There are some Shetland phrases which wind round the tongue and imagination with combined relish – and we are right in the middle of one of them.
The hert-höl of winter conveys superbly the chill, dark mix of cold, wet, interminable gloom which has to be endured before lighter, warmer days return. It is a time to wrap up, hunker down, curl deep into an armchair or huddle close to an open fire and dream about warm corners of the globe.
Thought travel can take you there in an instant, so hop aboard the mind express to Jordan. We’re off, mum, Andrew and me, to Petra, ancient capital of the pre-Roman Nabateans for a brief escape from the mirk.
The taxi man from Aquaba glances at us shrewdly from the mirror. He pulls into a petrol station only two minutes after picking us up and opens our doors. “Very nice, tea, coffee, what you like?” he quizzes us grimly.
We decline politely and continue reading the guide books and leaflets about the hidden city. The taxi man doesn’t give up easily. “Come looking,” he persists. “Sweet, many thing, drinking, come in look please.”
We smile, hoping a friendly face will re-assure him that we mean well but we just want to get to Petra. We only have 24 hours. He scowls at us, then shuts the doors and we can’t help witnessing an irritable exchange with the garage man who has come out to find the visitors.
On the road again, a broader, faster road than we had expected, we are soon roaring along, past wild scenes of semi-desert and strange mountains, devoid of vegetation. Slashed with lurid bands and twisted ribbons of rock veins, they are on a scale far greater than anything we were familiar with.
More alien scenes draw the eye: camels loping along in the distance, Bedouin families at work around small settlements and vast desert vistas, with not a blade of green. Our driver relaxes and manages with only a micro vocabulary of English to tell us about the landscape. “No raining here.”
“No raining five years!” The dusty, arid panoramas confirm the unbelievable claim.
Twice more on the journey we are driven to presumably pre-arranged money spending locations: a tea stall, where Andrew weakens and accepts a small cup, and then a viewpoint with half a dozen isolated trestle tables stacked with jewellery and brassware and not a soul in attendance.
Magnificent views spanning across the mountains towards the Dead Sea are captured on camera but desperate appeals to come and buy necklaces fall on deaf ears. We catch sight of the driver giving a rough thumb down sign to a clump of distant trees, where we realise now that a small pick up truck has been parked all the time.
Arriving at the Petra Palace Hotel, we are greeted by a very different Jordanian. He is horrified by the price we paid for the taxi and insists on finding a cheaper one who will not attempt to fleece us the next day. The driver is furious, muttering dire threats and warnings as he departs.
We can’t wait to get started and in 10 minutes are queuing at a ticket window at the tourist centre. We know that the ancient city of Petra is entered through a narrow slit in the rocks, but we are completely unprepared for the reality. First there is a long, hot walk down a rough, steep, curving track.
Below us, parallel to the left is a much rougher track, thronged with skinny horses and donkeys harnessed to spindly carts. They are draped with festoons of oriental hangings, glittery stuff with multicoloured tassels and loops.
Young men are riding, leading, hauling and saddling mounts of all kinds and drawing small groups of tourists towards their raggle-taggle transport. Younger lads race up the bank to our level. We are bombarded by invitations to ride. “Donkey ride madam … Horse chariot ladies?” Swarthy touts jostle and grin.
We grin back “La, shukran!” and walk stoically on and on, and on. If it’s this hot now, in November, what on earth must it be like in July?
There are giant sandstone outcrops further away, some with blurred outlines of doorways, shrines like empty picture frames, dark squared-off holes denoting burial chambers. But the best, we have read, is yet to come. It can’t be far off now, surely?
Streams of tourists are herding uphill past us. They look exhausted. The sun is getting low in the sky and there is only a handful of us heading down the way. Great! It will be much nicer if the crowds have receded. Not long now.
A cluster of booths ahead offers a rattling orgy of Petra goodies: antique coffee pots, reproduction antique ceramics, sand pictures inside glass bottles. And then, suddenly, there it is: the entrance. A cleft in the rock face, where the track vanishes from sight.
A clatter behind us alerts us to a flying chariot and we spring ungracefully sideways just in time. The horse, eyes rolling, leaves a pile of horse dung in its wake and we catch a glimpse of three rather fat ladies, clinging to a flimsy guard rail and looking absolutely terrified as they sway, tilt and bounce against their feeble safety belts. They hurtle round another bend and disappear.
