A bright pink 4x4 came barrelling across the desert, dust spiralling into the sky. As it skidded to a halt in front of me, I could feel the eyes of my friends boring into the back of my skull. We were about to head into the wilds of Jordan with a stranger I’d met on Couchsurfing.
“Come and stay with me, bring your friends,” Ghassab had written, offering to put us up in a rock-cut cave his family had owned for centuries. “It will be one of the best adventures of your life.” As our Bedouin host stepped out of the car and strolled towards us with a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his lips, I was merely hoping that he wasn’t a lunatic.
Ghassab was striking. His waist-length dreadlocks bounced in the sun. Colourful beads and amulets – gifts from previous Couchsurfers – hung from his chest. As he smiled, a flash of white spread across his tanned face.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
“I want to see your goats,” I said.
It was the right answer.
There's more to Jordan’s desert than Petra
We shook hands and piled into the back seat. With a worrying crunch of the gearbox, we took off, speeding across the desert. We jolted along a potholed road through the small town of Wadi Musa, which clings to the outside of Nabataea, one of Jordan’s most striking national parks and home to the ancient city of Petra. We passed a lone camel and its rider. Tantalising ruins and carved facades called to us but we did not stop; Ghassab drove deeper into the desert.
He chatted as we bumped along, telling us about his family, goats, two wildcat kittens he had rescued from the merciless sun, and his great love for Bob Marley. Ghassab was a Rastafarian Bedouin, perhaps the only one in the world.
We crossed a dry riverbed, rambled past towering rock formations and followed an ever-fainter track as we chased the sun across the horizon. Without warning, Ghassab made a sharp turn and we left the trail altogether, driving at full speed towards a huge pinnacle of rock that scratched at the sky. He stopped the 4x4, and as the dust began to settle, silence swallowed us.
“I am very happy you have come; welcome to my cave.”
I looked around. A small tent, battered and much repaired, lent against a bronzed boulder. An enclosure made from stacked stones and topped with a tarpaulin sat sizzling in the sun. I could hear the shuffling and faint bleating of Ghassab’s prized goats. The heat was unbearable.
A warm welcome inside an ancient cave
Ghassab strolled over from the other side of the vehicle. He seemed excited. “I am very happy you have come; welcome to my cave,” he said while pointing. About 50m away was a large lump of rock about 8m high where we would be laying our heads for the night. I could make out stairs, a gaping entrance and a fire pit with something shiny, perhaps a pan, glistening in the sun.
Ghassab looked at us and then up at the dropping sun. “There is no time to lose, we must gather firewood,” he commanded. He handed over a sledgehammer and an iron spike, and my friends and I followed him into the mountains. We scrambled and climbed, inching past precarious drops and sliding down rocky gullies. There was little sign of vegetation, and I doubted anything could grow here among the spirals of red desert dust and mounds of jumbled boulders. “If you want to eat then we must find wood,” Ghassab reiterated in a harsher voice.
He leapt from rock to rock like a cat, and we struggled after him until we found a large log lying in the middle of a ravine, perhaps left there from a rare downpour. We pounded our iron spike into small holes cut with a penknife, and slowly but surely, split the wood and made bundles to carry back to the cave.
As we sat around our roaring fire – the flames casting shadows on the stone home – Ghassab told us how he’s lived in the desert outside Petra all of his life. He inherited the rock-cut cave from his family, all of who had moved to Wadi Musa, a government town built in 1978 to accommodate the cave dwellers who were later forced out when Petra began to attract more tourists. As Ghassab’s cave was just outside Petra, he’d been able to stay.
This cave was a place unlike any other
Darkness fell slowly. The desert faded away as night spread across the sky like a pot of spilled ink. Stars began to appear like pinpricks of light beneath an uncertain curtain of black. Our fire burnt merrily, with the remains of half a leg of goat sizzling above it, the fat dripping into open flames. Ghassab crouched nearby, the fire illuminating his hunched shoulders, his skinny frame and the deep furrows etched into his brow. He glanced at me and smiled gently. It was time for sleep.
By trusting a stranger, we’d had adventures that could never have been matched by joining a tour or staying in a hotel.
I scrambled for my head torch and set out to prep my bed before I froze to death. The winds of the night raced towards me, leaving me uncomfortable and cold. I wrapped myself in a pair of scratchy blankets and laid a lumpy mattress on the undulating rocks.
This was a place unlike any other. Nearby, the ancient ruins of Petra stood hidden in the hills, and tens of thousands of stars glistened above. By trusting a stranger, we’d had adventures that could never have been matched by joining a tour or staying in a hotel. We’d spent the day with a Rastafarian Bedouin and I was now sleeping atop a rock-cut cave, looking up at the most stunning skies in the world.