During our time at the Dana Biosphere Reserve in Jordan, we drank a lot of tea. Served milky in the morning, whether offered at Feynan Eco-Lodge or in a Bedouin tent, each successive glass contained less milk until it was strong and black by the end of the day.
Served with sugar and sage, thyme or mint, every Bedouin tent had a pot of piping hot black tea staying warm over charcoal somewhere nearby. While drinking tea is a ritual, it’s more everyday and not done with the same degree of ceremony as drinking coffee is on the Arabian Peninsula.
Late on our first afternoon at Feynan Eco-Lodge, we headed downstairs to meet our guide for a sunset desert stroll. Holding a degree in archaeology and tourism, the lovely 29 year-old Salha was one of 17 locals employed by the lodge, and, as she told us as we walked across the gravelly earth, she adored her job.
When Salha was an archaeologist, she said, she only had work for three months of the year. Now she got to work full-time, leading the guests of Feynan Eco Lodge on various activities, and she loved being busy.
As we climbed up the rocky hill, Salha briefed us on the history of copper mining in the area, dating back to the Bronze Age and Roman times.
Not only was Salha a font of knowledge, after clambering up to her favourite sunset viewing spot we soon discovered that Salha lit a fast fire and also made a deliciously aromatic black tea with thyme.
After the sun sank, we scrambled back to the lodge in the darkness and refreshed for an early, albeit romantic, moonlit dinner – a generous buffet of traditional Arabic and Bedouin dishes, eaten at a table in the darkness on the outdoor stone terrace.
Accompanied by cool breezes, the silence was broken only by the quiet whispers of other diners and the tinkling of goats’ bells on the hillside.
After dinner there were no nightcaps, for no liquor is served at Feynan – although guests are welcome to BYO. Instead, a more delicate, aromatic tea was served on the rooftop under a vast black sky of twinkling stars.
As they gazed at the heavens, occasionally sipping from tea glasses, guests spoke in hushed tones, as if in reverence to mother nature.
We retired early and slept deeply until we were woken by the golden light and warmth of the sunrise on our faces.
Following a breakfast of flat bread, olives, hummus, cheese, fruit, and, of course, black tea, Nabil and a guide, Mohammed, drove us five thousand metres up the mountain – an edge-of-your-seat drive for most of the way – to the highest point of the Dana Biosphere Reserve.
After taking in the breathtaking valley views from the terrace of Dana Guesthouse on the canyon rim and clambering about the Ottoman ruins of Dana, a 6,000 year-old Nabatean village with terraced gardens of fig, plum and apricot trees, we began our 14-kilometre descent.
The hike, mainly downhill on easygoing dirt paths – but also involving some challenging scrambling around stone cliffs that should have been left to the goats – took us through four different bio-geographical zones, from the top to the bottom of the mountain.
This is what makes the bio-diversity of Dana Biosphere Reserve so special. From 1,600 metres above sea level where we began it was Mediterranean, with oak, juniper and pistachio trees, and vultures and eagles swooping high in the sky.
Next, we hiked through an Irano-Turanian zone at 800 metres that was fragrant with wild mint and sage, before reaching a Sudanian system at 400 metres where acacias provided some shade and lizards basked in the sun. Finally we arrived at the arid Sudanian desert zone below sea level, where the lodge lies.
There are more than 800 plant species at Dana Biosphere Reserve and an abundance of wildlife, including 190 bird species, 37 mammals and 36 reptiles.
Rare animal species include the Syrian Serin, Blanford’s fox and Nubian ibex, the last of which we were lucky to spot when I saw the beautiful creature with curved horns clinging to the vertical mountainside.
We returned to the lodge with shirts soaked in sweat, just as the sun was setting. Our hike had lasted the entire day, including stops for bird-watching, wildlife spotting, a lunch of flat Arabic bread with salad and goats cheese – and a steaming hot pot of tea, which Mohammed made on a small fire.
Read part four here.
We stayed at Feynan Eco-Lodge and hiked Dana Biosphere during a three-week road trip through Jordan in November 2009 on assignments for magazines.