Bedlam in Dubai
Our journey from Sydney to the Dead Sea was always going to be a long and arduous one. However, we were determined to persevere until we got there, come swell, high wind or any number of other calamities which might befall the weary traveler.
The flight from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur was easy enough. We had, after all, been this way before and new the path well.
Passing time in Planet KL – otherwise known as the Golden Lounge at Kuala Lumpur International Airport – typically saps our enthusiasm for the journey ahead, particularly as midnight, Sydney-time, draws near and passes. However, once seated onboard our plane for the second leg of our flight, our sleepy spirits are roused as we begin, once more, making progress towards our final destination.
What we did not anticipate, however, was the bedlam which awaited us in Dubai.
I was under the strange misapprehension that Dubai was a modern airport boasting maximum efficiency. I was wrong.
The confusion began when we joined a queue at Passport Control. Despite the ungodly local time of 3am, the immigration hall was awash with travelers from all over the globe. We joined the least long queue we could find and had made some progress when the people behind us all suddenly departed. All we heard, as they shuffled away, were the words `iris check’.
Putting our faith in an official standing nearby, we were told that we had to undergo an iris scan before presenting ourselves to Passport Control. So we, too, left the line we were in and joined a long queue to have our eyeballs weighed and measured.
After making some progress towards the counter, however, the same phenomena which had previously occurred, repeated itself in reverse. The people behind us suddenly departed having been informed that, given their country of origin, they were exempt from the otherwise mandatory iris scan.
We asked two further officials who were loitering around whether Australians were required to undergo an iris scan and received conflicting answers. Taking a chance, however, we returned to the Passport Control queue and resumed our journey towards nirvana.
Suddenly, we were blessed by a competent looking official who told us we could join the much shorter queue for those from GCC countries. We had no idea what `GCC’ stood for, but gladly took the official’s advice. Before long we were presenting our Passports for inspection and were in the clear.
Our next task was to collect our bags and check-in at Royal Jordanian Airlines. After several failed explorations through likely-looking doors, we found our way to the hall occupied by several airlines, including Royal Jordanian. Regrettably, however, there were no Jordanians in sight (Royal or otherwise). A security man wandering aimlessly by told us that the check-in staff might arrive within the hour.
Thankfully, this dubious prediction proved accurate and a treble of sleepy looking attendants mooched in and took up a position behind the check-in counter. We excitedly charged forward to rid ourselves, once more, of our larger sets of luggage. We were, however, again delayed as the computer system failed and had to be rebooted. By this stage, our enthusiasm for our long journey was waning. It may have been time for Saturday brunch in Sydney, but dawn was still some hours away in Dubai. Remarkably, it was 35 degrees outside!
Finally, we checked in and headed back towards customs. Despite the very early hour, the lines were, once more, rather daunting. Huckleberry B, however, noticed a shorter queue for those from GCC countries. Given our earlier success, we dashed from our line to the GCC queue. Once there, however, a rather cranky Arab gentleman angrily waved us away. We told him we were Australians and he waved us away again, with an upwardly adjusted level of irritation.
We still don’t know what `GCC’ stands for or whether Australia falls within the definition…
Finally, we made it through Customs and found our way to the correct gate, before boarding our three hour Royal Jordanian flight to Amman.
Our journey, however, was not yet complete as we embarked upon a two hour drive southward and downward to the Dead Sea. I wish I had been more alert – and less drowsy from lack of sleep – as we headed down into the Jordan Valley and below sea level. By the time we reached for floor of the Valley, we were a remarkable 400 metres below the level of the ocean.
Once at the Movenpick resort – on the Eastern shore of the Dead Sea – it was midday in the Middle East and dinner time in Sydney.
Our plan was to sleep until late afternoon and rise for a sunset swim and a quick dinner. It wasn’t a very good plan. We woke at midnight – local time – and promptly returned to sleep until the morning. Sixteen hours of pure bliss!
Dawn at the Dead Sea
Not surprisingly, we woke well before sunrise after our prolonged slumber. Huckleberry B and I had independently decided that a swim in the Dead Sea before breakfast would be nice.
And so it was that we embarked on the ten minute stroll from our room down to the beach. We did so in semi-darkness and, wearing beachwear, doubtless baffled several groundsmen on the way.
I will probably remember entering the historic Dead Sea waters just before the Jordanian dawn as one of my most cherished travel memories.
The Dead Sea is reasonably calm, although small waves were in evidence and there was certainly a current below the surface. Across the waters we could see Israel and the disputed West Bank, which was represented by a sharp, desolate escarpment. In the semi-darkness, we could see lights flickering in the outskirts of Jerusalem.
As the sun rose behind us in the East, the West Bank escarpment was turned from a dark purple to a progressively lighter shade of pink. That barren, desert landscape had been Jordanian until the Six Day War in 1967. It looked peaceful, albeit rather unforgiving, from where we floated in the water.
There is certainly something different about the water in the Dead Sea. Despite the early hour, it was remarkably warm. And what we heard in high school was true; once horizontal, you could float without any need to manipulate one’s arms or legs. We simply formed a spread-eagle, put our heads back, and gazed upwards to the light blue and orange morning sky, still adorned by a corpulent crescent moon.
When upright, I found myself bobbing in the water like a cork. Normally, when standing vertically in the sea, you can keep your head and the top of your chest above the waterline with lazy dog-paddling motions. In the Dead Sea, however, I found that if I remained motionless, I would rise in the water to a point where all of my chest and some of my belly were above the surface. My personal Plimsoll Line was well out of the water.
