WADI RUM, Jordan–The desert stretches for 3,000 years in every direction. To the west is the city of Aqaba, where Saladin warred against Richard the Lion-Hearted and T.E. Lawrence led the Arabs against the Ottoman Turks. To the north is the city of Petra, where the Nabataean Arabs stamped the canyon walls with towering facades styled like Greek and Roman temples. To the south, along the Al Hijaz rift, lies the city of Medina, birthplace of Islam, and further south, Mecca, birthplace of the prophet and home to the Ka’aba.
Mount Nebo, burial place of Moses; the River Jordan, site of Jesus’ baptism; Machaerus, where Herod put the untamed baptist, John, to the sword. And far into the desert, positioned a day’s ride apart, are the Crusaders’ fortresses, way stations in the campaign to win the Holy Lands.
Wadi Rum is a Martian landscape, an echoing canyon system that meanders for some 30 miles through the northern region of the Nafud desert. The wadi–“valley” in Arabic–follows the path of a river that died a million years ago. Since then, the wind has shaped the rheumy cliffs into fantastic shapes, like huge melted candles or like the frilly edges of siphonophores. At dusk, scalloped purple shadows steal across the rose-red bluffs, and in the last moments of day, the sun flares regally, a moment of operatic light, before the sky succumbs to a royal-blue twilight damasked with stars.
What unites all these places is sand, fine, pure, sterile, the color of pennies, an ocean of sand. In some regions, the sand is merely ankle-high. It pulls at your feet and fills your boots. In other places, it crests in 100-foot dunes upon which travelers can disappear without a trace, without a sound.
It’s not too much to say that if it were not for camels, this land would have been unoccupied. History would have unraveled very differently without the doe-eyed, evil-spirited dromedaries, the ships of the desert. Camels can travel for two weeks without water, can graze on the most brittle and thorny furze, and with high-jointed legs scrabble through soft, shifting sand without difficulty.
Today, most Bedouin have been lured from the desert to the easier life in the cities. Most of those who remain in the desert do not ride camels but rather use lightweight, 4×4 pickup trucks, particularly Nissans and Toyotas. And these people are the undisputed kings of off-road driving.
Mustafah is one. Though born in Amman, he knows the desert and loves the desert more than most Bedouin. He was a guide to David Lean when the English director came to Jordan to film Lawrence of Arabia. Mustafah is teaching me the art of driving in the desert.
It is altogether more subtle than I imagined. To drive in deep and uncertain sand, the key is to maintain momentum. Like a boat planing along in the water, a 4×4 vehicle must stay on top of the sand, so that the coefficient of traction is never surpassed by the weight of the vehicle–this Mustafah does not say–only go, go, go!
You must also read the sand. Like water, still sand–that is, sand that is smooth and featureless–runs deep. Sand that is ridged and stubbled by rocks is shallow and reliable. But combed puddles of sand, like that you might find between ruts in an old trail through the wadis, can be very deep indeed. You need to plan ahead, accelerating smoothly in places where you have good traction to skim across places where it seems the sand might devour you.
It all sounds so cerebral, but this kind of calculus takes place at speeds of 30-50 mph, banging between shrubs–which you do not want to run over, for it takes 50 years for a decent shrub to grow in the desert–and rocks and ruts.
Inevitably, everyone gets bogged down. When the vehicle–ours is a Land Rover Discovery II–begins to churn sand at the wheels, it’s important to stop and assay your position. Almost always the vehicle is on an incline. The first rule is to move in the direction of the incline, backing away from the ruts or nudging forward. Again, the throttle position is crucial. The trick is to listen to the wheels. Ease the throttle on as long as you gain movement, then brake if they begin to spin, so you won’t lose ground.
Land Rover has a unique attitude toward off-road technology. Rather than use locking front and rear differentials–which essentially lock the pairs of wheels together so that all four receive equal torque–Land Rovers have open differentials, combined with a torque-transfer system using the anti-lock braking system. In essence, when one wheel slips, the ABS system brakes that wheel, allowing the power to be rerouted to the other wheel. It is all rather arcane, but the philosophy is that it is better for the vehicles to be light–allowing them to skim over sand–than to be burdened with tractor-like technology such as locking diffs.
I’m not so sure. I’ve been buried in Land Rovers before, and I would wish they were more able to pull themselves out of deep sand and mud than they are. The wheels, I believe, should move together. And as evidence I would point to the camel. As we grind and churn through the red sand, I can see Bedouin riders, their camels prancing along the ride in front of us. I notice that the camels’ gait is unlike a horse’s, where the legs move in opposition. A camel runs with each side’s legs moving together. A camel has locking diffs.