You may think you know the best bike riding roads in the world, and doubtless you’ll have your favourites. The spin down Glencoe from Tyndrum towards the Corran Ferry; the mighty Stelvio; the Großglockner; the Trânsfârgâraşan Highway or perhaps the Tail of the Dragon in Tennessee – and many more besides. But I’m just going to throw caution to the wind here and say that if you haven’t ridden the best roads that Jordan has got to offer, then you aren’t yet ready to graduate in the ‘best roads’ exams.
Never have I ridden with such a huge grin on my face, for so many hours in each day as I recently did in Jordan. I’m fortunate to own a company that runs motorbike tours in some great places around the world, so I get around a little. Usually we are off the beaten path and away from tarmac, so this was something of a departure for me. Having been unsuccessfully pestering the good folks at the Jordan Tourism Board for some months about the possibility of riding here, it came as a shock to the system when I got a call from my contact, Mahmoud, to say that the law had changed and for the first time ever, foreigners were now allowed to rent and ride bikes in Jordan.
Motorbikes were banned in Jordan until 2008. Before then they were the sole preserve of Kings. The late King Hussein was a petrol-head by any measure, to which an entire motor museum containing his more than 70 cars bears solid testament, but he also rode a Harley Davidson. His son, the current King Abdullah has retained the need for speed – he was a former rally driver and is an avid biker too. It was just a matter of time before biking went mainstream.
In 2008, local people got the bike bug, and boy were they bitten hard. There are now dealerships for sports bikes and Harley Davidsons in the city, together with bike cafes and clubs that are spreading like mycelium. The scene is growing fast and after being started by the wealthier riders it is now spreading across the social strata. You hear sports bikes at night and see them across the manic traffic in the city by day. They gather at cafes like Bikers’ Corner in the evenings to share a shisha. Overwhelmingly though, the roads are devoid of other bikers once you escape the gravity of the capital city, Amman.
The thing was that no such rental bikes existed, so we’d have to think laterally. So it was that I joined a motley crew of two motorbiking writers and one food and drink journalist – all from Toronto – on bikes lent to us either by the generous Tamer Darwazeh of KTM Amman or by members of the local biking community. Can you imagine lending your new 1200GS adventure bike to a complete stranger from overseas, not knowing how they ride, never having seen a copy of their licence or otherwise having a single clue about them? I can’t see that happening here, but I collected my GS1200 from a car park by my hotel, the keys in the glove box. This is a small insight into the kind of hospitality you can expect in Jordan, and it is utterly unbelievable.
We rode with a following support car piloted – I use that word advisedly – by the inimitable Wajdi, a man with two driving speeds; full stop and terminal velocity. His Hyundai people carrier was never, no matter how fast we rode, more than 3 minutes behind us at any stop. When I asked about this feat he patted the steering wheel and winked “3.6 litre, very good”.
Leading our pack on his Multistrada was Kareem, an instantly likeable man of calmness and with a clearly deep-seated love for motorcycling in any form. Riding since the dawn of Jordanian motorcycling, Kareem knows the roads better than anyone in the country. He has an innate understanding of which roads are going to increase the smiles on our faces and takes great pride in showing us his home turf. Smiles per hour, not miles per hour.
We are like children in a sweet shop. After a couple of memorable hours – a glimpse of the Dead Sea and the West Bank over one hill, a deep river bed filled with rushing turquoise waters in one valley (known locally as a wadi) and more delightful twists and turns than you can shake a telescopic fork at – we make a halt at a viewpoint overlooking the most epic series of black-top hairpins set against a dry, buff mountainscape and a deep cerulean sky. The chat between we visitors is elated, patting each other on the back and pinching ourselves that this is all real. Kareem’s friend Yad – a steady comforting presence in my rear view mirror on his own GS1200 – is smiling gently and telling us that it will get much, much better than this. Bring. It. On.
The afternoon is spent carving around more hills that allow us to really hustle along, my weight shifting in the saddle as the big GS water buffalo perks it’s ears up and grips the tarmac. We stop for lunch at the ancient Crusader citadel of Shorbaq, where a huge spread awaits us. If you want to lose weight, don’t come to Jordan.
