It’s 9.30pm and the outdoor entertainment courtyard at the Movenpick Dead Sea Resort is hopping. The crowd is mesmerised by the hip gyrations of a scantily-dressed belly dancer up on stage.
Waiters dash around with rainbow-coloured cocktails, Jordanian and Lebanese wine, and Philadelphia brand beer brewed in Jordan. Almost every table has a shisha pipe and apple-tinged smoke wafts through the air.
There are groans of disappointment when the belly dancer takes her final bow and a singing duo strikes up an upbeat Franco-Arabic pop tune. Then the groans turn into cheers when two women travellers leap onto the raised platform, swaying to the music. I study their sultry features, wondering which part of the Middle East they are from.
I’m a little surprised at the way they are dressed: black lace stockings, thigh-high miniskirts and skin-tight spandex tops. Should I have packed a bikini instead of a one-piece swimsuit? Shorts instead of long pants? A few more tank tops? After studying a guide book on how to dress in Jordan, it looks like I have packed far too conservatively.
The pop music finishes and I strike up a conversation with the women, who are seated nearby. I discover that they are Saudi Arabians who have travelled across the border to holiday in Jordan, where women have the freedom to dress as they please. Back home in Saudi Arabia, these women wouldn’t dare appear in public without veiling their faces with the niqab and covering their heads with the hijab.
It’s only my first day in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan – a wedge of land surrounded by Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian territories, with a small slice of coastline at the north eastern tip of the Red Sea – and the surprises have already begun.
The Dead Sea
Early the next morning, I wander through the resort down to the Dead Sea, where I make my way past tourists in bikinis and board shorts to a barrel of mud near the water’s edge. Soon, like everyone else around me, I look like a commando slathered in mud (supposedly to make my skin smoother) over my arms, legs, body and face.
Across the Dead Sea is the West Bank, a territory that has been the subject of dispute between Palestine and Israel for half of the last century.
I jump into the water. Its high salt content makes me bob like a cork. The Dead Sea is actually a lake that lies 400m below sea level and has the highest salt concentration in the world.
Jordan’s compact size and excellent roads makes it an easy country to travel around. I’m chauffeured across the country, in an air-conditioned late-model Toyota, sweeping around bends along the Kings Highway through a quintessentially Jordanian landscape of vines, olive trees, corn crops and yellow square houses.
Throughout the entire journey, I’m unable to shake off feelings of déjà vu. Many names and places seem vaguely familiar, from Sunday school lessons, Arabian Nights fairytales and Hollywood movies.
We visit biblical sites (there are hundreds in Jordan), deserts and castles.
At Karak Castle, I feel like I’ve materialised on to a movie set for Kingdom of Heaven, while the dramatic landscape in Wadi Rum reminds me of Lawrence of Arabia and Petra conjures flashes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
We pass villages and mosques; men in flowing keffiyehs puffing shisha pipes by the roadside; women in flowing black abayas and Bedouin boys on donkeys.
At Mt Nebo, where Moses looked out at the land promised by God to the Israelites, the parched brown landscape reminds me of Western Australia’s Pilbara region. Moses is believed to be buried somewhere in these hills.
At the town of Madaba, the Greek Orthodox Church teems with visitors who are here to ogle lay eyes upon the 6th-century floor mosaic, which is the oldest map of the Holy Land.
Of all Jordan’s treasures, the Petra Archaeological Park is the jewel in the crown. Petra’s ruins have been World Heritage-listed since 1985 and voted as one of the Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.
I make my way through the Siq, a 1.2km gorge that leads to the much-photographed facade of the Treasury, feeling awestruck as the carved rock face of the Treasury gradually reveals itself through a narrow gap in the soaring, curved walls.
The Treasury is only one of 800 temples, tombs, obelisks and columns carved by the Nabateans 2000 years ago. After walking all day, my back is sore and my legs are aching.
Five dinar (about $7) finds me on the back of a donkey, clinging in terror as the beast climbs the steep steps to the High Place of Sacrifice (Al Madbah).
On my last day, I swap Mansour’s sleek sedan for a battered 4WD at Wadi Rum. This is the desert in southern Jordan where T.E. Lawrence joined the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks.
My young Bedouin driver, Hussein, coaxes the 4WD at a snail’s pace past soaring granite monoliths through a landscape of rock bridges, red sand dunes and canyons. At Lawrence’s Spring, which was once a waterhole for Bedouin caravans, we sit cross-legged in a shady Bedouin tent drinking mint tea.
Hussein has heard about the camels that roam freely in Australia’s deserts. In Jordan, the best new camel bloodlines come from abroad. Hussein fills me in about life in the desert. Camping with the Bedouin sounds like fun and I make a mental note to put it on my list of things to do.
It’s 4.30 in the afternoon as Mansour drives along the Desert Highway towards Jordan’s capital, Amman. The moon is a round white ball hanging in a mauve sky above rose-red cliffs.
It’s an ethereal panorama that adds to the mystique of this land of milk and honey.
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of Traveller Group and Emirates Airline