"Sari, I think you're going to have to buy your sister a new car."
Hurtling through the blackness outside the Wadi Rum nature reserve in search of our campsite, Sari our driver-fixer-cycling guide – a true to life Swiss Army knife of a man – is applying more accelerator pedal to the problem of being lost in the Jordanian desert.
The reason for the 'new car' quip, is that Sari has hit a large bump that sends reverberations juddering through the chassis of the car. This is not the first one either, nor is it a small one. The rises come where the road crosses the raised bed of the Hejaz railway line, most famous for being blown up by Lawrence of Arabia. The road and the railway are intertwined, so we cross it more than once. Each time the railway is unlit, and we don’t see the sudden rise coming until it’s way too late to slow down.
"We got on the bikes at noon on a road that most maps deny exists"
It feels like the Citroen C3 leaves the earth, but it's hard to tell in the starlight where we end and terra firms begins – whether we’re truly airborne, or just flying weightless, headlong along the tarmac. We are suspended in the inky black.
What we can see for sure is the bike rack bearing £4,000 of carbon and steel bouncing crazily in the rearview, illuminated by the taillights. It’s a nervous end to a day that crossed from the difficult to the divine.
We met Sari a week ago when he took us out riding mountain bikes on the deserted gravel roads between Amman and the Dead Sea. Then, he brought his company car, a Cycling Jordan-branded pick up truck, with space for six bikes in the flatbed. It was the ideal vehicle for cycle guiding – rugged enough to tackle a variable road surface, with enough capacity for a couple of riders to take a breather inside the car with their bikes secure in the back.
When he turned up seven days later in his sister’s borrowed Citroen, we were perturbed. Would we all fit in the car? Me, the photographer and Sari, plus luggage, for an overnight stay in a desert campsite. Plus two bikes, of course, on a bouncy plastic bike rack out back.
"It feels, for a moment, like we’ve died and gone to some ancient idea of heaven"
We did all fit, but it was a cramped ride down to Feynan, where we started our ride.
We got on the bikes at noon on a road that most maps deny exists. A pristine ribbon of twisting, bucking tarmac built in the nineties by the Jordanian Army; a means of keeping thousands of soldiers busy, while they awaited a call to war.
They did not build it for cyclists, that’s for sure. The road takes anything but the straightest path, choosing always to take a tougher or more circuitous route between two points. We drag ourselves up and over these lumps in the road, only to spot three more rises as we peek above the parapet. It’s baffling, because it’s not like there is anything to navigate around. It is all just empty desert.
After the lower slopes are dealt with, the road reaches high enough that it sticks to a more predictable path – albeit a very steep one. The dunes disappear and are replaced by red rock. We cycle past a very improbable ‘cafe’. A wooden structure resembling a portakabin with a picture of a coffee cup drawn on a board. There is nobody there, but a Jordanian flag flaps in the wind.
As far as we know, nobody has ever cycled up this road before. Sari, the Sage of all things cycling, says nobody has ridden it. There’s no records on Strava of anyone even attempting it on a bike. Jordan, is not exactly teeming with riders anyway and Sari knows almost all of those who do come here in some capacity or other.
"This valley paradise, this Elysium"
So when, standing atop the mountain, Sari tells us we were the first to do the Mt Proywe climb, we believe him.
Unbeknownst to us, the hard part is not over. Yes, we have crested the climb – rewarding ourselves with a high five and a toot of a water bottle – but after that hiatus we instantly plunge down into a ravine. The road jags up and down for a while, we ride through a patch of sand. All around us is rock and stringy, sad-looking vegetation.
We battle up and down, before finally reaching a high-mountain valley. Instantly everything turns green. The land becomex verdant, rich in life and scattered with human landmarks. It feels, for a moment, like we’ve died and gone to some ancient idea of heaven.
How could it be so green, when the rocks and road we climbed to get there were so dry and red? This valley paradise, this Elysium.
Few are the moments in life, whether atheist or otherwise, when we are confronted with absolute certainty. At that moment though, with synapses drenched in 'the hard part's over' endorphins, I knew that some kind of god made this place and me and that, if He wills it, everything in life is going to be alright.
That night it was hard to process what we’d seen. After rattling around in the back of the Citroen for a couple of hours, we arrived at the campsite.
Campsite, it’s fair to say, is a bit of an undersell. Captain’s Desert Camp is a comfortable, semi-permanent settlement in the desert – with running water and delicious dinner barbecued over an open fire pit, in a room lined with scatter cushions and beaten-up old carpets. As the smoke from the fire filled the room with heat and our ravenous bellies slowly filled up on meat, mutabal and sugary-sweet tea we wondered, had it even been real – that valley – or a shared fever dream?
We would later learn that the land at the top of the Mt Proywe climb is kept green by waste water pumped up there from the nearest towns to encourage plant growth for grazing. Not god's almighty radiance, then, but man's humble reused effluence.