PHOTOGRAPHY BY SCOTT WILSON AND RYAN EDWARDSON
AMMAN, JORDAN—On my right is the Syrian border. To my left, the Golan Heights, Israel and the Sea of Galilee and, in the distance, Mount Hebron in Lebanon. I’m standing on the remains of a 2,000-year-old Roman road, surrounded by columns still towering into the sky, and olive-tree-lined ribbons of asphalt brought me here.
I’m thinking: “How can I top this?”
Since my first visit here some 11 years ago, I’ve been plotting a way to return. And also, as with most of my trip-planning nowadays, how will I arrange to ride a motorcycle there? Jordan has been high on my list of places to “re-explore” after I was last there filming for “Departures”. It borders Syria, but it’s safe and secure and I remember it as beautiful – with gorgeous roads for riding.
A preliminary Internet search last year brought up next to nothing on “motorcycling in Jordan,” so I reached out to a contact at the Jordanian Tourism Board to ask for help. That’s when I learned motorcycling was illegal for foreigners! In fact, until 2008 it was illegal even for Jordanians to ride. The official reason was for public safety; the government saw motorcycles as too unsafe and decided to ban them altogether. (Though there is word on the street is that a high-ranking government official lost a son in a motorcycle crash and took swift action, banning them all.) This is especially surprising given motorcycling has a royal bloodline here. The current monarch King Abdullah II, his father, and his son are all noted motorcycle enthusiasts and collectors.
My plans hit a screeching halt and I started to look elsewhere, but then, about a month later, out of the blue, I heard back from the Tourism Board. Fortuitous government developments were in the works! As of March, 2018, foreigners would be allowed to operate motorcycles in Jordan. They invited myself, my brother Jeff, a good friend and fellow writer/rider Ryan Edwardson, and English journalist and moto-adventurer Kerry “Marley” Burns to take part in what would be the first official and legal moto-tour of Jordan. Leading us would be three other Jordanians who live and breathe motorcycling the way we do, and who have a passion, if not a sense of duty, for showing off their country’s beauty.
KTM Amman stepped up to lend us some SuperAdventure 1290 and 1190s for the trip, but I must admit I was concerned by the bikes: I’m not that tall, and the KTMs are high and heavy. I imagined all the worst possible scenarios of trying to keep the bike upright on sand-swept roads, the ground a long stretch below the soles of my boots. This haunted me until the first evening, when I snuck a peek at the motorcycles in the hotel parking lot.
The bike, though tall, was manageable and not as heavy-feeling as I expected. Sitting on the saddle, it felt thin and narrow compared to a BMW R1200GS, giving me more confidence by not having to splay my legs around it. Phew!
Read Jeff’s take on this trip: Lessons learned amid the chaos
We began our adventure the next day, heading south at day break toward the town of Aqaba. Our bikes were a Who’s Who of the Euro Adventure Touring class: BMW R1200GS, KTM SuperAdventures (both the older 1190 and 1290’s) and a Ducati Multistrada thrown in for good measure.
Morning brought overcast skies and light drizzle, and I again started to question how I’d handle this 160 hp giant out of the gates, onto wet roads and into the organized chaos of downtown Amman’s traffic. Don’t forget: this is a city of 4.5 million people, all of whom have only just begun to get used to the presence of motorcycles. However, the KTM was kind when treated with respect; learning to lean over at stops became as comfortable as re-discovering the wonders of lane-filtering.
Soon we watched the big city disappear in our mirrors and the glorious roads unfold ahead, as we began a non-stop descent to the lowest point on Earth: the Dead Sea.
In just 40 min. we dropped more than 1,300 metres in elevation to the edge of the Dead Sea, 430 metres below sea level, and that’s where the riding fun really began. Turning back inland and heading south you can play with this elevation through stunning landscape all day long. Canyon after canyon, switchback after switchback on nearly empty roads of surprisingly good pavement.
As we entered small towns and villages, the KTM’s Akropovič exhaust beckoned children and adults alike into the streets to wave. Perhaps they thought our motorcade was the King or Prince coming through, what with their known love of motorcycles. More likely it’s just that motorcycles are still very much a novelty, especially in less-populated areas. Whenever we’d stop to regroup, it only took seconds for the locals to descend on us to chat, and to build up the courage to ask for photos with the bikes, or even to ask to sit on them. In any case, riding in Jordan certainly makes you feel like royalty. Even when the locals found out we weren’t, they treated us like royalty all the same.
We pulled into the town of Shobak to eat some lunch and view the ruins of a thousand-year-old crusader castle. By this point, a sand storm was moving in and blowing dust and sand was starting to block out the sun as it set. We had to get back on the bikes quickly and hurry on through the edge of the Wadi Rum desert, and arrived in Aqaba after dark.
The next morning, the air was clear and the sun was blasting in typical desert fashion once again, and when we left the city at by 10 a.m. it was already more than 30 degrees. Heading north again, our convoy chose the Jordan Valley Highway that skirts the border of Israel. Military check points were common, but most of them just waved us through without incident, usually with a hearty “thumbs up” or a “braap braap” hand sign.
It was on this second day on the bike that I really started to appreciate having an adventure/touring machine. Most of the time the roads were in great shape and caning the SuperAdventure through the curves was impressive. However, when the odd corner had an unexpected rut, or pothole, or more treacherously, a small sand dune, the KTM was able to soak it up and handle it all in stride. If my bike had been fitted with a more aggressive 50/50 tire, it would have been tempting to leave the road altogether.
