Six Senses Evason, Jordan.

Wild Jordan, A Green Journey Through the Desert Kingdom

Not long before we settled into my family’s home in Australia to plan our 2010 global grand tour, we did a three-week road trip through Jordan. It was our green journey through the red desert kingdom, as our goal was to test out Jordan’s new eco-friendly experiences. Here’s that story…

Wild Jordan, A Green Journey Through the Desert Kingdom

They sneak up behind us and tap us on the shoulder, these dramatic, desolate, deep valley views. The tarred road before us turns a corner, disappearing behind the bend, before dipping down then snaking up the steep arid mountain on the other side.

We have driven an hour from Amman, the hilly capital of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, a haven of calm and stability in an increasingly volatile Middle East.

We’ve passed through countless nondescript towns and villages, so this striking scene – an arid gorge, above it a barren plateau, and beyond that, another colossal, scorched mountain range, is startling.

Bereft of any trees, its gravelly sands shifting from shades of cream to terracotta, russet to slate, this stark moonscape appears hostile.

It makes me wonder, as it will over the coming weeks, whether the Arab tradition of hospitality that is so welcoming and so gracious was an inevitable consequence of living in such an uncongenial environment.

The unforgiving landscape makes the views of the oasis that soon reveals itself even more astonishing. Perched on a rocky ridge, a camel coloured building, topped by a crenellated tower, blends in so imperceptibly with the parched mountains behind it that we barely discern its outline.

Surrounded by luxuriant gardens, with a swimming pool, and beneath the cliff a natural rock pool, this sanctuary is the Evason Ma’in Hot Springs resort, and a little further down the valley is the Six Senses Spa, built – in the sandstone typical of Jordan – to take advantage of the hot springs that cascade into the spa’s swimming pool.

This is where Terence and I began our Wild Jordan trip and three-week green journey through a country that largely consists of copper-coloured desert.

Our goal was to experience the ‘greening’ of a country famous for the spectacular seared landscapes that were the setting for British director David Lean’s epic film Lawrence of Arabia.

We were in Jordan to try an array of eco-friendly experiences that were the outcomes of a national commitment to developing more sustainable tourism – the challenges of which struck us on our drive to Ma’in.

While I knew from my high school history lessons that Jordan was once part of the lush Fertile Crescent, where the mighty Euphrates, Tigris and Nile rivers allowed great ancient civilizations to flourish, as I looked around us all I could see was a dry-as-a-bone landscape.

Tourism has been one of Jordan’s main sources of income and tourists use water. Yet water in Jordan, and the region more largely, is an increasingly scarce commodity.

Water that once flowed from rivers into the nearby Dead Sea has long been diverted into pipes that carry it to homes, farms and factories. The same thing is happening on the other side of the ‘sea’, in Israel and the occupied Palestinian West Bank.

As a result, this body of salty sea that has long been a magnet for tourists who love to float on its buoyant water is evaporating. The surface area of what at 330 metres deep, and 420 metres below sea level, is the world’s deepest hyper-saline lake in the world, has been reduced by a third.

That first afternoon we took a dramatic drive to the clifftop Panorama Lookout, where we savoured the apricot and tangerine hues of the sunset over the Dead Sea, before savouring succulent grilled meats, including garlicky shish taouk from local chicken and lamb from nearby farms.

As we gazed over the monumental expanse of water, illuminated by moonlight, we could see the faraway lights of Jerusalem flickering in the distance.

The next morning, we woke shortly before dawn to do a brief but invigorating hike around the rocky rim of the valley overlooking the resort. It was good preparation for a longer hike we’d planned in a couple of days.

From the hill overlooking the hotel we saw neat rows of herbs and vegetables growing in the rich red soil.

“We are growing our own herbs,” Chef Hamzeh would reveal later when we visited his organic garden. He showed us a basket of fragrant basil, sage, thyme, rosemary, mint, coriander, and dill he had just picked.

“We’re also going fruit – apples, lemons and grapes,” he revealed, with visible pride. “And vegetables as well – eggplant, corn, tomatoes, and chillies. And we produce our own olives. We all participated in the harvest, even the general manager, and we got 36 litres of olive oil from the last press.”

The organic garden was just one of a number of sustainable initiatives the new resort had introduced, from a plan to use of bicycles around the property to lower vehicle emissions, to a new tree-planting programme aimed at re-introducing 5,000 trees to the area that had been left barren from de-forestation and farming.

We got to try Chef Hamzeh’s homegrown organic produce at lunch, which includes a deliciously fresh carrot soup and sublime slow-cooked chicken with sumac, onions and his own wonderful olive oil.

Even more special was our traditional dinner of zarb, a local dish of layered lamb, vegetables and rice that had been cooked for three and a half hours underground in a pit of coals by the zarb specialist Abu Basher and the other Bedouin staff. We rounded off our feast with aromatic tea and coffee, also made over the coals.

It was a heartening start to our Wild Jordan trip and a wonderful way to finish our first green stay.

Read part two here.

We stayed at Evason Ma-in Hot Springs and Six Senses Spa during a three-week trip to Jordan in November 2009 on assignments for magazines, including a piece called ‘Wild Jordan’ for Lifestyle+Travel.

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