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“You’re going where? And you’re taking the kids?” That was the reaction when Pete Coombs told friends he was taking his whole family to Jordan for the autumn half term

camels in wadi rum

When I told my wife I was thinking of cycling from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea I was firmly told that there would be some very big repercussions if I went to Jordan without her.

So wanting a bit of Autumn sunshine – rather than a divorce – I put the cycle trip on hold and organised a family trip (in-laws included!) to the rose-red city of Petra and beyond.

In my humble opinion, there is nothing more exciting and adventurous than experiencing an alien culture; and nothing more memorable, nor important, for a child’s developing mind, than to see that we aren’t all the same. We eat different things, we speak different languages, we expect different things from life, we travel on different modes of transport, and as my 5-year-old son found out by spraying the whole of our hotel bathroom with the toilet’s shower attachment, we wipe our backsides in different ways too.

The initial culture shock for the kids starts the minute we get off the plane: “Mummy, is that person a shepherd, like in our nativity play?”, says one on seeing men in head scarves and the customary dishdashah full ankle-length shirts at the airport. And then there is the first camel spotting – albeit of one sitting in the back of a speeding pick-up. But our Jordanian adventure doesn’t really start until after a short drive south of Amman, where we stop for a hike along the river bed of Wadi Bin Hammad.

It’s a perfect way to start a trip. The children love wading knee-deep along the river bed of this tight little river, with high cliffs of sandstone towering above us on either side. And while they leap from stone to stone, splashing and laughing in the water, we adults marvel at nature’s skill of carving a deep route through the soft stone.

Perched on a big rock, we eat our lunch of Frisbee-sized flat bread sandwiches stuffed with sheep’s cheese and sun-ripened tomatoes, dressed with olive oil, sesame seed and cumin, as kingfishers and iridescent blue starlings speed past us. The lushness of the vegetation within the wadi is a stark contrast to the surrounding dust-dry soil we have driven through, and a reminder of water’s life-giving powers.

Spectacular as this early glimpse of Jordan’s natural beauty is, we are soon reminded of the turbulent history of the Middle East, with a visit to the nearby 12th century Crusader castle of Kerak.

The lack of health and safety here makes you realise how mollycoddled we are in the UK, and the kids need watching closely as there are a million things to fall off or into. But that only adds to the thrill of the place. You can climb all over the castle and its ramparts, giving views down to the Dead Sea, 1,000m below. It’s easy to imagine the army of famous Arab warlord Saladin laying siege to the European-built castle, and what better way to teach your children history than to re-enact it leaping around the ancient castle where it actually happened.

Jordan certainly rewards visitors who come with open minds and open eyes, and few places offer sights and sounds as rewarding as Petra.

This desert city has lured adventurous travellers ever since it was rediscovered in 1812, by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. It’s famed for its long entrance gorge (Siq), along a dried out wadi, and the first view of the Nabataean Treasury building, hewn from the mountainside, is little short of magical – no matter how many times you’ve seen it in films.

Often overlooked, though, is that Petra offers some great hiking opportunities, from a quick climb to an all-day hike, high above the ruins. It was once a vast city, with a population of around 20,000 people, and has not only Nabataean buildings but also many Roman ones too. In fact, the size of the site coupled with the midday heat can make it relatively hard work to simply get around the valley floor.

We spend a couple of days here, which is enough to get a good feel for the place and allow plenty of time for drink stops. To start we simply visit the main valley floor, climbing upwards only once – to the Nabataean ‘monastery’, along a much-worn stone path. This saw us sticking the kids on a mule, as it’s a long way up and by the time we start our ascent, the sun is already beating down hard on us.

The second day, leaving the kids with the in-laws, my wife and I set off early and hike up to the place of high sacrifice before dropping back down to the west of the main valley. The area here is much less visited, and we find ourselves alone amongst the 2000-year-old tombs. I can’t help humming the Indiana Jones theme tune as we pass through one of the entrances.

Reunited with the rest of the family, our excellent local guide, Mourad, suggests we hike out via a slot canyon to the east of the site, rather than retrace our steps through the main wadi. It turns out to be an inspired idea, as after drinking some fresh lemon juice with mint, we are once again far away from the crowds. The kids have a real thrill scrambling through the surprisingly tight gorge, which at some points is so tight we have to turn sideways. After an hour of adventuring we popped out by Petra’s main entrance, where the surprised guards all rush over to find out where on earth we’ve come from.

History lessons over, we head for the desert and a few nights in a Bedouin encampment, deep within the towering spires of Wadi Rum. To reach camp, we travel over the sand in the back of an open top 4X4, passing a caravan of camels being led towards camp in the late afternoon sun, their splendid multicoloured saddles loaded with supplies.

Our encampment is sheltered by large cliffs, which rise from a sandy carpet of red and yellow sand dunes. It is an awe-inspiring site of massive vistas and what becomes as the sun sets, a star-filled night sky.

After a dinner of couscous and sheep stew, we sit around a camp fire sipping mint tea, warmed in the flames, and crunching on sweet halva listening to one of the Bedouins softly playing the drum, while another sings a tale of broken hearts. Staring into the flames I’m surprised to discover that my in-laws, as well as my children, have never slept out under the stars. So we drag our mattresses out of our tents and make a little camp of our own, on a raised rock shelf in the cliffs behind the camp.

It is simply fantastic to lay back on the bright red sandstone rock, still warm form the day’s sunshine. And once I’ve assured everyone there aren’t any snakes or scorpions (a fact I’m actually not too sure of at the time) we relax, look up at the milky way and start to count shooting stars.

It’s the best night’s sleep I’ve had in ages, and it’s a real joy to wake with the morning sun starting to warm our faces, as we lie snugly under a pile of blankets, watching the colours of the desert sands change with the rising sun.

Exploring the dunes and cliffs of Wadi Rum once again entails climbing aboard our own trusty 4X4, which, while very old, tackles the terrain superbly.

Once there we have an amazing few days, riding an old snowboard and running down sand dunes, leaping off rocks, scrambling up the sandstone cliffs, riding camels and simply lying back and relaxing on rugs while our driver gets a fire going to cook us tomato-based stews for lunch.

We’re all saddened when we climb aboard the 4X4 for the last time, and leave a truly magical place to the camels, driving towards Aqaba and the Red Sea for a few days snorkelling.

Arriving in Aqaba is a real slap in the face after the tranquillity of the desert, but it doesn’t take long to get back into the noise and action of a middle eastern town. We take a glass-bottom boat trip, which is a great way for young kids to see the reef, after which we relax further down the coast at a glitzy swimming pool complex, from which there is good snorkelling over coral directly from the beach.

For our last night we treat ourselves at the Hani Ali café. There we’re served the most delicious baklava I’ve ever eaten, served with strong coffee laced with cardamom, before buying an array of salted almonds, coffee, dates and peppercorns from a spice vendor to take home as gifts.

“You’re going where? With the kids?”

Yes, we went to Jordan, and we loved its welcoming people and delicious food and had an active, cultural and historical break. In fact, I can’t understand why more families don’t do the same.

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