Tours with Tintin
Before this trip I had never even heard of a Tintinologist - now I am excited to be floating right next to one. His name is Michael Farr, and we are both bobbing around like giant corks in the salty waters of the Dead Sea. Michael is a leading Tintinolgist, an expert on everything and anything to do with the world of the quiff-headed cartoon hero.
We're here on account of my 11-year-old son, Benjamin, a long-term Tintinophile, who is cruising close by. The buoyancy of the brine allows Michael to lie back with his toes popping out of the water and read us extracts from one of his favourite Tintin adventures, Land of Black Gold. It's an apt choice as most of the action takes place in a fictional Arab emirate called Khemed, a desert country that bears a very close resemblance to Jordan. He is just getting to a particularly exciting passage when, sploosh, the Dead Sea does its worst and flips Michael over into the brine. Luckily freshwater showers are close by and before you can say "blistering barnacles" Michael has rinsed off, slapped on some healing Dead Sea mud, and is cheerfully comparing his ducking with the mishaps of Tintin's comic sidekick, Captain Haddock.
Thus we completed the very first activity of a new series of themed holidays entitled "Destination Tintin". A company called On the Go Tours has had the clever idea of putting together itineraries that follow in the footsteps of the boy reporter as his globetrotting adventures take him to India, Egypt and, in our case, Jordan. Ben and I have signed up for the trip along with four other pioneers and hopefully, with the help of Eid, our Jordanian guide, and our freshly-salted Tintinolgist, we will be matching up comic book fiction with real traveller's tales.
Our dinky cyan-striped tour bus, which was immediately named the "Tintinmobile", takes us along the eastern shoreline of the Dead Sea and then inland and upwards to the oldest Crusader castle in Jordan, Shobak. After a brief stop at the hill fortress we move up to the smaller roads of the Heisha Mountains and just as the afternoon sun is lending a glow to the landscape we are greeted by a surprise. Waiting to transport us to the next stage of the adventure is a team of handsome Arabian horses led by local Bedouin handlers. This is exactly what happens halfway through the plot of The Red Sea Sharks, when Tintin escapes into the hills of Khemed in search of Emir Ben Kalish Ezab's hideaway. The vivid colours of the decorated outfits and saddles against the rich tones of the rocky landscape really do make us feel as though we have just stepped into a comic strip adventure. Ben relishes the re-enactment and is keen to saddle up and don his keffiyeh.
"Tintin always enjoyed adopting native outfits and assimilating local customs," explained Michael as Ben transforms himself into a mini Lawrence of Arabia, sitting tall in the saddle of Rocky, the largest and friskiest stallion in the group. As we set off, Rocky rears up on his hind legs but Sameer, his bare-footed groom, takes control and with typical Jordanian good humour makes light of any potential danger - we all agree that serious injuries are best confined to comic books.
Today seems to be a day for trying new things as Ben declares "this babaganoush is fabulous" as he tucks into his second helping from our mountainside picnic of Bedouin food. Maybe the fresh air has made him ravenous or the re-enactment has made him more adventurous but it's certainly a welcome change from a boy who can spend a mealtime forensically removing anything green from his pizza.
Back in the saddle after mint tea and keffiyeh adjustments, I canter alongside Michael to ask our resident Tintinologist a few questions. His boyish enthusiasm is matched by his considerable knowledge. He spent five years researching a best-selling book on the real-life sources of the famous adventure stories and was lucky enough to be a regular lunchtime companion of Tintin's creator, Georges "Hergé" Remi.
As we look down on the lights of Wadi Mousa, Michael surprises me with the fact that we are following in the footsteps (or rather hoofprints) of a fictional character drawn and written by a man who never actually visited Jordan. It turns out that Hergé was too busy producing his popular strip to explore the world himself. He did however do lots of armchair research and had a particular passion for all things Arab. Manoeuvring his horse round the limestone rocks, Michael explains that one of the largest dossiers he found in Hergé's study was one labelled "Transjordan". It was packed full of newspaper cuttings on Arab culture and visual references including early colour photographs snipped from National Geographic magazine. It was Hergé's genius for absorbing these details and reproducing them in his distinct ligne claire (clear line) style that make the colours and contours of the scrub landscape we are travelling through feel so familiar.
Beit Zamaan, our hotel for the night, has a distinct style too. It is a cleverly restored hamlet of low-rise stone buildings that blend perfectly with the mountains on the outskirts of Petra. During a post-supper talk, one of the illustrations Michael shows us is a single frame of Tintin dwarfed by Petra's most famous monument, the towering façade of Al Khazneh - the Treasury. It is exciting to think that tomorrow we will be able to actually step into that frame and judge for ourselves the accuracy of Hergé's armchair research.
