Length: 96mi (154km) Days: 5-7 days Difficulty: Easy (well maintained trails, facilities present along the way) Gear: Standard gear Completed: July 2019
In summary: Regarded as perhaps the best hike in the United Kingdom, the West Highland Way allows for a humble, yet immersive journey across a timeless landscape. Choose your adventure: take part in the rich culture of the trail and indulge yourself with cozy trailside pubs and lodges, or embrace the independent nature of your inner Highlander and revel in the solitude of wild camps. Whichever you prefer, the blue lochs, conic hills, and rural farms of the Scottish Highlands will transport you to another time, when kilted warriors by the name of MacGregor or MacDonald fought for control over this rugged, but beautiful terrain.
Preparation / Know Before You Go
Pick your pace. The West Highland Way is a great trek for both beginners looking to soak up some time on the trail, as well as ultralighters hoping to zoom on by. The route is divided into 8 sections that can be conquered in any number of ways. The West Highland Way Trail Association has some suggested itineraries that I would recommend for your planning purposes. For the record, we opted for a slightly modified version of ‘WHW3’.
Bring bug spray and a head net. This is the golden rule for comfort along the WHW. Especially near the lochs and wetter sections of the trail, evening swarms of biting flies called ‘midges’ made setting up camp unbearable. These critters come out in the thousands and can fit through mesh head nets if standing still, so bring spray and work fast!
Bring a raincoat and duck’s back. Fog and rain are WHW staples and we certainly encountered this predictably unpredictable weather over the course of our journey. So bring proper rain gear, and be sure to store it top of pack!
Book lodging in advance. By no means do you need a hotel during this journey, but if your heart longs for a stay in a quaint B&B on the Scottish countryside, then get a reservation. Around 30,000 people will complete the full route every year, so you can imagine that all the boutique trekker’s hotels sell out quickly.
Buy a trail map. They can be purchased in most of the small outdoors or trinket shops in Milngavie. They make for great souvenirs and will point out side-attractions / points of interest that a GPS or phone map may not.
Day One: Milngavie to Drymen (11.8mi)
I cannot think of a more auspicious way to start a long hike than beginning in the town of Milngavie, Scotland. After disembarking our morning train from Glasgow, we instantly fell in love with the village that seemed to have sprung up around the trailhead. The town was cute and everybody around us wore a broad smile, offering up words of encouragement as our loaded backpacks gave clear indication of our intentions. We had made it no further than 30 yards down the red brick road when an elderly gentleman stopped us and demanded to take our photo underneath the ‘famous obelisk’, marking the origin of West Highland Way. After a quick pastry stop at a local bakery that was just too tempting, Annelise and I commenced our journey.
The first day on the Highland Way is a rather plain, but enjoyable necessity. Though on the fringe of the rugged highland wilderness, Milngavie is still connected to Glasgow metro, and as expected we had to work our way out of the inhabited areas. The day was perfect however, and with the sun shining bright even the journey across the transect was energizing. As the day drew on, sheep farms slowly replaced suburban homes, and soon we found ourselves out in the plains. What struck us immediately was the vibrant green hues of the local grasses. It felt as if we were viewing the world through a filter.
Around 4pm we stopped for a relaxing break along a scenic trailside river. The afternoon had proven to be rather hot, so a quick dip in the cool waters did us wonders. Fully refreshed, we tackled the final few miles in a single push. At Drymen, we ran across a backpackers campsite where, for a few pounds, we could enjoy a flat backyard spot with a shower, clean bathroom, and good company. We accepted the offer and spent an unusual night under the sun. Given our northerly position and proximity to the solstice, the sun would not set until 10pm., and then it would reappear promptly at 4am. This definitely took some getting used to.
Day Two: Drymen to Rowardennen (14.9mi)
We were fortunate to begin our second day on the trail much like we did the first, in gorgeous morning sun. Though that sun rose before it was welcomed, the warmth we felt at 7am made packing up early much more achievable than on prior trips. The hiking picked up right where we had left off the evening prior, making our way across rural sheep farms. What was interesting to us was that in order to traverse each farm, we would have to pass through a series of private iron gates to ensure no animals broke free of their expansive pens. It was a unique set up, but it was inspiring to see such a healthy partnership between the trail association, hikers, and local farmers.
A few hours into the morning we passed through the final rusty gate, and found ourselves staring down a scenic expanse of low grassy hills. It appeared we were moving further from civilization and closer to the heart of the highlands. After steadily moving over and around the series of hills, we reached a viewpoint from which we could see the shining blue waters of Loch Lomond below. Energized, we made for the shores, which we reached in about 45min.
Where the trail met the loch, we ran into a small town called Balmaha, that was evidently a popular jumping off point for tourists moving deeper into the Trossachs National Park. We stopped for a moment to watch dinghies, ducklings, and kayaks move lazily in and out of the town’s tiny bay before continuing the WHW along the Loch’s shore. The rest of the day was quite crowded, but enjoyable all the same. We never strayed far from the shore over the final 6-7 miles and the views were great. It was tempting to join the vacationers, soaking up the afternoon sun on pebbled beaches, but we were on a mission. Eventually we reached Rowardennen, where we camped in a shaded site not far from a backpacker’s youth hostel. A consuming swarm of biting midges put the only damper on the day as it limited bathing / cooking options, but before long we were comfy and cozy within the safety of our tent.
Day Three: Rowardennen to Inverarnan (14.0mi)
The third day on the trail was a tale of two halves, though unfortunately our slow start in the morning meant that we would complete a majority of our hiking during the less pleasant second half. We woke late to the sun shining off the calm surface of Loch Lomond, and then packed up quickly to minimize bites from the ever-present midges. The hiking for the day was straightforward, a direct path along the shore of the 24 mile long loch.
Probably around noon, a thick fog started to roll in over the surrounding hills, providing an ominous setting to go along with the eerie silence of the great loch. We had the trail to ourselves, but the atmosphere inexplicably compelled Annelise and I to speak in hushed tones so as not to disturb the fragile peace. A few hours in, we came across a set of landmarks that added some intrigue to the days walking. The first was a batch of moss covered stone ruins that we later learned were likely the remnants of a illicit 18th century whisky distillery. The second was a sign indicating the presence of Scottish outlaw Rob Roy MacGregor’s cave. As alleged descendants of the MacGregor clan and Rob Roy himself, we looked hard for the cave, but were not able to spot it via the short side hike. Still, coming to wander the lands of our ancestors and getting to sit steps from where Rob Roy hid out from the Duke of Montrose was a meaningful and unforgettable experience.
The latter portion of the day was a little bit of a blur as the fog turned into a downpour and sullied the mood. Despite an attempt to wait out the storm in a cozy backpackers room at the Inversnaid Inn, we ran out of time and were forced to continue with our rain jackets and duck’s backs drawn tight. The dark clouds and distorted sunlight made for some great photographs and the rain helped us comprehend the region’s vibrant green character, but otherwise we moved as quickly as possible. By mid-evening we reached the northern terminus of the Lomond, paused for a minute to take the view in, and continued to Inverarnan. There we were pleased to find a local pub and large campground, near full up. We paid a small rental fee for one of the last spots, grabbed a drink, then enjoyed a good night’s sleep.
Day Four: Inverarnan to Tyndrum (12.0mi)
Once again, we were slow to leave camp in the morning. The exposure to the elements from the day prior had left us tired, and the general lack of a proper night made it difficult to wake at a true dawn. Unfortunately, if was clear from when we did wake up that we had another wet day ahead off us. Nonetheless, having left Loch Lomond, we were in for a change of scenery and that made the walking quite enjoyable.
We began the day following the River Falloch, which was among largest of Lomond’s countless tributaries. This path led us north and further into the green moors so well associated with Scotland’s highlands. Every once in a while we would pass a small village or lone farmhouse, and many times the trail would take us right through some accommodating local’s property. Occasionally our paths would cross that of sheep, horses, and best of all burnt orange Highland cows with their U-shaped horns and comical bangs. Sadly, none of the cows were very photogenic.
Ancient history lessons were a notable feature of the day as well. Nearing a spot on our map marked as the ‘Kirkton Farmhouse,’ we came across a sign alerting us to a medieval cemetery nearby. As my sister walked ahead, I poked around, astonished to find that some of the burial stones dated back to the 7th and 8th centuries. The cemetery would not be our only discovery of the day however. Nearing our destination of Tyndrum, we crossed through a park known to be a battleground in which Robert the Bruce (King of Scots), narrowly escaped death at the hands of the famed MacGregor clan. In that park we came upon a lochan (pond) where legend has it, the future king threw his heavy sword in order to flee the scene faster. Many have tried searching lochan, but still none have located the lost sword.
After a full and wet day of walking, we reached the small roadside town of Tyndrum. Thoroughly soaked and quite cold, we decided it would be the perfect place to splurge on a hotel room and recuperate before our longest day on the trail. We made do with the last room available at the quaint Tyndrum Inn and relished the luxury of a warm bed.
