“I remember the first time I went to Jordan, I arrived and was totally enamoured by the sound of the prayers reverberating. It felt intense in a romantic way. That’s what you feel when you go into Petra for the first time,” begins photographer Catherine Hyland, reminiscing on her recent trip to the historical city. Commissioned by Cartography magazine for its sixth issue, Catherine spent eight days trekking 100 miles along the Jordan Trail, from South Little Petra to Titin Village. The resulting series, Road to Civilisation, is a documentation of her journey.
From her previous trip to the area, Catherine recalls the vast landscapes and the monuments, caves and temples which have been painstakingly carved out of the rose-coloured rock. But she also recalls the sense of insignificance she felt amidst the arid terrain that is so steeped in history. “Those memories returned as we drove into Petra for my second visit. We arrived in the evening and drove to a Bedouin campsite. And then came a gradual slowing down,” she says. “The pace of life here is not fast. You make coffee and it takes two and a half hours, the heartbeat steadies, the blood flows a little slower, you mellow into the desert way of being.”
This same sense of tranquillity and meditative calm is apparent in Catherine’s portraits of the Bedouins and their homeland; notions that juxtapose against the brutality of the desert, which despite offering stillness and serenity, is nevertheless unforgiving. It’s a place that “we are part of, but can never dominate,” explains Catherine. It’s one of the things that makes the photos so fascinating: the people in them have found a sense of belonging in somewhere that, by its very nature, is totally inhospitable.
After one night in Petra, Catherine set off on the walk that was to be the main part of her trip. Travelling with the Bedouins, she quickly left any traces of civilisation behind. “It’s like stepping into a void, going through a wormhole to this land that nobody ever visits. We started walking along these sparse rock faces and we found ourselves in the bottom of the valley,” she explains. “It’s arid, it’s flat and it’s hot, and very quickly you begin to feel the power of the earth undimmed by the distracting clamour of human energy. We are walking into desolate empty spaces, we are walking into the wilderness, the pace has slowed even more and there is not a soul in sight.”
The isolation and desolation are tangible in the photos. The alien landscape of canyons that go on forever is at once invigorating and terrifying. Nestled amongst these giants, Catherine’s loss of bearings acts as a catalyst for introspection: “Here the scale of the landscape, the looseness of the rocks, the lack of a trail, and the sense of space as it goes off into infinity remind me of my mortality, my insignificance in the face of everything.”
In the days following their departure from Petra, as they trek through the rocky terrain, Catherine experienced first-hand the Bedouin way of life. After whole days spent walking, Catherine didn’t just disappear into her tent come night time – she stayed up drinking gin, eating traditional meat and rice dishes, and talking with her guides. “In this world, in this land, to be with people means you survive, so why would you want to be alone? That’s the way the thinking goes,” she says. The Bedouins told Catherine enchanting stories of life in the wilderness, with the enchantment only broken by mention of celebrities they have shown around Petra. Her guide Haboob explained he has played host to big names such as George Clooney and Will Smith. He tells her that Will Smith was the nicest of all.
“This is a big part of the attraction of the trail – talking and hanging out with the Bedouins. They have a way of thinking that is sometimes very traditional but they are so charming, welcoming and full of humour that you start to see the vanities and absurdities of your own life,” Catherine explains. After more days spent walking, eating, drinking and talking, she finally reached the finish line at a village called Wadi Rum. At this point, Catherine says that feelings of decompression and disappointment began to creep into her mind. Buildings, people, soldiers and camels indicate the end of her journey, and it is with sadness that she returns to civilisation: “Walking on the Jordan Trail was like climbing over the fence of the universal tourist experience and entering the wilderness. Coming off the Trail feels like returning to a world you had forgotten and would rather leave behind.”
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