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The International Writers Magazine: Jordanian Vacations

Hiking Ajloun
Marwan Asmar

We just had our evening meal on the terrace and unwinding. Looking up into the sky, it was pitch black, and the surrounding area was dense, nothing to see but darkness, to the east directly, you see the faded lights of Bissan, the Palestinian town that is now under Israeli rule and jurisdiction.

For a moment, you realize the geographical homogeneity of the areas surrounding. We were in the Ajloun reserve but from here, at the campsite, your realize how short the distance is to Palestine, Israel, and the Druze mountains of Syria.

There is nothing much to do at the campsite in the evening except to go to bed for the next day’s hike. We were part of a group of tour operators that sat down to play cards, while others chatted away.

Still others have been going to their tented bungalows and cabins to change, and/or fiddle around with something and another. The newly created cabins had bathrooms and towers, but if you were allocated a bungalow you either had to keep a tight lid on your bladder or spend the night going up and down to the toilets in the main building, which is actually only a stone’s throw away! It was a cool night, there was a light breeze and the lights at the compound were dimmed.

The Soap-Makers Trail
We had got in from Amman that day, at around noon, and spent the next couple of hours lounging, especially after our big meal. Our first hike—the Soap-Makers Trail started at 4 in the afternoon. It was a well-defined trail, marked by small stones and pebbles; we were guided by two of the staff at the Nature Reserve which is looked after by the RSCN in Amman.

The trail, an especially made hike of 6 to 7 kilometers, was clearly defined so that visitors can go it alone or with a guide, directions are clearly marked so that people do not get lost, the walk was easy at times and strenuous at others, but for experienced hikers this should add to the excitement.

This was another one of those trips jointly organized by the Jordan Inbound Tour Operators Association (JITOA) to market hiking holidays to local and more importantly international holiday-makers who want to experience something special—the trails of Ajloun are a treat to unwind and experience the ruggedness of nature.

The trails are planned by the RSCN through the Wild Jordan organization to make Jordan an international eco-tourism destination. The party made their way slowly downwards through oak, pistachio and strawberry trees and bushels on hilly grounds at times engulfed with stones, at times smooth, and slippery in certain parts.

The trail twists and turns as you move downwards, walking in between foliage, open space, corrugated stones and rocks with thick and sparse clumps and tufts of grass under your feet. I was glad I had a good pair of walking shoes to protect my feet from the ruggedness of the grounds. Why not remove the stones and rocks on the ground? "It would ruin the experience and the atmosphere," came the reply.

It was a 2 to 3 hour trail, but the group thinned out, huddling into sub-groups, as we descended down hill but you had to keep moving to catch up with the others who were waiting at a point to start another descend.

The picture upfront was panoramic, of hills and rolling woodlands from east to west. As you inch upwards, the heaving becomes heavier as your nostrils are filled with the aroma of green and earth.

We were told we would be lucky to see any animals like badgers, foxes and wild boars as they come out only at night. One guide told us there are four types of non-poisonous snakes.

On the lowest points of the reserve, your horizons are blocked by trees and as you reach the Eagle’s Viewpoint, the highest peak, 1100 meters above sea level. You feel exhilarated as you go down to the Soap-Maker’s House where traditional olive-oil soap-making is made. The climb-down demands good foot grips in order not to skid in some part of the trail.

There are six surrounding villages around the reserve, and their inhabitants take part in projects such as this one and produce fruit soaps, lavender and pomegranate. The party had refreshments of peppermint tea, and shown around the workshop.

Bringing the tourists to see the communities that live here is a form of responsible tourism, we want to show the small economic processes that exist around such reserves to sustain livelihoods.
Our party stopped at the workshop and went back to the campsite by bus, but other hikers could have continued on what is called the Village Orchards Tour hike which would have been an extra three hours from here of passing rural traditional villages.

That Night!
That night was extra special. At the campsite we went into a small conference room where the staff talked about the special aspects of the reserve, and how there was a need for its protection, but I don’t think a lot of information went in since the hikers were either too tired from that day’s hike, they had too much too eat or were too eager for the next days’ hike

The mountains of Ajloun are in the northern part of the country and trips like these are important for the upkeep of the reserve as they generate income for the preservation of nature, and help local communities.
Staff told us many people, local and international, especially Americans, British, and Europeans came to the reserve. In 2005, 7000 people visited the reserve, in 2006 it was 9000 and this year (up till July) 10,000 visited the reserve.
But despite these huge figures, 90 percent of the reserve as like the six other reserves in the Kingdom subject to zoning and only 10 percent open to the public.

The Prophet’s Trail
By 8 o’clock sharp the next morning, and after a 7:30 breakfast, everyone stood to leave at the Visitor’s Center.
It was serene, hardly anyone was around. The Prophet’s Trail is an 8.5 kilometer hike linking the Ajloun reserve to Tel Mar Elias, a monument for Prophet Eligah.

This hike is for the dedicated, you pass through different landscapes of woodlands in between villages and asphalted roads to experience different terrains and environs. The green mellows the harsh semi-arid environment dominated by the stinging summer sun.

It’s a four-hour hike of walking down the road for 10 minutes into a corridor of thick trees of oak and wild strawberry that actually lowers your gaze and horizons until you move downhill to the bottom of the valley. The hikers proceeded through foliage thickness, followed by open space. The adrenalin was moving, there was a momentum in the pace of the walk for if you slowed down you would have been left behind. But after a welcome 5-minute tea break it was a flat walk into the woods.

On this trail, we had donkey to carry precious goods like pots of tea and water. It obediently followed, and in many cases it performed better than we did as we moved into the rough and tumble of another terrain. Another tea-break, we are nearly at the end of the valley, ready for the next upward climb.

This trail is not made for tour operators, but for experienced hikers, however we had to walk it for our packages to international tourists. The climb was hard, it was stiff with sweat almost oozing from various parts of our bodies. We dragged our feet upwards moving two steps at a time and then stopping to catch their breath.

Another asphalted road was seen from the top. Two hikers couldn’t walk anymore, an RSCN van was called to take them back to the campsite. They were in a daze as much angry by the fact that they had to stop and couldn’t see the end.
The hikers walked for 5 more minutes then went down again to another Wadi. This time the trees were separated; it was another slog walking in between sort of a maze of bushes and clamps of trees and green till the end of the valley.
The group started as one, then split into three then joined up again. The climb was up again, the last lap to Tell Mar Elias, they were tired but they felt a sense of achievement as if nature and human become interlocked again; tour operators were falling by the wayside, but it was 12:30.

Hot snacks was waiting for them, none were talking anymore, they tucked in.
The hikers could have continued walking till Ajloun Castle which is another four hour walk but they stopped at Tell Mar Elias, a coach waited to taking them to Amman.

© Marwan Asmar August 2007
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