Day Five: Tyndrum to Kingshouse (19.0mi)
Waking up on a mattress after a few long days of hiking can work wonders for morale, and after a classic Scottish breakfast of porridge, toast and black pudding (personally not a fan) in the adjacent pub, we were ready to conquer the long day ahead. After leaving Tyndrum, we quickly found ourselves back in the open countryside. The small rolling hills we had grown accustomed to were also steadily getting larger and steeper. Some had reached grades at which the all encompassing green grass could no longer grow on the slopes, and I would have ventured to classify them as mountains or ‘beinns’ in Gaelic. The fact that we had left earlier than other days also meant that the day’s walking would be a more social experience. Trekkers always tend to be a morning crowd, so we ran into a few small groups on the trail, chatted them up, and asked for photos when we could.
Around noon or so, we reached tiny riverside town Bridge of Orchy. Clouds had been threatening us with rain all morning, but since they had so far held up we decided to push onwards and defer our break until we reached Inveroran about two miles further. Fortunately, our gamble paid off and we reached the classic Inveroran hotel just as the rain finally broke through. We spent a long afternoon break in the inn’s rustic pub. I enjoyed some pints and talked another WHW couple while Annelise, who was feeling a little under the weather, slept in the booth. Once sufficiently warm, we strapped up and continued along the way.
The latter portion of the day was long and lonely, but fortunately very flat. Though still early afternoon, clouds had blanketed the sky and I believe convinced many of our fellow hikers to hunker down at the trailside inns. Remarkably, as Annelise and I traversed the Highlands for another 10 miles or so, we were spared any serious rain until the last half mile. The air was misty and the ground wet, but it was more than we could ask for. Until we made made camp mid-evening, we enjoyed fast-paced walking, beautiful scenery, and complete solitude. Nothing moved on the moorland aside from tall grass blowing in the wind.
Day Six: Kingshouse to Kinlochleven (9.0mi)
Though slated to be our shortest day on the West Highland Way, we were under no impression that Day 6 would be our easiest. As we sat in our tent and examined the map, the words ‘Devil’s Staircase’ jumped off the page, surely indicative of a formidable climb. Nevertheless, we emerged to a beautiful campsite (perhaps my favorite of the trip), packed up our things, and seized the day.
The morning’s hiking began in the shadow of the prominent Buachaille Mor (or ‘Stob Dierg’), a mountain that when viewed from the east resembled a perfect pyramid, with its bare rock peak protruding from the green valley floor. As we made our way through the valley and around the mountain, the view slowly changed and passable climbing routes emerged on the back side. Before long, we arrived at the Altnafeadh car park, where we joined a set of enterprising day hikers who had journeyed across the highlands with the sole purpose of conquering ‘The Devil’s Staircase’. As expected, the journey to the top of the staircase was arduous. The path consisted of a long set of switchbacks that were deceptively steep. The only thing the climb had going for it was that the zenith was clear and no false peaks stood in the way of our eventual success. After a 45 minutes or so of hard work, we reached the top of the staircase and stopped for lunch in a windy spot with panoramic views of the surrounding moors and mountains.
After eating, we descended the saddle of the mountain on the following side and made our way downhill towards Kinlochleven. Immediately after crossing over the Devil’s Staircase, we could see our environment starting to change. Large conic peaks still dominated the horizon, but the bare green moors we had grown accustomed to were soon substituted for equally green forests that thickened as we approached the valley town. Making quick work of the favorable decline, we arrived just before dinner. It was the perfect place for us to spend our penultimate evening on the trail. The old mining town appeared to be right out of a postcard. Antique smelting furnaces juxtaposed against bright colored row houses with well-manicured lawns and garden gnome collections. Eventually we located our campsite, a riverside inn with an attached pub, just steps away from where the trail resumed once more.
Day Seven: Kinlochleven to Fort William (14.9mi)
On the morning of Day 7, an unusually high amount of condensation and relative lack of daylight signalled to us from inside the tent that that some adverse weather had overtaken our beautiful little valley overnight. We were relieved to emerge and find that it was just an episode of particularly thick, oppressive fog. Still, as is the norm on the last day of a long journey, we ate breakfast quickly and were roaring to go. The density of the fog was such that water accumulated on our clothes just moving around outside, but beyond the five extra minutes we spent waterproofing our supplies, it did nothing to slow us down.
Our 15mi. push for the day began as we reluctantly trudged up the nearby hillside and out of the secluded Kinlochleven valley. Before long however, the road leveled and we were in the base of a new alpine valley, following a channel that had been carved by millennia of runoff. Over the course of the day, we would alternate between untamed moorland and rural pasture, every once in a while passing near a ruined homestead. The solemn tone set by the fog added to the imagery, and gave the impression of travelling through time over an ancient land once traversed by my ancestors. This feeling was only amplified as the day went on and we approached the open green hills that had served as the natural set for Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.
Around early afternoon, the fog finally abated enough to reveal two great sights. One being the nearby peak of the formidable Ben Nevis mountain, the tallest in the United Kingdom. The other being the outskirts of Fort William in the valley below. After a quick side trek out the the ruins of an iron age fort called Dun Deardail (would not recommend as little could be seen of the yet un-excavated fort) , we caught our second wind and pushed on at an anxious pace. Before long, we had fully descended from the mountains and found ourselves road walking through the charming maritime town. A mile or so later we passed mile marker 96, entered the iconic Gordon Square, and then snapped a few photos before plopping down on the commemorative hiker’s bench nearby. It was the perfect end to an imperfect, yet unforgettable highland adventure. A glass scotch from a local distillery over dinner would then round out our authentic Scottish journey across the famed West Highland Way.
Length: 147mi (237km) Days: 12-14 days Difficulty: Expert (no maintained trail, potential for extreme weather, limited support / rescue options) Gear: Standard gear, consider a 4-season sleeping bag Completed: May 2019
In summary: I have had the fortune of trekking a few of the world’s best backpacking routes and I can definitively say the Drakensberg Grand Traverse, or DGT as it is colloquially known, has been the most difficult I have ever been on. There is no better way to earn your thru-hiking stripes than battling rough terrain, extreme weather, altitude, and the infamous chain ladders in one of the most remote places left on earth. All great things in life are earned however, and the chance to experience a sunrise while camping along the “edge of heaven” is well worth it.
Preparation / Know Before You Go
Bring a GPS & PLB: The DGT is unmarked and unmaintained so a GPS is required. There is no set route for the trail, so the journey may vary significantly depending on where you source your coordinates. Shoot me a message through the contact form on this blog and I will happily send the ones that we used for a 12-14 day adventure. I would also recommend bringing a personal locator beacon (PLB) if your GPS doesn’t have one, as rescue in the case of emergency is difficult.
Bring appropriate gear for the elements: Technically, the DGT can be done year round. That being said, the trail is subject to extreme weather in all seasons. As moist air comes in from the ocean and runs into a 3,000ft. wall of rock along the escarpment, weather patterns can change rapidly and become quite dangerous. May through June is generally regarded as the sweet spot for trekking. You can go earlier when it is warmer, but precipitation levels tend to be much higher and you are at risk of getting caught in what I have been told are spectacular lightning storms. July & August are still considered to be part of the high trekking season, but always check the weather in advance because occasional blizzards from June – September can be severe. The good news is that these snowstorms tend to be quite predictable.
Exercise caution when passing through Basotho settlements: Getting to witness the lifestyle of these herdsmen is a highlight of the DGT, and most versions of the trail will bring you by some of their primitive huts and peat farms. As these isolated encampments are not occupied year round, most we passed through were empty. When they were in use however, many were guarded by loyal dogs. As herd theft is apparently quite common amongst the tribesmen, these dogs are trained to keep suspicious passersby at bay. We never had any issues ourselves, but I would recommend keeping some distance between yourself and the huts if you notice they are being occupied.
Keep boots in your tent: All of the Basotho herdsmen we encountered on our two day journey were genuinely friendly and curious people. Many paid us no mind after quickly passing to ask if we had and cigarettes or marijuana. In preparing for the trip however, I read a few accounts of petty boot theft. These accounts were corroborated by the only other backpackers we encountered on the trip, who were Drakensberg veterans. As a precaution, I would recommend bringing your boots inside at night.
Filter your water: This advice is not as obvious as it should be on almost all other treks. Lesotho is actually touted as touted as having some of the purest, safest water in the world, and by most accounts it is safe to drink without treating. I still believe this to be true, but anecdotally I wound up very sick with a viral infection days after returning to the United States from South Africa. It is far more likely that I picked up the illness in Johannesburg, but if I were to trek the DGT again I would not risk it.
Pronunciation: If you want to fit in with the locals, you should know it is pronounced ‘d-rah-kens-burg’ not ‘drake-ens-burg’.
Day One: Sentinel Car Park to Kubedu River (9.0mi)
The first day of our adventure along the border of South Africa and Lesotho began with an unexpected van ride from the quaint Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge to the trailhead at the Sentinel Car Park. The night before we had attempted to reach the car park in an Uber from Johannesburg, only to get stuck in a large pothole on an unpaved road. After a substantial bit of work in the dark, we were able to free the poor driver’s car from the ditch and reverse it back to the pavement. Stranded and still a few miles from where we intended to camp, we set our course for the nearby lodge. Fortunately, once there, we were able to convince the exceptionally kind and motherly night manager to let us pitch our tents near the maintenance shed for just a few rand. In the morning, we would catch a shuttle to the trailhead with handful of other guests who had come to explore the Royal Natal National Park.