Once round that same bend, we are in another world. Sheer cliffs of marvellously banded, red and pink sandstone, once an ancient seabed, rise to either side of the cleft. Shadowed to the left, sunlit to the right, the sky a ragged strap of turquoise overhead. Stone blocks floor the track and ingeniously constructed channels run at waist height along gulley sides.
We recall the guide book’s descriptions of ancient technology and the conduits, built to retain flood waters and allow safe passage down the gorge. The fabulous images of three storey buildings carved into the cliffs float before our eyes. Round the next bend maybe?
We trudge on, carefully setting our feet squarely onto the blocks, as the cracks between them could be ankle breakers. We dodge more horse drawn vehicles heading up the way, and occasionally flatten ourselves to the walls as more chariots career past from behind as well, swerving towards the sides to avoid colliding with the upstream ones. Eek!
Round the next bend we can only see for 30 yards and the track vanishes again. Plod, swerve, rattle, dash … Phew! Plod, stumble, leap … That was a close shave. Round the bend, another bend and beyond that, yet another.
The sun is sinking. Shadows climb up the sides of the gorge. The strip of sky darkens above us. Dry vegetation clings to deep crevices; more carved tombs, architraves, angular fragments of entrances are revealed in faces high above us and we pass them with determination not to hope that the next bend is the last. The gorge plunges on, section after section revealed in all its unique sculptural grandeur.
I want to do this again, but more slowly. There is no time to get your breath and savour the fabulous architecture of the water carved majestic walls, at 300ft as high as the tip of the spire of Salisbury Cathedral. I am blissfully oblivious at this stage to the fact that all too soon we shall be trudging back again, all the way and uphill this time.
Bend, curve, trudge round and another short length and then as if by magic, a last curve negotiated reveals not another piece of stony track, but a slit of brilliant light. The darkened gorge walls tower to either side, but trapped between their ragged profiles ahead, lies a glimpse of heaven. Golden worked stone faces of unworldly, exotic, translucent buildings.
We emerge from the gloom and stand dazed by the spectacle. Here is the iconic facade we have been pouring over on paper for years: Khazneh al-Faroun – the treasury building. It is a mind-numbing moment and all the distractions of hawkers, drivers of animals, clutter and crudity of tourists pale and dim before this extraordinary image illuminated by the perfect, slanting, intense sunset lighting.
We would have stood longer but Andrew, having arrived and explored beyond long before our lagging feet, hastened up to warn us that it would be dark within the hour. So at a trot, we hurry across the great square and round a broader bend, as the gorge ends and a valley opens and widens steadily to either side. Buildings after buildings are revealed, and higher into the cliff faces scores of small, angular dark openings mark the humbler dwelling places of lesser mortals. There is simply too much to take in.
Sand now covers the track and our feet slide and plunge, making the going even slower. But the grandeur of the facades draws us further down the valley, each one more elaborate and unbelievable than the next. But the shadows are creeping towards us now and few visitors remain. Even the animals seem to be being tied up, or led away.
We will have difficulty seeing our way back up that endless chasm if we delay any longer and yet there is so much more still to see. The temples, the ancient market street, the steps and pillars, but it is no use. We’ll have to turn back. A camel boy is watching us. Fatal stare!
A wild notion ignites in my head. Mum is horrified. “Certainly not! It’s extortionate Jill!”
The notion won’t go away. In my exhaustion I forget to haggle. The camel boy is persuasive. My feet are aching. Mum is not 21 any longer. I clinch the deal.
Greatly against her better judgment, mum, with minimum assistance, mounts the ungainly steed and in a matter of extravagant seconds, needing considerably more help, I am airborne too. We lurch and sway high above the sandy floor and our leader beams at us. He has an extraordinarily beautiful face and he cannot be much more than 10 years old.
Concentrating hard on staying aboard, we are led back up the gorge, deserted now and almost dark. The camels’ broad, soft feet slip and slither on the polished stone blocks, but they don’t stumble.
We get into a rhythm almost into a weary trance. Slish, hush go the feet in the darkness and the great canyon walls looming past, barely seen, echo the sound.
Back at the hotel, we are all resolved. There is no way the one visit will suffice. Poet Dean Burgen’s “rose red city half as old as time” deserves better. Early tomorrow, we will trail all the way back again and explore several miles more of this mesmerising, haunting city while we have the chance.
Jill Slee Blackadder