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Story & Photos by Margaret Deefholts

He has piercing grey eyes, a strong hawk-nosed profile and a trim beard. Dressed in dishdashah robes, and wearing a traditional chequered head scarf, (shumag), banded in place with a coiled ogal, he sits astride an Arab stallion, looking for all the world like a bit-actor in Hollywood's Lawrence of Arabia. The mountain that is T.E. Lawrence's inspiration for the title of his Seven Pillars of Wisdom serves as a perfect backdrop.

I'm at the Wadi Rum Visitors' Centre in Jordan, and the horseman, oblivious to my goggling, is chatting to our bus driver. A small group of us are about to board three jeeps each driven by Bedouins, (the only ones qualified to navigate the trackless desert), and take off in a convoy through the Wadi Rum which Lawrence once described as "vast, echoing and God-like".

I'd imagined the desert as a swell of sand dunes stretching endlessly to a distant horizon, but the Wadi Rum is a wilderness of a different sort. Stunted bushes pock-mark the sandy soil, and gigantic monolithic crags rear up against the sky, their surfaces worn by time and weather into fantastical shapes. Some appear crumbly as insect-bored wood; others are wind-sculpted into clenched fists, or crenellated bastions. The colours shift from dun to ochre, and in the distance, the rocks fade to a pale grey. The sun brazens down from a metallic sky, and the sand shimmers in the heat haze.

Following the advice of our guide, Ibrahim, the group disperses, each of us seeking to experience this immense wilderness in solitude. I toil up a slope, my feet sinking into the sand, and when I get to the top my fellow travellers are black specks crawling across the tan landscape. There is nothing but the lonely grandeur of the desert-its breath the wind that whines in my ears, and brushes warm against my skin. Sand flies dart around me, and a little way off, the bleached skull of some small animal lies half buried in the sand.

The interlude ends all too soon, and the convoy takes off again on a roller-coaster ride over the humped dunes. At our next stop we tumble out of the jeeps to squint against the sun at the oft-photographed Burdah rock bridge arching 35 metres above us. My companions waste little time clambering up the steep, rocky pathway to walk along the bridge while waving and posing jubilantly for my camera.

Our final stop in the Wadi Rum is at dusk, when the cool evening wind spins the sand into miniature dust-devils. As the sun sinks to the horizon, the sandstone rocks around us are softened into pale mauve, and the desert is transformed into an enchanted fantasy world. The light is bronze, and the distant ranges become navy blue silhouettes against the enormous blood-orange orb now fast sliding out of sight. To my right a wild camel and its baby stand motionless against a rising full moon.

By the time we arrive at our Bedouin camp where we are to spend the night, the sky is a thicket of stars. Brown canvas tents are arranged in a V with a heavy cloth curtain at each room's entrance. My candle-lit room, with its double bed is partitioned from my neighbours' tents by large hanging rugs. At the far side of the camp a row of flush toilets and shower stalls are an unexpected luxury.

Our Bedouin hosts welcome us with glasses of sweet tea followed later by dinner served under the desert sky. We nibble on hummus, baba ghanouj, khubez (roti) as appetizers and a main course Bedouin speciality, Mansaf -tender lamb seasoned with herbs and yoghurt. A tin-foil moon rises high above our encampment, and we circle a leaping bonfire, dancing to the rhythm of a tabla (drum) and lute. When the flames sink into ashes, some of us, like our Bedouin hosts, sleep on bedding set out on benches in the open.

I wake early, a pale dawn gleaming through my tent curtain. In the breakfast buffet tent, a drop-dead handsome Bedouin pours me a cup of strong coffee. "Did you sleep well?" he asks, flashing a gently flirtatious, dimpled smile. I nod, wishing, not for the first time, that I was forty years younger…

But then, of course, I may never have left!


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Photos by Margaret Deefholts:

1. Bedouin camp tents in the Wadi Rum
2. Exploring the vast Wadi Rum desert
3. Burdah rock bridge - camel rides
4. A wild camel and her 'babies'
5. Sunset in the Wadi Rum
6. Wild camels at dawn - Wadi Rum
7. Bedouin hosts with welcome tea tray

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