I left Jerusalem on a cold and grey December morning. Armed police watched in bemusement as I staggered down narrow streets, stooped under the weight of an oversized pack, and clinking cobbles with my neon hiking poles. I wondered – not for the first time – if it really was a good idea to try and walk 1,000 miles through the Holy Land, mostly alone.
Within hours the city had melted away and with it my fears about the wisdom of this journey. A series of shepherds’ trails and dry canyons took me through the desert hills of the West Bank, amidst familiar names in unfamiliar surroundings – from Bethlehem to Jericho to the Jordan River. Layers of history and culture lay palpably heavy on the landscape – here, the Mount of Temptation where Jesus resisted the Devil; there the tumbled Roman columns and crumbling Byzantine churches of empires now long gone. [Note that the FCO currently advises against all travel to certain parts of Israel and Palestine. See below for information.]
For the next three-and-a-half months, my routine was simple. I’d wake and walk, eat, and talk. I traveled as far as felt necessary each day and to guide my wanderings I followed a series of ambitious new hiking trails in the region. Mountains grew around me when I left the West Bank and began heading south through Jordan; in the distance, terraces of olive groves gently stepped their way down to the valley. To my untrained eye the green, fertile vistas felt much more akin to the backdrops of southern Italy.
Further south, 800m-deep gorges cut viciously across the landscape, creating canyons of harsh, perfect beauty. I passed the Ottoman village of Dana, pitched as precariously as it is picturesquely on a cliff edge, then plodded through the ancient Nabataean kingdom of Petra, with its geometrically-perfect rock-cut architecture. Beyond that lay the great desert of Wadi Rum, which Lawrence of Arabia once wrote to be, ‘vast, echoing and Godlike.’
I ended by crossing the Sinai Peninsula, finishing atop the mountain where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments. Whether that is true or not, there is certainly something special found there in the whole empty, epic, and rugged wilderness of Sinai.
The landscapes of this region are spectacular, but what will last longest in my memory, however, are the conversations I had and the warm the reception with which I was met. In the West Bank, I’d often be pulled into the shade to share lunch. “Palestinian food is the best,” I was told. “It’ll make you fat and happy!”
In Jordan, as I wandered alone across hillsides, shepherds would rush over to insist that we drink sweet tea together. Outside the city of Kerak, after a particularly long day, a man called Mahmoud beckoned me into his home and suggested I stay the night. I agreed and he asked if I would mind if he washed my feet. “You must be tired and in pain,” he concluded.
This is a part of the world that is often maligned; regularly marked out as dangerous, unsafe, or risky. What I found instead was a region defined by hospitality. The Holy Land is one of the friendliest places I’ve ever been to, and that’s a revelation worth experiencing. Here is a hiking GPS guide by Globo Surf if you consider your own hike in the future.
Leon’s trip in numbers
The number of camels I bought in Egypt. Sinai is wild and empty; it would be impossible to cross without two weeks’ worth of food and water. With the help of a Bedouin called Musallem, I found a fine camel called Harboush for the job, whose only weakness was a propensity for eating things that he shouldn’t. He was forgiven for munching the cucumbers, and even for eating the cardboard boxes that our water bottles came in; it took more conflict-resolution to bring us together, however, after he tried chomping through my video camera…
The number of days I spent walking. I was on the road for nearly four months but didn’t walk every single day. I was collecting notes for a book as well as taking photos and video footage, so once or twice a week I needed to hole up in my tent or in a cheap hotel to consolidate my material. I spent roughly two-thirds of the nights outside in a tent or bivvy bag, and the rest in guest-houses or the homes of strangers who invited me in.
The number of scorpions I encountered. There are some vague rules of etiquette when using the ‘bathroom’ in the wilds, which essentially go something like: Bury it or Cover it. Twice in Jordan, I lifted a nearby boulder to attempt the latter, only to find a small but angry-looking scorpion staring back at me. One feels particularly vulnerable in such situations.
The number of walking trails I followed: the ‘Masar Ibrahim al-Khalil’ (www.masaribrahim.ps), the ‘Jordan Trail’ (www.jordantrail.org) and the ‘Sinai Trail’ (www.sinaitrail.org). All allow plenty of scope for adventure, but with enough direction and infrastructure to ensure an immersive experience.
The number of walking companions I had along the way. My criteria to qualify as a companion was anyone who spent at least a day on the road with me. I set out from Jerusalem with a friend called Dave Cornthwaite, who sadly got injured after the West Bank section. Later I was joined by fellow adventurers Sean Conway, Pip Stewart, and Austin Vince at various points, as well as (more briefly) by a host of other characters including the US Ambassador to Jordan and a Bedouin hiking guide with a complete disdain for walking.
The number of people I encountered during 150 miles of walking in the Sinai. In the West Bank, I passed through multiple communities each day, and in Jordan, I’d have empty stretches punctuated by regular towns and occasional cities. In the Sinai, however, I passed just one small oasis settlement in two weeks. Ein Hudera has been a stopping-off point for pilgrims en route to Mount Sinai for centuries, and I spent a night there with the Bedouin who watch over it. The next day, it was back into the sparse, empty deserts.
The average weight of my backpack. The gear I needed for walking was relatively small and lightweight – a tent, sleeping bag, clothes, and a few accessories. On top of that, I added in a video camera, tripod, laptop, and more communications gear. Finally, I’d carry enough food and water to get me to the next point where I could resupply. In populated areas this wasn’t that much – maybe just two liters of water – but at other times I would go days between water sources, and my pack at one point topped 40kg.
The population of The Samaritans, the smallest and most ancient religious sect in the world. They live high on a hilltop above the Palestinian city of Nablus. In a region dominated by Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, the Samaritans are fiercely independent. It’s possible to visit them – I did so, arriving in their enclave late one evening to try and meet a High Priest. When I found him he was happy to chat, but only after he finished his business on Facebook – a perfect collision of the ancient and the modern worlds.
The number of kilometers logged on my GPS. Each morning I’d turn on my tracker and begin logging the distance moved. The total figure came in slightly below 1000 miles (1600 kilometers) but as I never used the tracker during my days off, when I’d wander for hours around various towns and cities, I’m pretty confident that during the journey I covered well over 1000 miles. I’d also turn it off when I got lost, which happened more than I’d like to admit. Still, where’s the fun in walking if you can’t take a wrong turn here and there?
The age of the city of Jericho. As I entered the city of Jericho I saw a sign proclaiming it the ‘Oldest City in the World.’ It was not the last time I’d hear such a claim – three more times on this walk I’d be told that somewhere else held the title. Whether 10,000 years is accurate, or whether there is somewhere slightly older, seems slightly irrelevant – Jericho is a city that wears its age well, and its history blends seamlessly with the bustling, vibrant vibe of the present day.
Leon McCarron is currently working on a film and book about his adventures walking in the Middle East. For more details about the journey and to keep up to date with the stories, visit walkthemasar.com or follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.