Upon arrival at the park, our frustrations from the evening prior melted away as we stood in the shadow of the grand Sentinel Peak. Filled with anticipation, we paid our park entry fee, and took off for the escarpment. From below, the massive rock formation looked like something out of a fairytale. A natural castle wall, protecting the mysterious kingdom of Lesotho from the wild lands below. After a massive set of switchbacks, we stood at the base of sheer cliff face, with the route’s infamous chain ladder before us. Nervously, we strapped all our gear in tightly and began the lengthy two-part climb to safety at the top of the escarpment. Most of the way up, I was torn between pausing to soak in the experience and just wanting to get myself and my pack to stable ground. Once at the top, we paused to acknowledge the insanity of the experience and to gaze out at the incredible view from the escarpment. We were in a new world, a rocky scrubland seemingly miles above the rolling green hills below.
Continuing on, we knew we were likely to fall far short of Rat Hole, where we had intended to camp night one. The debacle from the previous night and the time intensive chain ladders had put us well behind schedule. Still, we were positive and moved as quickly as possible across the top of the plateau, guided by our GPS. The land was desolate and we enjoyed the solitude. From the ladders to camp, our only companions were a set of baboons, wild horses and a lone jackal, far in the distance, who fled as soon as he sensed our presence. About 3.5mi from our intended destination, we elected to stop as daylight started to wane. We camped near a scenic river and went to bed anticipating a long attempt to make up for lost time the following day.
Day Two: Kubedu River to North Peak (13.8mi)
In all my days of backpacking I am not sure I have ever woken up so ready to get moving again. The night was miserable. Soon after we fell asleep, the temperatures outside plunged and everything froze. I hadn’t worn all of my layers, given it was well above the freezing point when we went to sleep, and I woke up around 1:30am shivering uncontrollably. The rest of the night was spent curled in fetal position, trying to get warm enough to fall asleep again. As we investigated the situation in the morning light, we found that both the insides and outsides of our tents were coated in a layer of frost. Our water bottles and filters had turned into bricks as well. We packed up quickly and set off at a quick pace in order to get the blood flowing again.
As the day drew on and our bodies warmed up, we started to better appreciate the scenery around us. For miles, all we could see were beautifully pristine rolling grasslands. When the sun finally breached the smooth peaks to the east, the plateau was bathed in a soft light that highlighted the thin blue streams cutting across the terrain. Eventually, the temperature rose to a point that we felt comfortable shedding our layers. By 11:30am, we reached Rat Hole. This validated our decision to stop short the night before. Even from our vantage point at the top of a hill, the waymarked cave that we were supposed to sleep in was nowhere to be seen.
After Rat Hole, we didn’t stop again until we reached the edge of the escarpment. There we sat for a long lunch while taking in expansive views of the South African wilderness below. The second half of our day was a relative blur. Post lunch, we made our best attempt to get back on schedule by pushing as quickly was possible. This goal was hindered by the relative instability of the terrain however. Over time, the rocks and lumpy scrub brush blanketing the floor took a toll on our ankles and lessened our pace. Approximately two miles from our intended campsite we decided to call it a day. Dusk was fast approaching, and we had just found the first instance of suitable terrain that we’d seen for miles. After quickly pitching my tent, I wandered to the top of a nearby hill where I could sit and take in an ethereal sunset. The sun disappears so fast in Lesotho, but not before briefly illuminating the entire cloudscape in a vibrant mix of red and orange tones.
Day Three: North Peak to Ndumeni Cave (13.8mi)
In order to try and get ourselves back on schedule, Ben and I agreed that it would be prudent to get an extra early start to day. This made for a real grind, but fortunately we had gotten some much needed rest the night before and were up for a challenge. We walked from before dawn till after dusk. This afforded us the chance to really experience the beauty of the untouched landscape in all lights of the day. The dramatic shadows cast by the escarpment and surrounding peaks offered a type of eerie setting that I had never experienced before. It reminded me of the iconic “everything the light touches” scene from Disney’s Lion King.
After hours of tiptoeing the edge of the escarpment, dancing along the naturally imposed border between South Africa and Lesotho, we reached Ndumeni Cave. Once again, the cave was nowhere to be found. We never seemed to have much luck finding the caves on the grand traverse, but we were more than content pitching our tents on the flat land near our GPS waymark. Dinner was a little bit of a challenge as we struggled to get our stove hot enough to cook our rice and soup, but eventually we worked it out. As I sat at the threshold of my tent in the consuming darkness, I couldn’t help but wonder at the constellation of lights from distant farmhouses miles beneath us. It was humbling to think of the thousands of people going on with their evenings as usual, as we sat perched, thousands of feet above them, in perfect solitude.
Day Four: Ndumeni Cave to Nkosazana (14.1mi)
Day four on the Drakensberg was a day of firsts. Notably, it was the first day in which we were hiking according to our original itinerary. This was welcomed, but by no means signalled an easy day ahead. We began our morning by hiking along a thin ridge for about 300m. with a slick rock face on our right and the precipice of the escarpment on the left. It was a nerve-wracking and tedious portion of the trail, as one misstep would clearly result in your demise a couple thousand feet below. On the bright side, the views were incredible from our precarious position.
After clearing the ridgeline and returning to the rolling highland terrain, we had our second first of the day. After walking along the banks of a small stream for a mile or so we noticed our first (and last) Lesothan tree! For a few days we had been discussing theories of why the landscape was so devoid of trees, but this observation shifted the conversation to questioning how this lone tree had gotten there and managed to survive clinging to the edge of the eroded riverbank. This did last long however, because in no time we were out of breath, struggling to finish our second 2,000ft. climb of the day.
The last significant first of the day was our first human encounter. Some time in the early afternoon after finishing a steep climb and subsequent descent, we paused to refill our water and rest at a crystal clear stream near a flock of sheep. We were not there long before two young Basotho herdsmen with their dogs came out of nowhere to greet us and ask if we had any sweets. We told them we didn’t and after that they just sat nearby, observing us while we filtered our water. They were dressed in tribal garb that you would expect to see on the cover of a National Geographic magazine. Each of them had rust colored robes, wool blankets draped around their shoulders, and loincloths. They also wore heavy white rubber boots that stood out amongst the more modest attire. After 20 minutes or so of sitting in silence, they hailed their dogs, bid us farewell, and left to move closer to the sheep herd.
We were certain that would be a our last encounter of the day, but ultimately we were wrong. After setting up our camp in a shallow valley under the cover of nightfall, I took my lantern to a nearby stream to get some water for cooking. When I turned to navigate back, I saw two faint lights on the hillside. Disoriented, I moved towards the one that didn’t happen to be Ben’s. As I crept closer, I heard voices coming from inside a small cave and so I decided to announce my presence. To my surprise, I was greeted with an enthusiastic reply in English. Inside, I met two South Africans, one 25 and the other 50-something, who would be among the most interesting trekkers I have ever met. It turned out they were DGT regulars, drawn to the emptiness and lawlessness of Lesotho. After Ben joined, we sat for dinner with them while the older fellow regaled us with incredible stories of lightning storms, the herdsmen, and other misfortunes on the trail. A favorite was his tale of getting into a stone throwing match with a group of Basotho herdsmen who had been on their way to raid another tribe. We also learned about the co-dependence between the herdsmen and their dogs, who were used to protect herds from troublesome jackals. Everytime our new friend would get to the climax of a story or deliver the punchline to a joke, he would let out a loud “YOPE” which was a trademark expression of his. I’d been reading Jack Kerouac’s On The Road while hiking, and couldn’t help but draw parallels to the character of Dean Moriarty.
Day Five: Nkosazana to Injisuthi (12.0mi)
We awoke on day five both refreshed, as a result of our great evening the night before, and with a little sense of dread. They day would start and finish with two ascents, each over 1,500ft. To make matters a little worse, my feet had become infected as a result of the damp conditions. The night before, in an attempt to cope with the intense cold, I made the mistake of putting socks on at night while my feet were still damp from fording small rivers. I went to sleep with standard blisters on my toes, but woke up with a bloody infection that had spread to the arches of my feet as well. From this point on, I made a point to air them out whenever possible.
Unexpectedly, I found our first early morning summit to the top of Champagne castle, at almost 11,000ft. to be welcome. The huffing and puffing got the blood flowing and was instrumental in shaking off the effects of another frigid morning. At the top, we again were blessed with a fantastic panorama of the escarpment. To our left, we could see the shadowy peaks and ridges from where we had come, while to our right, we gazed upon the pronounced and seemingly untouched terrain we were about to traverse. Lesotho and the highlands it shares with South Africa may be one dimensional, but the landscape truly is unlike anything I can imagine seeing elsewhere in the world.
The rest of the day’s walking was expectedly difficult, but we did survive. Every time we passed evidence of Basotho micro-villages and huts, I would think back to the remarkable things we had learned in the cave the night before. As our own Dean Moriarty had put it, travelling through this part of Lesotho was truly like traveling back in time 500 years. Our final campsite at Injasuthi left much to be desired as it was uneven, rocky, and constantly exposed to what felt like hurricane force winds. Tired enough, we settled down nonetheless. I guess that is just the price you pay for 270 degree views and the ability to sleep steps from the edge of the world.
