Shooting the Red Dunes of Wadi Rum

  • Published In: Columns
  • Last Updated: Jan 12, 2023

By Matt Stirn

Special to the Wyoming Truth

I saw my first picture of Wadi Rum when I was a high school intern at Alpinist, a mountaineering magazine with an office above a small Mexican restaurant near downtown Jackson. I sat at my desk, mystified by the image of a sand-filled valley in southern Jordan: it was dotted with towering sandstone spires and isolated camps of Bedouin who herded camels across the desolate moonscape. Staring out the office window, as heavy snow blanketed the mountains outside, the endless red sand dunes were about as opposite a landscape as I could possibly imagine. It epitomized the allure of travel but resided in my mind as a place I would probably only see in the pages of a magazine. 

Camels graze at dawn near a remote camp in Wadi Rum, Jordan. (Wyoming Truth photo by Matt Stirn) 

Twenty years later, I found myself flying to Jordan to scout potential locations for a future photojournalism workshop I would lead. I spent a few exciting days in Amman, touring Roman ruins and feasting on ground lamb with garlic tahini, and then I drove south along the King’s Highway into a desert surrounded by steep brick-colored mountains. Peering out of the dust covered window, I caught my first glimpse of a giant cliff in the distance, a clue that we were nearing the great valley of Wadi Rum. 

A group of Bedouins drink tea next to a campfire deep in Wadi Rum. (Wyoming Truth photo by Matt Stirn) 

Located not too far from the Red Sea, Wadi Rum was historically famous for being a homeland of the Bedouin, serving as the secret headquarters for T.E. Lawrence’s campaign against the Ottomans in World War I. At the time of my magazine internship, it was becoming a burgeoning destination for intrepid rock climbers who desired adventures far off the beaten path. Back then, I had only left the country once for a visit to Patagonia; travel was not necessarily on my radar. Little did I know that careers in archaeology and photography would eventually whisk me away to over 50 countries and deposit me atop the very sand dune that first captivated my high-school self in the Alpinist office.

On a still morning just over a month ago, I was awoken by the guttural groan of camels as they paraded across the sand outside my tent.  Parting the brightly patterned Bedouin fabric, I was greeted with a pink glow of the rising sun that painted the sandstone cliffs surrounding our camp. I grabbed a cup of cardamom-spiced coffee from the kitchen and then followed a pair of jackal tracks a short distance into the desert to watch the remaining sunrise and embrace the air as it transitioned from cool to cooked. As I picked up my camera to snap a few pictures of the stunning scenery, I watched the string of camels that had awoken me walk behind a dune and fade into a landscape that had once only existed in the faraway pages of a climbing magazine.

It’s funny how life unfolds. 

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