The other thing which sets the Dead Sea apart is the taste. It’s truly awful. It wasn’t merely a case of the water being salty. The minerals were somehow bitter and metallic. We did our best to keep the water off our lips, let alone allow any of it to enter our mouths. Yuk!
I even tried to keep the water off my face, at least initially. I had made the mistake of shaving before our swim. The small open cuts stung like you would not believe!
As the sun began to dominate the sky – and other early rises began to enter the water – we left the Dead Sea and headed back up the hill to our room. We looked forward to a day of rest and relaxation.
The Weirdest Birthday Ever
I will forever remember my 43rd birthday as the most bewildering of my life to date.
It started with another swim in the Dead Sea at dawn and ended in the darkness of the Wadi Rum desert, having `happy birthday’ sung to me in Arabic by three Bedouins.
Once again, we left our room in darkness and arrived at the banks of the Dead Sea before dawn. As the first rays of light illuminated the water and the distant West Bank, we were already floating in the dense, mineral-laden water. The vista was just as magical as it had been the previous day.
Somewhat reluctantly we left the water after an hour’s swim and headed back to our room. It was time for a quick breakfast and a departure for Petra.
The three-hour journey South was remarkable for absence of any shade of green, other than the odd cluster of trees around a wealthy man’s house here and there. Otherwise it was all desert.
We arrived in Petra at around 2pm and decided to forgo lunch and head straight for Wadi Rum, an hour and a half further South.
As was the case with our visit to the Dead Sea, the several hours we spent in the Wadi Rum will long live in our memories.
There is an Apollo-vintage astronaut who has said that the landscape at Wadi Rum is the place on Earth which most resembles the highlands on the Moon. Not having visited the Moon ourselves, we will have to take his word for it. However, the terrain was certainly both arid and barren and could well be described as `magnificent desolation’.
Looking around with our two Bedouin guides, we could see a vast expanse of silky, light red sand which extended in all direction until the horizon. Breaking up this moonscape, however, were majestic cliff faces which rose up from the sand and steepled above us like immense cathedrals. What made the vista truly unique was that there may have been a kilometre or more of sand extending between each rocky cliff face, yet it was the cliff faces which dominated the extraordinary scene.
As the sun set, we stood atop a small rocky outcrop and witnessed both the shadows cast by the enormous rocky outcrops lengthen and the pink sand change colour to a deep, blood red. Truly unforgettable.
Once the desert night took command, we were driven to the Bedouin’s camp – a tourist set-up with tents capable of hosting 100 people and permanent toilets and showers – for a dinner. Fortunately, for us, we were the only guests that night. As the dinner was cooked, one of the Bedouins drove off to collect a third Bedouin who returned with a lute. He proceeded to sing Arabic love songs as the stars twinkled in their multitudes above us.
After dinner the Bedouin minstrel lead the group in an Arabic rendition of `Happy Birthday’. It was an experience I would never have dreamed of in all of my 43 years.
The Wonder of Petra
Petra, too, was truly amazing.
The first 800 metres was somewhat hard going as we walked down a path in the hot Jordanian sun, pausing occasionally to listen to our guide talk about the homes caved into the sandstone rocks.
The next 1,200 metres were bliss. We entered a narrow chasm between two immense rock faces and walked down hill to the main metropolis of Petra. The chasm was so narrow that, in most places, half a dozen men could not walk abreast. However, it was wide enough for tourists to stroll along, making way, from time to time, for small horse drawn carriages to pass. Best of all, the chasm was almost entirely in the shade and some 5 to 10 degrees cooler than the area in the constant sun.
At the end of the chasm stood one of the most remarkable sights Huckleberry B and I have seen.
Known as `The Treasury’ a remarkably intricate façade has been carved into the sandstone, complete with ornate headrest and six columns. Behind the columns, is a large open area and behind that a rectangular door has been carved leading inside to some rooms. We were told that it took 30 years for the Treasury to be carved from the sandstone wall. Incredible.
Further down the hill, we saw more buildings carved out of the sandstone rock face of a large mountain. Some doors led to former dwellings, others to places where livestock were kept and, others still, where worship was conducted.
Like many ancient wonders, I contemplated how many slaves must have been engaged to construct a place of such majesty. However, it was truly extraordinary to see.
GCC Mystery Solved
We have finally learned what constitutes a GCC country!
The GCC is the `Gulf Co-operation Council’ and represents six countries in the region of the Arabian Gulf, namely: United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Bahrain, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Sultanate of Oman, Qatar and Kuwait.
So, we are now satisfied that Australia is definitely not a GCC country…
The objective of the GCC is similar to the European Union, although the GCC is yet to proceed down the path of a common currency. I anticipate that the current events in Europe might dissuade them from taking any immediate steps in that direction.
Across the Middle-East
After our day in Petra, we will rise early and embark upon the three hour drive back to Amman for our 11.20am flight to Istanbul, Turkey.
As we drive, we will reflect upon the region in which we travel. To our West, over one thousand Palestinian prisoners are being exchanged for a single Israeli soldier. To our North, Syria is in turmoil, as is Yemen to our South-East. In the far-West – from our position in Jordan – the hunt continues for Colonel Gaddafi in Libya.
Yet we will remember our few days in Jordan with pleasure. The people we have met have been nothing but hospitable and friendly. We were constantly told that we were `most welcome’. Whilst somewhat surprised to find we had to pass through metal detectors and have our bags x-rayed merely to enter our own hotel foyer, we have never felt unsafe.
Jordan made us welcome and we felt welcomed. We leave with fond memories.