Day Six: Injisuthi to Langalibalele (11.8mi)
On day six, we woke ready for what was projected to be an easier day on the trail and it was glorious. We had weathered the windstorm from the night before and left camp excitedly knowing that we had no steep sections between us and Langalibelele. The GPS path took us along some lazily winding rivers and we made quick work of the section given the relatively smooth terrain. The views were more of the same, but it was sunny out and probably somewhere in the 60’s (fahrenheit) which felt comparatively amazing. The warmth and the easier walking gave us a chance to talk and really soak in the beauty around us.
We stopped for lunch at a great riverside spot, sitting before shimmering set of reflective pools. As we ate and washed our clothes, we were joined by friendly tribesman who sat on a small ledge just above us, peacefully weaving a basket and observing our movements. He beamed a smile every time one of us would look up and acknowledge him, but was otherwise silent.
Due to the long lunch break, we still came into camp around dusk and set up at Langalibelele not too far from the escarpment. A strange weather pattern was doing unique things to the clouds along the edge of the cliffs, so after pitching, I laid down my pack and went to check it out. The sight was unbelievable. The wind coming heavily off the Lesothan highlands were suppressing the rise of thick clouds making their way in from the lowlands. The effect made it so that we were sitting above the cloud cover, only 100ft. from where the miles long layer began. I ended up scaling a nearby peak to get an even better view and snap photos. From my new vantage point, I could take in the contrast of the soupy storm clouds before me, and the perfectly clear sunset behind. As darkness started to fall, I euphorically scampered back to camp to eat dinner. Within 30 minutes, the black sky was illuminated by a stunning display of bright stars. It was the perfect end to a perfect day in the Drakensbergs.
Day Seven: Langalibalele to Loteni Camp (11.5mi)
Restoring balance to what was a perfect night before, the temperature plunged shortly after we fell asleep and this made rising at 6:00am near impossible. On the bright side, the infection in my feet appeared to be subsiding. They still were bloody and painful, but the receding infection gave peace of mind that I was not in any serious trouble. The first section of the day was tough. We started by crossing directly over a sizeable hill where the shrubs had grown high enough that some bush-whacking was required. Once we descended down the ridge on the opposite side however, it was mostly smooth sailing.
The true distance between the two camps turned out to quite minimal, and by lunch we were actually almost done with the progress that we had to make. The GPS had us taking a 3.5 mile out and back journey to the tip of a thin promontory ridge that jutted far beyond the escarpment. We decided to take this detour, but not before stashing our packs in a suitable hiding spot underneath some large boulders. Even without the extra weight, the climb was tough, but the view from Giant’s Castle as it was called, was well worth it. We sat for an hour or so, catching our breath, talking, and looking out at how the evening sun cast its long shadows on the national park below. Eventually, we hustled back to our gear and set up camp at Loteni just before dark. We had another two hours or so of magnificent stargazing before the waning moon rose and cast its light across the sky. As long as we had been out on the DGT, the moon had been close to full and intensely bright. At times, it would give the uncanny impression of a flashlight being shined on the tent.
Day Eight: Loteni Camp to Mkomhazi Camp (15.3mi)
Knowing we had one of our longest DGT days ahead of us, we were relieved to look over the topographic map on the Garmin and find that there would be no major altitude changes on the way to Mkomhazi. The terrain turned out to be solid too, and that buoyed our spirits. While hiking the backcountry of the ground traverse, we often found ourselves following along animal trails. These narrow paths were a godsend, as they would save our knees and ankles from having to deal with the toll of moving over the uneven yet rock hard lumps hiding beneath the tall grasses and shrubs. At times, it would appear the GPS coordinates were mapped with the intention of following a particularly well worn horse path. Still caution was necessary, follow the path too long and you would end up way off course. The riverside walk to Mkomhazi appeared to be a more populated section of the plateau, and as a result there was a tangled mess of sheep trails that we could take advantage of.
Despite hearing bells from grazing herds in the distance and passing by a number of huts, we didn’t see our first Basotho until the early afternoon, and when we did, they didn’t fit the profile of our past encounters. As the South Africans in the cave had told us, most tribesman we would meet were young boys (ages 15-25) sent to care for the flocks in winter while the adults retreat to milder climates in the northwest. The men we ran into on day eight, however, were in their 50s, carrying large backpacks, and without the typical attire or dogs of the herdsmen. Immediately, we recognized them as ‘dagga’ (marijuana) smugglers, who are known for carrying large loads down hidden passes in the escarpment to South Africa below. It was quite a sight, but the men gave us no trouble (they are not known to be an issue), passing by with a broad smile and enthusiastic wave.
The rest of the day we continued our flat walk across the plateau, distancing ourselves from the nearby escarpment. We passed by a couple more sets of herdsmen, and for the first time saw a girl amongst them, but nothing else was particularly notable. Aided by the flat terrain, we knocked the mileage out in record pace and for the first time were able to set up camp and relax before dusk. The night was passed as usual, troubleshooting the stove, cooking, reading, journaling, stargazing and just trying to stay warm.
Day Nine: Mkomhazi Camp to Sehong Hong (5.2mi)
Today was slated to be a pretty brutal day, combining a long trek with a trip to the summit of the tallest peak in southern Africa, Thabana Ntlenyana at 14,424ft. (3,480m.) Since we had one day of slack built into our schedule, and were nearing the end of our journey, we decided to treat ourselves to some rest and recovery by splitting the day into two. It was a wonderful decision. Ben was dealing with some stomach issues likely related to our super-fiber diet of oatmeal, rice, and lentils, while the blistering on my feet was spreading despite the infection abating.
Undeterred by our minor ailments, we were up and out at the crack of dawn. Before we even had a chance to get our bearings and settle into another days walking, we were faced with an immediate ascent straight to the top of Thabana Ntlenyana. The 2,000 foot climb took a grueling two hours on the way up, and another 45min. down. While the incline was not nearly as severe as what we had encountered in places like the Annapurna, the steady grade actually just prolonged the struggle. The views from the top of “The Beautiful Little Mountain” as it is called in Sesotho, were great, but the high winds were not, so before long we were back around ~12,000ft. where we decided to pull up and call it a day in a picture perfect spot steps away from a miniature stream.
Day Ten: Sehong Hong to Sani Pass (8.3mi)
We slept in through a chilly night, not waking until around 7:15am and it was wonderful! Every day prior, had risen just before the sunup and would be forced to start the breakfast making and camp teardown process in the frost. Though the morning was far from a warm start to the day, by the time Ben’s alarm went off the worst of the cold and ice had disappeared.
The days hiking began with a quick climb out of our idyllic little valley. When we reached the saddle of the ridge we were crossing, we could see Highway A14 in the distance, our first true sign of civilization since the faraway diamond mine we spotted a week or so ago. We came down a steep hill that turned out to be more treacherous than expected, and then commenced a long, flat walk along the highway to Sani Pass.
Sani, as a town, was not what we expected. It was constituted by 40-50 closely grouped stone huts, 3 tiny craft/souvenir stands, a rundown looking backpackers lodge plus poolhall, and then a fancy hillside lodge charging hundreds of rand per night for rooms. In need of a substantial meal, we beelined for the Sani Pass lodge where we found a bustling pub. It was the perfect place to kill the afternoon and evening. We purchased some large Lesothan beers, ordered double helpings of food, watched rugby, and chatted with a smattering of visitors from around the world. It was a great time and we were reluctant to leave. When we did, our new friends were grimacing as the cautioned us about going back into the cold. The inn was full however, and apparently you are charged to pitch a tent around the town, so we had no choice. After walking about a kilometer to a clearing at the edge of the escarpment, we set up and went to sleep totally refreshed.
Day Eleven: Sani Pass to Moon Camp (10.9mi)
The sausage platter, beers, and dose of company we had enjoyed the day prior left us feeling recharged as we got off to our usual early start. Additionally, our hiking had returned us to the escarpment after two and a half days spent more inland, so we did our best to soak up the spectacular views on our second to last day in the Drakensberg. Otherwise, the walking for the day was typical of the traverse. This region of Lesotho proved to be much more mountainous than where we had started in the east, so the day involved a lot of ups and downs. Fortunately, none of the altitude changes were of the 2,000ft. magnitude that we had experienced one too many times already.
We stopped for lunch atop a prominent ridge and ate slowly while admiring the panoramic views. As we were enjoying ourselves and only had three miles left, we debated passing most of the day there, but eventually some strong winds forced us to move on. About a mile or so into the final push, we came across a lone herdsman who greeted us with a very friendly hello as he passed by. As Ben had given up on his oatmeal, he decided to offer it to the young boy. As we caught up to him and passed off the food, we learned that he spoke some elementary English. It turned out he was the youngest boy in his family and had the privilege of attending school in Maseru for a few years. After his brother died however, he was forced to drop out and take responsibility for the sheep herd in the south. Life sounded tough on the plateau. He mentioned constantly having to protect the herd from jackals, and told us a story about having some sheep stolen by other herdsmen who shot rifles at his hut to keep him scared and inside. It was fascinating.
After a half hour or so, the conversation wore out so we thanked him for his company and bid him farewell. By the time we continued on and tackled our last couple miles, it was near dusk in camp. We were positioned in a sheltered bowl, sloping down from a drawn out hill, and the waymarker on our Garmin pointed us to precisely the only spot flat enough to pitch our tents. Once I was set up, I fell asleep immediately and Ben had to wake me for dinner. It appeared that despite my relative comfort towards the end of the journey, I was still just as exhausted.
