Lost in Petra

Lost in Petra 2005

Well, every backpacker needs a ‘dumb tourist’ story, mine happened at the awe-inspiring ruins of Petra in Jordan. I had just spent a very satisfying day wandering around the Rose City, having timed my visits to the major rock hewn sites so that I avoided most of the peak periods when hordes of other tourists congregate en masse. A sunrise stroll through the kilometer long Siq, second-guessing upon every twist and turn which rocky outcrop will recede to reveal the simple vertiginous magnificence of the Khazneh is worth the effort to avoid the throngs. Solitude will not be on hand, though perhaps fleeting opportunities to convince one that it is.


Having hiked up to the lone High Place of Sacrifice, the scale defying monastery and various hidden alcoves along unmarked trails, I was ready to about turn and decide upon a suitable place from which to enjoy the sunset. Having watched the suns rays nonchalantly penetrate the narrow canyon walls and crawl down the outer surface of the Khazneh that morning, utterly oblivious to the attention below, it seemed fitting to conclude the day by watching the reverse action from a higher viewpoint. My crude map showed some steps up the opposing canyon wall and a rough path running parallel to the edge. I estimated maybe an hour of usable sunlight remained and decided that my half-liter of water should suffice perfectly. If not, then I would simply turn back. And off I went up the steps.


Half way along the steps I met a group of three German tourists who told me they were just returning from the same place I was heading to. However, when I told them that that was where I was going, one of them reacted strongly, telling me that it was too late, I would be in danger, I must return with them now! I thought, who the hell is this mother hen and how dare he speak in such a categorical tone as if his word his truth! I was irritated but I assured him of my intention to return if there was any sign of trouble. He was still perturbed and insisted that I at least tell him where I was staying so that he could check in on me later. I told him where I was staying, I ‘thanked’ him for his concern and about a minute later I was off again, quickly disregarding the weird conversation. But, dammit, that German must have been psychic!


After getting to the top of the steps I then meandered along the path in my chosen direction. Although the path frequently became unrecognizable or interspersed with goat paths, it was never more than a few meters away from the apparent edge of the plateau. This was reassuring considering the crude nature of my map. I arrived at my viewpoint and alone I enjoyed the bird’s eye view of the Khazneh as the descending sun gradually peeled away its golden layers, revealing the dark sandstone hews beneath. It was very peaceful. It is always satisfying to know that you are the only person witnessing such a popular spectacle from such a unique angle, even if it is just for that particular day.


Within about twenty minutes I realized that I could no longer put off my return hike, lest risk losing daylight, and so I started to head back. Of course the fractal nature of the terrain gave very few recognizable features in the reverse direction, or perhaps it was that every feature seemed instantly identical to what went before. Whatever the reason, I eventually began to suspect that I ought to have found the steps down by now. I continued unabated, though marginally confused, confident in the simple fact that I had followed a course parallel to the edge and so could not possibly have deviated from the path. However, eventually I had to release my suspended disbelief and accept the simple fact that despite my usually good sense of direction and assured route, I had indeed somehow missed the turn off to the steps downward. I resisted my urge to try to understand how this happened, and, somewhat laughing to myself, I doubled back to find the path before the sunlight hit critical levels. This is where the fun began! Despite having doubled back for a more than reasonable distance I still could not find the path. What the hell was going on? Had some cosmic joker juggled the geology of the place while I was enjoying the views in a bid to play a practical joke on this tourist who was earlier urged not to continue upwards?! Having doubled back and forwards again a number of times I was utterly mystified and realized that my finding the path and the steps down soon was crucial if I had any hope of getting off this plateau before darkness set in. I closely considered my options and concluded that a slow, patient and methodical approach was required to find my way in the absence of any recognizable, or moreover trustworthy landmarks.


I scrambled down a rocky undulation, which of course turned out to be much longer than expected and yielded many hints that perhaps I could attempt a full alternate descent here. I squeezed through narrow gullies, crawled under bush and navigated among boulders, until rather inevitably I was met by a precipitous drop and had no choice but to retrace my steps and try the next gully. At this stage my playful adventure was getting a bit more serious as I was scrambling headlong in fading light, each dead end was punctuated by a dark region which I could not tell until one meter away whether it was the shadow of a tree or a vertical drop (it was normally the latter), I had no food and I had only a few mouthfuls of water left. Though I was ill-dressed for a night on a plateau in the open desert, the thirsty nature of my intense scrambling, my complete failure to find any recognizable path and the fact that I was now beginning to unintentionally double check previous dead ends forced me to accept that I would have to conserve my energy and water until the morning. A night on the plateau it was to be then. Snakes and scorpions, you’re welcome!


I settled down on a large rock and wondered how long it would take me to drift off to sleep. I also wondered how cold it would get, with only my khaffeia to offer any minimal shelter. The night sky was a smorgasbord of stars, a very beautiful site, and I was struck that navigation by starlight made more sense to me now as I had in fact been unwittingly using the more prominent stars to help my coordination only a little while earlier. It occurred to me how pleasant this unplanned excursion would have been if I had intended it and came prepared with full-length clothing, a sleeping bag and some food. Ah well, it was getting chilly and I was hungry, I was unaware of what wildlife may or may not be lurking, but I resigned myself to the circumstances and determined to appreciate it somehow. After all, it is technically illegal to camp or stay after hours in the historical park and arguably a privilege to commune with the nocturnal spirits of the place to whom I must assign the seeming rearrangement of the local geology! It was not to be quite so simple though.