"Ready, steady, rattle!" cries Saleem, our driver, as our chariot sets off with a jolt and we begin hurtling down through the Siq, the narrow sandstone gorge through which one enters the archaeological site. Swirls of pastel pink and rusty red sandstone walls whizz by as Saleem cracks his whip and our startled horse breaks into a gallop. The two-wheeled chariot bounces like a pneumatic hammer as we rumble along the cobbled pathway and all Ben and I can do is hold on tight and giggle uncontrollably at his terrible joke ("What do you call a person who is frightened of visiting Jordan?" Answer: "Petrafied").
I begin to empathise with the old merchants who once travelled this important trade route. We are just on a five-minute jaunt and already my bones are jangling. Ancient traders would have hundreds of miles to bump through before they could deliver their goods to Damascus or beyond. No wonder they charged so much for their cargoes of frankincense and myrrh.
"Thundering typhoons! A Roman temple hewn from the rock! Incredible!" exclaims Captain Haddock outside the magnificent Al Khazneh. Ben and I are equally amazed by the edifice but learn from our guide Eid that the captain didn't get all his facts right. He explains that Petra was built in the sixth century BC as the capital city of the Nabataean Kingdom, and the "Roman temple" is in fact a Nabataean tomb. He goes on to tell us that the Nabataeans were an ancient people made up of Arabs from southern Jordan, Canaan and northern Arabia who commanded the peninsula's main trading network for over seven centuries. They were sophisticated merchants wealthy enough to buy off threatening Roman armies on more than one occasion. I'm amazed and slightly embarrassed that I had never heard of the Nabataeans before now but am delighted that Hergé's fictional wanderings have introduced me to a whole new slice of Arab history.
"I'm sure I saw a village ahead half an hour ago and now it has completely disappeared," puzzles Ben from the lofty height of his dromedary. It is day four of the trip and we are on a morning camel expedition through the spectacular natural scenery of Wadi Rum and some of us are experiencing our first minor mirage. Our perception of reality isn't helped by the surreal landscape of crab-red sands surrounded by towering pink sandstone and granite mountains that seem to be melting like candle wax.
Hergé used the visual phenomenon of mirages to great comic effect in a few of his adventures, most notably in Land of Black Gold,when the hapless detectives Thompson and Thomson drive around in circles in the desert for hours. After just two hours on my camel, the mirage effect of the disappearing village of Rum isn't as funny as his cartoon version. It is baking hot and the stiff saddle seems to have become fused with my backside. At last Ben spots our very real-looking Tintin-mobile and cold drinks and air conditioning beckon me on to the end of our camel trek.
The night before we ate a feast of lamb prepared in embers that was so theatrical it received a round of applause when it was pulled from its underground oven. Then a campfire and the soothing sound of oud music under a blaze of stars. These authentic touches mirrored the quality of detail in Hergé's artwork. But Jordan at its best manages to stimulate senses that go beyond the two dimensional delights of the Tintin books; the sweet smell of the Arabian horses, the sound of the Bedouin's laughter in the mountain twilight, the sharp taste of fermented yoghurt in the lamb mansaf, the evening scent of jasmine in the desert and the flash of sunlight on tropical life in the Red Sea reefs off Aqaba.
But what did we learn on the Tintin trail? After a series of early starts and action-packed days, we soon discovered that On the Go Tours lives up to its name. We learnt that Tintin's adventurous spirit is infectious and encouraged Ben to try and taste things outside of his comfort zone. We found that having a Tintinologist on aboard was a smart way to introduce an 11-year-old (and myself) to the multi-layered history and complexities of Jordan. Best of all, we began to see the world from Hergé's perspective, where any drama or difficulty is always balanced with a good humour and comedy. As Michael enthusiastically commented when he spotted a whirling dust devil in the desert: "very Tintinesque!" Get your Tintin goggles on; it's a great way to travel.
If you go
The flight Return flights from Abu Dhabi to Damascus on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) cost from Dh1,605, including taxes
The trip On the Go Tours (www.onthegotours.com; 00 44 207 371 1113) offers a range of tours to Jordan, from six to 11 days, including the dedicated Tintin: Jordan and the Rose City tour. The tours cost from £1,579 (Dh9,162) per person with a 20 per cent reduction for children aged seven to 12 years old. The price includes six nights at four, five-star and heritage hotels, one night’s stay at Wadi Rum desert camp, airport transfers, and all transport and activities as per the itinerary
The info Visit www.jordan.com for more information about the country