Mountain Biking With Bedouin

Yesterday was the first time I have ever been on a mountain bike. No great achievement, you may say, except I have been known to fall off stationary exercise bikes.

We set off from the Feynan Ecolodge when the sun was still low and the temperatures manageable. As I clipped on my helmet and adjusted the saddle in a confident manner that suggested to my biking companions that I knew what I was doing, I stared nervously at the surrounding terrain: steep hills, rutted tracks, cloying sand and a lunar-landscape littered with jagged rocks all awaiting my front tire like fly fishing baits during salmon season.

Our guide Mohammed, a local Bedouin who knows Wadi Feynan as well as anyone, soon had us barrelling up the hills and streaking cross-country. The scenery was spectacular and despite all of nature conspiring to bring me down, I was soon making good speed, the wind ruffling my hair and reddening my cheeks and my white knuckles gripping the handle-bars and brakes with unabashed affection.

After a while we stopped at an ancient copper mine tunnelled into a mountain side. Jordan—along with China and Turkey—was among the first countries in the world to discover copper. How someone accidentally discovered that those green veins of rock could be melted into a pleasant and useable metal if heated in excess of 1000 degrees Celsius is a mystery that will never be answered, but 5000 years ago this very mine was carved and Jordan became the world’s foremost copper supplier.

When ancient Rome occupied the region, Christian slaves were used to extract the copper. When Rome itself turned to Christianity, the site became an ancient pilgrimage destination. In recent centuries it has been lost to all but the local Bedouin, a few archaeologists….and now guests of Feynan.

We descended the long, narrow-walled and low-ceilinged shaft with bats swooping at our heads. Reaching the end, we found the air hot and stagnant with dust hanging inertly. Green veins pierced the walls while small fragments speckled the sandy floor.

Back on our bikes our foray continued. We passed young shepherd boys tending herds of goats and grazing camels, their front legs loosely tied together to prevent them from sprinting away. Mohammed showed us a plant used by the Bedouin as soap and took us to a rocky hillside where he chipped away at a crystalline white substance that he explained was salt.

From his backpack Mohammed removed a small assortment of items. He made a clearing in the sand, gathered dry scrub and began a fire. He took out some flour and water and a small bottle of oil and kneaded the dough with his right hand. He added the salt we had taken from the rock, covered the dough liberally with flour and then, much to our surprise—and somewhat to our dismay—he buried it in the sand and covered it with the embers of the burning scrub. After several minutes he removed it, flipped it, and re-buried it. He began to boil a small pot of Bedouin tea using black tea, copious amounts of sugar and a few herbs and placed it on the fire. Shortly afterwards the disk of sand- and ash-covered flat bread was taken out and beaten against a boulder to remove the debris while a smaller rounded stone was used to remove the charred crust. Mohammed tore it into pieces and proffered them.

The Bedouin are renowned for their hospitality and to refuse the tea or the bread was unthinkable despite my reservations. I took it carefully in my right hand, thanked him and ate. It was delicious. There was the crispy, smoky exterior and a soft centre with a hint of salt. It was like a superb pizza crust, or perhaps a fine restaurant’s focaccia. Mohammed removed a reed flute from his pocket and serenaded us while we drank the sweet tea.

Before arriving back at the lodge in the mid-afternoon, we stopped at the ruins of an Iron Age settlement and were beckoned into a Bedouin tent for coffee.

It had been a remarkable experience, not merely because I had survived with all limbs intact, but because I doubt that there are many mountain biking trails anywhere in the world quite as extraordinary.