Jordan is a beautiful country for hikers and increasingly more people, locals and visitors alike, are adventuring their way through the Jordan Trail. Antoinette Vermilye from Switzerland is one of them. She recently went on an 8-day hike that spanned from Dana National Reserve to Wadi Rum with not only the goal of enjoying her surroundings but also to bring awareness to Zero Waste hiking which meant she looked at minimizing the amount of trash she generated while on the trail as well as picking up trash along her route.
Here’s her story in her own words:
Plastic pollution is a global issue – it affects our land, our sea, our food, our water and our health. I am one of many trying to help create awareness of plastic pollution worldwide.
I have visited Jordan many times before, but this was my first time to try walking a zero-waste hike from Dana to Petra. I also wanted to audit and trial picking up the various types of litter along the routes. Jordan is a clean country but with the increasing avalanche of plastic packaging in the world, I worry that like many other countries it too will suffer from plastic overload. The Jordanian landscape is so stunning it is worth doing all we can to protect it and to keep it unspoiled.
I am an avid ocean conservationist – so it is ironic that I am picking up plastic in the desert to save the water in the ocean – this is how interconnected we all are!
Day 1 – Arrival at Dana Guest House in Dana
My first day begins at the end of the day – a drive off the beaten track as the sun lowers and we start to see more bulging rocky outcrops. They remind me of a million tanned wrinkled foreheads of wise old bald men.
I came to the Dana Guest House two years ago, and it was a much simpler more austere affair. Now the ugly duckling has morphed into a beautiful swan!
The Guest House has a new annex with gorgeous balconies that offer magnificent views from both bedroom and shower over the Dana biosphere valley. The intriguing rocky folds reflect pale beige, pinks, and sage greens. These soften into long grey fingers as the sun sets over the valley.
I love the sustainable tourism ethos of the Guest House. It employs only Dana locals; the food is sourced locally from farmers and suppliers and the result is good food, good company in excellent lodgings.
The place is charming with the sweetest of people and of chai (tea).
Tomorrow we set off on my attempted zero waste hike. I have prepared as much as possible: bringing my own plate, cup, cutlery and 2 refillable water bottles. I have a large reusable bag that I can hook onto my belt to pick up and carry the litter I find. I will dispose of it each evening at the next stop. I also carry lots of natural hand sanitizer!!
It is going to be interesting to see how this hike turns out.
Day 2 – Dana Guest House to Feynan Ecolodge
Distance: 14 km
I begin the day early in anticipation. I check my list two to three times. The weather is cool and welcoming.
Our picnic comes in reusable travel packs that we can use for the entire trip – an excellent initiative that spares plastic wrap and paper. But the picnic also includes some small drinking boxes with plastic straws, so I refuse these and stick to my water. I use my beeswax wraps to wrap the food I am carrying for the picnic.
My main worry will be to find reliable water sources. I am trying to find a way to fill my bottle without using plastic water bottles. There is one large water dispenser and I use this to fill my bottles. That counts as a good checkmark!
I could have used a LifeStraw or portable water pump/filter but I am not sure of how often I will come across water sources, so I decided against these for this trip.
Dana is a pretty 500-year-old village with ruins dating to the last century. We start our journey through Dana village, but I am shocked at the litter. Ancient empty buildings are strewn with unwanted trash, and the path is embedded with plastic bottles, yogurt pots, cigarette packets and bottle caps. The further away we go from the village, the less litter to be found.
The walk is challenging (a steep descent in a very short distance) but then tapers out into a valley that is wide and open. It is a 14 km hike so not technically challenging. The journey is beautiful and the greenery signals strong signs of spring. The soft green colors morph into dryer and warmer colors and air as we get lower into the valley and even walk through the dry riverbeds filled with Oleander bushes bearing furry caterpillar-like seedpods. The Dana biosphere is beautiful. I feel I want more than ever to preserve and protect its flora and fauna for the generations and hikers that follow.
I am one person actively looking for trash. I realize I cannot do it all. I concentrate on the two items that are the most damaging to wild and domestic life.
I am looking for smallish plastic colored broken pieces and brightly colored bottle caps. Birds often pick these up thinking they are berries and feed them to their young. The young birds swallow these, but they cannot digest them. Slowly, their stomachs will fill up with plastic with no room for food. Eventually, they starve to death.
