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A pair of domesticated camels stride down the bone-dry watercourse of Wadi Dana.

, Star Tribune

The slot canyon of Wadi Ghwayr provides a natural highlight for visitors to the Dana Biosphere Reserve in Jordan.

HENRY WISMAYER, Special to the Star Tribune

Go where Bedouins roam

  • Article by: HENRY WISMAYER
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • December 10, 2011 - 9:20 AM

It was the original hissy fit. The tail started to slide into the crevice but Mohammad was too quick, manipulating his stick under a scaly coil and flicking the furious serpent back onto the pebbles. The encounter reminded Mohammad of a story that had been making the rounds in the valley, of a local man who died after stepping on just such a snake last year. He gave a fatalistic shrug then chuckled: "It bit him on the bubbles," and pointed at his crotch.

In some respects, it is a wonder why anyone would want to live hereabouts at all. Dry and barren for much of the year, bubble-biting snakes -- rural life in central Jordan certainly has its downsides. Yet this is a story about coexistence, for here, humanity has been dealing with natural discomforts for a very long time.

I'd come to explore the Dana Biosphere Reserve: 120 square miles of sharply incised gorges spilling down from the orange-stained escarpments of the Great Rift Valley. While the southern desert lands of Wadi Rum and Wadi Arabah might pull in more visitors, this is Jordan's largest and most diverse protected region: an Aladdin's canyon of plant species that are found nowhere else and cliffs stalked by Nubian ibex and rare Syrian wolves. It is also a place of people who have been planting crops and grazing livestock since the dawn of agriculture.

It was here in 1994 that Jordan's Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) pioneered a scheme that aimed to strike a balance between safeguarding Dana's unique environment and meeting the needs of its inhabitants.

The organization introduced the idea of zoning, cordoning off areas so that they might recover from the ravages of agriculture, while boosting the local economy with subsidized, alternative livelihoods, chiefly ecotourism. The plan proved a great success and has since become the keystone for conservation in all of Jordan's nature reserves, encapsulated by the simple slogan: "Helping nature, helping people."

For the Bedouin tribes that live here, it has brought much-needed economic stability and stemmed the flight of young people to the cities. For the visitor, it means a chance to experience Dana in its vintage form, locals and all.

Wisdom of a local Bedouin

Starting from the hilltop perch of Dana village, I began my exploration by hiking the 9-mile Wadi Dana Trail as it snaked 4,000 feet down into the reserve's central gorge. Down the steep switchback lined with juniper and lonely cypress trees; down the bone-dry watercourse that cut the valley; down past rock formations that looked like gothic pipe organs. And then, hints of humanity: the tinkle of goats' collar bells, a gaggle of domesticated camels with fettered forelegs, and finally some ragtag Bedouin encampments, where dusty-faced children watched me pass.

It was four hours before my destination came into view, another minute before I was sitting on scatter cushions, sipping iced lemonade with chopped mint. The transition came courtesy of the Feynan Ecolodge, curiously at home in its desert amphitheater, like a salubrious ziggurat blown together in a sandstorm.

Opened in 2005 by RSCN and now run by EcoHotels, the lodge is the emblem of Jordan's conservation crusade. Its green credentials were obvious even before I walked through the ornate wooden door, from sun-deflecting slabs set in exterior walls to rooftop solar panels designed to power bathroom lights and hot water. Come dusk, the 26 off-terra cotta bedrooms and communal courtyards are lit by candlelight, and the place takes on the Arabesque atmosphere of a caravansary on the old Silk Road.

In keeping with RSCN philosophy, the orange polo-shirted functionaries who lit those courtyard candles were all born within miles of the building. The lodge employs some 32 locals directly, and yields indirect income for dozens more, such as the farmers who provided the ingredients for the evening's vegetarian banquet of lentil soup, raisin coleslaw and stuffed eggplants.

Altogether, it's an ethos that was succinctly surmised by lodge manager Hussein Al Amareen: "Without the local people there would be no lodge."

Not a bad deal for the guests, either, I concluded, as he glided between the tables in a shimmering black kaftan. The Bedouins, after all, know a thing or two about hospitality.

One of them, eco-guide Mohammad Daifallah, took me out the next morning. Within the first mile we had passed his birthplace and the site of his wedding, popped into his parents' goat-hair tent for tea, and given his neighbor a lift down the sand flats that passed for a road.

"Look at all the slag," Mohammad chimed, as the pickup bounced toward three huge heaps of rubble, remnants of the earthquake-ravaged citadel of Khirbet Feynan, a far-flung outpost of the Byzantine Empire. The melted scrap torturing the truck's suspension was the detritus of the industry on which this once grand settlement was built, and 10 minutes later we stood above its source. Five thousand years ago, Feynan became one of the first societies to excavate and smelt copper. Later, under the stewardship of the Romans, the region's mines supplied copper throughout the known world. We spent the morning peering into the holes that perforated the bedrock, attempting to imagine the files of blinking men emerging from below, laden with ore chipped from underground seams.

In between sites, we walked along gulches scattered with shards of lurid green malachite, stopping occasionally for Mohammad to demonstrate nuggets of the old wisdom that tends to develop where harsh conditions demand ingenuity: that the white-flowered artemia can be used as an antiseptic and that marjoram, when crushed, behaves like soap.

For the next couple of days, as I slipped into my very own desert rhythm -- books and naps and gazing at the stars from the mattresses that lined the roof -- there was no question that the lodge represented an equally civilized way to exploit the landscape.

A walk into a rich slot canyon

It was another two lazy days before I was back in the pickup, sweating next to Mohammad as he steered us west toward the hallucinatory shiver of the North Arabian Desert. The tires crunched to a standstill in the shade of an acacia tree, not far from where archaeologists have unearthed a latticework of village foundations, littered with fragments of limestone crockery, that dated back 11,000 years: some of civilization's earliest evidence of sedentary living.

But the main object of our excursion was straight ahead. Our plan was to forge Wadi Ghwayr, a slot canyon recently cleaned out by a once-in-a-decade flash flood ("wadi" is an Arabic word for a watercourse that is dry except during rare rains). Mohammad knotted a kaffiyeh around his head, fished a cast-iron kettle out of the truck bed -- "for tea, in the wadi" -- and led the way.

Toward water! It seemed like a small miracle: a steady flow of braided channels, fed by springs up on the plateau, and celebrated down here by a green carnival of bamboo, oleander and resplendent palms. The scenery improved with each stride. Walls that began wide and splintered soon narrowed. Eventually, we were hop-scotching from boulder to sandbank down a gullet of granular rock, which rose in raspberry-ripple scallops and bulges that blocked out the sun.

Mohammad was in his element. Ghwayr, he enthused, was his "favorite wadi ... a very clean wadi ... an amazing wadi." And by the time we ran into the diamond-backed viper -- which started off minding its own business but turned into a hissing harbinger of death the second Mohammad started poking it with a stick -- I wasn't actually wondering why anyone would want to live here after all. The answer was written all over his face.

On the way back we met an elderly man driving a herd of goats in search of meager pasture. His skin was cracked like baked earth; his hand, when I shook it, was as rough as the riverbed.

"Tough life here," I said to Mohammad.

He replied with what could be a Bedouin motto: "Where you find the water you can make the life."

Five hundred generations have done just that in Dana. And as Jordan sets the standard for ecotourism in the Middle East, it seems likely we'll be here for eons to come.

Henry Wismayer is a travel writer based in the United Kingdom whose work has appeared in a host of international publications and at www.henrywismayer.com.

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