Tuesday 24 January 2017

Where wonders never end

Exploring Jordan's ancient marvels in the company of his young son has sparked a love affair for Jody Corcoran

Published 08/08/2010 | 05:00

Petra is carved into rose-red mountains
Petra is carved into rose-red mountains

THE opportunity presented itself to go to Jordan for 10 days. It is not somewhere I would ordinarily think of going. But having been to the Middle East a couple of years ago, I was anxious to go back. I'm glad I did. A love affair has begun.

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I went with Joe, my eldest lad, aged 13. He would normally holiday in the usual places. As I write this, for example, he is with his mother, sister and brother, in France.

It took some effort to convince him to come. If he had not, he would have been on his PlayStation or whatever.

For the first time ever, Joe and I spent 24 hours of those days in each other's company. That was my highlight of many highlights in what turned out to be a fascinating place.

Another was getting to know the people with whom we travelled. We were with the Travel Department, a superb Irish company, and there were 21 of us in all, aged 13 to 85 -- the eldest being a former RAF man from Tipperary who travelled alone and who was, frankly, an inspiration.

When I told people I was going to Jordan they said: "Oh, you must go to Petra." Petra, an ancient, for centuries lost, city in the mountains, was, of course, on the itinerary. But, perhaps surprisingly, for me, Petra, although amazing, was not the best of the many sites we visited. That said, when the young lad and I reached the top of a 1,200-metre peak, the highest in Petra, having climbed it in our flip-flops, it really was a moment in my life.

My favourite day-trip was to a place called Wadi Rum, about 60 kilometres to the east of a city called Aqaba.

The area is home to the Zalabia Bedouin who, working with climbers and trekkers, have made a success of developing eco-adventure tourism -- now their chief source of income.

We went on an open-back jeep through the main valley. The rock formations were breathtaking. Somehow, it put me in mind of seeing Manhattan for the first time. We also had tea with the Bedouins, which was nice.

Wadi Rum is best known for its connection with TE Lawrence who, accurately, described it as "vast, echoing and god-like..."

Much of David Lean's epic 1962 movie Lawrence of Arabia was filmed on location in Wadi Rum. In fact, we got to climb, and run down again, the very sand dune Omar Sharif famously did.

Another highlight was a place called Jerash, which is known for the ruins of the Graeco-Roman city of Gerasa. It is considered one of the most important and best preserved Roman cities in the Middle East.

I love this kind of stuff but you might think that a 13-year-old boy wouldn't enjoy such a history lesson; in fact, Joe really got into it, particularly when we came upon the amphitheatre.

Our visit to the River Jordan was also hugely enjoyable. We got to see where John the Baptist did his thing, including the specific site where he is said to have baptised Jesus.

The location is quite close to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth, so make sure to bring your suncream and a hat. And do wade into the Dead Sea. It's one of those things you must do, if only for 15 minutes.

While you are at it, you might as well cover yourself in mud, let it dry, wash it off, and appear for dinner later at your lovely hotel, looking 10 years younger. Many of the retired couples on the trip did: think of Cocoon, the 1985 science-fiction about a group of people rejuvenated by aliens.

But, obviously, no trip to Jordan would be complete without that visit to Petra...

Petra was built sometime around the 6th Century BC. The site remained unknown to the Western world until 1812, when it was discovered by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.

Unesco has described it as "one of the most precious cultural properties of man's cultural heritage", and it was chosen by the BBC as one of the 40 places you have to see before you die.

All of that said, I felt a little let down when we finally arrived. I suspect it was that my expectations had been raised too much. We were there at midday, when the sun was at its hottest, which did not help. However, over lunch, in the shade, our guide got to telling us about a monastery at the top of 800 steps. I wasn't keen but the lad got around me, to the point that I agreed that we would just go to see the steps.

Of course, when we got there the journey began. First one step, then two, then 20 -- all along the side of a steep mountain.

I stopped counting at 100 steps. Joe was ahead of me, almost dancing with joy. I had to keep up with him, lest he fell and hurt himself. Onwards we went, 200, 300, 400 -- at which point a Bedouin stall seller said: "Halfway there."

At various stages, there were sheer drops either side of the narrow pathway. It was both scary, and the more we progressed, exhilarating. In our flip-flops.

Finally, we reached a clearing where the monastery stood, carved into a rockface. But over our shoulder stood a higher peak, another 15 metres up, with no discernible route to its top.

We looked at each other, said nothing, and walked towards it. When we reached the top we were alone, save for a lone Bedouin, who played a stringed instrument. After he paused, we listened to the awesome silence, marvelled at our achievement and hugged each other.

The high, such a natural high, stayed with us for days. I will never forget it. Neither will Joe. "Dad, I will remember this day for the rest of my life," he said. It was then we decided that we will do together all of the wonders of the world.

Sunday Independent

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