Declan on his donkey

Declan on his donkey

There are moments that you always hope you’ll remember – especially when you don’t have photos. And there was no way on earth I was taking photos while the four of us rode donkeys up the mountain path to the Monastery in Petra. But I do so hope to remember the experience.

Petra is different to almost anywhere else in the world. The difference lies in the style of construction. Rather than building up, the Nabateans carved their monumental buildings into the face of the towering cliffs. Not only are the buildings enormous and intrinsically beautiful, but you can’t help but consider how fragile this building method was. If you build up and make a mistake you simply replace an element, a pillar or whatever. But when every pillar, every flourish, every detail is carved out of the one hillside there is simply no room for error.

The Monastery at the top, with Callum and Declan in the doorway for scale

The Monastery at the top, with Callum and Declan in the doorway for scale

The biggest of the buildings is some 50 metres high and almost as wide, so these are not inconsequential facades. The funny thing though is that they are facades – when you go inside the buildings they are plain, unadorned rooms. All the effort went into the outside. The smallest of the buildings is about the size of a dog-kennel. Put them all together and there are countless buildings to consider. Everywhere, absolutely everywhere, you look the hillsides are riddled with hewn caves and facades.

We walked about 15 kilometers in the course of the day, so didn’t feel very guilty about taking the theoretically soft option in ascending to the Monastery. Most visitors to Petra simply don’t get to the Monastery at all as it takes more time than a day visit allows and more than a little fitness to attempt. The Monastery is a huge building which was carved on the top of a mountain. One side of the mountain rises a couple of hundred metres above Petra, the other overlooks a dizzyingly deep gorge and then out as far as Israel.

The first step in our ascent was to acquire our donkeys. Getting the donkeys turned out to be less about bargaining and more about mediation between the competing donkey-owners. The price was soon settled (5 Dinars each); but because we needed four donkeys we needed to choose, from the crowd surrounding us, which owners to go with. In the end we chose one guy who had three donkeys with what appeared to be good saddles and a fourth from a younger kid who looked more like he needed the business.

The way up to the Monastery is steep and edges round some stunning precipices, with some bold lettering and perhaps a bit of italics for further emphasis of the adjectives there. At first I was worried that I’d be unable to work out whether to be scared of falling off the donkey, or falling off the cliff, or both. It turned out, much to my astonishment, that I wasn’t scared at all. Once my donkey and I became friends and I realised he knew exactly where to go, all I had to do was stay on. In contrast to our camel ride in Egypt, we had stirrups and that boosted our confidence incredibly. Even Callum was completely unafraid and had a great time.

Declan was the only one of us not to have stirrups and remained completely fearless even though his and my donkeys had no guides. I clearly had the lead donkey from the three we’d hired together; Declan was on the fourth donkey from the younger kid. Both our donkeys continually fought for first spot in our little string. Most of the time it was just funny as our donkey’s raced. However, there was one place where Declan and I ended up trotting along side-by-side on a path with no passing lane and a deep, deep drop to the side. For a moment we both of had our hearts very volubly in our mouths.

All of us up where we had our picnic lunch in front of the monastery

All of us up where we had our picnic lunch in front of the monastery

We had our picnic lunch in front of the Monastery. I couldn’t decide whether the boys’ presence was engendering admiring looks that they’d made it to the top, or defeated looks because the fact that a seven-year-old had made it rather detracted from everyone else’s achievement. They certainly attracted attention though. The other thing we noticed was that by the time we got to the Monastery, the bulk of other people there were Australian. The Americans, the Germans, the Japanese and the Italians who predominated down by the entrance to Petra had fallen away somewhere between there and here.

The walk down from the Monastery was uneventful but beautiful. We did get a better look at the view when not also minding the donkeys. And the view was worth the look. Deep cracks into the rocks, both vertical and horizontal. Seams of red, white and yellow rock twisting all over the place like some giant’s mashed up play-dough. Everywhere caves and carvings, either intact or scattered over the path by ancient rockfalls. And in the lee of rock outcrops Bedouin families gathered round small cookfires eating their lunches.

It really was magical.