Jordan: Going Nomadic in the Desert

Photographer Olivia Estebanez gets back in the saddle for a fresh perspective on the ancient city of Petra

We started our trip at a nomadic camp an hour away from Aman. Just a few tents, a few horses and our guides. It was here that I was allocated my horse. Our guide was so tender with his horses; he considered them a part of his family. Which I can understand. Entering the world of horses is sharing their intimacy, their brutality and sensibility, confronting your own emotions with theirs, while staying in control. They pick up on fear and anxiety. You have to follow their wisdom. Mine was very spirited, but safe. 

On our way to Petra from Madaba

The nights are cold in the desert. The first night I barely slept and I woke up to discover my tent was literally covered in frost. Quickly, we realised we needed to dress like the nomad with scarves wrapped around our heads. Lots of layers. Big coats. 

1st tea after meeting my horse

From Madaba, it was two days riding to Petra. Travelling on horseback is like sailing. It gives you a sense of freedom, but still, you must listen to the horse, it has its own will. Fearing the unexpected keeps you in tune with everything surrounding you, every little sound, the wind, the texture of the ground, how the horse moves beneath you, repeating the same music. 

Wadi Rum
Little Wadi Rum

To begin with, we were in a deep valley with rocky mountains all around us. You don’t get a slow introduction to it: you’re plunged straight into the nomadic life. The odd cluster of tents. Goats. The men in their cinematic outfits: scarves, boots, kohl-lined eyes. Groups of wild camels. Orange and yellow rocks. Eagles and falcons overhead. We ate food cooked on an open fire. Casseroles and stewed goat. Flat bread with za’atar. Olives. Feta. 

Walking toward Pietra from Madaba

Our pace was slow and steady – 20 to 30 kilometres a day. Travelling on horseback at this slow meditative pace allows you to merge with nature so that you feel at one with it. It allows you the time to appreciate the beauty that surrounds you, really immerse yourself in it. 

Walking toward Petra from Madaba

The second night, we slept in a cave just above Petra. We got there just before night fell, so had just enough light to care for the horses. Brush them down. Feed them. The cave was incredibly basic, two rooms carved into the rock. Not that it mattered. We were all exhausted. We slept on the floor, the horses alongside us. 

It was only in the morning when we woke up, that I realised that we were on top of it. We were overlooking the ancient city of Petra, one of the most astonishing sights in the world. Our guide had managed to secure us access to the site before it was open to the public so we were in the saddle at 5am, just as the sun was coming up, riding our horses down the valley and into Petra. We were completely by ourselves. There was nobody there. Just a few camels and donkeys. Little by little, we made our way into the city. It’s just absolutely mind-blowing, especially in that light. It was cold and crisp and clear but the colours there are so deep and rich that still you have this great feeling of warmth everywhere. 


From Petra, we set off through the desert for Wadi Rum, with its ancient petroglyphs carved into the rocks. By this point, we had got to know each other, my horse and I, and we trusted each other enough to gallop wildly, thrillingly through these vast open spaces. Like everyone else, I was on an Arabian horse, valued for their stamina, high spirit and intelligence. They are renowned for their great endurance and willingness. Nothing will stop them, they can just go and go. The gallops were rare, though. Most of the time we were just walking. And that’s kind of the point. You get into sync with your horse, you moving as it moves, which requires just the right amount of attention for you to settle into your subconscious so that your senses start to open to what’s really around you. You’re thinking about your horse, the shadow of your horse, the environment around you. But at the same time, you’re not really thinking about anything and you find yourself truly present, which is the beauty of this kind of trip, just being present.


Olivia Estebanez is a photographer, and was born in Bordeaux and is now London-based. oliviaestebanez.com

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