I also look for what was humorously described to me as “Jordan’s National Bird”: flimsy plastic bags floating in trees! These are dangerous for animals who eat them as they tangle up in the gut and cause great suffering for the animal as it can no longer eat. In fact, we came across the carcass of one such sheep that another guide had seen earlier in the week. He suspected it had died of plastic ingestion.
As we end our journey we pass a few Bedouin camps. The children are shy but curious and demonstrate the innate hospitality of Jordan – we are often invited for a cup of chai!
By the end of our journey, I have two bags worth of meaningful litter that has been removed from the countryside. I wish I could have done more.
We arrive at the Feynan Ecolodge for the night. Water is heated via solar power; the food is delicious locally sourced vegetarian, and we even have the luxury of a small shower and flushing toilet! There is no electricity (it is an ecolodge), our rooms are lit with tea candles made by women from the nearby villages, these are placed in mirror mosaic sconces and add a wonderful cozy light to the rooms. The hallways are lit with luminarias giving a romantic glow to the entire lodge at night.
Recycling is clearly marked for plastics, paper, compost and general trash. Water from a local spring is provided in our rooms in handmade clay jars or at a water dispenser container in the lobby. Guests are actively encouraged to use these for their water refills. I love this ecolodge! Congratulations to the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature for developing this ecolodge and this biosphere.
After dinner, we lie on the roof, heated by the day’s sun, and stare at the stars where one of the wonderful Ecolodge members presents an entertaining and instructive lesson on the stars above us.
Day 3 – Feynan Lodge to Ghbour Whedat
Distance: 17 km
To get to the start of our next hiking trail requires a 2-hour drive up the mountains to walk 17 km to our campsite that evening.
We walk down a steep mountain, up another opposite and then follow the crest looking at the Wadi Araba desert in the distance. The trek was incredible and long. To my delight. I was impressed by how little trash I found. Yet it did confirm my theory at 2-3 common picnic sites that these were where we found the most amount of trash.
Where I came across metal or glass containers I left them as they will biodegrade. (With more people and arms, I would have picked them up). An unbroken bottle can pose a problem for a small creature (their heads get stuck in and cannot get out), so I dig a small hole, crush it with a big rock into much smaller pieces and bury them in the sand.
Our locally-sourced picnic lunch from Feynan comes in brown paper bags – no plastic wrap or cutlery in sight. I refilled my bottle with leftover sage chai made by our guide at an earlier tea break. The tepid sweet drink is perfect for the heat.
For the longest part of this journey, we picked up the least amount of litter. It was so good to see, and we were able to appreciate the stunning views and evolving landscape as we walked through the day. As the sun sets, those iconic rocks look more sinister, reminding me of a thousand skulls watching me. I imagine many a ghost story must be told around campfires to impressionable young kids!
As we approached more settlements, we found more litter – particularly on roads where cars pass. Either things get tossed out the window or they get blown out the back of pickup trucks by the wind. Soon I cannot fit rubbish in my bag. I swap it for a new one (I am picking large plastic water bottles now).
Our tent camp experience would present my biggest challenge. However, there is some good and some bad. Each person had their own pop-up tent and a communal area was built for eating made from rugs and goat hair blankets. Everything was sustainable and, equally important, pleasing to the eye.
A buffet dinner was served on a carry-out table: each bowl or plate was covered in plastic wrap. It would be worth looking at bowls with removable lids or beeswax wraps. The cutlery and plates were reusable. And the tea was served in small glasses, but the problem lay with the drinks: plastic bottles of water and cola drinks.
A large metal tank containing water was brought out with faucets for brushing teeth and general hygiene. Plastic bottles were used for general drinking water. Even a larger plastic bottle might be better than lots of smaller ones. These were crushed and put in a trash bag to exist for centuries. One Single Use Plastic contribution to archaeology!
Our dry-cleaned blankets came in plastic bags – but how are you going to inspire confidence in a cleaned blanket otherwise? Suggestions most welcome.
I found a solution for my water. I did not want to use bottled water, so I filled my water bottles with the Bedouin tea and let it cool. It was not cold, but it was not hot. And it worked better at relieving my thirst for the next day’s hike.