Day Twelve: Moon Camp to Mzimude Cave (9.6mi)
Though our second to last night felt warmer than usual, I still woke to a frost lining on both the inside and outside of my tent. As I stood shaking it out, I joked with Ben about whether it was actually getting warmer or if we had just frozen all of our nerve endings off over the past two weeks. Spirits were very high as we commenced our final full day in the beautiful, but trying Drakensberg mountains. In true DGT fashion, it would be a tough day of walking.
Much like the day prior, we started with a big ascent and continued bobbing up and down for the remainder of the way. Nonetheless, the anticipation of reaching camp and prepping for a descent into South Africa carried us through. Around 10:45am, we stopped for our first break after stumbling upon a tiny waterfall and a picturesque little pond. Given the great progress we had made, we decided to roll the break into lunch and lounged until about 2:00pm just napping, eating, and washing clothes. Eventually, we mustered up the courage to attack our final 1,000+ft. climb of the trip. As we neared the end of our ascent close to an hour later, we were puzzled by what seemed like an impassable rock wall at the top of the ridge. By putting faith in our GPS however, we were eventually led to a small gap where we were able to climb through to a secluded valley on the other side. It was the perfect setting for a wild camp.
Despite the name Mzimude Cave, we didn’t locate the small cave burrowed into the edge of the escarpment until we were already pitched and 400ft. above it in elevation. Regardless, we were happy with our spot which offered more fantastic views of the land below. As night fell, we could see a cluster of twinkling lights below that we speculated were from Bushman’s Nek. Being able to see the finish line only elevated our excitement. I knew I would miss the rugged beauty of Lesotho dearly, but proper food, company, and a shower were calling.
Day Thirteen: Mzimude Cave to Bushman’s Nek (12.0mi)
We woke on day thirteen feeling an immense sense of accomplishment, despite still having a 5,000ft. descent between us and Bushman’s Nek. To further commemorate the moment and prepare for the day, we helped ourselves to a double breakfast by eating through the reserve rations. Though I savored the excess calories, I couldn’t help but note that it would be the last time that I’d be eating oatmeal for a long while.
As expected, the Drakensberg Grand Traverse forced us to earn our way out of Lesotho. After a mini-climb out of our secret valley, we were faced with a harrowingly steep and unstable trek down a hillside and into a cramped valley that would show us out of the mountains. Despite a couple stumbles, we eventually made it, and began a more level walk along a river. This continued for a few miles. Despite carefully tracking our GPS, we were certain that every time we finished working around the base of a prominent hill, it would be our last. Each time our hopes were dashed as another came into view. Finally, we reached a large clearing, where our GPS indicated a sharp left turn, and escorted us to the rim of the escarpment. We paused a minute to take in the bittersweet moment, then plunged over the edge and down a narrow hillside sheep trail.
The path down was steep, and once off the escarpment, we were through into a new environment with a new weather pattern. In no time, we found ourselves enveloped by a thick fog and were forced to put on rain jackets. This soupy fog would eventually turn into a storm, but we couldn’t have cared less. We were happy to have survived thirteen days in wild Africa, completely unsupported. It wasn’t easy, but it was certainly worth it. As we descended the last miles in the rain, we recalled the highs and lows of our adventure, jogging memories before we would attempt to call our folks later that evening. Soon, we reached the South African border post and an exit sign indicating the border of Drakensberg National Park. Triumphantly, we posed for a few photos, and then took off in search of a celebratory meal.
Length: 171mi (275km) Days: 16-18 southern half from Aqaba to Dana (+20 to complete the northern half) Difficulty: Expert (no maintained trail, extreme temperatures, supply scarcity) Gear: Standard gear + GPS and extra containers for water Completed: April / May 2019
In summary: If you consider yourself a desert rat or an aspiring anthropologist, then the Jordan Trail is the perfect thru hike for you. An unmarked, GPS-based trek through the entire country, the relatively new trail system provides trekkers a chance to embrace the Bedouin culture while venturing across holy land. The journey is challenging, but the unforgettable opportunity to ‘discover’ the Lost City of Petra the way the ancient caravanners did is well worth it. There is no better time than now to hike the Jordan Trail, as it remains one of the best kept secrets in trekking.
Preparation / Know Before You Go
Buy a reliable GPS with a PLB: The Jordan Trail is largely unmarked and unmaintained, with the exception of some rock stacks in tight canyons. To find your way, I would recommend using a true GPS (as opposed to a phone) that allows you to chart your own course and position relative to the advised path. As parts of the trail are extremely remote, I would also suggest bringing along a personal locator beacon, or GPS with PLB-capabilities, to ensure you can get help if something goes wrong.
Download coordinates ahead of time: Maps and coordinates can be found in a number of formats here.
Prepare for water scarcity: The Jordan Trail traverses a desert, so it should be no surprise that water is hard to come by, especially towards the end of the trekking season (November – April). The trail association’s GPS coordinates mark potential water sources, but we found a number of them to be dried up. Even during the peak season when the climate is wetter, it can be over a day between refill sites from Aqaba to Wadi Rum. We carried 7-8 liters of water each, and even then had a couple of close calls. It should also go without saying that filtering water from old wells and wild springs is recommended.
Take advantage of the Bedouin hospitality: While hiking, you are sure to come across the Bedouin people, usually herding goats or camels and living off the land. In my experience travelling, I have never come across a friendlier or more welcoming bunch of people. We were invited to tea countless times and provided dinners at which no payment was accepted. Enjoy your time with these people, as it is part of what makes the trekking experience so special. It is worth noting that most abide by a code of social conservatism, so please be respectful of their beliefs and customs. For example, if invited to spend the night in a Bedouin camp, know that it is commonplace for men and women to sleep in different spaces.
Decide your hiking direction, section and distance: The JT is divided into 8 distinct regions, presenting hikers with 9 potential entry/exit points. While it officially runs from north (Um Qais) to south (Aqaba), it’s common for hikers to head in either direction. One thing to keep in mind is that the southern portion of the trail is drier and hotter, so take that into account when timing the trip and selecting your direction. Since we had ~3 weeks and wanted to cover Petra, we elected to hike from Aqaba to Dana.
Day One: Aqaba to Final Camp (11.4mi)
The morning of our first day on the trail began with an early cab ride from our hotel in the city of Aqaba to the trailhead a couple of kilometers south. There we stopped at a local inn for a continental breakfast and then departed from a signpost on the nearby beach. Given that Aqaba is officially the ‘end’ of the Jordan Trail, the day’s hiking was relatively unremarkable. It would have been incredible, coming from the north, to finish the grueling trek by jumping in the Gulf of Aqaba, but since we were just getting started there was no swimming for Ben and me.
Slowly, we worked our way across the foothills by the shore, passed some industrial parks and highways, and then climbed into a shallow set of mountains from which you could see across the gulf to Egypt and Israel. The primary terrain was sand or loose gravel, so our movements were labored and in the heat of the day we thoroughly exhausted ourselves. We were also carrying 15 days worth of rice, orzo, oatmeal, and beans, so the extreme pack weight compounded our struggles. After a midday siesta in which we took shelter from the direct sun, we continued onwards, anxious to reach camp before nightfall.
We cut it close arriving well after dusk, but succeeded in making camp on a windy hilltop just before the sky went pitch black. We went to sleep exhausted, but looking around, we could tell we had better days in store. Civilization had disappeared and we were immersed in the desert landscape, a great backdrop for trekking.
Day Two: Final Camp to Wadi Waraqa (16.1mi)
Slated to be one of our longest days on the trek, we made sure to get an early start to our second day. Almost immediately, we were tasked with working our way up a narrow canyon in order to cross over a tall hill. Though the going was tough, the scenery was much improved from the day prior and that lifted our spirits. Our remaining issue was that the sun rose early, and despite starting the prior day with 7.5L of water each, we were in need of a refill.
Around noon, we reached the town of Titen. To our dismay, it looked like a ghost town. Most of the residences were built like compounds with high walls, and we saw no signs of life. Eventually, we spotted what looked like a gas station a half mile down the town’s single road and opted for the detour. When we arrived, we were greeted with open arms by a couple of Jordanian soldiers who informed us that we had stumbled upon a border checkpoint near Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, they were friendly and it appeared we had broken up what was a monotonous day. The whole barracks came out to greet us while the commanding officer ordered our waters filled and tea served. We had lunch with the men and rested before heading back out into the barren desert.
We didn’t make it far into the latter half of our journey before needing to take a second siesta. Around a mile or so outside of Titen we happened upon a large, solitary tree, the first we had seen with a dense enough canopy to offer shelter from the sun. We learned pretty quickly that in late spring, the heat would make hiking between 1-3pm unbearable. Once the air had cooled, we powered through the remainder of the journey feeling refreshed, stopping only to admire herds of camels, or to tell the Bedouin in a beat up Toyota pickup that we were walking by choice and did not need a ride.
By early evening we came to Wadi Waraqa, a great sandy campsite in a shallow valley that is likely a riverbed during the short rainy season. Sites were well positioned, with each having its own well. We had an initial scare, as the water level was too low for us to reach in each well, but after some exploring I found a rusty bucket on a rope that had been stashed in a bush nearby. A long drink of water and a sponge bath went a long way for us, and I felt we were starting to settle in to life on the trail.
