Travelling solo in Jordan? Take a tour to unlock this kingdom's treasures
Strangers become fast friends when doing things like floating in the Dead Sea and visiting ancient cities in the Middle East, writes Mandy Appleyard
I turn and twist, holding my breath, the weight of tumbling water forcing me downwards and deafening me: I feel like a sock in a washing machine. A 30m high waterfall thunders on to the surface above me and I'm pushed at speed along the river at the bottom of a steep canyon, surfacing when a hand grabs mine to pull me to the calm of the shallows.
That welcome hand belongs to my fellow traveller, Heather, one of 21 people with whom I'm exploring the Middle Eastern kingdom of Jordan. We howl with laughter, hysterical with adrenaline at the halfway point of our first experience of "canyoning".
We jump from slippery outcrops into the churning water below, encouraged by each other. When Heather is grabbed by a current and pulled towards a sheer drop, Kim, another newfound friend, screams out for the guide, who snares her life jacket and snaps her to safety.
This beyond-exhilarating, two-hour swim, trek and climb is a fine metaphor for the holiday we are sharing, an exotic and unfamiliar environment forging a spirit of camaraderie among intrepid strangers.
That night, eating baba ganoush, hummus, flatbreads and tabbouleh in an open-air restaurant beside the Dead Sea at the lowest point of land on Earth (and with the worst service on Earth), 15 of us relive our afternoon of excitement in the Wadi Mujib Biosphere Reserve. Grazed, bruised and in fear of how sore we will be tomorrow, we toast how alive we feel today.
We are nannies and finance officers, retired teachers and HR execs, aged from 23 to 70, some of us from the UK, others from Canada and Australia, some gregarious and confident, others shy and nervous. Three couples, one family, the rest of us solo, we're together on an eight-day tour of a country celebrated as much for its stability as its ancient history.
For me, the tour starts with a whimper and ends with a bang. I am underwhelmed by Amman, the capital: a tangle of dust, traffic, hustlers and highways.
Jabal Al Lweibdeh, which my guidebook promises is an area packed with quirky cafés, independent shops and cultural stops, seems to be closed on the afternoon I visit.
"Where are the shops? Or the museums?" I ask a tourist policeman in a kiosk on Paris Square.
"Over there," he says, pointing to the Jordanian equivalent of a Tesco Express store.
I find more charm in the cafés and bookshops on Rainbow Street, where a passion-fruit iced bubble tea sets me back R50. The best falafel I've ever eaten costs me R14 at Al Quds.
I enjoy Wild Jordan, a complex housing a shop, café, gallery and terrace overlooking the old city. Owned by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, the centre generates income for the rural communities of eight Jordanian reserves and promotes ecotourism. The Jordan Museum is a must, as is the ancient hilltop citadel.
Even so, I'm happy to leave Amman.
We head north to Jerash to see the 2,000-year-old ruins of what was once a prominent Graeco-Roman city. We visit Mount Nebo, the site from which Moses saw the Promised Land. We look out across the Golan Heights, then see the mosaics of Madaba.
It is in Petra, on day three, that the tour takes flight for me, after a trek through a steep-sided gorge suddenly reveals the ruined sixth-century city, crowned in 2007 as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
We stare at the facade of the famous Treasury, the space in front of it cluttered by hundreds of tourists, hawkers, camels and horses for hire. It is a remarkable sight and I sit with three of my fellow travellers to absorb it. Moments like these are why people like me who travel solo sometimes enjoy a tour: there's company if you want it, solitude if you don't; shared experiences if you fancy them, with often like-minded people.
I would happily travel alone in Jordan because it's small, organised and easily navigable, with a good reputation as far as personal safety goes, but taking a tour offers different opportunities.
I would never have gone canyoning alone and experiences such as floating in the Dead Sea, riding a donkey up the hills of Petra and camping in the desert were more fun for being shared.
As we venture beyond the Treasury, along a wide plain studded with Petra's many other jewels - a monastery, temples, a Roman colonnaded street, 500 tombs, sandstone caves shot with blue, orange and pink minerals, stalls selling frankincense, an amphitheatre - the four of us agree that Petra is the main reason we've travelled to Jordan.
I have travelled widely but never to the Middle East on holiday, since ancient ruins, deserts, religious sites and scorching sun are not my thing. Give me the wet cool of a rainforest any day.
Still, the fact that this is a stable country in a deeply troubled region is one of the reasons nearly 4.2 million tourists visited Jordan in 2017: the plan is to increase that to seven million by 2020.
The country's historical and religious sites are the main draw, as well as spa holidays on the Dead Sea and diving off Aqaba, the Red Sea port. The launch in 2015 of the 644km Jordan Trail, which runs the length of the country, is now attracting trekkers, too.
On our day-trip to Petra we clock up 21km of walking, according to a Fitbit, and survive a hilarious donkey ride up 800 steps, which results in a meltdown by an Australian woman in our group who fears she is heading over the cliff side.
"Get me off this thing NOW!" she yells in panic across Petra, while the rest of us sustain grazes and scrapes when our donkeys walk too close to the rocks on either side.
We travel in 4x4 vehicles to the desert at Wadi Rum - a majestic landscape of towering sandstone mountains, natural arches and canyons - for what is the highlight of my trip.
Arriving at our camp at sunset, we perch on a rock to watch the sky turn orange. We are silent as darkness falls across ancient riverbeds, stretches of desert and humped mountains, and within an hour the sky is star-packed.
After a dinner of lentil soup, baked vegetables and chicken, a couple of the younger members of our group decide to sleep outside, while the rest of us fumble with head torches and bed down in tiny fabric-covered sheds.
By this point our initial enthusiasm for hummus, tabbouleh and myriad other mushy vegetable and garlic appetisers is waning. We are weary of lamb, beef and chicken because every meal includes them.
Desperate for variety, we buy pistachio nuts and plump dates as big as eggs, then delicate almond biscuits, sesame seed pastries and baklava. We drink fresh pomegranate juice squeezed at roadside stalls.
Alcohol is available in the country but not widely so - earlier in the week we stopped at a liquor shop to buy gin and beer - until we arrive at our five- star hotel on the Dead Sea, where we relish beers, cocktails and R130 glasses of Jordanian sauvignon blanc as we watch the sun setting over the West Bank.
On our final morning, we can't get into the Dead Sea fast enough. We cover ourselves in the thick seaside mud then let it dry in the sun before plunging into the lukewarm water, there to float at more than 400m below sea level.
Someone gets seawater in their eye and shouts out in pain, another tries to swim but doesn't have the weight to do so. Cuts and grazes sting, and the water feels gloopy, like thin oil. As we giggle and splash around like kids, I realise I've laughed a lot this week.
You don't belly-laugh much when you're on your own, and that's good reason enough to have signed up for a tour. - The Sunday Telegraph