Early morning watching the sunrise, the light revealed more trash that has slowly worked its way into the land and countryside around us. Although the camp is cleaned up – it would only take another well-spent two hours with everyone on the team looking for the trash that had been blown farther afield. There were plastic wrappers, old shoes, fabrics, and woven sacks of white plastic (terrible for microplastics) and containers, bottle caps dotting a landscape that had been pristine for centuries until probably a decade or so ago. Even though the litter is not immediately obvious, a little searching and there seems to be far more than at first meets the eye.
Day 4 – Ghbour Whedat to Little Petra
Distance: 14 km
As we began walking again, I remarked that plastic pollution really is a man-made problem. Not only do we create it, but we dispose of it badly. This is not any one person’s fault – but awareness would certainly help. I saw fields strewn with plastic bags that were now being sown into the same soil from which crops would grow. I saw a few crevices in ancient monuments crammed with trash. Trees and bushes with plastic bags within easy reach of animals that might munch or chew leaves.
However, if I look at my pictures, it is hard to see these examples. The landscape of Jordan is beautiful. Right now, I am searching for plastic waste – this is much better than seeing it everywhere – this is a good sign for Jordan as it has not reached a point where it will be overwhelmed. There is time to prevent and that is what drives my enthusiasm for this amazing country.
Wherever there are human settlements or picnics there was more litter – Too much for one person to make a difference.
When it was too much, I concentrated on finding plastic bottle caps and plastic bags. Entering the back canyon to Little Petra was one of the cleanest areas. Yet in little Petra, I could see in some of the cracks of ancient boulders, trash, and waste that had been stuffed there “out of sight”. It could easily be cleaned in just one day if everyone on-site organized a clean-up. It’s so near, and yet so far.
Of course, one cannot be distracted by the dramatic beauty that surrounds oneself as one hikes through this amazing and philosophical land. Much of the time I just wanted to stop and gaze and feel and draw from the Earth this incredible drama of time caught in the sandstone. We literally scaled up and down smooth limestone slopes and clambered giant steps to reach a summit…to find a shop at the top of Little Petra – it was so surreal coming from absolute wilderness to the world of Bedouin commerce by entering a magic back door.
We were charmed by the local people who were so charming and friendly – it adds to Jordan’s innate hospitality.
It got me thinking about how to create awareness for people who must husband the land and their resources. Is education for children the best way? Can we not create awareness of how important it is to keep the land around clean of plastic? I’m not sure we have time for one generation to grow up before we destroy this amazing earth. It was tough to even start to clean. But each drop of effort can create an ocean of difference.
That night we were transferred by bus from Little Petra to a hotel in Petra. Water was only served in plastic bottles (small and large). I was afraid to drink from the tap – although I suspect I could have risked it as I had heard that the water quality is very good in Jordan but had been advised by many around me not to drink it. I chickened out.
Day 5 – Little Petra to Petra
Distance: 20 km
In the morning I picked up what I could for food from the breakfast buffet and wrapped them in my beeswax wraps. I used hot water and tea bags for my bottles. The rest of the group were handed bottled water.
The walk into Petra via the Monastery was amazing but I started to see more signs of plastics. I appreciate this is difficult for Petra. Much of the areas we traveled have strong gusts of winds and these pick up plastic bottles and bags and float them into the air and deposit them high up or out of reach. There is no easy solution. In addition, when the rains come, flash floods can channel all the litter from Wadi Musa right into the Petra siqs. I, therefore, concentrated on picking up plastic bags and caps and smaller pieces when I could fit them in my bag.
On arrival in Petra, I found it encouraging that many of the vendor tents were made of tarpaulin or goat hair blankets. We walked down to the restaurant, but I was unable to find a water refill station – this would be so helpful.
At the end of our hike we walked through the little Siq – a 1-2m wide gorge about 20m high and a few kilometers long that was strewn with trash and plastics. This is not unexpected in these types of natural gorges. This siq, leads off the main entrance to Petra and when there is rain or flash floods, the water will rush through this gorge, carrying any plastic and litter it meets from Wadi Musa and the Petra entry into this area. Once the water recedes, the plastics are deposited until the next flood. I was amazed at the incredible beauty and drama but also the amount of litter and the effect it would have on flora and fauna in the long term. I believe a one-day trip with about 40 people could clean this up easily.
