Ain’t no valley low enough

I like to think that this camel in Jordan realised the comic potential in standing under this sign post. If you look closely you can see him smirking.

The approach the Syrian male takes to driving is akin to that the great white shark takes to lunch, and in Syria I felt like the seal pup. The ‘right of way’ is not a given, but instead a hard won battle involving lots of horns, aggressive manoeuvres and even nudging of bumpers. Mirrors are treated as functionless accessories. I knew Damascus, like other big cities, would be an exit fraught with near misses. But before I leapt into the tumultuous mayhem I had to find some inner tubes with a Presta valve, a rarity in the Middle East. It took me two hours to find the bike shop, half an hour to explain what I needed and then an hour following the proprietor around before being told to come back in an hour. I did. He had forgotten about our rendez-vous. He wandered around some more, kicking his way through rims, spokes and various cycle-related shrapnel on the shop floor. If the A-team were locked inside that workshop they could have constructed an aircraft carrier. He told me to come back tomorrow. I did. More meandering about the wreckage, another ‘come back in an hour’ and eventually a “tshh” and raised eyebrows. I’ve come to recognise this as “no” in the rich and frequently befuddling language of Arabic Sign. I walked away with a puncture repair kit and prayed that my patchwork held up until Amman.

During the usual faff at the border I started up a conversation with a motorist and mentioned that my plan was to cycle to Jarash and then Amman, the capital. “Oh my God!” he said with an American lilt and in a fashion that suggested I had just told him I was planning to throw myself off a tall building. “The road’s like 45 degrees man! And the heat! No way!” I’ve grown used to people I meet exaggerating features of my road ahead. It’s often too cold, too steep, too dangerous or sometimes mysteriously just “not possible by bike”, with no explanation offered. I reassured him and cycled off, wondering what happened to all the optimists.

I visited Jarash, allegedly home of some of the best Roman ruins in the world, outside Italy. I was impressed, but then I found some lizards in the rocks, lowered my camera and snapped away for half an hour. Some older tourists watched me with tilted heads and frowns, but I didn’t care. Nature’s glory has always outshone man’s achievements in my book. That night I slept on the floor of the tourist information centre, adding to my growing list of opportune and curious bedrooms. The next day I moaned a bit to myself as I climbed the hill into Amman, but at this point I hadn’t considered the Jordanian monster around the corner, at least five times the size of this amateur incline.

I rode into Amman after some swerving and hard pedaling to get away from a group of young boisterous misfits who chased me up the hill, throwing stones and shouting “hey you donkey! You crazy donkey!” I went immediately to meet Nick, a mate I’ve known from my years spent in Liverpool and who now lives and works in Jordan’s capital. We went out for a curry. A rubicund light had fallen across the city and Amman basked in a surreal, Martian glow. “Dust is coming in from the desert” said Nick. We left the restaurant and entered a strange, ghostly world. People rushed along the street, breathing through handkerchiefs and surgical masks. Within minutes Nick’s car had become coated in a layer of the fine dust and I realised that my respiratory tract would be suffering a similar fate. Visibility was plummeting. Amman can feel like a very Western city, complete with posh shopping malls and multiplex cinemas, but when the desert suddenly encroaches you quickly remember where you are.

For the weekend we were joined by Nick’s friend Jad and went on a jaunt to Wadi Rum in southern Jordan, an arid national park where sandstone and granite rise out of the red desert. Nick and Jad are avid climbers and went off to scale one of the surrounding cliffs whilst I did some trekking and then a bit more of my David Bellamy impression, gallivanting around enthusiastically after local wildlife. Afterwards we drove out into the desert. I’ve never owned a driving license, or even driven a car, so I was chuffed when Nick threw me the keys to a 4 by 4 Toyota and gave me the nod. After some enthusiastic ragging around on sandy tracks we decided that there was more than a strong possibility I had inadvertently driven us across the frontier and into Saudi Arabia, so we turned back. We slept in the desert, tent-less and under a full moon.

