Imaginative Traveller’s Tailor-Made team recently organised an overseas school trip to Jordan for students from Queen Anne's High School in Dunfermline. The students were all aged from 14 to 16. The group’s lead teacher, David Low, has written the following account about the trip.
As with all foreign trips, it was exciting but daunting to land at Amman Airport, not knowing what was to happen beyond the baggage collection (that’s hoping the bags would appear!). No worries though, as Mohamed was there with his wee ‘Imaginative Travel’ sign to organise visas and get passports processed, then onto the Larsa Hotel in Amman.
Next morning our tour leader Ibrahim Sbetani gave us the first of many “Yalla habibi” requests. We were on our way to Ajloun Reserve in the north. A day trekking through the woods to a village for lunch was hot for Scots not used to seeing the sun! Ibrahim then took us to a fantastic new development – the Ajloun Royal Academy for Nature Conservation. This grand modern designed building has workshops for making soap, baking and calligraphy, but the balcony terrace has great views. This stay gave us the finest sunsets of the week, around the lovely cabins. With views towards Syria and distant mountains, the howling of jackals at night and a camp fire with tea made by the Reserve Warden, it gave our group of students a fantastic introduction to Jordan.
After another treat of a family of golden jackals howling early morning, we had a Jordanian breakfast then Ibrahim took us to nearby Ajloun castle. Stories of the Crusades and mediaeval struggles made this place come alive. The museum had impressive artefacts including grenades and trebuchet ‘rock bombs’, but even Mesolithic and Palaeolithic tools dating back 50,000 years. The students loved exploring the dark passageways and vast recesses of this massive castle.
It wasn’t long until we were bussed to another important historical site at Jerash. Ibrahim explained the impact Romans had on Jordan and the cities they built. Jerash is the best preserved in the Middle East. He showed us various parts such as Hadrian’s Arch, the Hippodrome, and the impressive temples and amphitheatres, but small features like the drainage under the roads, cart scrapes into the road, the effects of the 8th C earthquake and the recent archaeological discoveries such as the statues of Zeus and Aphrodite - extremely rare outside Rome and Greece - were just as interesting.
Later in the afternoon we visited Amman centre to wander the streets. Ibrahim was vital to guide us to ‘Palestine Mountains’ for awesome freshly-squeezed juice, at local prices! Ice cream was had too, then we stopped for some food at a local takeaway. Shawarma for me, but it was too much to eat! Later we wandered around a fruit / veg market – wow, some new fruits to me there – Custard Apple? Most of the produce was Jordanian. Some of the group posed for photos after being handed live fish by the friendly vendors. This was a great example of how getting off the normal tourist route can lead to memorable experiences.
Back to the Larsa Hotel, and no-one expected what was to happen next. A nice buffet dinner, watching Jordan draw 0-0 with Kuwait at football on TV, then the sound of bagpipes and drums! A huge Jordanian wedding reception started in the hotel. The acoustics of the central stairway were ideal for the wedding party. It went on for ages and lots of our group watched (and videoed) in admiration from the landing above. Great entertainment!
Mt Nebo / Madaba
Next day, the tour continues onto Mt Nebo. Ibrahim gave our teenage group the right amount of historic info before they explored the newly restored church and posed for photos at the viewpoint with Moses’ staff monument. Shortly after we stopped in Madaba for a fresh drink at a great wee book café – Kawon. The owner wasn’t impressed that I thought he looked like Mo Salah the Egyptian footballer, but he was very personable and destroyed me twice at table tennis. Jordan 2 Scotland 0.
Madaba is famous for housing one of the oldest maps in the World, in the Byzantine St George Church. To see the 6th C floor mosaic map of the Holy Lands was quite special. Ibrahim explained that it had been partly destroyed in later re-appraisals of religious symbols, but Jerusalem is still very clear. I wonder what was in the patches now destroyed?
Dana Biosphere Reserve
A further bus journey took us to Dana Reserve, and another special sunset. The kids loved the final approach as we had to transfer to 4x4 pickups to navigate slightly scary narrow roads, dodging sheep, goats and on-coming vehicles. Our tents were perched on a cliff ledge overlooking the Dana valley. It did look nice but my first thought was that it wouldn’t take very long to hike down the next day. How very wrong I was.
An early start with a local Bedouin guide alongside Ibrahim. The first surprise was to walk past an old tomb, perhaps Nabatean, with several human skulls and bones visible inside. We passed sheep and goats being herded by kids who turned out to be the Bedouin guide’s own family. Further down the landscape became more dramatic with spectacular rock formations, towering cliffs and jagged summits with deep deposits of ancient flood debris in the valley floors. I took far too many photos and ended up at the back of the line as ever. We had a packed lunch thankfully under two large juniper trees, with a wee fire made to heat up tea for us. In the afternoon we continued on, sadly Ibrahim couldn’t find any scorpions for us to see. I’ve love to visit again after the rains, to see the dried-up rivers live again, and the flowers we could see faded glimpses of.