Suffice to say that slumber did not come easily. However, after testing the latent coziness of various rock formations and contorting myself into a fetal position compact enough to cover my extremities with my Arabic headscarf, I did eventually manage to nod off. Occasionally small herds of goats sauntered by, their presence given away by their clanging bells, but upon seeing that they were unaccompanied by a shepherd I would doze off again. Then I had an unusual dream. I dreamt that my name was being called in the distance in a muffled and unidentifiable voice. I had the impression of a strong beam of light rising from below. Oh shit. I sat bolt upright and hoped beyond hope that it was in fact just a dream. No such luck. There it was again. I could hear a distant car engine on the desert floor, followed by an Arabic voice calling my name from the depths and I could see the penetrating beam of his searchlight searching the skies and horizon. Though I was asleep an instant earlier I immediately deduced the situation. The German tourist had gone to my guesthouse to check on my whereabouts and upon realizing that I had not returned he had convinced the proprietors to inform the tourist police who in turn had set out a search party. Shit! They weren’t to know that I was perfectly fine. Oh man, if I had been injured then I would love that German guy, but under the current circumstances I wished to God that I hadn’t met him. Even at this moment the irony hadn’t escaped me. I was completely lost yet just a stones throw, probably, from the most popular tourist site in the country and a chance encounter on a remote rocky stairs had resulted in a search party out in the middle of the night looking for me! Right, back to the moment at hand, how do I react, I have but a moment to respond to the distant search party. In the still air of the night they will of course hear me and probably recognize the location from which I am calling. However, I half-heartedly convinced myself that responding their call now with less than two hours before sunrise, along with the surely complicated task of communicating my whereabouts from way up here to way down there and imposing a steep uphill hike on the poor fellow to find me would simply be unfair. But the reality was that I was simply embarrassed. I was mortified! I had gotten myself into this situation, I knew I would get myself out, but now due to highly ironic and unlikely circumstances there was a bloody search party out looking for me in the Jordanian desert! I didn’t respond, knowing that this was s elfish move on my behalf and that I had damned them to at least another two hours of needless searching. Of course I couldn’t sleep at this stage, so I decided to take up my search again earlier than planned. I found another unfamiliar gully nearby and decided that according to the position of various stars and the distant lights of the town that it was at least in the right direction. I scrambled, crawled, climbed and slid, and though this turned out to be a much longer accessible route than any the night before it ended in the same manner. Bugger. I settled here to wait for the sunrise. There was nothing else I could do.


With sufficient morning light I scratched my way back up to the top of the plateau from my exclusive sunrise terrace! Everything looked surprisingly the same as in the prior darkness. I had somehow expected to find a random reassembling of the rocks during my absence. I led myself down a few further dead ends, most of which I recognized from the night before. Eventually I found myself navigating through a labyrinth of fissures, which opened out onto what appeared to be a dry streambed, isolated from view. I knew I had been here twice already from different directions but as nothing seemed to make sense any more anyway there seemed no harm in following it once again. I clambered through this mini-gorge for about fifteen meters until it opened out and came to a sudden end, overlooking a canyon of graduating depth. To the left of me was a deep vertical drop and to the right my trail teetered off for a few meters at ever increasing angles until it formed part of the cliff face. However, at this stage it was possible to maintain a toehold and scale the cliff laterally with relative ease until the remaining drop-off was just a few feet below my perch. Although I had assessed this the night before I could now clearly see that the steps I had been searching for were indeed on the other side of this gully. With the end in sight I was of course relieved, but also utterly mystified. I could see clearly from this side that there was no way across this canyon from the left due to its increasing depth, and I could see no way to easily scale the cliff on the right. I certainly had no need to make any such efforts to get to this side the night before. How on earth had I ended up on this side? I doubt I will ever know. There was something in the air that night and I am content to live with the mystery of it all.


I whimpered a bit while navigating this final hurdle, the blind leap I had to make backwards while grasping onto a small cliff face being a test of my frayed nerves, even if it was only less than a meter fall. But I made it and shortly after I was descending the steps once again, relieved to be over this little episode but apprehensive about getting back to my guesthouse unnoticed. No sooner had I reached the grounds below when I was approached by a local Arabic man declaring, “you are man with beard”! Hoping beyond hopes that he was just being unnecessarily observant I feigned ignorance for a moment. “We searching you all night”, he continued with a definite tone of irritation. I maintained ignorance about the search party but offered profuse apologies to him and his team for being the centre of such a fuss. I explained exactly what happened and accepted full responsibility. He seemed quickly content with this and explained that they just want tourists to be safe. He was a quiet and lovely man, with no hint of resentment for being kept awake all night by a dumb tourist! His superior wasn’t quite so accommodating and dismissed me with a wave of his hand and turned away with an expression of distaste, uttering some monosyllabic expletive. I wasn’t allowed to walk out of the park and I had to be escorted back to the police station by car to write a report. I maintain that I made no outright errors of judgment, rather that circumstances conspired in a highly ironic and unpredictable manner to kick-start this chain of events. Nonetheless, my apologies flowed with sincerity, as did my full acceptance of responsibility and gratitude along with well deserved praise for the wonderful efforts of the tourist police. Everybody seemed content with this, so my report was signed off and finally I got back to my guesthouse where I gorged myself on a big breakfast and replaced lost fluids. It turned out that indeed the German tourist had raised the alarm and the owners of the guesthouse had alerted the authorities. I had also caused them a rather sleepless night but they were thankfully just relieved that everything was ok. We laughed off the situation together. Then I slept!



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