We finally descended back down to the Dead Sea again as we made the home stretch toward Amman. It’s said that sunsets here are truly unique because there is more atmosphere between the sun and Earth than anywhere else, and despite losing light fast, we had to stop a few times to soak up the view.
That evening back in Amman, our group met for coffee and shisha at a popular local moto-hangout called, fittingly: “Biker’s Corner”. We chatted about our love affairs with all things two-wheeled and the similarities and differences between moto-life in Jordan versus Canada. We also talked of Jordan’s growing pains with motorcycling, and the hardships for motorcycle enthusiasts.
Any bikes classified as a “race bike” require special permission from the government to purchase, let alone insure. I suppose the government still deems them to be too dangerous and unnecessary. None of my local friends could give me a definitive answer. Japanese bikes have crippling taxes and tariffs. (As a reference, a new Kawasaki KLR650 costs 10,000 Jordanian dinar. That’s $19,000 Canadian dollars!) This means that European – and to a lesser degree American – motorcycles are by far the most popular, having no imposed tariffs. Our hosts were hopeful that as motorcycling grows in popularity, the restrictions will be lessened, giving riders more access to a greater variety of machines.
After a couple of days in the saddle together, our group had formed a great camaraderie and we started our last day, like most days, at a favourite local breakfast stop. A bakery that the guys had stumbled upon years earlier is now a must-stop before heading for a ride into the northern Ajlun region, just as a stop at Tim Hortons or a local coffee shop would start any Canadian ride with friends. The difference here was that our crew split up around the neighbourhood to different shops to get coffee, veggies, eggs, etc. and brought them all back to the bakery where the baker (and good friend) got down to work on a pot-luck/cook-your-own breakfast – almost a co-op kitchen, of sorts. Starting the day with fresh shakshouka (eggs scrambled in tomato, onion and spices), fresh bread and mint tea leaves you feeling a lot better than a donut and coffee.
We thanked our baker host and saddled up one more time to head as far north as the borders would allow us. Narrow roads wound us up through olive groves and out over a plateau toward the Sea of Galilee. Every time we stopped to stretch, there were ruins from the Roman era to remind you just where you were and how special this place is. Mosaics, almost 2,000 years old, lay on the ground where churches and temples once were; now no one seemed to stop or care. Even some of the olive trees here are the same age and still bear fruit! This is the reality of the cultural and historical beauty Jordanians live in every day.
The nearly empty roads beckoned us to continue. This ancient land, sprawled out before us in staggering natural beauty, can be an evil temptress trying to distract your concentration from the constant curves. I worked the bike and tried my best to soak it all in, but before I’d even worked off breakfast, we were in Umm Qais: a Roman city with colonnaded streets, an amphitheatre, mausoleums and spectacular views of the neighbouring countries. I think this where I started.
The last three days were a wonderful blur, and I fell again head-over-heels for Jordan. What’s not to like?
It wasn’t until this point that it sunk in exactly where I was and how close we were to the chaos next door. Jordan somehow maintains a level head and carries on with day-to-day life while their “noisy neighbours” (as one of our local team members put it best) can’t seem to get it right. This peaceful oasis is one of the best travel destinations an adventurer can hope for, and now, finally, even for the moto-traveller, too.
What took so long? Perhaps the King just wanted to keep other bikers off his best-kept-secret riding roads – don’t we all have a few of those ?
Read Jeff’s take on this trip: Lessons learned amid the chaos
Make it happen: Since riding in Jordan is so new, there are no rental agents … yet. Mark my words though, they’re coming. For those keen, keep your eyes on https://www.edge-expeditions.com/tours/motorcycle-jordan/ who are the first to be booking and operating moto-tours in Jordan. Their experience in operating similar tours all across Central Asia will make them stand out for this type of trip in Jordan.
Alpinestars Durban Jacket/Pants – Three things that saved me with this kit: vents, vents and more vents! When riding in 35+ C desert climate, you are happy to have air coming in as many places as possible. Of course, it had me totally covered from a protection stand point and includes the wonderful oasis of a built-in hydration-pack pocket, which got as much use as my zips did.
Alpinestars Toucan Boots – The perfect hybrid of MX protection with the flexibility and “livability” of a normal hiking boot. I wore these all day, every day, and had no issue exploring around sites when off the bike too. Oh, and they are GorTex, for waterproofing!
Bell MX-9 Adventure Helmet – Ideally suited for this type of riding, I believe. Best of the MX world, but so nice to just drop the clear visor down on the long highway stretches.
Kreiga Bike Packs – I’ve been a huge fan of Kreiga’s bag systems for years now. Whether it’s on my own sport bike or dual-sports, or anything else I ride around the world, I love this modular system. If you can’t fit these bags to your bike, you aren’t trying. Waterproof, durable, easy to use on pretty much anything on two wheels. What else do you need?
Not the same without Justin….bring back Departures….
Muy husband and I are hooked on Departures!
Awesome!!!… Is there any chances of departures season 4?
I don’t see much luggage – should the list of gear include a van?
That depends. The government made a van available to the team to shuttle heavy gear (anything from clothes to camera gear etc.) ahead to the next overnight location. Most of the team took advantage of that. I was able to make use of my Kreiga bags and bring everything I needed with me. (as is mentioned in the gear breakdown)
Further to Scott’s response, the van was a nice surprise. We had each packed tail bags to use, assuming we wouldn’t have an ‘escort’, but took advantage when it was provided.
Ah ha! I knew it from the size of the underpacked tail bags. 🙂