I spend the first half of a three hour drive into the desert sleeping and the second half writing. In between we stop at a roadhouse and are given complimentary tea and Arabic snacks (bread, olives, hummus, cheese etc.). There’s no charge for the guides and drivers at places like this because typically the tourists they bring in will be paying over the odds for the surrounding tat on offer.
Petra costs about 20 quid to get in and, when I think about some of the pointless shit I’ve spent the same amount on (bags of fun mostly, be they filled with pills, powder or pound coins) I doubt there’s much better value to be had anywhere in the world. Like a cross between the Grand Canyon and the Pyramids, its sprawling magnificence has to be seen to be believed. Constructed and occupied by the Nabateans from about 500BC to 400AD, it is a city carved into the pink rock of a humungous valley. They had pavements, art work, shops, tourism and a clay-pipe water system for every house in town. At its peak, around 30,000 lived in and around these rock faces. After they died out the Romans moved in and it was only a few hundred years ago that the majority of the place was tragically destroyed by earthquake and stumbled upon by accident by a Swiss explorer.
The closing scenes in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were also shot here, a fact not lost on the endless mob of hawkers lurking round every twist and turn of this ancient “rose red city, half as old as time.” So persistent are they that I imagine for some tourists they may take the sheen off of what is an experience impossible to forget.
But in talking to me they are dealing with someone who has walked Ibiza’s West End, where the fast talk of PRs who spoke my own language failed to make a dent. Polite refusal does fine, though it is fun to listen to some of their bullshit sales pitches. “Taxi miss? Ferrari – very fast!” Shouts one toothless urchin atop a donkey that looks more dead than alive.
To their credit, they know how to get people’s attention in a number of different languages. On the other hand, a number of the workers are kids trained to earn sympathy (and demand payment if you try take a picture of them).
There are a couple of workers employed to shovel donkey and camel shit all day, a job only marginally better than actually being one of the beasts of burden that are frequently abused by handlers whose boredom has turned to cruelty. With so many folk trudging around – tourists and cavern dwellers alike – it’s hard to pretend I’m someone I’m not. It’s also hard to take people-free pictures, but I aim up as much as I dare.
There are three caches in Petra, all of which are located at higher ground. Droopy tells me I simply won’t have time to go to all of them in the five hours of daylight we have left. Despite his claim that he has been here many hundred times, I don’t believe him, but humour him all the same. We have lunch at a buffet (which, being two thirds of the way into the valley is predictably expensive) after which he gives me directions to get to the Monastery.
“Jordan is a hard road to travel I believe,” sing chirpy folkers Bellowhead. Perhaps this is what they meant as the 40 minute hike is a long and hard. The gnawed pencils that jut out from where my legs used to be ache and plead for me to stop; my throat, chest and lungs agree. But no. I need to find a cache or the feature is doomed and more importantly my pride will be crushed.
The trek may be tough, but it is astonishingly beautiful - the winding path passes through layer cake rock, frequently offers breathless panoramas and presents a physical challenge, the likes of which I haven’t had since bumbling around in the Swiss snow. I’m frequently amazed by the age and decrepitude of some of the others making the journey and while the Americans pant and wheeze like overheated dogs, scores of Japanese visitors serenely float to the summit.
But when I get to the top... man, when I get to the top it’s all worth it. Like the famous Treasury, the Monastery isn’t what the world says it is, but rather an enormous tomb for a long-dead Nabatean king (the funeral precession to get here must have been a real motherfucker).
This summit also offers some amazing panoramas of the valley beyond Petra from the imaginatively titled Sacrifice and End of the World views (both are looking at essentially the same thing). A couple canoodle at the second of these, gazing out across the abyss below.
I retreat from the edge and go back to the Monastery and take the pic myself. I check my clue sheet too, which reads: “Find shade under a tree.”
Hmm. There are a number of trees here and without a GPS it’s tough to know which one. But for some reason, my eye is drawn just to the left of the old tomb. I toddle over and look around. I’m just about to turn away when the sunlight catches something white in the corner of my eye; I move a rock and here, finally, is my first Geocache, right in the middle of Indiana Jones country. Perfect.
Without anything else to offer, I swap my small sporran keyring for a leather Sri Lanka one, fill out the log, take some pictures and head back down the valley incredibly satisfied.
By the time I reach the valley floor, my legs have grown heavy and I've taken far longer than I planned. Droopy was right, there is no chance I can make another ascent like that – my energy levels and the lack of daylight make it impossible.
Instead I check out a few more of Petra’s cave dwellings, before finding a large flat rock to sit on. The heat may have gone, but I splay myself lizard-like and watch the sun disappear over a dramatic ochre mountain. What a day, what a day, what a day... I left six months ago and I’ve never felt further from home.