Day Three: Wadi Waraqa to Wadi Rum Village (12.8mi)
Day three was a definite turning point for us on the trail, and we rose at 5:00am with a new sense of confidence. Our first two days had been harsh, but we learned to make adjustments (starting before dawn, resting in the afternoon, leveraging the locals for water) and felt that we now had a game plan for success in the unforgiving desert.
We started the day wandering the famous Rum desert, weaving around picturesque sandstone mountains, or ‘jebels’ in Arabic. Due to the way in which these jebels abruptly stood out from the otherwise flat expanse, most better resembled enormous boulders. As we approached, we marveled at the soft stone walls, naturally sculpted into ornate honeycomb patterns that glowed with red and orange hues in the soft morning light. Before long, the sun rose and so did the temperature. However, we were in search of a water source marked Qattar Spring on our GPS so we decided to push further into the afternoon than usual.
Finding the spring turned out to be more challenging than we thought. It was marked as being somewhere on a massive jebel, and after climbing around the cliff for 30min. in the heat of the day, we gave up and redirected towards a small tree growing horizontally from the rock. Just as we reached the shady spot, we noticed a small hose, protruding from a crevasse in the rock that was filled with water. This made for a wonderful siesta. The next couple hours were spent sleeping and reading; we could see our destination of Wadi Rum on the horizon so we enjoyed our little oasis knowing we didn’t have far to go.
Eventually, it was time to push forward, so we climbed down and made our way to the village. Wadi Rum is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Jordan, so as we walked we observed Toyotas zooming by, taking visitors to the luxury Bedouin camps in geodesic domes around the desert. Upon arrival, it was almost dusk and we found the backpackers hostel that was on our map had closed. Alternatively, we identified a large dirt lot with space for our tents. We tried to ask some locals nearby if we could camp there, and though they spoke some broken English they didn’t seem to understand. We later recalled that land ownership is tenuous in Bedouin culture, and they probably couldn’t see why we needed their permission. After settling, we walked the town and purchasing some sodas and Jordanian ice cream, which immediately became a trip staple.
Day Four: Wadi Rum Village to Al-Shakriya (7.5mi)
As our sleep was frequently interrupted by a pack of stray dogs fighting outside our tent, we got off to a slow start to Shakriya. Ben also found in the morning that one of the dogs had taken his left boot. We couldn’t find it anywhere, but the crisis was averted when the presumed culprit dragged it back into camp as we were packing up.
As for the walking, it was short but memorable. The same pack of dogs that was tormenting us at night, decided to be amicable in the morning and followed us out of town. As we walked along the road to the Wadi Rum visitor center, more and more joined us from nearby houses. Before long, we were shepherding 15 or so dogs on our way. The visitor center offered a quick respite, and gave us a chance to read up on the local history featuring Lawrence of Arabia and the Arab Revolt.
After a couple more kilometers, we arrived in Al-Shakriya. Similar to the villages we had encountered before, it was very sleepy. The compound-style houses made it difficult to find anyone, but eventually we chanced upon a group of kids that were thrilled to see us. We asked them if there was a shop nearby, and they took us to their home where the patriarch of the family treated us like honored guests. We sat for an hour or so, talking and learning about the Jordanian and Muslim culture. The father was a game warden at the nearby park and tasked with protecting rare oryx, but like so many other men he also ran a small shop out of his garage. We stocked up on treats for the evening, then walked to some sand dunes a hundred meters outside of town. Before long, the energetic kids found us again. It was nice to have some extra hands as we collected scrap wood and built an open fire hot enough to cook our tougher beans and lentils.
Day Five: Al-Shakriya to Rock Bridge of Kharaz (9.9mi)
Our fifth day on the trail would end up going down as one of the most memorable days of my life. We woke early, and after a quick oatmeal breakfast we hit the road. The prior day had been very hot, so we were hoping to knock out the full 16km before lunch and our daily siesta. The scenery was beautiful. For miles all we could see were untouched sand dunes and ruddy brown jebels rising sharply above the orange dunes. We didn’t see another soul for the whole journey, and it was surreal to have the silent desert to ourselves.
Though our progress was slowed by the terrain – while marvelous to look at, the deep sand dunes made for strenuous walking – we were able to accomplish our goal of reaching camp just as the afternoon heat bordered on unbearable. As we arrived, coming around the corner of a large jebel, we were abruptly faced with two surprises: One, there was a massive rock bridge providing an impressive backdrop for what our GPS showed as the campsite. And two, a small crowd of Bedouins were camped out, sitting in the shade with their camels, smoking hookah, drinking tea, and watching the day go by. They enthusiastically waived us over, so we obliged and learned that one of the group members was an American trekker headed south on the trail.
After a long afternoon of drinking tea, riding camels, and talking (sometimes about heavy topics like Jamal Khashoggi, King Abdullah, and US-Arab relations) in the shadows of the arch, we started to set up camp. Just as we began to unpack, one of the men named Omar reappeared with three camels and invited us to join him for the evening. After a little discussion, Ben and I decided it was too unique of an opportunity to pass up. We said goodbye to our new American friend, climbed onto Omar’s camels, and took a bumpy ride across the desert. A mile or so later, we arrived at a nondescript jebel. In very elementary English, Omar told us we had arrived and led us through a narrow passageway to the middle of the mountain. There we found two other men and a whole camp replete with goats, dogs, chickens and camels.
We dropped our packs and Omar led us to the other side of the mountain where a small kinked hose seemed to be hanging from the jebels summit. It was explained, mostly through gestures, that water from the rainy season was trapped in the jebel, and the Bedouin knew the location of these secret pools where water was stored. We drank as much as we could and got the closest thing to a shower that we would have on the trail. When we returned to camp, we saw Omar’s tent-mates Muhammad & Abu Suleiman were preparing a feast of chicken, rice and mystery stew in a below-ground pit fire. After sharing the delicious meal over a fire and tea, sleeping mats were rolled out for us and we went to sleep in the open air, under an incredible canopy of stars.
Day Six: Rock Bridge of Kharaz to Humeima (11.8mi)
As we slept without tents, both Ben and I rose early to the morning light. To our surprise, our new friends were also awake and they appeared to be taking apart the camp. Omar brought us some bread, and explained they were moving another 2km. or so, to a new site. They had already released the camels and goats, fixed with bells so they would later be able to herd them back to the new, yet temporary home. He even showed us how they had tied the camels front legs together to shorten their stride and prevent them from going too far. After breakfast and another trip to the watering hole, Ben and I set out to New Humeima. We had strayed from our intended course, but to save time decided to beeline for the town, rather than backtrack to the trail recognized by our Garmin.
The unchartered course turned out to be no problem at all. Like the days before, deep sand taxed our bodies, but we made good time and felt fueled by the high of the day we had just enjoyed. Around lunch, we arrived in New Humeima. It was a small, roadside town that served as a refuelling station for travelers and truckers taking the long highway from Amman to Aqaba. We stopped for a long rest there and of course got some ice cream. As the afternoon heat passed, we pushed onwards and crossed an immensely flat and barren landscape in search of the Old Humeima ruins where we planned to camp.
After what felt like an eternity of walking, we spotted the ruins and did a little exploring. There wasn’t too much to see in terms of the ruins. All we found were some old aqueducts, wells and a couple of rubble piles that indicated former buildings. We would later learn, however, that the ruins were a very important archeological site for clues as to what life was like in the Nabatean, Abbasid and Umayyad periods. After perusing the ruins for 20 minutes or so, we noticed a truck approaching from a settlement not too far in the distance. Before long it pulled up to us, and two boys no older than 15 got out. They told us they were friends of Abu Sabuh, and would take us to to his homestay. We had been told Abu Sabuh was a supporter of the Jordan Trail, so we followed orders and climbed into the back of the truck. We were soon greeted by an old toothless man who spoke good English. He was friendly, but things got a little dicey when he tried to charge us $70JD for two people. It seemed extreme given the local exchange rate, but after showing him we only had $50JD left and needed some emergency funds, we settled on $40JD for the night. If he was frustrated by our inability to meet his fare, he didn’t show it, and we enjoyed a pleasant, traditional dinner. We also felt a little better about the value we received, as his wild stories of snake bites and kooky thru-hikers from around the world were worth at least a few dollars.
Day Seven: Humeima to Wadi Aheimar (16.3mi)
Setting off on the Jordan Trail, we had expected to come across serene desertscapes, and humbling ancient ruins. What we encountered on the road to Wadi Aheimar however, came as a great surprise. After a quick breakfast with Abu Sabuh and a water resupply, we were on the road again. In no time, we completed a short stretch along a rural road, and found ourselves descending into a narrow canyon, undetectable from our previous position above. Over the next couple hours, we wandering through an ever narrowing canyon. The slim gap above often coming within a foot or two of closing entirely.
The route was unlike anything I had ever hiked before. Ben likened the day to the Zion Narrows, but remarked that the lack of a crowd made Wadi Aheimar even better. Smooth sandstone walls lined an undulating, ribbon-like path worn away by centuries of flash floods. Even as afternoon approached, the narrow passageway kept us sheltered from the blistering sun above and treated us to a spectacular light show as the few rays that were able to pierce through the gap highlighted to orange, red and yellow hues of the worn rock. It was impossible to tell what was going on at sea level 150ft. above, but in our private canyon we were enjoying a spiritual calm.
