and climbing to get the best views. This rest day is not exactly relaxing. We share ideas on effective ways to deal with a bike-tired and stair-weary body and within minutes the best idea gets implemented. Our group takes over the Salome Turkish Bath (www.salometurkishbath.com). Dirty, hot and aching, I am commandeered through the process of steam, water, more steam, scrubbing and massage. I feel human again. For 24 Jordanian Dinar (Dh125) it seems a small price for detoxification after this kind of adventure travel.
Off to Wadi Rum. The day begins with a transfer south on the King's Highway to Rajif. From there we cycle to Delagha, and start on a gravel track to Al Humaimah, a stopping place on the spice route once used by camel caravans. Leaving Humaimah, I cross the desert highway, and as I leave the salt flats, the terrain changes to sandstone formations, larger and more colourful with each kilometre.
Wadi Rum is a highlight of the trip for me and despite the near impossible requirement to cycle in soft sand and undertaking the final stretch with an almost flat tire, this day has been one of incredible and varied terrain and landscapes.
It is the final day of cycling and after a week of on-road, off-road and soft sand, we make it to Aqaba. The trip concludes in downtown, where we dismount the bikes, share a delicious mezze lunch, thank our guides and congratulate each other on successfully completing this challenge.
We have some time before the trip ends and we disperse. On our second day, we took to the Dead Sea, therefore it is only fitting we do the same in the Red Sea, to truly cap the Dead 2 Red experience. A transfer is arranged and we are off to South Aqaba to swim, snorkel, relax and relive our shared adventure.
The trip was highly enjoyable, while at the same time challenging. Jordan is well suited to exploration by bicycle and, as this means of travel grows in popularity, itineraries, hotels and other services will develop and diversify to support cyclists of all levels, budgets and interests.
I finish the Dead 2 Red tired, but not dead and only a little red from the wind and sun of the past week. I feel connected to Jordan's landscape and people more deeply than if I had gone by car from Madaba to Aqaba. I end the adventure with a reaffirmation that there is no better way to see the world than with pedals and two wheels.