A Bedouin Map

By Evan Bryant

When the opportunity arose recently to join a trail-scouting expedition between Wadi Dana and Little Petra in southwestern Jordan, along what, someday, might be called, the Jordan Trail, I jumped at it.

I grew up hiking with a map in my hand. My dad worked as Webmaster for a great map company out of Seattle, Washington, and one of my favorite jobs during high school was running trails in the Cascade Mountains with a GPS unit: taking waypoints, and making notes for putting trails on a map. So an expedition like this was right up my alley… or, valley, or wadi…whatever, you get the point.

Our group, including four native Jordanian guys who are deep into the hiking, guiding, canyoning, rock-climbing, outdoor-gear scene in Jordan, headed out together from Amman to our trailhead at the Dana Village Guest House, majestically perched on a cliff overlooking Wadi Dana in the Dana Biosphere Reserve.

The Dana Reserve is Jordan’s largest, covering 320 square kilometers along the Great Rift Valley some 30 km south of the Dead Sea, and home to over 800 species of plants, many species of animals, as well as the famous ruins of Feynan (biblical Punon), an archaeological site showing evidence of a massive Iron Age copper mining and smelting industry.

We arrived at the Dana Village Guest House just as the sun was leaving its last bright-orange elliptical streak on the horizon reaching into the deep-purple expanse of the star-studded sky. Though the treasures of the wadi were cloaked in darkness, the cool breeze wafting from the vast expanse and up the sharp cliff wall in front of us hinted at the glorious days of hiking ahead.

After a fabulous Arab-style dinner of salads, humus, chicken, and hyacinth juice, we spread out our maps on the table, fired up Google Earth, and had a planning meeting. Everyone was eager to participate and learn about the route, as well as the intended purpose of the expedition and how to best gather useful information for getting the route on a map and ultimately attracting more hikers to the area.

After several questions to our expert trekking guide about his proposed route he mentioned that he wasn’t so good at reading topographical maps. Then the other Jordanian guys chimed in saying they never really ever used maps either.

“You really never use maps?!” I separately asked one of the guys.

“Maps? No. Never. I just go out and explore and find new routes. I didn’t even care about cardinal directions until recently.”

Maybe most people wouldn’t have been as surprised at this as I was. Probably lots of people all over the world never use maps. But as indicated above, as a kid, I was never allowed to even so much as set foot in the wilderness without those two linchpins of “The Ten Essentials”–a map and a compass!

It was fascinating to imagine what it would be like to just go out and explore. And, in some way, I found it profound that these guys were so enthusiastic to learn about maps and trail making, when they had grown up freely wandering the wild.

Early the next morning we set out through the impressive 15th century Ottoman ruins of Dana Village.

As we picked our way down the rough 4×4 track into the wadi, the sun began to brightly illumine its features: towering red cliffs with cracks to make rock climbers’ fingers itch, shocking-white sandstone formations, fields of bright-green sea squill, beautiful juniper trees and the gnarled snags of their ancestors, red mounds of rock piled at the openings of ancient copper mine shafts, smooth-pebbled streambeds overhung with white broom, almond trees, and dark forests of green and golden reeds.

At every junction in the path, every water source and shady spot, ancient ruin, and many other points of interest along the way, guys with GPS units paused to make waypoints, while others took photographs and careful notes.

Just as we reached the bottom of the wadi, one of the guys with whom I’d spoken earlier about using maps, came up to me and said,

“You know, maybe I don’t use maps, but I have other techniques that I use. For instance, do you know how much time we have before the sun will set?”

“Uh,” I stumblingly answered, “Yeah… I have a pretty good sense… I mean, I know about what time the sun is supposed to set.”

He then showed me that by holding out his hand at arms length, he could count how many fingers the sun was away from the horizon. “All four fingers is an hour, each finger is 15 minutes,” he said.

Amazing! I was stunned, and, needless to say, very impressed by the new-old technique I’d never known before. It’s safe to say it’s one I’ll use it for the rest of my life.

As we passed local Bedouin shepherds or women gathering firewood, our trekking guide would whistle and call out to them, “As-Salaam-Alaikum!” And then he’d ask for more information about the area he himself knew like the back of his hand: the names of wadis and springs and the history of the area.

The stories they shared were fascinating.

For instance, ‘Ayin Amdood (“Mother of Worms Spring”) gets its name from the large granite rock nearby that gets so hot in the sun that the snakes escape into the cool shade of the ‘ayin. Apparently, what an average person would consider a snake, the seasoned Bedouin calls a worm!

Over three days we covered nearly 75 km of endlessly stunning and varying terrain, from the flats of the Arabah desert at 250 m above sea level, through tight basalt canyons peppered with juniper trees, to jagged peaks over 1000 m high, along seashell fossil filled limestone ridges to the pastel and richly patterned sandstone formations and Nabatean carvings of Petra.

Each night, our local Bedouin support team would meet us at our campsite with trucks carrying our heavy overnight gear. Then they’d serve us hot sage tea while we all sat barefoot on large decorative mats, followed by a hearty traditional dinner cooked over an open fire.

As our team chatted together over tea, comparing and compiling notes from the day, we’d ask our local hosts all sorts of questions about the area: distances to the nearest villages, water sources, names of features in the terrain, and best routes for hiking. They seemed to know absolutely every detail of the land, and were more than happy to share what they knew with us.

And that’s when it began to dawn on me.

These people are living maps! They live in the land. And they know the land like you or I know the rooms and contents of our own homes. In fact, I can’t remember a time over the past year and a half when I’ve been hiking in the wilderness in this part of the world, that I haven’t crossed paths with at least one local farmer, or shepherd–each one a living history book, as well as a map and compass.

I’ll definitely keep hiking with my maps–it’s just my way–and I hope our efforts on this expedition helps to encourage more travelers to visit this amazing place, but never again will I underestimate the human resources right at hand in this ancient desert land.

Just ask, and after a cup of tea and warm hospitality, they’ll gladly point the way.