As is always the case in nature, a sense of balance was restored to us by the end of our day. Perhaps due to the excessive load of water we were carrying, about 2/3 of the way into the day, the chest strap on my backpack burst and my waist buckle concurrently failed. This immediately concentrated the immense weight I was carrying onto my shoulders. After a failed attempt to rectify the issue, we high-tailed it through the rest of the day. Exhausted, sore, and short on expletives, we made it to camp just before dusk. I hardly ate dinner as I spent most of the evening working over my straps with my multi-tool, When my chest strap clicked into place after an hour of work, I screamed for joy and went to sleep with a renewed sense of anticipation for the next leg of the trail.
Day Eight: Wadi Aheimar to Wadi Gseib (9.7mi)
Despite our very best efforts to ration supplies, the 16 mile day prior put us in a tight spot water-wise. We commenced the day with a quick Snickers bar breakfast in order to avoid cooking oatmeal and hit the road. The day began along a riverbed before we skipped over a pristine, yet challenging sand dune. Around midday, the alarm bells really started to ring as we were each down to our last liter or so, and the temperature was steadily rising. Soon after we decided to push the Garmin SOS button if we reached camp without a refill, a Jeep was spotted on the horizon. We took off on a jog and found a couple of workers who had no water. Miraculously, as we tried to convey our concerns to the them in hopelessly broken Arabic, a lone Bedouin approached with his donkey. We turned our attention to him, and kindly, he offered to take us to some “maiy”.
After a detour of 20 minutes or so, we discovered a small camp where our guardian angel had a large cistern full of water. He patiently watched as we stuffed our packs and stomachs with as much as we could carry, then refused to take any payment for his services. Nevertheless, we showered him with as much gratitude as we could, before bidding our farewells and continuing on. The remainder of our day took us through a maze of white sandstone canyons. We had a tough little uphill section, but as it was concise and the adrenaline of the day was fueling us, we elected to push through the heat of the day and into camp. The highlight from the final leg was when we saw a large snake which fortunately did not look venomous, and fled immediately.
In camp it was still sunny, so we lounged beneath a couple of trees and read to pass the time. Before long a group of three Bedouins came by, and enthusiastically invited us to tea. This evolved into them showing us how to extract freshwater from the seemingly bone dry riverbed by digging down with pickaxes and shovels. We shared some good laughs all together, and soon after we were invited to dine with them by the leader of their hunting group, referred to only as “The President.” We watched with interest as they prepared a great feast of Bedouin bread (similar to naan), potatoes, and chicken, all cooked underground. Ben was even given the honor of finishing the bread by flinging the hot embers of the fire across the dough. It was another great meal and night of sleeping under the stars with unexpected guests.
Day Nine: Wadi Gseib to Wadi Al-Saif (7.7mi)
The hiking on day nine was scheduled to be short, so we took our time in the morning saying goodbye to our new friends and filling our water bottles from the muddy hole we had dug yesterday. We had learned the hard way that in the Middle Eastern desert, it is essential to be an opportunist when it comes to water. The trekking was similar to the day before. We navigated our way through some tight canyons, which proved to be a challenge given our GPS path was not the most precise at a micro-level. Fortunately, every time we thought we had finally gotten lost, one of us (usually Ben) would spot a delicate rock cairn that got us back on track. After climbing out of one of the canyons for what appeared to be the final time, we were treated with a view of the sandstone peaks all around us. It was remarkable how much the scenery differed from the open desert we had become familiar with pre-Humeima.
We stopped for a great afternoon lunch of Nutella tortillas before making the final push into Wadi Al-Saif. We ran into a couple hunting parties along the way, consisting of men with large rifles and their weary donkeys. It didn’t look like anyone was having much success. Our friends the night before had told us that they were in search of gazelles, but we hadn’t seen any from our time in the area. After an unexpectedly strenuous final push into Al-Saif, we were stunned to come over the last hill to see 8 or so green tents pitched in the site below. As we approached, we were greeted by a tour group consisting mostly of French Canadians. We planned to keep our distance from the scattered group, but just as we were settling for dinner, their Jordanian guide came to our site and compelled us to join them for dinner.
Originally, we politely declined. We explained that we did not want to crash their evening, or steal the meals that the Canadians had likely paid handsomely for. This excuse did not fly with the man in charge however, and after explaining that the Bedouin culture called for hospitality, community and the sharing of resources no matter how scarce, we gave in. For the second night in a row we had a feast and good company! I think it did both Ben and I a lot of good to socialize freely, in English, with people other than each other.
Day Ten: Wadi Al-Saif to Wadi Sabra (10.9mi)
Our 5:00am wake up call proved to be well worth it as we finished packing up just as the French Canadians were sitting for breakfast. We had another wonderful meal and afterwards spent an hour or so sitting and talking with the lead guide. After counseling us on what to expect from the next couple of days, he filled our water bottles and sent us on our way. The sun was up and the day’s hiking led us through and over some more spectacularly colorful canyons. The rock was distinctly layered, almost white in some areas and orange like the Wadi Aheimar narrows in others. Even better, some of the canyons were still a little wet, and the colors of the rock were accented by verdant green bushes and bright pink wildflowers.
Not too long after a long lunch break in which we, for the tenth day in a row, enjoyed Nutella and tahini tortillas, we left the canyons. They were replaced by a stretch of road walking in which we crossed over a series of desolate hills. Over the course of this section we encountered two cars, both of which stopped and offered us a ride. The drivers appeared confused by the concept of backpacking, but as we repeated “almushi” and mimed walking symbols to indicate our intent, they let us be. As we reached the top of the final roadside hill, a small town came into view. It was the first sign of civilization that we had received for a couple of days, but it disappeared as quickly as it came when we bent towards a dry riverbed and continued our journey.
Around 3pm, we reached our intended campsite near Gaa’ Mriebed. However, the GPS waymarked site was unimpressive and as we had both daylight and a long day scheduled we pushed on a little further. A few miles down the road there was a marking for the Wadi Sabra pools and dreaming of being able to bathe, we set that as our destination. Despite the gradual re-emergence of wildflowers and large bushes that stoked our expectations, our dreams of swimming were eventually dashed. In early May, the Wadi Sabra pools were small and bug infested. Still, they provided plenty to filter and allowed us to cook some of our more water intensive lentils and pasta for dinner.
Day Eleven: Wadi Sabra to Petra (11.7mi)
Expectations were high for our eleventh day on the trail, and the thought of reaching Petra lifted our spirits significantly. Wanting more time amongst the ruins, we left early and did not stop for a rest break until we reached what we thought was the site of an ancient amphitheater halfway to our destination. There was little to see other than what looked like a couple of large rectangular, and human-cut stones, so we we made the stop quick. No more than 5 min. beyond where we originally stopped, however, we came upon the actual amphitheater. It was stunning, set directly in the massive cliffside and remarkably well preserved. We dropped our packs and immediately started exploring. After walking around a bit and taking in the same view the ancients enjoyed, we stumbled upon a placard that indicated the amphitheater was Roman and built in the 6th century as an event space that could hold up to 800 people.
Energized by our find, we continued on to Petra at a rapid pace. We powered through a grueling hill in the midst of the morning heat, and at the top, the modern city of Petra came into view on a distant hillside. We knew we were closing in, but still, despite the unobstructed view, we could see nothing of what was to come. We soldiered on across some open plains and over time grew to understand the wonder’s “Lost City” moniker. Finally, after another hour or so of walking, we noticed a small hole in a large cliff that resembled a doorway. Naively, we mistook the simple structure for the waymarked “Snake Monument”, and took off directly for it. When we arrived, we found the structure to be filled with goats and unheralded by any historical markers so we used the cave as a shady lunch spot and place to gather our bearings. Around 15min. into our lunch a truck appeared out of nowhere, and some park rangers got out to greet us. They were very friendly and just wanted to check in as they had spotted us entering the monument from behind. After flashing our permits, they explained to us the best way to proceed and took off. We finished our lunch and then continued as we had been instructed to.
As we edged closer to the park, we started to notice more and more hill carvings that signalled the nearby city. To our surprise, it appeared a large community of Bedouins were still living just outside the main park boundary, having repurposed a number of the less spectacular tombs, caves, and facades as homes. We admired these unique dwellings until, seemingly out of nowhere, Petra revealed itself. After rounding a corner, we were suddenly faced with a series of sandstone cliffs blanketed in remains of the ancient city. Following our Garmin, we weaved our way into the thick of the park by climbing up to the High Place of Sacrifice where we could truly marvel in the sheer size of Petra. We were anxious to explore further, but given the steep climb, high heat, and weight of our packs, we elected to get some rest and save the exploring for our next day. Still, the walk to the city was marvelous, taking us past the grand Treasury and through the famous Siq, a narrow 2km. road that led the ancient Nabatean caravans through thick sandstone walls and into the heart of Petra.
While downing some cold drinks and ice cream at a local convenience store, the shop’s proprietor asked us if we needed a place to stay. We said we were interested, and he called down a man who said that he could offer us board for 15JD a night. Ben stalled while I price checked a couple more legitimate establishments, but after finding nothing cheaper than 120JD we accepted. The man led us to what turned out to be 3 room private hostel. The accommodations were modest, but we couldn’t have cared less. They had a functional shower and after eleven days in the dust and dirt, that was all that mattered.