I had plenty of time to play with in Amman. I could have taken a day trip to the Dead Sea, leaving my bike behind, and then afterwards cycled from Amman south down the King’s highway. But continuing this journey’s theme of making my life more difficult than it needs to be, I decided it was important that I cycled to the shores of the Dead Sea itself. I felt there was something significant in bringing Belinda down to the lowest point of dry land on earth. This of course meant cycling back up again, a near continuous ascent from 400 metres below sea level to 1300 metres above, to roughly the height of Ben Nevis, Britain’s tallest mountain. It would be serious hillage, at least a fifty kilometre, more or less continuous, climb. Factor in forty degree heat, 55 kg of bike and gear, few places to top up with food and water and this would be tougher than my efforts in the Italian Apennines, The French Alps or the Montenegrin fjord. It would be a test like no other.

I camped on a hilltop overlooking the Dead Sea, I could see the lights of Israel on the other side, Jerusalem just out of view. The night that followed was a lesson in the ills of procrastination. The two small holes in my groundsheet, holes that I’d persistently told myself I will repair later, became the front door to a stealthy nocturnal arthropod invasion. I woke in the early hours to an ant infestation after inadvertently setting up camp on their home. They had found my food and were dropping, like ants, onto me from all over the tent. The day after my restless night I sped downhill, reached the sea and floated and splashed about in the salinous waters.

The shores of the Dead Sea, 400 metres below sea level
The air felt thicker here, the atmosphere cloying, humid and heavy. My mosi repellent is excellent, potent stuff and has consistently kept the blighters at bay, but around the Dead Sea I could have been wearing Plutonium and I would have maintained my beard of fly. I felt violated when I caught an amorous pair in the act on my forearm. More followed suit. They seemed to have a preference for having it off on my nose or forehead. I had become an unwilling participant in an insect orgy. I opted to put up the inner of my tent, just so that I could have lunch on my own. Twice people stopped to offer me and my bike a lift. When I tried to explain I must travel only by bicycle they assumed I hadn’t understood their offer. Then, when they realised that I had, I got the “you must be a crazy nut” look. Getting this reaction makes every painful vertical metre worth it.

After the epic climb my appetite for sleep won over my appetite for food and I drifted off into a blissful slumber. I should have known better. The next day, with no food available to buy en route, I had to haul my carb-depleted ass uphill for almost twenty kilometres to the other side of a gorge. Luckily there were Bedouin around who kept me topped up with water. The next two nights I found some great but vertiginous spots to rough camp. I hoped that I hadn’t developed a habit of sleep walking during the night.

Night one

Night two
Tourism in Jordon is an expensive or lucrative game, depending on which side of the fence you’re on. Prices are escalating exponentially. Cheapest no frills beach on the Dead Sea – that’ll be ten quid please Sir. One hour hike through a national park – fourteen pounds minimum. Petra, as of next month, will cost fifty quid to enter. Jordan has a huge amount to offer, but I feel I have missed out on quite a bit due to my budget, and I’m not talking camel rides and hot air balloons, just access to some of the natural features of this varied land. If money was being ploughed back in and services were improving it would sting less, but the fact is that they’re not, not in any substantial way. There are good examples of money going to local people, the Bedouin in Wadi Rum is one, but I can’t help but think that someone, other than the King, is getting drunk, rich and fat on tourist cash. In fact if you look at the proportion of GDP earned from tourism, Jordan gets a good whack. If you discount islands like the Seychelles or the Maldives then Jordan proportionally is one of the highest in the world. Greedy touts will start to turn travelers away and then Jordan’s riches will be out of reach, especially to backpackers, and that will be a shame.

So it was after some deliberation that I reached deep into my pocket for the entrance fee to visit the Dana nature reserve, one of the cheaper tourist attractions in Jordan. Whilst there I ran into a bunch of ten and eleven year olds from Amman Baccalaureate school. They were a bright and inquisitive bunch. I particularly enjoyed it when, after some conferring with a small group of friends, one young lad reported “we know you said that you’ve cycled from England, but some of us here don’t believe that’s possible”!

After Dana I made my way to Petra, one of the New Wonders of the World, a place I must see before I die, another one to tick off my Lonely Planet checklist (its hard to convey sarcasm adequately using the written word). But it was magnificent, undoubtedly. Highlights included venturing down the dim narrow gorge known as the Siq, the entrance to the city, but also meeting an ostentatiously eccentric gentleman from Borneo who gave me his unique take on everything from politics and history to religion and international relations. My Lonely Planet didn’t mention him. He said his name was Ivanhoe (he noted that his Chinese name wasn’t well remembered by English speakers so he changed it after reading a well known book). He drank stone water and wore magnetic bracelets for their health giving properties and to give him energy.