Day 6 – Petra
Distance: 14 km
Today was a lighter day. We entered Petra via the large Siq – which was spotless as there were a number of employees cleaning up the route. It proved how effective cleaning up can be. Only one plastic bottle could be seen perched up too high to reach.
Along the way, I met up with some of the local guides and talked about ideas our group had discussed on the hike that might help Jordan keep its natural heritage in a pristine state.
He was glad that there were cleaners but astonished that people would throw any trash without regard where it would land. We wouldn’t throw litter in our living rooms, so why do it here? Does no one think where it goes? Who, if anyone, will pick it up?
He had come across the sheep carcass on the Dana-Fenyan walk and had speculated that as there were no external wounds it had probably had died due to a plastic bag twisted up in its gut.
We brainstormed ideas:
- He felt a small effort by everyone could go a long way.
- Making tourists aware was the first part: Posters create awareness that litter was causing harm to the environment, and in the long term, to their health.
- Monthly cleanups for the locals (free entry into Petra or other sites with a bag to clean up litter)
- What about a deposit on plastic bottles, this way, even if one went astray a kid could pick them up and return them for money.
- Of course, education at the school level was probably the most important. And this is an area we would like to tackle.
Day 7 – Wadi Rum
Possibly the most dramatic landscape in Jordan, the russet red sands with worn rocks that look like runny cake dough oozing and piling on itself create an amazing scenery that is certainly breath-taking.
But getting up closer, many shrubs that grow in the desert bore traces of plastic bags, bottles, and other litter. Where rubbish cannot be picked up it gets buried in sand by the winds. But these can easily be revealed and blown on again another time. The Martian landscape is marred by wind-borne debris caught in shrubs. Of course, the closer we are to camps and tents, the greater the proportion of plastics.
The final flourish was on the last day of the hike. We climbed up to the tallest mountain in Jordan Um al Dami, the highest peak in Jordan at 1830m. The views were magnificent all the way to Saudi Arabia, the Red Sea, Egypt and Israel/Palestine all under the same sun. I only came across two bottle caps – I was delighted!
Two bottles of water were left at the top – possibly for thirsty climbers. However, I am not so sure this is such a good idea. Many disposable plastic water bottles contain a chemical known as bisphenol A (BPA). This chemical has been proven to reduce sperm count and increase the risk of breast cancer. When plastic is heated, it releases its chemical composition into the immediate environment. Such is the problem with water bottles left out in the sun for an extended period of time. A glass bottle would have been safer – and a water canister the best solution.
Day 8 – Drive from Wadi Rum to Amman
Reflecting on my hike, my accounting was overall positive and hopeful for Jordan. All countries worldwide are facing the same problem – this is not just a Jordan problem. But Jordan has less plastic pollution than other countries I have studied. I feel Jordan is in the early stages of plastic pollution and strong efforts now will make a much bigger difference than later down the line.
I realize that human settlements are always going to be the point at which trash meets nature; but we need to consider the suppliers of these plastics – supermarkets, soft drink suppliers, and even building supplies. What about recycling, education so that civilians are aware of what they should avoid if possible, what alternative choices are available, and will they avail themselves of these choices.
As we drove up the highway, I could see to the left and right that the traffic was a major source of plastic pollution along the highways actively helped by the desert winds. I could probably see 2km either side the effects of trash and litter. This is what we want to avoid for the rest of Jordan.
Jordan has some amazing history, many civilizations, so sophisticated, so hospitable for centuries. My hope is that this wonderful place on the planet can be preserved for its children and grandchildren.
How you can help clean up Jordan
Join Eco Hikers Jordan: facebook.com/EcoHikersJo/
Not in Jordan? Why not set up your own Eco Hikers group!
And finally, always remember to:
- REFUSE plastic
- REDUCE plastic
- REUSE plastic
- REPURPOSE plastic
- ROT plastic
- RECYCLE plastic
Thank you again, Antoinette, for this in-depth account of your zero waste initiative in Jordan!