The journey back to camp was long but we stopped at a tourist shop where the group bought a few things, and later local doughnuts were offered to us to keep us munching.
Next morning, we prepared for one of our biggest days – Petra by the ‘back-door’ entrance to the Monastery. Ibrahim first took us to Little Petra, which is exactly that – a mini Petra experience but very rewarding. The trek after was hot and tiring for some, but we eventually scaled the steps, rounded the cliff ledge, posed for photos next to the Jordan flag viewpoint, then onto ‘Al Deir’. This route makes you feel like a pilgrim reaching Petra, instead of a tourist. You have earned it due to the desert trek and avoided the crowds. Speaking to other tourists later it was satisfying that many didn’t know about the route we had taken. It also meant that we descending the 800+ steps down past the Monastery instead of climbing up to it.
Ibrahim gave us plenty time to explore after lunch. Some of us climbed the steps to get a good vantage point of the Treasury for a photo – well worth doing this as it seems a little secret. Later we exited via the Siq, the narrow passageway carved out by ancient flood waters, unfathomable in today’s heat and dryness. Ibrahim met us as planned and we were transferred the short journey to The Seven Wonders Camp. For many this was their favourite camp – two puppies playfully fought each other constantly to entertain the group, tea was continually offered around a camp fire at night and traditional music created a relaxing atmosphere. Night lights wrapped around the rocky lump of a hill on-site gave the camp a cosy glow.
Next day, we returned to Petra to visit the areas we skipped the day before. Some of us bought souvenirs like jars of coloured sand - demonstrated by local craftsmen - and rugs and trinkets to take home. We all bought water or juice as temperatures soared. Two chose to travel by mule, but the rest of the group walked up to The High Alter of Sacrifice, a great viewpoint but also a significant Nabatean site. We re-started the tradition of sacrifice by killing the youngest of our group on the alter – 15-year-old Vicente, using a knife recently purchased as a souvenir. We must have angered the gods though, as thunder and lightning followed later that day. Maybe we should have chosen a girl?
One of our group was quite badly sunburned so Ibrahim organised a visit to a doctor’s clinic later that day. The service was excellent, but she was also given an IV drip of saline solution to re-hydrate. As previously said, Scots don’t do well in the sun. We re-joined the group at the Seven Wonders Camp and after tea went back to Petra for the candlelit ‘Petra by Night’ show. This was good but very busy – clearly tourism brings more visitors today than in 2007 when I last visited. We enjoyed the show, but two tips for the future – use bagpipes as part of the musical show to silence the crowd and grab everyone’s attention – the echos would be fantastic! Limiting the number of people would make for a better experience too.
Spur of the moment spontaneous events are always welcome, and the next morning after we left camp, Ibrahim managed to book us a sports hall for a game of football. We spent over an hour battling out a game, with a guest appearance from one of the sports hall staff, who wisely played barefoot to avoid sliding on the slippy surface.
This was to be a busy day. Soon we were on our way to Wadi Rum and our desert camp. There was an exhilarating 4x4 pick-up journey through rain and sand storms to reach camp, where we met our next form of transport: camels. For some this was a real highlight, especially as the thunder and lightning returned to give a real edge to the camel trek we undertook.
Wadi Rum is magical. The desert skies are pierced by juggernauts of massive rocks between sandy plains and dunes. The sandstone is carved into weird melting shapes by wind, occasional downpours and intense heat to create a landscape of rock teeth and nightmarish layer upon layer of rock cake. Ibrahim took us on a 4x4 trip to see rock arches, ancient camel caravan graffiti and Natabean wells that still store water; we took photos and climbed to get viewpoints of the oncoming sunset. He showed all 17 of us in the sand how our names would be written in Arabic. Yep, a really busy day. Dinner at night was a real feast, with a slow-roasted meal dug up from a desert oven making a very succulent meal.
The Dead Sea
We had worked hard to earn our last full day in Jordan, with a relaxing stay at the Dead Sea Spa Hotel. We said goodbye to our trusted guide Ibrahim, who had made our trip a real success, always available to help us, answer our questions and entertain us. He pitched everything to suit the teenage participants and we were sad to see him leave. We are grateful for how he managed to retrieve items left by our group several times, even returning to the Wadi Rum camp to reclaim clothing and electrical items.
The Dead Sea and its health-restoring mud were very popular, as was the hotel itself. Extremely high standards and services, the swimming pools were superb and restaurants offered vast choices. There seemed to be not enough time in the day to enjoy it all, as we were leaving early the next morning.
We returned to Scotland without problem. This is my second visit to Jordan with a school group. I hope to be able to do this again in the future. The students had the adventure of a lifetime I was hoping for. Thank you to everyone at Imaginative Travel and Atlas Tours who put together the itinerary I was looking for, and Ibrahim for working with us.