Leon McCarron planned to walk through Palestine, Jordan and the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt anti-clockwise in a large loop around the Dead Sea. The aim? Simply to see what happened. He was curious to see if this part of the Middle East – so often maligned as terrifying and unsafe – was actually anything like how the media reported it to be
I left from Jerusalem – the holiest, and perhaps hilliest city in the world – on a cold and grey December morning. Fat, dark clouds hung low over the buildings, sending all but the hardiest of street vendors scurrying inside for shelter. Here was one misconception already busted – not many people expect rain and hail in the Middle East. With me in the drizzle was Dave Cornthwaite, a friend from England who had made it his goal to spend his life exploring the world by human-power to spread positivity. He seemed a perfect companion for a walk in search of another side of the Middle East.
Our first days took us north through the West Bank of Palestine, past place-names and archeological sites that will be instantly familiar to those brought up in the Christian traditions of the West – Bethlehem, Jericho and the Jordan River, the Church of the Nativity, the Palace of King Herod and the Monastery of Temptation. Our journey was not ostensibly a spiritual one, although arguably it was still a pilgrimage of sorts as we were certainly searching for something.
We followed a fledging hiking trail in Palestine called the Masar Ibrahim, which roughly translates as “The Path of Abraham”. Abraham of course, is the legendary ancestor of over half of humanity, and the father of the three great Monotheistic religions – Christianity, Islam and Judaism. It seemed a fitting name for the route we trod – Abraham was renowned for his hospitality, and if one thing characterised our time there (other than blisters and aching limbs), it was the overwhelming kindness of the Palestinian people.
The West Bank is a relatively small area with desert in the south and rolling green hills in the north. Each day we’d pass through two or three small villages and be accosted by locals (and, at certain times of day, scores of school kids) who wanted to say hello, shake our hands and make sure we had everything we needed. Often we’d step inside a small corner store to buy water and find that not only would the shopkeeper refuse our money, they’d also load our bags up with other free goodies. “Ahlan wa sahlan” was the ubiquitous Arabic phrase we heard a hundred times a day translated as “Welcome to Palestine”.
Going it alone
Let’s briefly revisit those blisters and aching limbs, though. I’m never sure if my love for these long, human-powered journeys is despite or because of the physical suffering involved – I thrive on the feeling of knowing that I’m really pushing my body beyond what’s comfortable, even if that involves a little misery. What I also now know is that the start of a walking trip which involves carrying all one’s gear in a pack (ours weighed upwards of 25kg with camping and camera gear) will always involve some pain. Our bodies complained mercilessly over those first couple of weeks as joints, muscles and toes got used to a new routine.
I was able to draw on past experience and tell myself it was normal. Dave, for whom this was his first ever long-distance walk, had no such luxury. As we crossed into Jordan – a new country and a new local trail system, this time called the Jordan Trail – Dave began to feel sharp pains in his left foot.
I used all of my medical knowledge to diagnose him and decided he should keep walking. Unfortunately, I don’t have any medical knowledge, and his pain got worse. We took a couple of days off and eventually went to a hospital – Dave had two stress fractures, and wasn’t going to be doing any more walking for quite some time…
For both of us it was distressing – but Dave believed that I should continue. So, from then on I found myself setting off at three miles an hour once again, this time alone and from Jordan’s northern border with Syria. Jordan is an incredibly safe country – my research told me that, and my subsequent experience backed it up – but it has an unenviable list of neighbours (Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Israel), all of whom make global news for usually the wrong reasons. It was sad then, if not too much of a surprise, that I saw very few other tourists in Jordan for most of my time there.
I headed south along the trail passing first through the tall, green mountains of the north. At times it felt less like the Middle East and more like the Lake District. Along with the change in landscape, I was now tasked with the challenge of happily spending time alone. I was immediately incredibly bored with my own company – how did my friends at home put up with me, I wondered? (My jokes aren’t funny to begin with, let alone when I already know the punchline.) Fortunately, my introspection would regularly be broken by the Bedouin shepherds in the hills. I’d often hear the tell-tale collar-bells of sheep coming towards me, or I’d see a collection of tents on the hillside and know that people and conversation were close. My Arabic at this stage was very basic, but it was enough to exchange greetings and listen to some stories as I sat drinking endless cups of sweet, black tea – another regular feature of life in the Jordanian hills.
As I moved through the mountains with the Jordan Valley to my left, I looked down across the Dead Sea to where I’d begun walking in Palestine. The nights were spectacular – I could choose just about anywhere I liked to set up my tent and from there watch the huge golden orb of sunlight slide slowly behind the hills on the horizon.
