Wadi Rum: The Milky Way shines bright in the pink desert

Hiking through the desert of Wadi Rum will show just how much you are capable of – and you’ll be surrounded with the most awe-inspiring beauty

If there is anywhere on this planet that could be considered perfect, it is Wadi Rum. The Jordanian desert is a great expanse of red sand and giant cliffs. The stark beauty of the Milky Way shining through a moonless night is awe-inspiring. And you’ve probably seen it already.

The sun falls behind the mountains in the desert – Ben Finch of Wadi Rum, in Jordan – Ben Finch
The sun falls behind the mountains in the desert – Ben Finch

That’s because almost every film set on Mars is shot in Wadi Rum, as well as more obvious movies, such as Lawrence of Arabia. Your guide, when you visit, will almost certainly be able to show you a selfie with Matt Damon while he drives you to your bivouac for the night.

I arrive in the mid-afternoon, not too long before sunset, to meet my guide Ahmad at his house in a village on the edge of the protected area that stretches hundreds of square kilometres to the border with Saudi Arabia. He deflates the tires on his 4×4 and soon we’re gliding over the soft, shifting sand.

We rush towards our first stop. The sun is quickly sinking through the sky towards the mountains. We must still scramble up the rocks to our vantage point – a long, shallow spit of sandstone climbing to a cliff fifty metres high. The shadows of the mountains stretch out for longer than the peaks are tall. Even the brush casts a silhouette as the sun finally falls beneath the horizon.

But while the sunset is stunning, it is not what the group I am with have come to Wadi Rum to see. We have planned this trip for the weekend of a new moon. It will not throw any reflections, there are no large towns or cities for miles around to splurge streetlight into the sky and we will have the stars to ourselves.

Ahmad and Falah pose while dinner cooks on an open fire in Wadi Rum, Jordan – Ben Finch
Ahmad and Falah pose while dinner cooks on an open fire – Ben Finch

There are many different ways to stay overnight in the desert of Wadi Rum. Campsites have been established by the bedouin with beds and showers for those who prefer a bit of luxury. There are hotels and hostels for those who want even more. But we are bivouacking. We will have nothing between us and the sky but our sleeping bag.

Our camp is hidden by cliffs of red rock. In the dusky light, Falah, a friend and colleague of Ahmad, is roasting chicken and cooking a stew over an open fire. We remove our shoes, sit on the large mats that have been laid out over the sand and begin to smoke the shisha that is waiting for us.

We eat the stew – a bedouin recipe that must have been passed down for centuries – and drink gallons of minty black tea. In Arabic, Falah begins to tell us desert tales and Ahmad translates: “There was once a man who loved a woman…” 

The Milky Way twinkles above camp as Ahmad returns from evening prayers, in Wadi Rum, Jordan – Ben Finch
The Milky Way twinkles above camp as Ahmad returns from evening prayers – Ben Finch

Once the darkness has settled, we turn on our torches and walk from our outcrop to the open sand. We turn our torches off and, as our eyes adjust, the sky comes alive. There is a not a centimetre in the sky that is not dense with stars – there are so many it is difficult to know which constellation is which. One tail of the Milky Way trails through the sky and stretches out down through a col in the mountains. It is the most beautiful sight I have ever, and perhaps will ever, see.

We sit and chat and guess and eventually make up the names of everything that we can see for an hour before making our way back to the camp for more tea and stories. Ahmad prompts me to tell him of the Irish myths. The best I can do is to run through the story of Fionn MacCool while we climb into our sleeping bags and lie on our backs, gazing upwards.

Follow the head of the camel and you will find water in Wadi Rum, Jordan – Ben Finch
Follow the head of the camel and you will find water – Ben Finch

It is impossible not to wake early for breakfast – the cloudless sky is a bright blue for more than half an hour before the sun rises. Today we will hike through the desert. Most tours of Wadi Rum are carried out in the back of a pickup. You are rushed from sight to sight, camp for a night and then travel onwards. We have decided to challenge ourselves to see fewer wonders, in the heat and at a human pace.

Wadi is the Arabic word for valley. As we walk out of the shade and into the heat we are surrounded by the cliffs. The sand is firm – mostly; we must climb the odd dune of shifting sands. We pause under a ledge for water and dates every hour, but between each halt we have our heads covered in kuffiyehs to protect us from the sun beating down upon us.

Ahmad leads us to the desert’s water supply. When the rains fall here, which occurs maybe once or twice a year, the desert floods. Torrents gush through the rocks washing everything before them. Over millennia these have eroded pools into the softer patches of rock, and in one narrow canyon there are at least twenty miniature reservoirs that cascade into each other. There are ancient markings carved into the walls of the cliffs – road signs.

Another way to see the desert is on a camel train in Wadi Rum, Jordan – Ben Finch
Another way to see the desert is on a camel train – Ben Finch

To reach the canyon we must climb. I do not have a head for heights and we will have no ropes. At first it is an upwards scramble and the only chance of a fall is a few feet to the ledge you have just left. This is fine. But then we must take our lives into our hands. There is a path along the wall of the cliff, forty feet above the sand, and it is no more than thirty centimetres wide. At times it is not there at all, and these are the only places where some kind soul has carved handholds.

We reach a platform at the end of the path and lower ourselves down towards the canyon and pools. There has been no rain for a while, but the pools are in the shadows and still half full. The water is hot as we quench our thirst and I calm my nerves – we must climb the same way back.

Wisps of cloud float above the pink sands and mountains of Wadi Rum, Jordan – Ben Finch
Wisps of cloud float above the pink sands and mountains – Ben Finch

Convoys of tourists pass us by in their air-conditioned 4x4s as we continue the hike. Each waves happily to us – are they impressed or do they think we are idiots? We stop for lunch and climb a huge sand dune, sucking up valuable energy, but worth it for the view and the bounding race to the bottom. There are huge arches and giant rocks shaped like UFOs. We stop to admire them and march on towards camp, dinner and the stars.

That night, even though there is a sliver of moon in the sky, the Milky Way burns brighter, its colours clearer. Before it dissipates into the ether, there is a cloud of orange surrounding a bright, narrow stripe. We drink more minty tea and tell our stories until the fire is nothing but embers.

The desert is often thought of as being a desolate, empty place. Wadi Rum is not. Ahmad’s family has lived here for as long as anyone is aware and he knows it like the back of his hand. He loves the life here. Now, I do too. The desert is a pure, untainted place where you must rely on yourself, trust those around you and are able to stare into the distance to see what stares back.