The long road to Petra

 

To celebrate her 55th birthday, Anica Louwhiked through desert and mountains to Jordan's ancient citadel

I VOWED TO MYSELF that on my 55th birthday I would hike across the Jordanian desert to Petra carrying all my own water, food and camping gear. In January of this year I began training - three hours a day with a backpack filled with sand, running around Shawbrook, the ballet school I run in Legan, Co Longford. It was tough, but over the months my knees and hips, ruined from a lifetime of ballet classes, began to ease up, and in May Yamaan Safady, a short man with a wide smile and the most piercing green eyes, was at Amman airport, in Jordan, waiting for me. He led me to his jeep and we sped off south along Palestine and Israel, around the Dead Sea and into Bedouin country.

The land was hot, salty and dry, with buzzards and kestrels overhead and shepherdesses leading their goats to water. We stopped at Lot's Cave and a Byzantine ruin in the region of Sodom and Gomorrah, then arrived at a lodge where Bedouins were waiting for us. They greeted Yamaan with remarkable deference before making plans over sweet tea and a hubble-bubble pipe.

I snuck off to enjoy the sunset on this, my birthday, with a Pepsi and a shot of brandy I had smuggled in. As the skyline turned golden, Yamaan presented me with what looked like a dried-up daisy. He said it was for my birthday, poured some water in a dish and dipped the petals into it. "It's a flower of Jericho," he said. "Very old. A drop of water brings it to life until it dries and withers again. You must bring it back to life every year on this day."

Early the next morning we left the lodge and set off into the mountains. The first bit was just about manageable, but then we entered a lunar stretch of iron rocks with just a few stunted acacias in the distance. The temperature was above 40 degrees, and the sweat was soon burning in my eyes. I was gulping on my water tube to stop from fainting. I lost all sight of Yamaan after an hour but then, mercifully, spotted him in the distance, sitting rolling a cigarette.

"Is your urine clear? Are you dizzy? Have you got a headache?" he asked when I finally caught up. Then off we went again, racing across the rocks for three relentless hours until, finally, he announced lunchtime and set about making a fire with twigs, bark and three stones on which to balance his elaborately decorated Bedouin kettle. We hiked for another three hours until, at last, he pointed out a canyon ahead with tall grasses, sandbanks and a tiny waterfall, saying we would camp there for the night. I could have cried with relief.

Yamaan was not pleased, and he remained sulky all evening. Everything bothered him, from the inadequate brim on my sun hat to the way I laid out my clothes to dry. My untidiness, my dirt disgusted him. As a Muslim he is devoted to cleanliness and order. Even firewood must be chopped and placed in perfect piles of different sizes.

"You must be packed and ready for the morning," was the last thing he said to me that night, and so next morning, when he arose at 4.30am to light the fire, I shot out of my sleeping bag and began strapping my boots and pack on. "Are you going without me?" he said with a laugh. I had to sit back down and wait until he was eventually ready, at 7am.

"It is all uphill today," he said, and immediately I relaxed, because this is what I had trained for. The views were staggering. At the crest of the first mountain range Yamaan said: "You did well." His words were manna from heaven, and I had to resist from hugging him. He pointed towards the canyon we were heading to next. It was slippy scree, almost vertically downhill. I dread this kind of terrain. Yamaan read my concern and soothingly told me to take one step at a time. We proceeded for an hour until at last he said: "We're almost there. Would you like to break for lunch?" Hell, yes.

I loved that location. The donkey boys from Petra use it as a campsite, so there was a bit of rubbish scattered around, including cartridges from a second World War rifle, but I didn't mind. That evening, as a sign of appreciation, I cut a bush broom and swept Yamaan's sleeping area. This earned me more kudos than anything else I had done so far.

The next day was the dreaded hunting stretch: nine straight hours of narrow climbing up and down through loose scree, on hands and knees occasionally, with perilous drops to the desert below. The only way to get through it was on adrenalin, prayer and copious swearing. Wonderful Longford bogland swearing, curses never before heard outside the midlands. Eventually, I received a slap on my back from Yamaan. "The worst is over," he said.

Shortly after that I got lost for the first time. The panic had already begun to set in when Yamaan noticed that I was missing and retraced his steps to find me. We walked all day in murderous heat up the face of the conical mountain until, at nightfall, we met a group of Bedouins whom Yamaan had asked to bring water. As a surprise they had a watermelon for us, too, and, miraculously, a Pepsi each. It was a wonderful night, with beautiful views and vast skies running towards Iraq.

For Yamaan the walk was now over, as the most challenging bit was behind us. Just as I was falling asleep a wolf approached the camp, and the shepherds' dogs went berserk. Yamaan had to go and throw stones to make it retreat.

The next morning we saw our first signs of civilisation again, as a road appeared out of the desert. We walked on across the landscape of red, amber and orange rock until at some point Yamaan told me to look up. There ahead lay Petra, the great citadel of the Nabatean kingdom. I couldn't hold back the tears. I was 55 and would probably never be able to perform a grand jete or arabesque again, but I had managed to cross 100km of mountain desert carrying all my own gear, along a route known only to a few Bedouins. I felt more alive, more at peace than I had in a long time. I was happy now to return and try to instil in students a love and respect for their bodies, to teach them what human beings are capable of, even after 55 years. Thank you Yamaan and Jordan: you made me feel young again.

Yamaan Safady can be hired via www.adventurejordan.com