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Cycling Jordan: A guide to ten days in this magical country

Emily Conrad-Pickles reveals what it’s like to cycle one of the most iconic ancient trading routes in the world. All images James Davis.

TWC reader Emily Conrad-Pickles is riding from London to Cape Town. She outlined the start of the journey here, and in this post she reveals what it’s like to cycle one of the most iconic ancient trading routes in the world: Jordan’s King’s Highway – and details how you can do the trip yourself.

“Jordan is like the eye of the storm – over there you can see Israel and just a few hundred kilometers away is Iraq. My country is surrounded by problems but what people don’t realise is how peaceful it is here. It is such a shame”

It’s 3pm and the sun is still high in the sky; it’s hot and we’re sipping tea in a Beduoin tent. We’re taking a much needed break from a long and tough hill climb out of the Wadi Mujib; Jordan’s ‘Grand Canyon’. In front of us is a magnificent view that seems to go on forever and we feel like we are the only people in the entire valley.

We could stay here for hours and admire the view – it is a welcome reward for cycling up such a grueling climb. We get chatting to Sammi, the café owner who tells us about the surrounding area. Sammi tells us: “Jordan is like the eye of the storm – over there you can see Israel and just a few hundred kilometers away is Iraq. My country is surrounded by problems but what people don’t realise is how peaceful it is here. It is such a shame.”

That’s the problem that Jordan faces though: perception

Jordan is a joy to cycle through, and we completely fell in love with this country: a country so peaceful and friendly that you would never know that this beautiful oasis is surrounded by trouble. That’s the problem that Jordan faces though: perception. Jordan is not at war, nor does it have any safety issues whatsoever.

We recently travelled the length of Jordan on bicycles as part of our journey to cycle from London to Cape Town. Throughout our stay in Jordan this beautiful country consistently inspired us, from the strikingly beautiful landscapes, incredibly friendly welcome from everyone we met and a country so packed full of history, it is hard to find many reasons not to visit.

By exploring Jordan on bicycle, you’ll be able to experience the country at your own pace and at times you’ll feel that you are the only ones enjoying the spectacular views. It will take you to the lowest place on earth, the Dead Sea, and up to stunning mountains, gorges, pine forests, desert wilderness, UNESCO World Heritage sites and beach resorts. It won’t all be easy riding, however you’ll have the opportunity to take on some spectacular hill climbs into and out of gorges through this ancient holy land.

The Jordanian Tourist Board helped us to put together an itinerary to give you a flavour of cycling Jordan…

Day One: Arrival in Amman

Amman is the capital of Jordan; a buzzy and friendly city that will give you a very easygoing taste of the Middle East. We flew to Amman with Royal Jordanian (we had hoped to cycle overland from Turkey but the war in Syria prevented this for us) with bikes in cardboard boxes and had no issues whatsoever.

If you’re travelling with your own bike, I’d advise arranging some transport from the airport ahead of arrival or be willing to pay for one taxi per person/bike (around £20 a head). I’d recommend a couple of days in Amman to see the city but you can do this at the end of your trip. There are plenty of hotels to choose from in Amman however we stayed in the North West of the city to allow us to escape the city early the next morning via the back roads. Amman is hilly so you will need to bare this in mind.

Day Two: From Amman to the Dead Sea – 59km

See the route here.

There is everything to enjoy about cycling to the lowest place on earth, it’s downhill all the way to 420 meters below sea level! It’s not a beautiful journey and it’s worth setting off early in the morning to have as much time to relax on arrival. The Dead Sea has little variety in hotels, they are all resort-based hotels and there is nothing to do outside the resort so therefore it’s best just to embrace a night in luxury.

With 34% salt content, the water is so saline that you cannot swim. Floating is the only option – people pay a fortune in London to lie in flotation tanks so keep your eyes closed, relax and enjoy the surreal experience.

There are a selection of resort hotels to choose from at the Dead Sea with little difference in price between the average and the luxury.

Day Three: Dead Sea to Madaba 50km

See the route here.

We left the Dead Sea after breakfast ready for a long climb uphill. However, I think we slightly underestimated this climb. At 45km in length, it weaves its way from 400m below sea level to over 1,000m in height with absolutely nothing in between.

Everyone will want to offer you a lift – such is the hospitable nature of the people in Jordan

If you’re travelling independently it’s vital you take ample water and food with you – it may not seem far but it’s a tough (but nonetheless exceptionally beautiful) climb. Expect to be stopped by passers by who will want to offer you water and food, some might think you’d want a cigarette and almost everyone will want to offer you a lift – such is the hospitable nature of the people in Jordan.

As touring cyclists, we were travelling with a lot of weight, which makes long climbs extremely slow so we were glad to arrive in Madaba at the end of a long, hot day. However, if you’re planning to ride without weight, you might want to consider adding on a loop up Mount Nebo onto your day.

If you’re not too tired after the climb, Madaba is worth exploring on arrival and it’s home to a collection of interesting mosaics from the Byzantine era.

There is a selection of reasonably prices guesthouses in Madaba to choose from (watch out for the website music!).

Day Four: Madaba to Karak 100km

See the route here.

Now we’re on the King’s highway for real. The road out of Karak is unremarkable but nonetheless it’s mainly flat for the first section until you reach the top of the famous Wadi Mujib – “Jordan’s Grand Canyon”.

The ride down is spectacular – I’m dreadful at descending but it’s perfect if you like descents with lots of sharp corners to put your weight behind and few cars to worry about. Once at the bottom you’ll ride across the big Mjuib Dam before heading back up the other (steeper of course) side. The climb out of the Wadi Mujib is epic in every way.

