30 September 2004
About 25 miles south of where Jesus Christ was baptized, along the Dead Sea Highway just before one gets to Lot’s petrified wife, the traveler encounters a modest steel suspension bridge. On the right side of the bridge is the body of water from which the road gets its name. To the left, one sees the entrance to a magnificent rocky gorge. This is the mouth of Wadi Mujib, the Grand Canyon of Jordan.
Our group of six adventurers met Ahmed, our Bedouin guide, at 0800. Tall, lean, and brown as a ripe date, Ahmed smoked a Marlboro as he addressed us. He was a man of few words, checking to make sure we’d brought enough water and making sure we were all strong swimmers. After counting a half-dozen nodding heads, he gestured with his cigarette hand for us to get into the back of his old, rust and white Nissan pickup. Then we motored a mile or so down the road to the start of the trail. Normally in these parts, an American will witness a gaggle of Arabs sitting in the back of a truck, squinting into the wind. Today, the roles were reversed.
Everyone was all excited and giggly when we stopped and hopped down to the ground. Our legs were fresh and our spirits high, though our seats were a bit out of sorts from the ride. We each took a minute to rub our sore bottoms before we hoisted our ruck sacks onto our backs and let the weight settle on our shoulders.
One thing I’ve always noticed on hikes, whether they be military or civilian, is that everyone is all chatty at the beginning of the trek, but on that first big steep hill, when the breathing becomes labored and the strain from the pack gets just a bit uncomfortable, everyone shuts up. Thoughts turn inward as one monitors each step, considers the incline, blots off the sweat, and works through the burn of each lifted knee.
Finally we reached the top of the mountain, each of us soaked through with sweat. The view of the Dead Sea was magnificent. It was a deep blue in the early morning sun. It contrasted nicely to the tans, oranges, and reds of the barren desert peaks around us. As we caught our breath and guzzled Gatorade, our guide sat down on a comfortable rock inside a piece of shade and lit another Marlboro.
The wind chilled the moisture on our bodies, causing me to shiver just a bit. After a few minutes, we began our descent down the other side of the mountain and into the wadi itself. The hike warmed us up again, so much so that when we reached the Mujib River at the bottom, all of us waded right in, dunking our heads in the cool water and enjoying the breeze that came blowing down the canyon.
On either side of us were red rock escarpments towering 100 meters or more. This ancient crevice had Biblical significance, as it was the natural boundary that separated the Ammonites in the north from the Moabites in the south. Legend has it that Moses himself wandered through the place we now paid to tread. (Of course he had to replenish his energy with water and manna, not sports drinks and PowerBars.)
Under a blue sky, with the sunlight on our faces and a squish-squashing sound coming out of our boots, we followed the water upstream. It was good, clear water passing swiftly over smooth brown, pink, and gray river stones. We were moving west to east. At one point we came to a fork with the Mujib River continuing on to the southeast and the Hidan River coming in from the northeast. (They call them rivers, but they are really streams by American standards.) We crossed into the Hidan through green grass so dense and tall that we couldn’t see the sky or the people in front of us. But once on the other side, the water got deep enough to swim in. It came cascading down from upstream and spilled into pools alive with healthy-sized fish. We all took turns climbing up on short rock ledges and jumping down into these watering holes, sending the sub-surface residents scurrying. We followed the Hidan to a second pool, before turning around and heading back to the junction.
Moving west, downstream with the Mujib River, the canyon narrowed to a gorge, with rock walls towering above us. Ten minutes in, we encountered a waterfall. While I am terribly afraid of heights, there was no turning back. With great trepidation (a more noble word than “fear”) I rappelled down 75 feet to the continuation of the stream below. I was so happy to have overcome that challenge that I went to splash around underneath the waterfall, not anticipating that that volume of water coming down from on high would feel like a ton of rocks crashing on my head. (Had Moses made this same mistake? And, hold on, where did Moses get his rappelling ropes and D-rings? There’s not a single REI or EMS in this whole country.) That riddle I could not solve, but as for the punishing falling water, a few steps to the rear and everything was just fine again.
From there we waded and swam through the rushing river, climbing slick boulders, jumping into more deep pools, and sliding down natural rock chutes. At one point we had to go through a tunnel filled with white water, holding our breath until we popped out on the other side. There were slips and falls and the occasional rough landing. We were soaked, sore, scraped up and having the time of our lives. Everybody was all smiles as the noise of the rapids in the canyon and the thrill of each physical challenge dissolved all of our worries. Tomorrow, it would be on to Baghdad for me with all the bad stuff that implied. But today it’s waterfalls and wet T-shirts, warm sunshine and soaring birds overhead.
Back at the cars, Ahmed lit up another Marlboro and invited us to return anytime. “Come to where the flavor is,” he said with a raised eyebrow, “Come to Mujib Country.” Of course he said no such thing, but that thought made me smile as I drove back to Amman along the Dead Sea Highway, pleasantly fatigued, and wondering it my boots would dry in time for Iraq.