Postcard from Jordan

Words & Images: Tom Owen


Mount Proywe is a mountain in Jordan. Its peak is not accessible by road, but you can get pretty close on the brand new ribbon of tarmac laid by the military some time in the 1990s, which has only recently been opened to the public.

The climb is extremely steep. The Jordanian Army takes a somewhat unconventional approach to the use of switchbacks in road building. While French builders employ these most photogenic of devices to soften the punishing gradients of climbs – snaking slowly side to side up the face – the Jordanians who made this particular route decided that the points between the switchbacks should be, if possible, much, much steeper than the rest of the road. It makes for a very tough day in the saddle.

It takes a long time to climb the 12 kilometres to the top, with the nature of the mountain changing as we climb from below sea level (the Middle East, remember, has a rather significant dip in the middle of it called the Dead Sea) to the lofty height of 938m above. The dusty dunes at the foot turn rapidly to raw red rock, then the vegetation disappears entirely for a while before the summit.

All the while, there’s barely anything in the way of traffic – just the grinding, crashing clank of our support car’s gear box as Sari, our guide, mashes the pedals and tries to whip the car around the uncooperative hairpins.

Once, a truck rumbles down the mountainside, careering round a bend up ahead with a loud, insistent, almost jovial blasting of its horn. It seems to say “Yes, this lorry is not entirely under my control, but – inshallah! – we’ll make it to the bottom in one piece. Kindly remove yourselves from my path, feeble cyclists.”

After dodging the truck, we see no more vehicles.

After some water and backslapping at the top we descend the other side of the ridge that runs out just below the high, rocky peak of Mount Proywe. From here it is bread knife territory. Sharp ups follow even sharper downs, with no way of retaining momentum. We hit the bottom of one descent and our tyres encounter a thick drift of sand across the road, like some Machiavellian cyclo-cross obstacle placed here to catch us out.

On we go, over a final ridge and the land flattens suddenly and turns very green. The rocks are less jagged and more contoured – smooth, even. They are sandstone and have many small and large nooks and crannies in them. There are Jordanian people everywhere. We see their cars first and then the pillars of smoke rising up from their portable barbecues. As we get closer, lots of people stare at us.

It is Friday afternoon, prayers at the mosque have been completed, and now it is family picnic time. While very few people ever drive up from the military road because the military road doesn’t really go anywhere worthwhile, this end of the valley is easily accessible from the nearby towns of Ma’an and Shobak. It’s a gorgeous spot and makes complete sense that we would not be the only ones here – but it’s still a little bit disappointing to have that sensation of being the only people in the world snatched away.

Our ride finishes at the Nabatean ruins of Little Petra, a complex of temples and tombs carved from the sandstone cliff faces. We are just 10 kilometres away from the ancient city of Petra, proper Petra, but with none of the tourist clamour. In fact, as we sit in the shade of a little tea house drinking bottled water and hot sweet tea, it’s hard to imagine that just over the next ridge is one of the world’s greatest man-made wonders. At that moment in time, sweet tea is wondrous enough.


This postcard was originally published in Conquista 19.