When I first laid eyes on Ridley Scott’s 2015 blockbuster The Martian, I assumed the desolate alien landscape on which Matt Damon was fretting back and forth consisted of the Mojave Desert and a fair slice of CGI. As it transpired, after a little rooting around, the filming crew strayed far further from Hollywood than I had imagined.
Let me introduce you to the sparse, sandy sweeps of Jordan and more specifically, Wadi Rum. The vast stretch of desert is a breathtakingly picturesque landscape festooned with imposing rock formations that bake under the Arabian sun. It was these dessert flats flanked by sheer canyons and pristine dunes that Ridley Scott deemed the most martian place on Earth; the area was also home to T.E. Lawrence, the original ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.
Per archaeological evidence, the seemingly hostile environment has been inhabited since at least 4500 BC, and between the 8th and 6th centuries, it was known as Wadi Iram, wadi meaning “valley” in Arabic. Seasonal freshwater springs have made it a suitable refuge for travellers on the path from Arabia to the Levant for millennia, and ancient inscriptions show that the Bedouin tribes of Ad, Thamud, Lihyan and Main all gathered in this nook for respite.
These life-supporting streams also attracted Lawrence of Arabia and Prince Feisal bin Al-Hussein to what is now known as Wadi Rum Village as they sheltered during the Arab Revolt of 1917-18. The village itself didn’t exist until 1932 with the erection of the Desert Police fort, and it remained little more than a scattering of tents until the 1980s.
More widespread intrigue was bestowed upon the region in the 1960s following David Lean’s highly acclaimed Lawrence of Arabia (1962), starring Peter O’Toole. In a bid for authenticity, Lean saw no better site than the real Lawrence’s hideout to film his career-defining epic, which garnered seven Academy Awards.
Inspired by Lean’s exhibition of Wadi Rum’s astonishing landscapes and geological formations, renowned British climber Tony Howard visited the area and published a guide to Wadi Rum’s best climbing routes. With Howard’s endorsement adding to that of the 1962 film, tourism in Wadi Rum began to bloom.
Today, the village has become appropriately gentrified with a subtle cluster of desert faring domes for comfortable tourism. The Zenia Desert Lodge is among the most popular accommodation options in Wadi Rum with glamping domes situated on the site where Damon was desperately growing potatoes and deigning to fertilise the stubborn martian soil.
The main village camp is situated within a day trip’s reach of most of the region’s essential sites, including Lawrence’s Spring (named after the film), Khazali Canyon, the Mushroom Stone, the French Fortress, the Seven Pillars of Wisdom and the numerous natural arch formations.
Thanks to the influx of tourism, the area is now fully equipped with safe hiking trails and guides, options for ATV or buggy tours and even hot air balloon flights. While staying at one of the luxury glamping sites is best for a good night’s rest after a long hike over the dunes, visitors to the area are encouraged to spend a night in one of the more traditional Bedouin camps. These more primitive camping grounds house tents pitched by locals and allow a more culturally immersive experience.
Most tourists visiting Jordan will feel unfulfilled without also stopping at the jaw-slackening wonder of the world, Petra. Fortunately, the ancient canyon carvings are just under a two-hour drive away.
Understandably, Jordan isn’t the sort of place most of us can afford to visit yearly. But if you’re looking for an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience where you truly feel like you’re on a neighbouring planet with Matt Damon, then look no further.