Day Twelve: Petra
Taking an extra day to explore Petra is a must for any thru-hikers taking part in the Jordan Trail. Though the GPS route does a great job of planning a relatively comprehensive path through the monument, I would recommend setting aside AT LEAST one full day in order to properly soak in the magnitude of the ancient site.
There are a myriad of great resources for learning about Petra, so for brevity’s sake I won’t go into detail about our time there. Perhaps I will save the pages I assure you I could write for a future post, but I will at least share some photos and two pieces of wisdom that I would want all visitors to have in mind:
Visit the Petra Museum: Just steps from the entrance to the park, the Petra Museum is a remarkably well executed exhibit that succinctly conveys the rich history of the city from the Edomite era through to that of the Byzantines. If possible, view the museum before touring the park, as it really sets the stage for what you are about to see.
Come early, stay late: As one of the seven wonders of the world, Petra is by far the most popular attraction in Jordan and probably the whole Middle East for that matter. Getting an early start or a late finish helps you not only avoid bustling crowds, but also see the monument in a new light. The park managers are also relatively lenient around closing time if you are respectful and don’t appear suspicious. By stopping for an evening tea at a small hut overlooking the Treasury, I managed to enjoy a leisurely exit through the Siq in almost complete solitude.
Day Thirteen: Petra to Little Petra (7.8mi)
I cannot say that on Day 13 we were happy to be leaving Petra, but we understood the necessity and were looking forward to what was in store the rest of our journey. Thus, we rose early and entered the park for the third and final time. The GPS had us exiting the park via a new route that took us through a nice canyon just off of the Siq. The path turned out to be a bust however, since no more than a hundred meters from where we were supposed to exit, we encountered an insurmountable rock wall. Slightly discouraged, we backtracked and took the standard way to the Monastery, through the Siq and across the Colonnaded Street.
Though delayed by our earlier mishap, we still couldn’t resist the chance to spend a little more time in the presence of the Monastery so we stopped for a long drink of tea before exiting the park from behind. This new leg of the journey wrapped us along a narrow mountain pass and spit us out back in the rolling desert foothills. Just like that, all signs of the historic site and bustling tourist attraction disappeared. Ben and I continued on for a couple uneventful miles before pausing for a long lunch break at an early Edomite excavation site. Here we found piles of stone formed into makeshift huts that a sign indicated were from 6000-8000 BC and indicative of man’s first attempt at a village lifestyle. In no hurry, we poked around before continuing on to Little Petra.
Upon arrival at the entrance of the park, we had our first and only unpleasant experience with locals. A couple men claiming to be affiliated with the park, tried to convey to us that we should stay with them in an Abu Sabuh-style homestead. We were interested, but really didn’t have the money they were hoping for. When we politely declined, one of them became upset and tried to intimidate us with threats we may be arrested for camping inside the park despite our insistence that our site was beyond the boundary. After a little back and forth, we decided to grab our things and hurry through the monument. The park proved to be a worthy stop with ornate Nabatean tombs and facades, but we were admittedly de-sensitized from our time in ‘Big Petra’. After a quick hike at a brisk pace, we exited the site via a demanding set of stairs and arrived at a gorgeous hilltop campsite.
The remainder of the night was pleasant. We had a natural fire and watched a breathtaking sunset that seemed to paint the sandstone hills in gold. The mood was slightly disrupted however, when Ben went to move a rock for the fire that broke in half and revealed a monstrous yellow scorpion beneath. It was safe to say that we slept with our boots inside our tents this night, and that turned out to be a prudent move. A week later, when consulting a hotel copy of Lonely Planet, we learned that we had encountered the particularly dangerous Deathstalker scorpion, and that they were common in the Little Petra area.
Day Fourteen: Little Petra to Ras Al-Feid (14.3mi)
A longer day on the trail got off to glorious start as we hiked a scenic ridge down to a pretty well constructed dirt road. For the first time, we spent a majority of the day working with established trails. This made the walking smooth and fast, even with close to a full load of water. The climate was also shifting, despite another day of intense sun the air felt cooler and the landscape was getting greener. We even passed a couple commercial reservoirs that gave us hope our water supply would be less of a concern over the last stretch of trail. Soon after we left the road, we were surprised to encounter a couple Americans and their guides hiking the opposite direction from Dana to Petra. It turned out that this was a much more popular section of the trail, as we would encounter a couple more trekkers over the next couple of days.
We stopped for lunch at an idyllic spot and as we had been making great progress, spent much of the day there. We held a vantage point that allowed us to see out of the mountains and down to the flat desert stretching for miles below. Far in the distance we could make out a couple of small Israeli settlements just across the border. Post-lunch, we took advantage of the cooler weather and spent a little time reading and trying to even out our incurable farmer’s tans. When we continued we were in good spirits and enjoyed great conversation as we comfortable traversed a series of ridges.
By Day 14 of our journey we had become well aware that luck never lasts too long on the Jordan Trail and that manifested itself again over the last 1.5 miles of our journey to Ras Al-Feid. The waymarked campsite turned out to be well off the beaten path, and to get there we had to make an onerous descent down a steep hillside and then an equally challenging ascent to the top of a large hill. The only positive of the taxing, 1.5 hour detour was that we stumbled upon a small water source along the way, though even that was cloudy and filled with larvae. Once situated, we found the hilltop to be incredibly windy. Even with some solid stones to anchor my pitch, I had some apprehensions about leaving my tent should it decide to take flight. Nevertheless, our stakes proved secure and the exertion of the evening made it sleep possible despite the racket from the wind pounding at our tents.
Day Fifteen: Ras Al-Feid to Wadi Malaga (8.5mi)
What we imagined to be a shorter, easier day on the trail in the end turned out to be quite a challenge. The day started with the reverse of what we had ended the previous evening with, a long backtrack to the main road with a layover at the secluded larvae pool we had discovered at the base of a stunted, gnarled tree. As mentioned previously, the water was quite off-putting, but we were running low and at this point knew much better than to pass up an opportunity to refill our HydraPaks. The refill put quite a strain on our filters, which were filthy, and altogether the process of straining and sterilizing the quantity we would need to get us through to Dana took just under 2 hours. By the time we were finished and back on the trail the sun was up and much hotter than it had been the day prior.
The real trekking for the day began in a canyon that soon turned quite lush and was fed by a small stream and series of pools. In hindsight, we wished we had gathered water from this idyllic spot, but never once did we regret our conservative approach. Too many times we had been let down by waymarked water sources that were dry or too difficult to locate. Reluctantly, after a short time in this oasis we were directed straight up a hill and out of the canyon. In such a tight spot, the GPS was very unclear regarding the best path out so the result was a free scamper up the hill. This proved difficult as the rabble was very loose, and larger rocks were frequently breaking away. Eventually, we reached the saddle, but not after overcoming a couple falls each.
Frustration persisted as we reached the the ridgeline and found ourselves facing a steep, long descent down the same tenuous rockfield on the other side. Our knees and ankles were certainly tested, and I was fortunately to come out uninjured from a decent forward fall that crunched my right elbow and wrist pretty good. When we finally reached the bottom, we were disappointed to find a slow, uneven walk the rest of the way to camp. By the time we arrived at our destination the sun was approaching the horizon. As we hastily unpacked, we were greeted by a German fellow who was coming from Dana and asked to pitch by us. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. We greatly appreciated the company after a hard day, and he was in need of the coordinates for water sources. It was fortunate that he ran into us, as he did not seem fully prepared for what was in store.
Day Sixteen: Wadi Malaga to Dana (14.6mi)
The final long push to Dana got off to a fast and early start as we wanted to make sure we made our 6:00pm pickup with plenty of time to spare. I had struggled with the campstove the night before as well, and after having fallen asleep with a half portion of exceptionally crunchy rice in my belly I was greatly looking forward to a proper meal. By 5:30am, we were loaded up and walking, just as the sun peeked over the eastern mountains to cast a soft blue glow across the rocky plains. We made quick work of the morning stretch as we found the ground leaving Wadi Malaga to be much more stable than it was coming in.
By midday, we had already passed the Edomite ruins and the posh Feynan Ecolodge, a popular respite for weary Jordan Trail travelers. Eventually, we bent our way back towards the hills and found ourselves at the base of a long, narrow canyon that was the last thing standing between us and our finish line, the old city of Dana 2.5 miles away. Even from this distance however, we could see a massive set of switchbacks at the end of the gorge, so we decided to take a break to recuperate before this final test.
After an hour or so of lounging in the shade and drinking what water we had left, we set off determined to cap off our adventure. In an hour we had reached the switchbacks and were tantalizingly close. It was a soul-crushing vertical climb, but after 30min. or so of numbly putting one foot in front of the other, we reached the top! The town was quiet as it was the first week of Ramadan and all the locals were fasting, but fortunately there was a hotel nearby and a couple of employees welcomed us with open arms. They made for good company as we recounted our journey with them until our ride showed up. Generously, they opened a nearby convenience store just for us so that we could get a bite to eat despite the local restrictions and best of all, we got a camel’s bath as they sprayed us each down with a loose garden hose. It was a unceremonious, yet memorable conclusion to an incredibly challenging but rewarding trek.