The anticipation of our road trip in Jordan (tinged with a hint of trepidation) meant little sleep before setting off from our B&B in Amman – thoughts of the big drive ahead in a new country and all the possible ways of coming a cropper niggled. Of course, nothing went wrong, and John drove masterfully…with my navigational assistance on the iphones – one with the Galileo app and the other with maps.me (excellent non-data navigation tools).
We set course for the Feynan Ecolodge in the Dana Biosphere Reserve, a sustainable hotel that stands out amongst the registered ecohotels of the world. Unlike so many others that are nestled amongst green, lush, unblemished-by-humans environs, this is a stark and dry contrast, unique and compelling. It is hailed as one of the best 25 ecolodges in the world by National Geographic Traveller Magazine.
Our course took us along the Dead Sea Highway. The view across to Israel was punctuated by bromine and potash plants, as well as the resorts that were holiday destinations for Jordanian and international tourists alike; the chemical creating factories a bleak contrast to the biosphere of our destination. It was concerning to see the ‘retreat’ of the sea due to climate change – the surface level is falling by more than one metre a year. Where once the shore was right up to the edge of the resort properties, now some hotels bus their guests the water’s edge for swimming.
We had prepared ourselves for the possibility of being stopped at a checkpoint by Jordanian police, and were a little nervous about how we would communicate with them. But when we were flagged down on the highway for a checkpoint and the officer saw that we were not locals, and probably (and rightfully!) assumed that we had no Arabic, he waved us on. We were clearly in the ‘too hard basket’ for this early morning!
Part of the travel arrangement for our stay at Feynan Ecolodge was leaving our hire car in a locked yard a short distance from the small tourist centre. We were bundled into an old ‘ute’; perfect for ‘bush bashing’…or in this case ‘desert bashing’. And we hung on as we bounced along dirt tracks, catching glimpses through dusty windows of dry, prehistoric landscapes decorated by fluffy goats.
Spotting the ecolodge in the distance on our approach, it looked like something out of an ancient, yet futuristic film set – a secluded building from a desert scene in the Star Wars franchise. On closer inspection, it was full of innovation, clever and cutting edge design that does all that it can to preserve and protect its environs.
We checked in and dropped our bags in our room, the candles for our evening light already strategically laid out about the room, awaiting ignition. We dawdled for some time on the balcony that faced undulating rock, coloured with the numerous shades of sand for which Jordan is famous.
Exploration called, and we checked out the communal areas of the lodge. The internal courtyard contained small café style tables and chairs, and there was a lone guest nestled in a corner reading a worn paperback. The ceilings in all rooms were soot-smudged as a result of the nightly burning of locally hand-made candles, which, combined with the open fireplace in the lounge, was an authentic representation of the ancient culture that influenced the design of this unique accommodation.
One of the traditions when staying at Feynan is to do a short hike to watch the sunset. On the way our guide, Suleiman, pointed out his family’s winter tent, woven by his mother in dark goat’s wool to draw the warmth of the sun. It took her many years to make, and he was proud of her work. His aunty (who is now 80) still has the reputation in the community for having the best tent – she takes excellent care of it, and it’s beautifully made.
When growing up, he shared this tent with his parents, seven brothers and four sisters. He pointed out to us the exact spot where he was born, the name of which basically translates as ‘where your head first hits the ground’. It was marked by a pile of stones, and he took pleasure in sharing such details of his traditions, history and culture with us.
The strong sense of community in the Bedouin people was apparent in a number of ways, beyond the admiration taken in the work of another’s tent! The staff at Feynan ecolodge are locals, and even those who don’t work at the lodge contribute to the well-being of the guests by making extra bread when the lodge is full.
Close by there is a small mosque and a tiny school where about 60 students attend. The kids run around barefoot, not bothered by the small and large stones underfoot. Obviously their feet toughen up over time! And just like winter in any school in the world, they all seemed to have runny noses!
