written by Janet Melling
Close friend and all-round Top Bird Janet joined us for a rather soggy walk whilst at home over Christmas when we got chatting about how she'd been coping with the pandemic whilst being based out in Jordan. With a couple more days of the Jordan Trail imminent (which she completed last week - another 50km smashed in 2days!) she kindly agreed to provide our first international blog post. Read on for some hiking that doesn't resemble anything like the grey, cold, snowy yomps we're currently enjoying in the UK.
Before I start rambling (excuse the pun) as if I am a professional walker, I feel I should give some context. My first experience of outdoor adventure was when I was 14 years old and a few of our friends from school went walking together for the Duke of Edinburgh Award - my major memories are of pain and complaining as well as camping next to sparkling tarns and sheltering behind hills - helping each other pee outside by making water noises; stepping in people’s hot chocolate in the dark and being lost! All of that said, as an adult, whilst I still complain like mad when walking (ask anyone that has to walk with me), I still love that same friendship and comradery that comes from a little adventure in the great outdoors! I also love when things go wrong, not at the time, but - those are the best stories afterwards! I have recently learnt this is called Type 2 fun (type 1 when you enjoy it at the time; type 2 when you enjoy it after!)! I’ve lived out of the UK for 12 years and for the last 3 years, and so for the entire pandemic, I have been based in Jordan in the Middle East. Usually, I love to travel from wherever I’m living- I’m quite proud of the fact that I have been to every country in SouthEast Asia after living there for 4 years before coming to Jordan. I’ve also hiked (sometimes kicking and screaming) through Central Asia and Eastern Europe too. Corona basically changed that lifestyle a little.
Close your eyes and picture Jordan - what do you see? Probably, if you imagine anything at all, you think sand and sweltering heat… maybe Petra? Camels? Jordan is sandy in places, there are camels and it is sometimes blindingly hot, but it can also be green and lush and wet - even cold! In the summer of 2020, Jordan was far from cold and in the blindingly hot phase, but we were all totally “locked in” - airports all closed except for emergency travel! I had already done some walking here and lots of “touristy” things - Petra; art houses, traditional restaurants; diving; Roman ruins... but now a group of us were all “trapped” here... what to do? Many people were upset that they couldn’t get out.. couldn’t see their fiancees; family; basically couldn’t go anywhere outside of Jordan, all a little frustrating after being locked in our houses for months on end and a year of online teaching from our sofas. Our little group of friends made a bit of an unspoken pact - we decided to stick together and help each other have the best summer ever - but not in a cliche American movie kind of way!
In the summer of 2020, Jordan was far from cold and in the blindingly hot phase, but we were all totally “locked in” - airports all closed except for emergency travel!
The Jordan Trail is a 650km, eight-stage walk that runs the length of the country. Each stage is 3-5 days long and can involve steep inclines, flowers, huts, hot springs and wild camps! The record for its completion was set by a US ultramarathon runner, Amy Sproston, in 8 days, 9 hours and 28 minutes - if you fancy the challenge?! The trails can also be gruelling, and sometimes a little difficult to follow (GPS is the only option due to inadequate maps and signal), often with very little or no water available along them meaning planning is essential. Summer 2020, we decided to walk from Ajloun Castle to Umm Qais, a total of over 90km across 4 days. Ideally, you would want to do this walk in March when the hills are lush with grasses and there are wildflowers blooming as far as the eye can see. We, of course, did it in the height of summer!
Day 1 in Ajloun: all seemed well. At about 25°C, we walked through lush pine, past old ruined monasteries and a random old biscuit house, before scrambling on our hands and knees through dense (sharp) woodland to save 3km. We had reached our lovely wooden huts and had dinner in an actual restaurant watching the sun go down in regular Jordanian dramatic fashion! Success!
Day 2 onwards we dropped to below sea level in the Jordan valley and the temperatures became unbearable - this was more what we had expected and feared. We crossed sharp, dried-out landscapes, had some difficult dog encounters and, when we spotted the old ruins of Pella in the distance, realised we were actually in the wrong Wadi (valley) - the woes of GPS - and had to hitch in a Mercedes round to our Day 2 camp.
For the rest of the walk it was simply roasting - it is incredible how much water you need walking over 20km uphill every day in 40-degree heat, with barely an olive tree for shade!
Every day we had a different run-in with different raging dogs protecting their pups and sheep seemingly at every turn: they actually wouldn’t have hurt us, but every time it was a shock. For the rest of the walk it was simply roasting - it is incredible how much water you need walking over 20km uphill every day in 40-degree heat, with barely an olive tree for shade! One morning, our friend Faisal was so chipper after his coffee he forgot to fill up his water, dusty empty villages had no shops (however much we hoped!) and we had to ration already low water supplies! I won’t say any more about THAT - he wasn’t popular that morning and it resulted in me and Emma stopping for an icecream at the first open shop we found, much to the intrigue of some locals.
By day 4, I had extreme blisters all over my feet - we named one Jesus because it kept coming back! I actually cried about 5km from the very end as I struggled to get up a sheer scree and started to wonder if I could actually do it! Sounds like it couldn’t ever have been fun, right? But 4 days, more than 90km of incredible (even if dry) views and SO MUCH UPHILL and we had made it to Um Qais on the Syrian Border. Running through the ruins overlooking the sea of Galilee; having a classy wash in the bathrooms of a rather fancy restaurant to make ourselves look acceptable and drinking warm red wine overlooking Syria was actually one of the highlights of my life - it had been a dream of an adventure!
We have done other sections of The Jordan Trail since - camping in Wadi Rum and walking 5 days across the desert, sheltering with Bedouin families; watched by the Saudi police; arranging water drop offs - all the way down to the Red Sea… we’re actually doing part of Salt to Wadi Zarqa Ma-in tomorrow, hopefully we can do it all*, but I don’t think any part will ever beat the COVID summer.
* ed. this is the 2day 50km trip mentioned at the top that was well & truly completed!