Qasr Kharaneh, Jordan.

Eastern Desert, Jordan: Desert Castles and Wildlife Reserves

The Eastern Desert, Jordan, is famous for its well preserved Desert Castles, but it’s also home to charming Azraq Lodge and Shaumari Wildlife Reserve and Azraq Wetland Reserve.

From the Dana Biosphere and Dead Sea in Jordan we’d driven inland to Petra then down to the Red Sea and Aqaba, returning to the dramatic desert of Wadi Rum, before retreating to the Dead Sea again for a final four days in the sun.

So naturally it was time to drive out to the desert once more, this time to the Eastern Desert, a harsh, flat, flinty land stretching to Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq.

The Eastern Desert area is famous for its well preserved Ummayyad-era Desert Castles, such as the majestic 8th century Qasr al Kharanah, once a caravanserai, and the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Quseir Amra, a lodge and bathhouse richly decorated with frescoes of hunting scenes, dancing girls, camels, and gazelles.

We didn’t see camels, gazelles or dancing girls at Azraq Lodge, another RSCN property we checked into for the final two nights of our Jordan road trip, but we did see a large herd of handsome Arabian oryx and some cheeky ostriches at nearby Shaumari Wildlife Reserve, a successful breeding centre for threatened species.

We also spotted plenty of birdlife on an early morning walk at Azraq Wetland Reserve, a short stroll from the lodge through the dusty highway town of Azraq – once a resting place for pilgrims travelling between Damascus and Mecca, now a refuelling stop for truck drivers.

The surprisingly lush oasis of Azraq wetlands is an important resting stop for migratory birds on the Africa-Eurasian flyway and it was restored by the RSCN after the natural spring dried up in the early 1990s, due to overuse and illegal water extraction. The RSCN installed artificial springs, encouraging the birds to return.

We visited soon after sunrise, and while our local guide couldn’t speak English and our Arabic is pretty awful (even after, embarrassingly, spending eleven years in the Middle East), he used a bird handbook to help us identify them.

On our one-hour walk we spotted juvenile herons, mallards, common kingfishers, longbilled dowitchers, African collared doves, and a night heron, from wooden boardwalks and a mud-brick hide.

It was a very pleasant way to pass the time, as was our stay at Azraq Lodge, a renovated former 1940s British military hospital that had been remodelled by Khammash architects, who designed and built Feynan Eco-Lodge, where we stayed earlier in our trip.

Azraq Lodge has a cosy lounge with antique leather sofas and fascinating old photos and a screening room where documentaries are shown.

There is also a restaurant where delicious Chechen food is dished up by a family of descendants of 19th refugees from the Caucasus. The scrumptious food, especially the tasty dumplings, is a highlight of a stay here.

Like Feynan, Azraq Lodge employs local staff. The men, former hunters, work as staff and guides, while in the workshops on site the women produce souvenirs for the RSCN’s Wild Jordan shops: t-shirts, canvas bags, recycled paper, painted ostrich eggs, candles, and handmade soaps.

Sadly, the neighbouring Jordanian military base and the busy highway out front means the lodge lacks some of the magic of the more remote Feynan Eco-Lodge, however, we enjoyed our time here far more than we did our stays at the big characterless resorts at Petra and the Dead Sea.

It was the intimacy of Jordan’s eco-accommodation, the connection to local people, the authenticity of the experiences, and the knowledge that we were giving something back to the local community that made stays at these places special.

Next up: Amman

We stayed at Azraq Lodge during a three-week road trip through Jordan in November 2009 on assignments for magazines.



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