It’s definitely a climb where you need to convince yourself of your sanity – but we’re cyclists, and that’s normal for us right?

The sun was beating down on us and it was HOT. Yet on every right hand bend right, we had a strong headwind which was both a blessing and a curse. It wasn’t long before we settled into the climb. It’s definitely a climb where you need to convince yourself of your sanity – but we’re cyclists, and that’s normal for us right? The climb will push you to your limits at times but just before the top, you’ll chance upon a few cafes with views to die for. Definitely stop, have a sweet tea and some water and spend some time looking at the extraordinary views ahead of you and remind yourself why we dream of cycling to such places. It is magical.

From the top of the Mujib, there is another undulating 30km along the King’s highway to Karak Castle. A new hotel is about to open just overlooking the castle that will make Karak more accessible to those looking to spend the night there.

Day Five: Karak to Dana Nature Reserve 99km

See the route here.

The road to Dana certainly offers a variety of smaller gorges and hills to climb – but it’s worth it, as along the way you will experience an ever-changing dramatic landscape with fantastic viewpoints.

The road is called the King’s Highway and is one of the oldest trading roads in the world. It’s incredible to think of all the people who have travelled there before you, some thousands of years ago – it is certainly humbling to think of how hard it would have been back then on a horse, or even on foot.

The giant gorge hosts a number of separate ecosystems meaning it could be snowing on the top in the winter and 20 degrees at the bottom

The destination at the end of this section is the beautiful Dana Nature Reserve – the largest nature reserve in Jordan and home to an impressive amount of wildlife including hyenas and eagle owls. The landscape of the reserve is immense with a giant gorge that hosts a number of separate ecosystems meaning it could be snowing on the top in the winter and 20 degrees at the bottom! If you enjoy hiking then I’d recommend pressing pause and spending a few days here. There are a few hotels to choose from in the historical Dana Village and if you have some more time you can camp out in the canyon.

Day Six: Dana Nature Reserve to Petra 65km

See the route here.

The road from Dana to Petra is undulating but relatively straightforward with no major climbs – although you will still see around 900m of ascent! Along the way you will pass flocks of wandering camels and Shobak Castle, which is worth stopping off to take a peek at.

The ancient city of Petra is in a valley accessed from the town Wadi Musa that is sprawled across a steep valley and home to some of the steepest roads I have ever cycled up or down. We enjoyed the descent and we checked into our hotel by Petra park gates to relax before a day of sightseeing the next day.

Day Seven: Exploring Petra

This stunning archeological and historical site dates back to 400BC and is home to some unbelievable buildings that are carved into the rocks. The city has been fully excavated and there is an extraordinary amount to see from the iconic Treasury building through to Roman amphitheatres and hundreds of caves and tombs.

You could easily spend a few days exploring Petra but you can squeeze it all into one day if you are willing to get up early and don’t mind walking up and down hills for 8 hours – it’s definitely doable!

Day Eight: Petra to Wadi Rum 101km

See the route here.

Petra is at the bottom of a valley, which naturally means that your ride will start with a punchy climb back onto the King’s Highway. After the climb however, the route is undulating but on good quality roads with a decent hard shoulder.

After 90km you’ll turn off the main road and follow the desert road to Rum Village. Here you’ll find yourself transported into yet another world entirely as you enter this protected landscape of dramatic desert wilderness. The unique pink and orange colours of the sand add to the beauty of Wadi Rum with their colours really coming to life for sunrise and sunset. At the park gate you will need to buy a ticket into the protected area where you can then arrange tours and accommodation or meet your pre-arranged guide.

Leaving your bikes at the information centre or in the village you’ll then be whisked away in a 4×4 to your Bedouin camp. You can easily spend a few days here – there is camel trekking, hiking, rock climbing, sand boarding and much more to keep you entertained and with no internet or phone reception it’s a perfect place to switch off from the outside world.

Day Nine: Wadi Rum to Aqaba – 82km

See the route here.

Once again you’ll enjoy good roads and ever-changing landscapes on this ride. Starting in the desert at Wadi Rum this route will take you back out onto the King’s Highway where you’ll turn south towards the Red Sea.

When we cycled this section, we were into a strong headwind, which limited our speed and made it hard going however, knowing a sandy beach is waiting for you at the end is a good motivator!

The last 20km of this route will see the landscape change once more as you enter a series of dramatic granite mountains that are decorated with huge black streaks of volcanic rock illustrating the immense geological history of this country that sits in-between the African and Asian tectonic plates. There is plenty of offer at the Red Sea but don’t expect a Mediterranean beach resort. There are resort hotels on offer and a large range of smaller guesthouses – most of which offering Scuba dives and courses.

Go on – arrange a trip!

It could not be easier to arrange a trip to cycle around Jordan; it comes with a huge recommendation, and should be on any cyclist’s bucket list. We stayed as guests of the Tourist Board on this section of our adventure however there is a decent variety of accommodation options throughout Jordan to choose from (as well as places you could easily camp).

There are also some good cycling tour companies in Jordan as well if you’d prefer someone else to arrange everything for you. You can read our full blog on cycling Jordan on our website and if you are a fan of Matt Damon, you can see for yourself some just how beautiful Jordan is by watching the new Blockbuster film The Martian.

Find out more about Emily Conrad-Pickles, the trip, and the charity she and her riding partner are raising money for, here.

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