Travelling the slow route to Petra
Along this topographical wonderland came marching a whole host of history's characters, and one of the road's most famous stories is said to have its gruesome ending right here. Sitting atop a stark conical summit, King Herod's mountain eyrie of Mukawir (the site of ancient Machaerus) is a lonely and rather lovely spot where the sparse ruins fight a modern battle against the weeds as a reminder of how kingdoms crumble. Legend says it was here that King Herod's son and successor, Herod Antipas, had St John the Baptist beheaded after he denounced his recent marriage to Herodias. Dancing her way onto the stage of eternal infamy, his scheming step-daughter Salome tricked Herod into vowing to bring her the Baptist's head on a plate.
Joining the King's Highway again, it is a 35km drive south to the site of Umm ar-Rasas. Scattered over a vast field of thistly weeds and wild flowers is a settlement area occupied since the Iron Age. But it is the area’s Byzantine remnants that earned Umm ar-Rasas its Unesco World Heritage status. Ringed by the remains of a Roman wall with rubble from long ruined buildings strewn across the site, an incredible collection of gloriously-preserved mosaic floors from this period, depicting riotous hunting scenes and long forgotten towns, are on display within the ruins.
Returning to the road, it is 52km to the mighty Crusader castle of Kerak. Make a stop at the lookout over Wadi Mujib Gorge on the way, which swoops its way downwards in a craggy tumble of rock. This marks the Old Testament border between the Amorites and Moabites of the Exodus, which Moses instructed the Israelites to cross. Built in 1140, the battles fought over Kerak between the Arab hero, Salah ud-Din and the vicious French noble, Reynald of Châtillon, are the stuff of silver screen legend. These days you will fight your own traffic war through the streets of modern Kerak to get there, forging through the bustling uphill souk streets and their baffling one-way system on your way to the castle's gate.
From Kerak, the King's Highway climbs up to a stark plateau before descending downward through winding mountain bends. The scenery of Jordan's staggeringly beautiful Wadi Dana National Park (68km from Kerak) provides a nature break from the history lessons along the road. This nature reserve swoops 1,200m down through a semi-arid landscape of serrated sandstone cliffs to finish in a plateau of green palms and desert. Spending a night or two here at the Dana Guest House rewards trekkers with regular sightings of buzzards and eagles sweeping across the sky, and the rare luxury of empty trails where the silence is only broken by an occasional Arcadian meeting with a flute-playing shepherd.
Twenty four kilometres further south, Shobak Castle is another Crusader masterpiece that rears up from its lonely hilltop home. It was strategically-placed strongholds such as Shobak that helped the Crusaders reign over the region from Jerusalem during the 12th Century -- and when their castles fell, their kingdom did as well. Less restored, and much less visited than Kerak, Shobak exudes an air of abandoned dreams in its crumbling fortifications and ramparts.
From here it is only 25km until you reach the modern town of Wadi Musa, on the doorstep of the Nabataean ruins of Petra. Their capital, carved out of colossal rose-coloured rock is testament to the profits these wily traders made by controlling the region's caravan routes. Lying at the end of the King's Highway, these magnificent monuments are only part of a much larger story of one path's might; a tale of wars won and lost, and civilisations that rose to glory and then were vanquished over whom held sway over a road
The easiest way to travel the King's Highway is to hire a car, as public transport is sparse along a lot of the route. Generally good road conditions and a lack of traffic make this an excellent option for drivers.