Travelling alone can be tough – in fact, it usually is. There is no one else to lean on when things get tough; no one else to share those glorious sunsets with. Yet, it also provides some real reward too. Slowly I picked up more of the language, and I’m in no doubt that I met many more people than I would have if Dave and I had walked together. Two people travelling together seem less vulnerable – alone, everyone wanted to help me out, and find out why I was there. Mostly, of course, they assumed I was insane or just stupid but they were incredibly kind nonetheless.
Walking north to south through Jordan requires an exhaustingly hefty amount of climbing and descending – all the major canyons run east to west, dumping into the Jordan Valley that I was walking parallel with, so most days I’d find myself having to cross at least one of these wadis – the name given to the mostly-dry canyons in this part of the world. In the centre of the country there are three in particular that are vast – Zarqa Ma’in, Hidan and Mujib. Each day I would descend close to 1,000 metres from the windy and cool plateau down into the searing, tropical heat of the valley floor. Then immediately I’d climb again all the way back up, virtually a vertical kilometre to the next small stretch of flat ground.
It’s not all desert
Spring began to make itself known in the air and the days became longer – birds flew regularly overhead and flowers budded on the patches of greenery underfoot – this was apparent even as I reached the dry regions of the south. I walked through the ruined Ottoman village of Dana, which clings to a hillside overlooking an incredible arrow-straight gorge, and down toward the famous rock-cut red ancient architecture of Petra. Petra is almost certainly Jordan’s best known site, and it lives up to expectations – a vast, sprawling valley of caves and edifices carved into rock, in what at one time was the centre of the great Nabatean Empire, over 2,000 years ago.
Slowly, step-by-step, day-by-day the world around me finally began to take on the desert features that one might expect from the Middle East. Beyond Petra lay Wadi Rum, known mostly to me as the setting for the adventures of Lawrence of Arabia. I’d read his book, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom when I was younger, and had been captivated by his descriptions of the immensity of the desert there (his summary “Vast, echoing and Godlike”). I suspect I’ll never see stars as clearly or sky so big as I did in those nights in the sands of Rum.
My slow plodding had brought me all the way to the Gulf of Aqaba and the point at which I was literally stopped in my tracks by the lapping waves of the Red Sea. My ultimate destination was the roof of Egypt, so I caught a local ferry across the water and, with a backpack reeking of dead fish after it spent the journey in a container full of the very same, I began the final leg of my journey.
Of all the places that this walk took me, Sinai seemed perhaps to be the most worrying to travel in, at least to my mother – ISIS are said to be operational in the north, and the recent downing of a plane from Sharm el-Sheik has convinced many countries to halt flights into or out of that airport. The reality though, as always, isn’t quite so clear cut. The north of Sinai is legitimately a no-go zone for travellers, but the south – separated from the land above it by a very natural barrier of mountains that cross the peninsula – is different completely. It is mostly empty, bar the scattered Bedouin who live in the interior, or those who have set up beach-front hotels and huts along the coast. It is also, as I discovered, entirely peaceful.
Nearing the end
With just over 150 miles to go I left the sea and headed west with two new local friends – Musallem and Sulieman – and a camel called Harboush. As we walked, my Bedouin companions would point out this and that in the mountains and deserts – here, an edible plant, there, a hand-dug well, filled from natural underground caverns. For somewhere seemingly so empty, there was a lot to see – you just had to know where to look.
The scenery was perhaps the wildest and most rugged of my whole journey, and it was easy to pretend there was no one else on the earth but us – in reality, we saw just eight people in two oasis settlements during our walk.
Finally, we reached the gigantic granite mountains that meant the end – specifically, we looked towards Jebel Musa or, as it’s more commonly known, Mount Sinai. Sulieman and Harboush waited at the bottom as Musallem and I climbed to the summit, where a church and mosque sit side by side in the spirit of peace and faith. From a stone wall between the two we watched the sun set to the west, over the Gulf of Suez and the rest of Egypt beyond.
I set off on this journey with a working hypothesis that people are generally good and that they share many of the same characteristics around the world. This was proved correct, yet even still I was truly humbled by the kindness and generosity without exception of those that I met. A welcome bonus was the discovery of just how safe it all was, and how diverse the landscapes are in this part of the Middle East.
Local hikers have even begun to team up with western volunteers to create new hiking trails which, although very much in their infancy, give me great hope. Slowly Palestinians, Jordanians and Egyptians are setting out on the fledgling national walking trails; recreational hiking is a completely new concept in much of the region, so these local pioneers are literally creating a new movement with each step they take. It may be a while before more foreign visitors arrive in the area, but I do believe that eventually they will come again. It’s worth the effort – there really is nowhere like this anywhere else on earth.