The world's richest men clearly don't know about Wadi Rum Reserve in Jordan. Otherwise, they wouldn't be dropping billions to send humans to the Red Planet. Yet, while building rockets may be a better use of their unparalleled wealth than feeding the world's poor, it does beg the question: “Why go to Mars when you can experience all its inhospitality and desolation right here on Earth?”
Wadi Rum Reserve looks like a dumping ground for Jordan's surplus sand, rocks, and mountains.
Wadi Rum Reserve's red-rock wilderness is an extraordinary patch of desert biome. It's a protected area in the southern part of Jordan, known for its stunning desert landscape, its historical significance, and its complete lack of a Starbucks.
Covering some 280 square miles, Wadi Rum Reserve is the largest wadi (or “valley”) in the country of Jordan. Its name, Wadi Rum, means “Valley of the Moon,” most likely, because Ancient Jordanians hadn't seen high-resolution photos of Mars yet. That's the problem with naming places before the telescope was invented.
The visual similarity between Wadi Rum Reserve and any recent rover photos of Mars is uncanny. Aside from the blue sky and occasional camel, you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the two locations.
Of course, just because NASA hasn't seen camels on Mars yet doesn't mean they don't exist there. It could just mean that Martian Camels are smart enough not to be caught on camera. They could be hiding in caves, buried in sand, or behind telephone polls when the Perseverance rover passes by. After all, the last thing these distant dromedaries need is a bunch of terrestrial tourists ruining a good thing.
Wadi Rum is Hollywood's go-to film location for alien worlds.
Wadi Rum's desert landscape provides a badass backdrop for fantasy and sci-fi films, as well as anything set in the Middle East. Here's just a partial list of famous movies that were shot in Wadi Rum.
- Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
- Red Planet (2000)
- Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)
- Prometheus (2012)
- The Last Days on Mars (2013)
- The Martian (2015)
- Rogue One: Star Wars (2016)
- Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker (2019)
Our journey didn't take seven months or require a pricey spacecraft.
Instead of riding an Atlas V-541 rocket to Jordan's Wadi Rum Reserve, as we'd expected, our tourist foursome was driven there in the flatbed of a sketchy, '90s-era Toyota pickup truck. A truck whose air filter was clearly choked with sand, judging from the difficulty its owner had keeping it running.
We were “seated” on one of two wooden benches placed opposite each other within either side of the truck bed. This arrangement positioned us dangerously high in the back of a moving vehicle. And, I'm not even sure the seats were bolted down.
This enormous OSHA-violation of a seating configuration nonetheless exposed our eyes to a spectacular panorama of the reserve's sandy scenery. At the same time, it exposed our eyes, noses, and teeth to an astonishing plethora of flying insects.
In my experience, there's far too much life on Mars.
With Martian camels, you have to expect Martian flies, and there were a lot of them. Unlike Earth flies, however, Martian flies are aggressive and fearless. They're not put off by half-assed swatting, flailing your arms around, or cursing loudly at them. You need to make actual, physical contact before they'll fly away. You need to punch them in the face. But, even then, they'll just buzz, “That all you got, bitch?!?” Wadi Rum's bastard mosquitos are just as bad, so pack Sawyer Insect Repellent.
Life on Mars is hard. On your ass, too.
Surprisingly, the ride itself wasn't too bad as long as we stayed on the road, but we didn't stay there for long. At the edge of town, the pavement ended, and our 12-year-old driver steered his wheezing pickup truck straight out into the desert valley.
The second we turned off-road, our previously tolerable transportation went all “Mad Max, Thunder Road” on us. The rocky, uneven ground beat on the truck's suspension, and those damn wooden benches pounded our asses like we were pledging a fraternity. We were more than relieved to dismount the craft when our driver finally stopped at the bottom of a huge, orange sand dune that looked straight outta the Sahara.
Thankfully, Wadi Rum Reserve isn't all mountains.
Hollywood movies gave me the impression that deserts, like the Sahara, were entirely made of smooth, sandy dunes. But, in reality, much of them are vast expanses of sandy or rocky terrain, sparse vegetation, and often phallic geological formations.
But the spot we stopped was where the wind had whipped the area's lightweight sand into a cliff-corner, like dust bunnies accumulating under your couch. Except, the end result wouldn't easily get sucked up by a Dyson® vacuum.
This mammoth sand dune rose about four stories behind the cliff. We hiked up to the top for no good reason other than, “It was there,” and “We'd paid good money for this tour.” We slid back down after the requisite selfies, and then climbed around on the surrounding rocks until it was time to learn.
People have been making rock art in Wadi Rum ever since there were people.
Wadi Rum Reserve is home to some of the oldest rock art in the world, but not like the psychedelic cover art for “Yes” albums. I mean, bad art. Barely art. Stuff your kid could do if you gave him a Dremel tool and let him loose on a neighbor's boulder.
Called petroglyphs, these rock inscriptions were carved by prehistoric civilizations in the cliffs all around Wadi Rum. They offer a rare window into humanity's earliest attempts at defacing the side of cliffs. For later, and better, wall carvings, see Petra.
Over 20,000 petroglyphs and inscriptions have been documented in Wadi Rum, tracing human existence here back some 12,000 years. This rock art, which dates back to around 10,000 BCE, often depicts animals, hunting scenes, and human figures asking for directions out of the desert.
Wadi Rum Reserve is home to both celebrities, and real stars.
Due to its remote location and lack of light pollution (i.e., civilization), Wadi Rum Reserve has one of the clearest and darkest night skies in the world. Not surprisingly, it's home to a number of astronomy observatories, though visitors can see the Milky Way just fine with the naked eye.
Of course, prospective stargazers should take precautions before venturing out. For example, you should make peace with being alone in 280 miles of pitch-black desert with a high likelihood of getting lost and slowly freezing to death. Maybe make peace with your god(s), while you're at it.
Everyone should visit Wadi Rum, and probably soon.
If you're not a multi-billionaire looking for a “Planet B” to inhabit once your “carbon footprint” stomps out all human life on Planet A, Wadi Rum Reserve could be the closest you'll ever get to visiting another world. But is leaving Earth something you really want? I only ask, because I was a real space-nerd as a kid (space ladies are hot).
Yet, after visiting Wadi Rum, I no longer want to leave Earth—like, ever. I just can't imagine living on a planet this hostile without electricity, Internet, or my absolute minimum happiness requirement: breathable air.