Trip report: Dana Biosphere Reserve, Jordan
David Hewitt explores one of Jordan's most biodiverse regions, the Dana Biosphere Reserve, a little known wildlife tourist destination, and falls for its charms and exotic birdlife
"Yalla! Yalla!" whispers Usama insistently. "Come on, let's go!" he repeats, this time in English, doing his best to will me onwards and upwards despite the heat of a late Jordanian summer.
Fresh from a year-long exchange at South Africa's Kruger National Park, my guide is keen take me to his favourite spot, a ridge overlooking the inner core of the Dana Biosphere Reserve. For an hour we follow a trail that takes us past the natural Nabatean Caves, used as both hiding places and places of worship by some of the very earliest Christians until, eventually, we arrive at the one place Usama missed more than any other during his time in South Africa. And it's not difficult to see quite why he never tires of returning here. From our vantage point, atop sheer sandstone cliffs, we look down on a valley of jagged limestone dotted with juniper trees. In the other direction, the vertiginous cliffs become steadily less extreme, eventually giving way to hills and then, in the far distance, the flat sands stretching across to Israel.
However, it's the sounds rather than the sights that really grab the attention.
The loud calls of rock hyrax sentries bounce off the cliff walls, while the whistles of Tristram's starlings and the distinctive clicking of the chukar – a plump, patridge-like bird, that is unsurprisingly a favourite of the local Bedouin cooks – only adds to the din down below. Frustratingly, aside from a couple of Griffon vultures circling menacingly overhead and a lesser kestrel hovering in the distance, the animal watching gets off to a slow start, with Jordan's wildlife very much heard but not seen.
"Yallah," says Usama, already starting back for dinner and a well-deserved glass of sweet tea. "We will have more luck in the morning, inshallah."
A three-hour drive south from Amman along the King's Highway – an ancient trade route that took us through bustling university cities and past Crusader castles and countless biblical sites – the Dana Biosphere Reserve is the largest protected area in Jordan and the jewel in the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature's (RSCN) ecotourism crown. Covering 320 square kilometres, it's also by some distance the most biodiverse part of the country, encompassing four distinct ecosystems, ranging from mountains reaching 1,700 metres high through to the harsh deserts of the Wabi Arabia, 50 metres below sea level. In all, 45 species of mammal, 25 of which are classified by the IUCN as endangered, are found here, among them red foxes, wolves, caracals and the Nubian ibex. Living alongside them are around 180 species of bird and an estimated 600 species of plant, most of which are found nowhere else in the country.
Despite this rich biodiversity, Dana remains largely off the tourist map. Indeed, while visitors may flock in their thousands to see the ancient city of Petra and other archeological wonders, Jordan as a whole is still finding its feet as an ecotourism destination. Even in the early spring when, thanks to its location on the western edge of the Rift Valley, the skies above are transformed into a busy flight path for migrating birds, and in particular, for more than a dozen raptor species, rangers and guides are likely to outnumber their guests.
To a degree, my guide tells me, this is intentional. Visitor numbers are strictly regulated, with no more than a few dozen tourists allowed within the boundaries of the park at any one time. And while tourists are able to choose from a number of guest houses in Dana Village on the edge of the reserve, if you want to stay in the 'core zones', then the only overnight options are the multi-award-winning Feynan ecolodge and the Rumman campsite.
It's at the campsite where I'm able to put the disappointments of my first evening in Dana behind me and see, rather than just hear Jordan's wildlife. There's no denying that, though comfortable, it's a basic affair; large canvas tents with foam mattresses, simple vegetarian cuisine and nothing more than conversation and endless shisha smoked in an open-sided Beduoin tent for an evening's entertainment. On the plus side, such a lack of distractions mean I'm up with the first call to prayer of the day, just before the dawn. But even then, I'm not the first person in the hide closest to the campsite, a shabby shed installed just a few metres from a watering hole shielded by small juniper trees.
My fellow early riser, an elderly Saudi gentleman, speaks as much English as I do Arabic and so we sit in silence, waiting for the new day to begin. Within minutes of the sun coming up, the watering hole is alive with activity; Palestinian sunbirds and then Syrian serines with their distinctive bright yellow and grey plumage start to arrive in twos or threes. Along with several Mourning Wheatear and a pair of Sinai rosefinches they loiter, cautious and alert, for several minutes before settling down to drink and then departing as swiftly as they arrived.
