When I was invited to Jerusalem in July 2008 by good friends to celebrate a family occasion, I wanted to stay on in the region and spend a few days traveling somewhere, I had not already visited. I love Israel in the summer and know it quite well, so it was the perfect opportunity to see somewhere new.
Petra, the amazing ancient site just on the other side of the Jordanian border, had always intrigued me. I love cultural texture and arid desert landscape, and felt that it was high time to see one of the ďnew wonders of the world,Ē as it has become known, while I was so close.
For a country with so many world-class cultural attractions and layers of history, Israel is surprisingly small. Not only is it at the crossroads of different world religions, but different countries like Egypt and Jordan are all within easy reach. So I flew across the Negev Desert (which I had already explored with the family on an epic jeep ride on a previous trip, see A JEEP RIDE ACROSS THE NEGEV), and into the nearest airport at EILAT.
I liked the idea of spending overnight in the seaside town of Eilat as a launchpad to an amazing day in Perta,Jordan. This Israeli port and resort town was also further south than I had gone in years; itís always a bonus to see a new part of a country I have been getting to know for so long.
The plane ride from Ben Gurion Domestic Terminal (for all intense and purposes, half way between Tel Aviv & Jerusalem ) was the same kind of small propeller plane that I had traveled on for short hops across Greece and Italy. There is no doubt that I was headed to a holidaymaker haven as I sat in a sea of shorts and loud shirts on this very relaxed flight.
But those who love desert drives could also take the journey down to Jordanís border control in about 4-5 hours. You would leave Jerusalem on Route 1 until the Dead Sea, then take Route 90 South through the NEGEV DESERT, straight down the ARAVA VALLEY to Eilat. Itís a beautifully stark desert landscape, with the dramatic emptiness of pale, parched stretches dotted with acacia trees and the occasional Arabian Warbler wheeling overhead.
I had an overnight stay in Eilat (see WHERE TO STAY), which is amazingly located on the edge of three countries, between small towns, Egyptian Taba in the south, Aqaba in Jordan in the east, with Saudi Arabia visible from the beach, across the gulf. The next day I had arranged to have a guide and driver pick me up and take me on the 1-hour drive east to the Jordanian border just beyond Eilat; I was looking forward to pushing past my usual Israeli experience to see the riches that also lay just beyond.
Even in the arid wilderness, crossing into another country was a classic case of old-fashioned passport control, with all the formality, boredom (on behalf of the guards) and tension (tourists) that goes with it.
Someone like me passing through for a day didnít need a visa in advance, just a day visa to get through the checkpoint, but I had to go into great detail about my intentions. I am a veteran of these rituals and always psych myself into thinking be polite, cooperative and just deal with it. Itís the price we now pay for movement across the planet, which can be particularly tense in the Middle East. You never act surprised, and just keep smiling.
After an hourís wait I walked from Israelís border, crossed the 100-metre stretch of demilitarized no manís land to the Jordanian border - a bizarrely neutral stretch of earth between two powers. On the Jordan side I went through a gate, over to a different cultural atmosphere, where all of a sudden the military were in Arab dress, the mood slightly less strict and no English!!!
Purchasing a visa seemed very inefficient, with somebody asking somebody asking somebody; the whole thing seemed like it had never been done before. I did feel really vulnerable when control took my passport, as they donít hand over your visa straight away. What if they lose it or keep it while Iím literally in the middle of nowhere? After an extra hourís delay I was pretty far out of the five-star comfort zone! There were some delays and problems, and by the time I got past Border Control into Jordan I was so late for the driver waiting to drive me to Petra that I panicked when he wasnít there any longer.
I couldnít phone him and I was now convinced that he had driven off; without a phone number I would have to make an international call from the desert back to the Tourist Office in Jerusalem to find his where abouts. I saw other people getting whisked away in their transport and thought, Why me? This was an official overload of travel texture! While I was pondering my fate my driver did come back looking for me, and I was almost as glad to see him as I would be to see the ancient wonders of Petra!