The back of a 4x4 pickup is a bumpy, windy and downright fun way to see the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan. Wind in my hair, holding my scarf tight so it doesn't fly away, the afternoon sun pulsing down, and Arabic pop music wafting out from the driver's open window.
Golden red rock formations, dunes, sandy flats with scattered tufts of dry grasses and small scrubby shrubs. The driver gives us an occasional roller coaster thrill over the tallest dunes, and we stopped a couple of times to scramble to the top of rock formations and take in the shimmering views.
Here's a taste of what it was like:
For a break, we visited a Bedouin tent for coffee and traditional music. I won't say the plaintive singing accompanied by a squeaky single-stringed instrument called a rababa was my favourite, but the coffee was delicious. Although I rarely enjoy coffee, their cardamom-scented brew won me over. In hindsight, it should have been no surprise that the land of Arabica beans would offer a quality cup of java.
After surfing through a few more dunes in the jeep and stopping to view some ancient petroglyphs, we picked a spot to watch the sunset. We scrambled up some rocks to take in the panoramic views as our shadows grew long and the air cooled.
We stayed the night in a tented camp, just a square formation of sturdy tents around a campfire with a small bathroom structure tucked behind, all sheltered by large rock cliffs on two sides and a dune on another.
I learned that the tents are made primarily from goat's hair, which keeps the inside cool while reflecting the heat from the outside. When it rains, the fibres expand to create a waterproof effect, and the woven panels are heavy enough to stand up to fairly strong windstorms, particularly when erected in traditional wind-deflecting shapes. Brilliant.
Dinner was delivered with a pickup truck by our Bedouin hosts who cooked it for hours in a covered sand pit filled with hot coals: roast lamb, vegetables, rice, and of course olives, pita and hummus.
Other than a couple of generator-powered electric lights in the main tent, we had just some scattered candle lanterns and the full moon's glow to illuminate the night. The only thing to do was lounge on pillows around the fire, sipping wine, telling stories and admiring the stars.
We each had our own small tent with a raised bed, theoretically the finest in desert comfort. But I'm afraid the rock hard mattress and clammy polyester sheets full of sand were not conducive to sleep for this city girl. So I listened to the desert quiet during a sleepless but peaceful night. I was still awake when Ayman shouted the early wake-up call for those of us who wanted to take part in the camel ride.
My short-lived career as a camel jockey
I was terrified for the first ten minutes perched precariously on the wide saddle, feet dangling with nothing to secure them. It was nothing like what I'd imagined based on those scenes from Lawrence of Arabia where Peter O'Toole, Omar Shariff and company sat effortlessly on their mounts, one leg bent around the horns of their saddles as they galloped across the desert.
Camels are smelly, groaning beasts, but somehow also adorable with their long eyelashes and spindly legs. Their owners soothed and coaxed them with soft words, clicking sounds and tufts of grass, one even kissing a smaller camel, perhaps the youngest of the bunch.
I eventually settled into an only mildly uncomfortable rhythm, enough so to enjoy the golden early morning light spreading over the rocks and dunes. It seemed like we had the whole desert to ourselves, the plodding of hooves and intermittent camel snorts being the only detectable sounds. It was peaceful, even meditative - worth the early wake-up call and stiff, aching legs.
Some parting advice, should you ever decide to drive your own dromedary across the dunes: Lean back for the dismount. Way back.
Related: Check out my post about hiking in Petra.