No astronaut wants to wake up the way Mark Watney does.
He’s face-down in red dirt, his suit’s oxygen alarm shrieking, with a piece of ship antennae stuck in his side, and the nearest doctor is - where? He looks around. The Hab (Mars Lander Habitat, aka. “living quarters”) are a short walk away, but his ship is gone, along with all his crewmates. Then he remembers everything. They were all leaving in a howling dust-storm, there was an accident…
Now he’s alone, and home - his real home, the planet he was born on - is 290 million kilometres away.
So begins Ridley Scott’s The Martian, from the bestselling 2011 book by Andy Weir. It’s an immediately compelling setup - and the film nails it, by depicting that opening scene in one of the most stunningly alien-looking places on our planet.
Jordan’s Wadi Rum valley is a breathtaking expanse of iron-reddened sand broken by enormous, dramatically weathered outcrops of sandstone. If you love your sci-fi movies, you’ve seen it on screen at least a few times, maybe even dozens. Maybe you didn’t know, because it had been tinkered with by the special effects folk - for example, in The Martian, the real-life blue skies above Jordan on a cloudless day were replaced with the sickly butterscotch yellow of the real Martian sky. (In Ridley Scott’s words: “I added the dust devils and skies - otherwise it was all real.”)
You might also have seen it in its most famous cinematic outing - in David Lean’s 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia, which went on to win 7 Oscars. It depicts the Arab uprising against the Ottomans in 1917 - and during the revolt, the real-life T.E. Lawrence made his base in Wadi Rum, alongside Prince Feisal bin Al-Hussein, king of the Arab kingdom of Syria. (Lawrence’s autobiography, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, is named after a rock formation in the area.) It was a natural choice of location for David Lean - and he took it, to spectacular effect.
More recently, you might have seen Wadi Rum in Red Planet (2000), two of the most recent Star Wars movies, one Transformers film, Disney’s Moon Knight TV series, and Dune (2021), where it stood in for the desert planet of Arrakis. It’s so popular a filming location that around 600 projects come to the valley every year, according to the country’s Royal Film Commission - not just big-budget stuff but also small-scale productions, advertisements and music videos, and anything else keen to tap into this mesmerizingly bleak landscape.
And of course it’s the backdrop to Mark Watney’s desperate fight for survival, looking convincingly pristine and hostile to human life - even though Jordan is actually a tropical paradise compared to the real conditions on Mars (-80 degrees Fahrenheit at night, and with so little air pressure that without a spacesuit, your blood would instantly boil in your veins).
In his time filming The Martian, Wadi Rum really got under Matt Damon’s skin: “I was in awe of the place, it was really, really special. One of the most spectacular and beautiful places I have ever seen and like nothing I’ve seen elsewhere on Earth.”
But the film industry is only half of the region’s income. The rest, surprisingly, comes from agriculture, of all things.
This may seem a head-scratcher when you look at the pictures, and it’ll blow your mind if you’re visiting in person (as Wheel & Anchor will be doing at the beginning of March next year), but don’t let all that sand and dryness fool you: this is Jordan’s freshwater supply, and incredibly there’s more than enough to power the whole country and grow a lot of its food.
A big clue is the number of fossilized seashells you’ll find scattered across the sands. Millions of years ago, this was the bottom of a sea - and the resulting underlying porous sandstone, the same stuff that forms many of those magnificent outcrops, has the ability to trap rainwater as it moves slowly downwards into the ground. That’s exactly what it’s done, collecting groundwater for hundreds of thousands of years.
As a recent consequence of this, Jordan’s agricultural economy has exploded. One stretch of the valley (usually carefully out of sight of film cameras) is polka-dotted with colossal circular fields, shockingly green against the surrounding red land. Each covers around 78 hectares and is watered from a rotating sprayer pivoting around its centre…
The result, ironically enough, looks just as alien as the pristine desert just a few mountainsides away.
This is the paradox of Wadi Rum today. You may feel as cast-adrift as Mark Watney and as far away from the human world as it’s possible to get - but like so many of the world’s “remote” places, this is still a deeply human landscape, filled with people who have spent thousands of years learning its ways and are now using modern technology to perform that delicate dance of change and adaptation without despoiling its natural beauty.
But it’s mainly the former that you’ll feel, when you wake up somewhere in Wadi Rum. And if it’s somewhere like the Memories Aicha Luxury Camp, with its hab-like structures and distinct feeling of being on a luxury cruise around the Red Planet - well, you’re there to enjoy it. Millions of people see this place through their screens every year, and gasp at the sight of it…
But you’re actually here. Hey, how about that?
Join Wheel & Anchor next year in its tour across the holy Land: Israel and Jordan, taking in Petra and Jerusalem and, at its southernmost extent, spending a night within incredible Wadi Rum. Get the brochure here.