From Desert to Sea: The End of the Jordan Trail
“That mountain, over there,” says Mahmoud, pointing to a jagged chunk of faraway granite, “That’s Saudi Arabia.”
I slog a dozen more steps through sand before the foreign mountain disappears from view, but the stark and barren symbol stays in my mind—the end of our journey is nigh. I can remember clearly staring into Syria six weeks ago, on the night before I began hiking the trail, and now, I am confronted with the opposite end of this wandering line across Jordan, reluctant to accept the geographic finality of this country that has reshaped me, body and soul.
Lately, I have noticed an emotional reticence growing inside me. Though some of the other hikers seem cheerful and eager to return to “real life”, I really do not want the trail to end. The Mohammeds joke with me that we can simply keep hiking, well into Egypt and beyond. After forty days and forty nights, it seems like we are programmed to walk forever.
For six weeks my life has consisted wholly of the physical efforts of hiking up and down these endless colored mountains. I have been fully surrounded by the enormity of Jordan’s nature, comfortable in the silence and peace of the landscape, my mind as settled as the mammoth sand dunes we have crossed. I realize that I am truly happy out here, in the desert, walking in silence, gazing at the stars, sipping smoky tea, sleeping on the ground. There is nothing more that I want.
I am not sure I am ready to return to the world off the trail—the frenetic world of traffic and deadlines, stress, noise, electricity, cities, politics, and modern comforts. I am confident that I prefer this world of stone, sand, wind and sky. Few places in the world have granted me the kind of inner peace that I have found in Jordan, and I am not sure I will find it again.
In a way, I have surprised myself. When I began, I was not entirely confident that I could finish this kind of long and rigorous hike, but now, having nearly completed it, I would say that anybody can hike the Jordan Trail. The only task is to walk, one foot in front of another, hour after hour, day after day. The real challenge of the trail is the endurance factor—taking care of your body (especially your feet)—eating and drinking enough, resting properly, knowing when to stop and when to go, and pushing forward when things get hard.
I swear my toes have grown longer, while my bare feet have become leathery talons that grip to sandstone better than my shoes. At times, it is painful to walk that first step in the morning, but the second step is always easier, and in time, my body gets back to business, pushing me towards that almost imaginary finish line.
The Saudi mountain we see is a significant goal post, marking the penultimate moment when the trail pivots sharply right, heading away from the south and going eastwards, so that all of us hikers now look to the yellow setting sun.
Way back in 1965, Jordan and Saudi Arabia forged a bilateral agreement that shifted the previous border into a more sensible geographic arrangement for both kingdoms. The new demarcation added ten miles of coastline to Jordan’s small-yet-beautiful seaside, and now, we are hiking through this younger slice of Jordan. After a week of relative solitude, we meet our first truck, rumbling past us with Saudi license plates—and the villagers in nearby Titen enjoy dual nationality.
The hard linear borders of the map fail to coincide with the nomadic tradition borne from this rough and tumble place. Jordan is the least predictable landscape on Earth, and the trail delivers up a final surprise for us. Gone are the red sand dunes and great deserts of the past week. Now we are caught up in the crumbling vertical granite, tall and sharp, like a series of castle walls holding back the untested.
This is the final trial, the last chance to prove your grit on the trail. On the last evening, high above camp, we catch a brief and silvery glimpse of the finish line—the Red Sea, shining in the distance, seeming so close yet equally unattainable. As the others rejoiced in the beautiful display, I count four separate mountain ridges between where we stand and the waiting ocean. We’re not done yet.
A full moon shines down on us that night, and while the mood is jubilant, we are all too tired to party into the wee hours. Instead, I climb a mountain alone, in the dark, to contemplate this last view of the stars. Shooting stars compete with the blinking airplanes taking off from Aqaba airport, while down below, I hear the guides reciting Bedouin poetry around our last orange campfire.
Day 44—our final day—begins with camels that settle around the camp like silent sentries, bidding us farewell before dawn. I count three of them, four, five—seven in total. These are big blonde beasts, furry and noble looking, who wander off as quickly as they came, kicking up low clouds of desert dust as they head eastward toward the rising sun.