The Treasury, Petra

So far I’ve visited the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea, the Marmara Sea, the Dead Sea (although technically a lake) and now it was time for the Red Sea. I cycled to the resort town of Aqaba. On the way two young lads tried to steal stuff from my bike after I declined to give them the money they had demanded. They retreated, after I got off my bike and did my best to look menacing, but I cycled off to a volley of stones.

Aqaba has some great reefs. Diving is definitely not compatible with my budget, but I decided snorkeling was, so I hired some kit and spent the day swimming in the corals and admiring the spectacular Red Sea marine life. I decided against the campsite next door to the beach, with its inflated tax for a small patch of land, and opted to sleep for free on the beach itself.

My al-fresco free bedroom

The following day I took the ferry to Egypt, with nasty feeling that every border post from here south was going to be a more and more frustrating venture. At the end of the ride the boat’s passengers were asked to surrender passports to the ship’s crew. In exchange we were given a slip of white paper with some uninterpretable Arabic scrawl, and then we were deserted. I was told the passports were no longer on board. I cornered someone looking official. “One minute Sir”, and with that he was gone. This would happen a lot over the next half an hour. I realised that if you hear “One minute Sir” you will never see that person again. Eventually we worked out the procedure which involved trekking between banks, police stations and immigration offices. It was a DIY arrival into Egypt.

In Egypt I cycled south down the Sinai Peninsula to Dahab, a small town that had been dubbed the hippy capital of the Middle East, but now bigger corporates had started to move in to compete for backpacker cash and resorts of the ilk found in neighbouring Sharm El Sheikh were beginning to surface. But Dahab still feels laid back and easy. There are more reefs to explore nearby and it sounds like a good place to vegetate until I hit the mountains again on my way inland to Cairo. I’ve already noted the ‘Churchill’s Bar and Grill’ complete with a photo of Sir Winston, the availability of fish and chips, the red and white striped Brits abroad and the Egyptian response to telling someone you’re British (“Lovely Jubly” in a Del Boy stylee) but I’ve got time to kill and here seems a good place to spend it. Nyomi flies out on the 20th of October and together we will begin the next chapter… all of Africa. I can’t wait.

Finally I leave you with a few images I managed to capture of the desert wildlife of the Middle East. I’m off to a Dahab nightspot where I’ve heard some DJ called “Dave the rave” is playing. Lovely Jubly.

A ladybird taking off

A Giant Painted Agama lizard

The last thing I expected to see crossing the road in the desert… a chameleon

A relative of the Wasp spider

The stunning male blue Sinai lizard, unique to this area

Punctures: 20
Distance cycled: 7656 km
Countries cycled through: 16
Top speed: 75.4 km/hr. Taurus mountains, Turkey.
Longest continuous ascent: 1700 vertical metres
Days on the road: 172
Lifts offered: 4
Lifts accepted: 0

ps. Contacts for Cairo are much appreciated! Please email me if you know someone who would like to meet up or to host us. As usual I will exchange tales from the road for a small piece of floor to sleep on.

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Comments (6)

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    For me, an orgy on my arm would be adventure enough. But for you, O Insatiable One? NOOOOOOOO.

    Beautiful lizard photos; can't help but wonder what those Roman ruins looked like, though.


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    another brilliant blog well done Steve X


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    Very entertaining blog Steve. I visited Dahab a few of years ago I agree, its a nice place to chill.

    Good luck for Africa & remember to wash as much as poss!


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    Sam Rendell


    I am going to have to agree with the previous comment about a huge book deal. Excellent reading your trip makes Steve. All the best to you.

    You loon (things have not changed in the last 12 years I see).


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    Hi Steve,

    I have been utilising my lunch breaks to read your superb blog and have once again been entertained and amused….highly recommended lunchtime reading, esp on a wet and grey London day. Your posts are brilliant and I really enjoy the tongue-in-cheek and under-the-table sarcasm!! what adventures you are having….and what fab photos. Your night one venue looked absolutely fabulous, as did the alfresco spot. Living in a city like London, one cannot even begin to imagine such a delight! I do hope that there is a book at the end of this!
    Happy cycling, I am making my way steadily through each and every post 🙂


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    amazing achievement – welcome back


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