When we got to the viewing point, Suleiman built a wee fire and made us sweet sage tea for us to sip as we watched the sun set. He told us the story of their dog that used to go out without the goat herder to look after the goats. Each day, the dog would take them out and bring them back, ensuring not one was left behind. One day, the herd came back without the dog, and people went in search of this hardworking animal. They thought that some harm had befallen the dog and it took a few days for him to be found. When he was discovered, he was guarding a goat that had just given birth, keeping her and her kid safe. A top dog!
Suleiman regaled us with more tales, which sounded like the Jordanian equivalent of Aussies being able to outswim sharks! He has been stung five times in his life by scorpions. To help build up an immunity to the venom, the Bedouins kill the yellow scorpion (the most deadly here), burn it up, mash it up, and put it on the breast feeding mother’s nipples, so the baby ingests it. Woah! (To be honest, this sounds far more plausible than Aussies being able to outswim sharks!!)
Suleiman was full of such stories, as well as wonderful anecdotes and insights to his culture and way of life. The relaxation that his tales, the tea and the view provided was the perfect wind down for a good night’s sleep.
All of the food served at the ecolodge was vegetarian, but that did not at all phase the carnivores amongst the guests. We were in no need of the call to dinner, as the cooked fragrant spices coming from the kitchen were enough to alert us to meal times. Dinner was an abundant affair, so many choices. And even though I put the tiniest amount of each dish on my plate, it was still loaded up by the end of my ‘run’ along the buffet. Particular favourites served included the spinach and okra dishes, seasoned with aromatic local spices, an Arabian coleslaw of carrot, cabbage and sultanas, and the moussaka.
After dinner, there was a presentation to explain to all new guests about the ethos of the lodge and how it started. There are 80 Bedouin families, 400 individuals, who benefit from the lodge being at Dana. And it provides its guests such insight to the way of life in this part of Jordan that could not be obtained in any way except staying at the ecolodge. After the presentation, there was some guided star gazing on the roof before heading to bed, or for those who wanted to join a sunrise hike, rest was more enticing.
We were impressed at the insulation of the bedrooms – they were airtight, so even in winter, it was actually quite warm (even had to remove a layer during the night!). Of course, this design is extremely efficient during the desert summers as well. The beds were surprisingly comfortable for a simple mattress on a slab of stucco, and a sound sleep was had by us both. The only electricity in the whole of the lodge was in the bathrooms, the kitchen and the office. All bedrooms, dining room, lounge and foyer were candlelit. It didn’t take long for the eyes to adjust, although, if there was only the fire blazing in the guest lounge, it sometimes took a moment to realise that there were other people in the room as well!
We were surrounded by serious hikers who were staying several days, some who had arrived at Feynan via the 14km walk from Dana. They were fully decked out in all the gear with their walking sticks and hikers’ version of lycra for bicyclists, and we had only our sturdy, all-purpose Merrells. Packing for a trip that included camping in the desert and stays in 5 star hotels, presented limitations.
We took an early walk the next morning along the riverbed in Wadi Dana. Our three-hour hike took us past some more Bedouin tents, some with baby goats in them. A decrepit old dog got between us and the goats, ready to defend its charges if necessary, but sensed that we were no threat. The same thing happened at the next tent, too. Loyal workers, as well as loved family companions.
Before our departure we stocked up in the tiny gift shop off the foyer of the ecolodge. This is another way that the enterprise supports the locals, by selling products made in Jordan by small communities. I loved the Orjan products, especially the soap, which is made by local women of the village of Orjan near Ajloun Forest Reserve. It’s made from pure virgin olive oil and has no artificial colours, chemicals or fragrances, and it comes unpackaged to avoid unnecessary waste.
After only one night in the wilderness, it was time to move on. We said goodbye to our knowledgeable and charming guide, Suleiman, and to the lovely Dutch family we chatted with on our morning hike. It was easy to see why guests stay for several nights to really escape the trappings of the 21st century, and even after our brief time at Feynan Ecolodge, we left revitalised and eager for more Jordanian adventures.
Our adventures continue in Jordan with a visit to Petra…
Accommodation: Feynan Ecolodge