A Knutsford man follows in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia (with audio)
A Knutsford man left behind the comforts of home and headed for the Middle East to follow in the footsteps of the legendary British crusader TE Lawrence <br/>WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANDREW WRIGHT
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A ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ journey, in the Middle East, had been on my mind for over 25 years, before I finally decided to go this year, the 75th anniversary of his death.
My desire was to see some of the sites associated with his career as an archaeologist and notorious train destroyer on the Hejaz railway. Like Thomas Edward Lawrence, I am a keen bicycle tourist, so that was my preferred mode of transport.
I also wanted to raise money for charity in the process. Lawrence, who was born in Gwynedd, North Wales, was an early member of the Youth Hostel Association, joining in 1935 when he retired from the RAF, so it seemed apt to raise donations for the YHA’s Breaks4Kids fund.
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Lawrence’s varied travels, on foot and by camel, ranged over a wide area from the far north of Syria to the southern tip of modern Jordan. They were made in a different age when the maps looked very different from today.
I went in the spring, the ideal season. I could not contemplate travelling in the roasting heat of high summer as Lawrence did for his 1909 walking tour of Crusader castles. Amman, my hub city, is a city of hills. It is mad with traffic everywhere. It’s clearly not a cycling or walking city and it was recently named as one of the five most ‘unwalkable cities in the world’.
My initial impressions were coloured by the hot dry weather which induced a craving thirst while my body adjusted to the new climate. Food and its availability, every cyclist’s major concern, would dog me for most of the trip. The shelves in the food stores in Jordan and Syria can be quite sparse.
In Syria, I was beguiled by the friendly, hospitable people. As I cycled along I was beckoned to a group of men sharing a pot of hot sweet milk.
They gave me a cup and I spent 10 minutes chatting. A lift in a minibus took me the final 80kms to Damascus. Getting the bike to fit in along with seven passengers was quite a feat. I spent four days exploring the old city of Damascus. Of particular interest was the city’s now disused Hejaz railway station. The ornate palatial frontage is very impressive.
Feeling time pressing, I took a Pullman bus the 180kms north to the industrial city of Homs. After cycling 20kms west towards the renowned 800 year old Crac des Chevaliers Crusader castle I was offered a lift in the back of a truck. Still being far from fit, I accepted. The castle is at the top of a steep hill and I was further troubled by a fierce wind which whipped up, forcing me to call it a day at 10am. Next day I finished the remaining climb to the castle. Lawrence spent three days here during his 1909 tour, making sketches and taking photos. He declared the castle to be ‘the finest in the world’.
I retraced my route back to Jordan, including an energetic day of 108kms cycling from Damascus to Deraa. Visa red tape lured me to Israel and Tel Aviv. Good Friday saw me in Jerusalem. The road up from Tel Aviv was a nightmare; hot, little food or water, climbing relentlessly, accompanied by the incessant whoosh of traffic in my ears. In Jerusalem I found sanctuary at the Petra Hotel just inside the old city by the Jaffa Gate. The hotel was built in 1820, but it is now a decaying shadow of its former grandeur.
Freewheeling down to Jericho is wonderful as you transit from greenery to a more barren moonscape of brown and ochre. It is a shock to the senses. I needed to cross back into Jordan at the Allenby Bridge crossing point. Here I was sucked into outrageous expense. I paid a taxi driver �16 to take me the measly 2kms between border control points, there was no alternative as cycling through no-man’s land is forbidden.
My goal now was to reach Petra - the ‘rose red city half as old as time’. With pleasure my route took me down the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. It is about a 60km ride down the coast road, undulating and curving. I found a small copse of trees beneath which I set my camp for the night. I was able to enjoy a fine sunset as the fiery sun slipped below the western hills on the Israeli side of the sea.
I know that Lawrence visited Petra in his time. These days a visit is something of a circus, attracting up to 3,000 visitors a day. As you emerge from the canyon leading to the hidden city the first sight of the much photographed treasury is magical and memorable.
It is easy to get a bus from Petra to Wadi Rum. For an extra charge the bicycle was hoisted up on to the roof of the bus. I got off at the Wadi Rum visitors centre. Here you can arrange excursions into the desert by land cruiser or camel. But, like Petra, there is a circus feel. I cycled the 10kms to Rum village where I was amused to see the ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’ supermarkets, trading on the great legend.
I returned to Amman via 280kms of cycling on the fearsomely named Desert Highway, the main road which stretches north from Akaba. There was time in Amman to visit the Hejaz railway museum. Half the fun was on the 3km walk to the museum. Twice I was invited in to take tea and then when I stopped to ask directions at a caf� a fellow, unsolicited, ordered a meal for me, paid for it and then walked off with barely time to accept my thanks. Such is the hospitality of the people of Jordan.
I returned to the UK having cycled 1,280kms.