Overland to Jordan
THE ROAD TO PETRA
As a teenager, I remembered my father telling me about Petra “the rose-red city half as old as time”. What a colourful description that was of the ruined city, carved out of rock in deepest Jordan that lay undiscovered until the 19th century. Years later in a long summer holiday, I found some friends from university who I persuaded to join me in a drive across Europe to visit Jordan and Petra.
Ad-Deir (“The Monastery”)
This was in the late 1960 and international travel was not as it is today. So we bought an old Ford Zephyr, a reliable car and large enough to carry four friends and our gear. We were given masses of food by some sponsors we had approached and to an extent, this was more trouble than it was worth. I remember packing the boot with large green tins of Golden Syrup which we never felt like eating.
The drive across Belgium, Germany, Austria and Yugoslavia all went reasonably well. The car flew along and we all took turns driving the long stretches of motorway. To save money we camped each night and one evening after a particularly long day we set up our tents and the duty cook has just about prepared a large stew for us all to share when it fell off the primus stove and was lost. I could have been the moment for anger and recrimination but he just said “oh well – these things happen” and stated all over again. It was a great example of British sangfroid or composure.
We had been warned that driving through Istanbul was a nightmare with mad Turkish truck drivers causing mayhem on the roads to cries of “Inshallah” or if God wills it. However, we crossed the Bosphorous without incident and set off for the long haul of about a thousand miles across Turkey to the Mediterranean port of Iskenderun. The days were now very hot and our ancient car was seriously overheating so we began to drive by night when the air was cool and sleep during the heat of the day. One day we were parked off the side of the road and stretched out in the shade of some trees to sleep. I was woken by some sound or movement and sat up at once to see a figure skulking into the undergrowth. I feared we had been robbed and woke the others to see what had been taken but there – lying between us – was a wooden platter of figs and pomegranates which had been left as a gift. It was a most generous gesture by a local farmer and that act of kindness has stuck in my mind ever since.
Crossing the border from Turkey to Syria was a slow business but there was no queue it was just a problem of language and bureaucracy. We were soon motoring on our way along dusty unmade roads when our engine spluttered and died. We had no idea what to do but it seemed that the radiator had burst as clouds of steam were coming from it. There was no AA or RAC or anyone to help us so two of us walked to a village where we found a man who was willing to help. He walked back with us leading a large unwilling donkey. In no time at all he had hitched the car behind the donkey and the car was pulled to the village and the house of the blacksmith. Here the radiator was removed and a charcoal fire blown into life so the radiator could be patched up by brazing up the hole. This was a great success and having put it all back together we drove to Jordan.
We stopped in Amman the capital as one of the team had a relative working in the British embassy there. We were entertained to a lavish supper and spent a couple of days at the Embassy swimming pool which was marvellous, but my real memory of that was getting very sunburnt.
From Amman, it was a long desert drive to Petra where we exchanged our car for camels and rode through the siq, a cleft in the cliffs, to reach the massive buildings which had been carved out or rock a hundred years after the birth of Christ. We spent a hot day climbing around the temples and other ruins before heading back to our car. We had spent weeks reaching Petra and we were pleased to have reached our objective. Now our sights were on getting home as fast as possible. We retraced our route stopping only to visit the magnificent castle in Syria known as Crac des Chevaliers, which is a Crusader castle in Syria and one of the most important preserved medieval castles in the world.
Crac des Chevaliers
We stopped in Istanbul for the night in a cheap hotel and celebrated our success with a meal in a café. I drank some cool Ayran, a drink of curdled milk with mint, from a street vendor and became very ill. I spent the next days feeling wretched in the back of the car and was thankful to get home where a doctor kindly gave me some antibiotics and I was soon much better.