I like nature and the outdoors; I never turn the channel when a TV program comes on about them. Heck, I even like being outside in an offline kind of way, to a degree. I don’t camp, unless it’s a tented luxury style but I do hike. Well, sort of. I like hiking in small doses and the promise of beautiful natural surroundings is usually enough to keep me motivated. In Jordan though I met my match and ended up pushing my limits far more than I ever thought I would on the Dana Reserve hike.
Let me continue by saying that I’m not a wimp and I’m not overly swishy. I don’t mind getting dirty and mixing it up, that’s not the issue here. No, instead of worrying about how good I looked, I was worried about my physical ability to complete the 16-kilometer hike through Jordan’s beautiful Dana Biosphere Reserve. I’m not that old, just 38, yet years of physical activity have taken their toll on my joints and so it was with knee braces firmly attached and a little bit of angst that I followed the guide from the top of the beautiful valley.
Dana is Jordan’s largest reserve and drops from the mountains 4,900 feet to the low-lying desert area of Wadi Araba. There are unusual plants, flowers, animals, birds and if you’re into geology, then this is the place for you. Looking down across the valley from the Dana visitor’s center, I couldn’t help but think how big it looked. And I couldn’t help but wonder if I would be able to hike all the way down and across without permanently screwing up my knees. The guide laughed, pointed out across the valley and said, “See there?” pointing to the last visible spot below us, “We’re going past that.” Super.
The idea was simple enough and a good one in fact. Start from the top of Dana and hike the 16 kilometers down into and across the valley to the Feynan Ecolodge, our stop for the night. Feynan is one of the top 25 ecolodges in the world and I was excited to experience it firsthand. All that stood between us was 8 hours of rugged hiking down and across the desert. Even at the time it sounded like a lot.
Apparently this wasn’t just some crazy idea for us; many of the guests of the legendary Feynan lodge choose to hike there, although truck is also certainly an option. The lodge lies in the middle of the desert, deep in the biosphere and is completely off the grid. The siren call of ecofriendly comfort beckoned and it was with that in mind that I followed the group down into Dana.
The hike is a hard one and guides are required, but our leader wasn’t just some nature lover, no, Mohammad was the real deal when it comes to local experiences. Bedouin by birth, he was born in one of the cliffside caves we trudged past on our hike. He spent the first half of his life living fairly traditionally, herding goats and calling Dana his home. He then transitioned, like so many others, into a completely different career and now he leads folks like me through his home almost every day of the week. Along the way he shared stories of his childhood, intimate knowledge of the plants and animals and stories known only to those who have called the massive valley home for generations.
All this didn’t detract from the physicality of the hike, downhill I walked for hours, slipping on loose pebbles and worried that at any minute my knees would give out completely. In high school I was in marching band and in college I rowed crew, two fateful decisions that at the age of 38 have left me with a very early onset of arthritis. While I love adventure, it means that physically some of it is extra hard for me; like Dana. Determined not to let that get me down, I managed and followed everyone else down into the valley below, albeit slightly slower.
And you know what? Just like all hard experiences, it was completely worth it. The way the desert mixes with the mountains is a type of beauty that can’t be fully explained, it simply must be experienced in order to appreciate. Along the way other Bedouins passed by, herding their flocks and trying to keep to their own schedules. We took breaks when Mohammad shared some survival skills with us and even made us a high-test pot of fine, Bedouin tea.
We started late, later than Mohammed would have liked, and so with at least an hour left in our walk the sun set and darkness overtook us. We slowed down and carefully followed his lead, anxious not to slip or trip over the rocks and boulders along the path. As we got closer to the ecolodge, I heard cries in the distance and my heart began to beat a little bit faster. Mohammad called out in return and laughed; clearly he was known in these parts. Then, more suddenly than I would have thought possible, dozens of flashlights started to pop up in the hills and slowly descended to greet us. Kids, dozens of them, all part of Bedouin families had seen us from their camps and came down to join us in our parade to Feynan. It was a magical moment, interrupted only by shooting starts and the surprised bark of a camp dog.
Arriving into Feynan, I felt like a refugee, a warn out version of myself amidst an oasis of calm and comfort. It was an odd juxtaposition to be sure, but it seemed to make the arrival that much more special. I instantly understood why so many of the ecolodge’s guests choose to hike there, to earn the privilege and to arrive not just as some Westerner, but as a guest with a slightly better understanding of the beautiful reserve around them and why it is so very important to preserve.
Was it hard? You bet. Did the hike leave me slightly drained for a few days? Yup, I was a wobbly mess. Was it worth it? Without a doubt and even as I grunted along the path and swore I’d never hike again, I knew that later I would come to appreciate the experience. I would understand how special Dana is, why it has been preserved and what an absolute privilege it was to experience it in the most intimate way possible.
That’s the beauty of pushing your limits, whether at home or while traveling. You learn a lot about yourself in the process and there is almost always a reward for the effort, as there was for me in beautiful Dana.
What are some of your favorite hikes?
This campaign was created and sponsored by Jordan Tourism Board in partnership with iambassador. LandLopers retains all editorial control of what is published and as you know, I never shy away from honest commentary.