Then, sensing something that I, a sleep-deprived urbanite cannot, my companion sits up straight and gets his camera ready. At that moment, a small family of ibex emerge over a boulder and, in single file, head to the watering hole. In all, eight ibex, including two juveniles, come almost within touching distance of the hide, the males' over-sized curved horns and black shaggy beards giving them an unexpectedly comical appearance. They drink in silence, completely oblivious to the clicking of cameras just yards from their heads, and then, as swiftly as they emerged, scamper back down into the valley below like seasoned Lake District fell runners.
Back at the camp, over yet more sweet tea, Malik Al Awaji, the head ecologist at the reserve, tells me with great pride how the Nubian ibex is Dana's great conservation success story. "The ibex wasn't just hunted for food. Its natural shyness, its climbing ability and the way it can simply disappear into the cliffs has always made it the ultimate test of a Beduoin hunter's skill. For centuries, tracking and killing ibex was the mark of a man." Given this, teaching local people about the potential benefits of conservation and ecotourism has been just as important as providing them with alternative sources of income, such as employing the men as guides and creating jobs for women growing herbs that are packaged on site and sold right across the Middle East.
Clearly, the work is paying off: back in 1995, when Jordan launched the Middle East's first real community-focused approach to conservation, there were just five individual ibex found in Dana. Now, the latest studies suggest there are close to 400, around a third of the total global population. Such a remarkable turnaround is, says Malik, a source of immense pride among Jordan's conservationists, and so its hardly surprising that the ibex was long ago designated the flagship species of the RSCN.
The team at Dana are clearly just as proud of the way they have successfully found the ideal balance between the ecology and tourism parts of ecotourism. An afternoon trek along the ridges above the Rumana campsite shows just how well thought out the overall project is. In the distance, the refurbished Ottoman-era Dana village is almost invisible, so well have the architects blended the guesthouse and other buildings into the landscape, while the path to Petra, a full two days' walk away, is clearly sign-posted, giving more intrepid adventurers than I the chance to see the very best of the country on foot.
"This isn't like the Kruger experience," explains Usama, thinking back to his time on an exchange programme designed to give Jordan's rangers and guides the chance to learn from their South African counterparts. "Here you could be waiting a long time for that memorable sighting. But when you combine that with a strictly-controlled limit on tourists, history stretching back thousands of years, four different ecosystems and, let's not forget, the Bedouin hospitality, then we think we're onto something special."
The following morning brings much of the same: up just before dawn to watch the birds and the ibex come and drink before accompanying Usama and his assistants to check the half-dozen camera traps they've dotted around Dana's core zone in the hope of learning more about some of its more charismatic yet elusive residents. Though it's with some sadness that we discover that the cameras have captured nothing of note over the past few days, as our truck slowly climbs out of the valley, passing rangers on donkeys heading the other way, we're lucky enough to spot a sooty falcon flying overhead, a fine finish to a long weekend away from it all. After a few bumpy minutes, we're onto proper paved roads for the first time in five days. Petra, and the chance to live out life-long Indiana Jones fantasies awaits.
Cost Rating: Return flights from London to Amman in Jordan cost from around £320 return per person, depending on the dates you travel, with transfers to Dana around £30. One night's accommodation at the Dana costs around £60 half-board, and one night at the Rummana Campsite costs around £30.
Getting There: British Airways and Royal Jordanian all fly direct from London to Amman, with a flight time of under five hours. If you're travelling independently, staff at the RSCN visitor centre in Amman can help you with onward travel and make advance reservations for accommodation in the reserve.
Visa Requirements from the UK: Holders of valid UK passports do require a visa to visit Jordan. However, these can be obtained upon arrival at the airport for a fee of around £20.
Tips and Warnings: Unlike some other destinations in the Middle East, Jordan is safe to visit and very welcoming of visitors. Your number one concern, then, will be securing accommodation within the Dana Biosphere Reserve. Again, spaces are limited, so advance booking is highly recommended. This can be done either online, through the RSCN, or through the Wild Jordan café and visitor centre in downtown Amman.
There are some short, self-guided trails within the reserve, particularly surrounding the Rumman Campsite. However, if you do want to do any serious trekking, you should go with a guide as it's very easy to get lost and temperatures can plummet overnight.
When to go: The Dana Biosphere Reserve is open year-round. However, at the height of summer (July and August), temperatures can soar to above 100 degrees, while in January and February, temperatures can drop significantly, with snow even falling in some parts of the country. So, spring, autumn and early summer are the best times to visit as temperatures will be pleasant, though the ruins of Petra may be unbearably crowded. If you're travelling just for wildlife, consider visiting Dana in early spring, when the skies are full with migrating raptors and storks.
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