The Mountain Kingdom of the Middle East
It’s crowns everywhere. Floor tiles, wrought-iron fences, flags and corporate logos sport the popular sign of royalty in Jordan and give even the most mundane of affairs an air of sophistication. It fits that people elsewhere in the Middle East think Jordan a remote mountain kingdom with Amman as its not-so-exciting capital. However, Jordanians have used that as a virtue and mastered the art of portraying their country as a more stable, more open and more modern nation beleaguered and surrounded by neighbours on the verge of collapse. And while it’s true that it certainly isn’t excitement you will find in Jordan, the country has quietly carved out a niche in down-to-earth eco-tourism with an Arab twist.
The moment we land at Amman International Airport, named after late queen Alia, in a gracefully designed Royal Jordan plane (think dark blue, red and gold) we know this is going to be the restful and battery-recharging holiday we long for. The uber-contemporary concrete-and-glass building feels worlds away from our home in chaotic Cairo, though it’s just an hour’s flight. Aid workers and American soldiers on R&R mingle with European tourists, diplomats and business people from the Gulf to form an exciting mix that could say a lot about the state of the region. Alas, we are too tired to listen and head straight for the Wild Café, which was recommended to us by some friends. Although we prefer not to have too much of a pre-arranged itinerary when we travel, it’s always good to have a first point of call and take it from there. As we soon figure out, the Wild Café is the perfect starting point to embark on a memorable journey into the Jordanian wilderness.
Wild Café does not only offer wonderful food made from local and organic produce and a magnificent view of central Amman from a breezy outdoor terrace, but is also part of the larger Wild Jordan complex that combines a booking office, nature shop and weekly farmers market to a winning mix. So, while we feast on fresh pancakes with seasonal fruit and scrambled eggs with super-tasty herbs from the café’s herb garden, we browse brochures that we picked up from the reception to plan our trip to one of Wild Jordan’s nature reserves. We learn that Wild Jordan is the for-profit arm of the Royal (of course!) Society for the Conservation of Nature that helps local communities benefit from conservation-related business opportunities within and around the organisation’s reserves. That’s why the soaps, teas and biscuits at the nature shop are exclusively sourced from Wild Jordan micro-entrepreneurs. The tranquil atmosphere, friendly staff, great food and wonderful products don’t need long to seduce us into booking a trip to Dana Reserve in southern Jordan, though we only leave our table with a view very reluctantly.
It’s already dark as we arrive at Dana after a four-hour drive. We transfer to off-road vehicles that carry us down a steep hill towards a clearing (or so we think) where a huge bonfire is already roaring. However, the clearing is in fact a rocky outcrop, the edge of which drops down dramatically into a distant valley. It’s a magic world of boulders and shrubs seemingly hidden from sight but with a jaw-dropping view into the wide blue yonder. All this we find out next morning after stepping out of our basic old-school canvas tents dotted around the area. It looks like a film set for the Lord of the Rings. For at least a half-hour we admire the sheer splendour of it all, don’t say a word and only gaze into the distance, while the sun slowly climbs on the horizon. We can’t help but wonder about this strange world. Just a few hundred kilometres away, war is raging. And we sit here in the most serene of places. With every minute we warm from the cold, damp night until we finally can peel off our fleece jackets. Around us is only pristine flora and fauna – and a wood-and-stone structure that serves as the reserve keeper’s cottage and doubles as breakfast lounge. All here has been designed with minimal impact to the environment and as little visual distraction from the beauty of nature as possible. This might come at the expense of comfort but at the same time affords us the possibility to experience the outdoors like we hardly ever do these days. Amidst a blanket of flowers in full bloom and bees and butterflies buzzing about, we enjoy a wonderful country breakfast with traditional flatbread, cottage cheese, local honey and jams produced at the reserve. We make a mental note to pick up some jars back at the nature shop and get up to refill our tea mugs.
Later that day we embark on an exhilarating four hour hike up hills and down slopes, trough gorges and along ridges, across streams and into caves. Our extremely knowledgeable guide from the Dana community turns out to be a treasure trove of stories about Jordan. Plus, we learn about medicinal plants, the many fragrant shrubs and trees and all sorts of other natural resources that are turned into said products on display in Amman and that have done a great deal of convincing people in the area that nature conservation can indeed be good business.
An assortment of honeys, preserves and teas still occupies a sizeable chunk of space in our pantry. And whenever we feel like a true Wild Jordan experience, we brew a cup of sage tea and layer our breakfast rolls with sweet fig jam.
Words and pictures: Bernhard Rohkemper