Our group walks west, up and over the first wall of rock that separates us from the sea. The sky is lavender and then light blue, but my eyes are very focused on the ground, as I use both feet and both hands to clamber downward over boulders and drops, carefully judging where to place my boots. No—there is no easy way off the Jordan Trail. After all we have done, this last day counts as hard work, sweaty and tough, with lots of loose rock to slip on—I tumble a few times for good measure.
Our group of merry hikers acts as if it is the last day of school—everything is fun but with a twinge of sad acceptance that all we have worked for is now coming to a close. We laugh and joke, then rest under any available tree before heading up and over the next ridge, and the next. We dream of what we will eat when we arrive in Aqaba—we dream of hot showers and water pressure, of soft beds and pillows, and toilets with seats. And then we see it—a shimmering strip of turquoise melting into the deep ocean blue, and the mountains of Sinai beyond. This is the Red Sea—the end of the trail—yet a few miles away, still. It’s all downhill from here, as they say—gone are the steep mountain paths and difficult slopes—but in their place are shocking man made things like chain-link fences and a single busy highway where five-ton trucks whoosh past. Like stunned zombies entering into the world of the living, we march single-file, past the warehouses and industrial infrastructure leading to a smaller road of cheery dive resorts where the air smells of fresh air and salt.
Suddenly we are surrounded by good friends—former hikers, fans, and family who have come to cheer us on our final march to the sea. After all these weeks of silence and contemplation, we have walked into a massive celebration—the end of the first official thru-hike on the Jordan Trail. There are press and cameras, drummers, dancers, officials and banners rippling in the wind. Everyone follows us on our way, forming a jovial parade to the beach. There is no time to think about anything—not a spare moment to process what has happened or to consider what we have achieved. There remains only the few empty meters of sand on the beach—the last few meters of the Jordan Trail. I have walked all this way to come to this place and now I am holding hands with my fellow hikers, all of us locked in a chain, marching towards the clear water, laughing at our own spectacle. When our toes hit the waves, we break into a run, splashing forward until we collapse into the sea, screaming with elation and relief.
The sounds disappear into a warbled muddle as my head drops under the waves. All I see is blue, from the shallow sea and the deep sky above. The water brings me cooling relief, worth all those hellishly hot days on the trail. I burst back up to the surface and shake out my hair, and I can't help smiling as the water flows off my face. The party continues, waist-deep in the ocean, with more splashing, handshakes and hugs, back pats and shouts of congratulations, “Mabrouk!” over and over again.
I feel dizzy with the excitement and the crowd. It is all too much for me really, especially compared to the many days when the loudest thing I heard were my own thoughts echoed in sandy footsteps. But this much I know: I did it—I thru-hiked the Jordan Trail, from beginning to end, Umm Qais to Aqaba, all 400 miles (650 km), 44 days, and an estimated 1.2 million steps. I know this country so much better than before—I have lived a lifetime on this path and have changed as a person, challenged myself like never before and emerged better, happier, and stronger.
This is what the end of the Jordan Trail feels like—the joy of achievement and cool water, the joy of new friends who now feel like old friends, the brightness of the sun and the promise of good food and rest, now that we have left the wilderness behind. In the days that follow, I will slowly merge back into civilization and the society of hotels and airplanes and coffee shops—but the vast wilderness is still there, inside me, a kind of untouchable calm that I will always carry with me—a peace of mind that I can always revisit, like a spring in the desert that never stops flowing.
Follow my personal adventure on social media with #AndrewWalksJordan and #ThruJT and on the Andrew Walks Jordan homepage.
Topics: Adventure Travel
On March 31st Andrew Evans will depart from Um Qais on a 600-km walk through the Jordan Trail, reaching his final destination of Aqaba and the Red Sea. This 40-day hike, comprised of 8 sections, is referred to as the Thru-Hike. While crossing Jordan by foot is one of the oldest adventures in the world, the Jordan Trail is brand new. Andrew will be one of the first few to complete the Thru-Hike. Without the dedication of Andrew, Jordan Tourism Board North America, VisitJordan.com, The Jordan Trail Association, and Intrepid Travel, this trip would not have been possible. Learn more about Andrew’s 600-km trek here.