The food is excellent for vegetarians or carnivores alike. You’ll eat fresh breads, lashings of hummous, babaganoush, labneh yoghurt, spiced lamb, chicken roasted with almonds, pomegranates, roasted aubergines with tomatoes and garlic, diced salads and any number of other delicious dishes. You may also get the national dish, mensef. This is spring lamb roasted under perfumed almond rice, wafer thin shrak bread and covered in a spiced fermented yoghurt mix. They say that if you eat it with a spoon you’ll digest it over 8 hours, but eaten with the hand it’ll be gone in 45 minutes. Everyone uses their hands to attack the communal dish like hungry wolves.
All of this is washed down with copious quantities of tea, served sweet and black in tiny glasses, or minty and sweet in tumblers. The final member of our party is Michel, a bear of a man with his bushy beard and huge smile, who now lights a shisha pipe and passes it around for those who want it, curls of sweet apple-scented smoke rising to the roof beams.
Our evening ride is on an arrow straight highway towards the Red Sea city of Aqaba. Fat-tailed sheep are being driven home as we pass the epic Wadi Rum – scene of many films including the recent Last Jedi and many more. This was Lawrence of Arabia’s backyard and is an evocative part of the country with its high sandstone bluffs, deep red colours, never ending skies and free-range camels. As we ride, a sandstorm to the east makes the sky transform to a fantasy orange and purple colour, but thankfully we are full bore headed due south and avoid the swirling sands.
Aqaba itself sits on the crystalline waters of the Red Sea or Gulf of Aqaba and is a magnet for scuba divers and thrill seekers. The cool sea breezes, hotel pools and restaurants make for quite a contrast after the dry deserts of this afternoon.
We have time on our side the next day and ride for the pure joy of finding roads that Kareem knows will make us beam like Cheshire cats. And beam we do. We spend time exploring Little Petra, the smaller counterpart of UNESCO-rated Petra, one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World. Little Petra is more laid-back, less visited and deeply evocative. We wander the narrow siq or water-carved canyon from which the word souk – many crowded markets in the Arab world are known as souks – was derived. We meet Bedouin Johnny Depp lookalikes who make us tea, and encounter smiling camel herders in Raybans. We drink strong Arabic coffee with cardamom whose last sips we must filter through our teeth. Wajdi tells me that I should take up smoking; “it is good for you and besides, it makes coffee taste better.”
We spend our next few days meandering north again through the hills, passing flimsy-looking Bedouin camps in dusty hollows, spotting rows of old men sipping coffee and playing backgammon against village walls, and stopping for photos and flotation on the bizarre Dead Sea. At 430 metres below sea level, this salty marvel has my sat nav totally confused. The BMW thinks it is under water and the screen has gone an eerie blue.
It is a pretty incredible kind of place to ride as the sun sets behind the hills of Palestine on the opposite shore. Where else do you get to do all this in just a handful of days? Later that same afternoon we are filling up in a service station when a man in a red keffiyeh scarf comes over, grabs my hand in a crushing embrace and invites us all to tea at his house. He is charming and I’m sad we cannot say yes tonight but riding in the dark is not something I like doing away from my home roads.
One morning we stop at a bakery and stage a take-over. Michel, Yad, Kareem and Mahmoud have brought the ingredients for shakshuka, a dish made of slow cooked onions, fresh tomatoes, spices and herbs all simmered and reduced to syrupy gorgeousness and then baked with fresh hen’s eggs in the oven. We share a huge dish straight from the flames and eat with scoops of saffron bread made by baker Abu Shaadi, just a foot behind us less than ten minutes ago. It is epicurean heaven.
The north of the country is like a different land, covered in rolling green hills of pine woods, oak forests and olive groves that give way to grassy plains and shimmering wheat fields which remind me of parts of Wales. Only those aren’t the Black Mountains in the distance and it isn’t thunder we can hear. Those are the Golan Heights and the sounds of distant artillery remind us that Jordan is a safe haven surrounded by often noisy neighbours. Jordan IS a very safe country, and some even call it the ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’ but it’s nothing like that really; it is far more entertaining, welcoming and engaging than I’ve ever found Bern or Basel. And I’m going to say it, the roads are better too…
This article by Marley Burns first appeared in Issue 24 of Overland Magazine.
If you want to tour Jordan, you can be among the very first to travel there by bike. Marley will return with two groups in March 2019 in conjunction with Overland Magazine. Skip over to Silk Road Adventures to find out how to sign up.