Im sitting in Jordans Queen Alia Airport awaiting my flight to Cairo having spent the last week in and around Aqaba.
The main draw was to catch up with friends, do some diving and revisit Petra and Wadi Rum for the first time in twenty three years.
I arrived in Aqaba last Wednesday and headed straight to Sinai Divers, where friends, John and Tracy, are working as dive masters and instructors. The set up was really professional (I have heard independently that it is one of the best in the area, but I didn’t try any of the others) and extremely helpful. Their luxury dive boat was heading out the next day and given that it cost only 5 dinar more per dive (+lunch) jumped at the opportunity. Thursday morning we headed to the small marina close to town and boarded the"Harmattan" for two great dives. The first at ‘the power station’ a really nice wall dive that, despite being very close to shore is only accessible by boat. being less easy to access the site is in pristine condition with a unexpected diversity of both flora and fauna. The second dive, after a sumptuous lunch and some chill time on the upper sundeck, was at the wreck of the Cedar Pride, a coastal trader that had been sunk in 1985 as a wreck site, another really nice dive site.
A few days later I went back to there base at the Movenpick Resort Tala Bay for a morning shore dive at there house reef. Now... I’m not usually one for shore dives, or house reefs for that matter, they tend to be heavily impacted and pretty trashed. This reef however was in really good condition with plenty to see more moray eels than in seen at a single dive site, octopus, stone fish, numerous lion fish and plenty more as well.
Tracy and I headed out early Friday. Our driver, Hussain, was convivial type you, between the almost constant phone calls, would offer humorous anecdotes and then laugh at his own wit. We rose gradually through the coastal hills following part of the railway that used to connect Istanbul to the holy city of Mecca- now that would be one amazing rail journey.
As the hills opened onto more open desert plains, this was agricultural country fed by the aquifer 10ft below the surface. Unfortunately, the most abundant crop was plastic waste that glittered in the sunlight as far as the eye could see.
Wadi Rum itself is as impressive as I remember..probably even more so. The shear scale and vastness is other worldly and it is easy to see why it is a favoured location for so many sci-fi movies. While there are obviously a lot more visitors the massive size of the park allows it to remain uncrowded. There are significantly more ‘Bedouin style’ accommodation available (we stayed with Wadi Rum Nomads) which, by enlarge, take the form of small camps discreetly concealed against the hills so visually do not overly impact the beauty of the place. The (and here I go again) sheer volume of plastic waste within the park on the other hand is visually disturbing and disheartening.
Having toured the major tourist sites, Lawrence of Arabia spring, the small bridge, the large bridge, the no bridge, we parked up to watch the sunset but got rain shower instead, Tracy was rather unimpressed.
Rising early the next morning and with misty, English, rain still in the air I, and a few others early rises were fortunate enough to witness an even rarer occurrence, a rainbow over the desert with Wadi Rum as a dramatic backdrop.
The last time I was in Petra was to supervise parts Movenpick hotel interior completion... 1994!!
This time it was Hussain’s brother Ehsan that drove me up to Petra. Ehsan was pleasant and thoughtful, he reads both the quran and the bible and is at a loss as to why religions hate when they share the same god!
The town of Petra has grown immensely as would be expected and there is now a retail complex and interpretive centre at the entrance to the Historic site.
The Petra site has also expanded rather significantly with walk trails and newly excavated areas such as the churches and monastery now open to the public
I hiked up to the dubiously named High Sacrifice site perched on an outcrop overlooking the vast expanse of Petra and the surrounding valleys. The sign at the top admitted that, in fact, they had no idea exactly what the building was for and that, amongst a multitude of other uses, one may have been sacrifice. The little poetic licence taken by the archeologists did little to distract from the incredible view and the rather nice cup of tea that went with it.
After spending much of the day retracing my previous routes and discovering new areas, including taking a wrong turn down Wadi Musa and encountering a Shepard family bringing there goats back to there cave home, I head back up to town for a rather lack-lustre diner of Mansaf and zero alcohol beer.
At 8.00pm I headed back down with the hordes to see the spectacular 'Petra-By-Night' that was to start at 8.30. At precisely 9.00 a man with a flute started to entertain the waiting crowed that were sat patiently on the desert floor. At precisely 9.05 we were asked, very abruptly, to stand and move as water started to stream out of the siq and start to pool precisely where we had been sitting. Mild Pandamonium broke out as people scuttled around in the dark trying to find a dry area to stand while others shushed them. All the time the flutist played on.
At this point, an investigation of where the water was coming from and a nightcap at the cave bar, became a much more appealing evening so I sloshed my way back up the siq to a bourbon and coke.
A third brother picked me up the next morning for the return trip to Aqaba, there are eight brothers so by the end of the trip I may meet most!
John and Tracy's apartment was a little way from the town centre in typical residential suburb of 4 storey apartments which allowed me to get a feel of real Aqaba life. The shop on the corner made specialized in the most amazing falafels, flavorful moist and light, their sandwiches quickly became a staple breakfast. just up the road from the Falafels was a few shawarma takeaways and at one dinar for a large , and tasty, beef wrap lunch was sorted.
Most evenings I would meet John and Tracy at 'Buffalo Wings and Rings' the beers were reasonably priced and complimented the sunset over the Red Sea rather nicely.
One night we went to 'Fish Fish' good simple seafood traditionally grilled and, as they had booths at the back, we could crack a bottle of wine.
Last night after sunset beers we headed to 'Rakwet Kanaan' a Restaurant that locals had recommended- we were not disappointed. The food was typical Arabic fare, Mezze plates, mixed grills, sautéed lamb... but done seriously well. Unlike many of the restaurants they have also considered their interiors with a sort of comfortable Arabic meets hip writers cafe/lounge without being try-hard.
I have always loved Arabic/Middle Eastern cuisine and Aqaba didn't disappoint without really pushing the envelope.