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Women on a Mission: One Team’s Journey Across the Desert of Wadi Rum (Part One)

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It’s quite fitting that women should have accomplished the very first recorded successful ascent of the mountains of Wadi Rum in Jordan, in November 1952. According to original documents from the times, two intrepid British female mountaineers summited Jebel Rum and other peaks in the area, guided by Sheikh Hamdan Amad, as they journeyed across the region. These adventurers were Charmian Longstaff and her stepdaughter Sylvia Branford, on a quest to retrace part of the route taken by British officer T.E. Lawrence, often referred to as Lawrence of Arabia, who passed through the desert on several occasions during the Arab Revolt of 1917-18.

Six decades later, during the exact same month, a team of 12 determined women from Singapore made their way to this very site in Jordan, on a challenging mission to raise awareness and funds for female survivors of war, victims of human trafficking, and rape.

During this majestic journey, my teammates and I trekked through a maze of monumental moonscapes, which rose up from the desert floor to heights of 1,750m, creating a natural challenge for serious mountaineers and passionate rock climbers. We enjoyed the serenity of the empty spaces and explored the canyons, rock arches and many other remarkable treasures this vast wasteland had to offer. All of us had been dreaming and training for this expedition for many months, and had tried our hardest to be in the best physical and mental shape possible.

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Shortly after arriving in the Hashemite Kingdom’s capital, Amman, we made our way to its celebrated desert of Wadi Rum, the soul of Jordan (also known as the Valley of the Moon), a desert expanse of amber-coloured sands and high sandstone cliffs.

On the first day of our journey, our local guides – Bedouins from the area – opened up their homes, shared their food with us and introduced us to their families. Their simplicity, boundless hospitality and generosity, touched us profoundly. I asked Abdulla our guide, if he felt the Bedouin’s rural way of life was being threatened. “To me, being a Bedouin isn’t just about your herd or your tribe,” he replied. “It’s about freedom to choose how and where you want to live your life.”

Jordan was always of great significance to our campaign. Not only is it strategically located at the crossroads of what Christians, Jews and Muslims call the Holy Land, extending into the historic region of Palestine, but it has also played a strategic part in brokering peace between governments at war in this volatile powder keg of a region.

Consequently, by trekking in this area of the world, our “Women on a Mission” team hoped to bring international attention to the need for societies, governments and corporations to get involved and help end violence against women. We passionately felt this reality could no longer be tolerated, in any form, in any context, by anyone around the globe.

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As we began our journey, drinking in this vast, silent expanse of ancient riverbeds and sandy deserts, the spectacular landscape had us captivated. With its staggering rock formations, Wadi Rum possesses one of the most stunning geographies on the planet. Split by networks of canyons, spanned by naturally formed rock bridges and watered by hidden springs, we knew this desert would offer a fantastic opportunity to rock climb.

Our objective was not simply to raise awareness and funds ($100,000 SGD to be exact) for a cause we cared deeply about, but also to challenge ourselves both mentally and physically. The main goal of this expedition was to embark on a daring voyage, where each and everyone of us would have a chance to push our own limits, conquer our fears, and achieve something beyond the ordinary.

As we entered the Rakebat Canyon, the excitement in the air was palpable. This timeless place, virtually untouched by humanity, drew us deep into its warm embrace. Suffice to say, the desert of Wadi Rum – where the weather and winds have carved out these towering skyscrapers – is any rock climber’s fantasy come true. As we evaluated the imposing silhouettes of the Jebels in the distance, we knew that each team member’s endurance, balance, skill and mental preparation would inevitably be put to the test. Despite the countless hours of training on South East Asia’s tallest free-standing synthetic rock climbing wall at SAFRA Yishun in Singapore, we instinctively felt that scaling natural rock facades, such as the ones standing magnificent before us, would be a very different challenge altogether.

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Our desert expedition included an average of seven to eight hours of hard hiking per day, carrying heavy packs, laden with supplies and water. We trekked under blistering heat and on a multitude of terrains, across an expanse of over 100 kilometres. The team scaled numerous vertiginous rockscapes, and as we maneuvered our way around difficult ascents and negotiated passages along exposed ledges, we bruised, scraped and cut our hands and knees on a daily basis.

Our group tackled mainly grade 3 and 4 ascents, and on occasions some grade 5 and 6 climbs (3-4 ascents are hard-severe, and 5-6 ascents are very severe). Around Jebel Khash, to the far southern side of Wadi Rum, we managed to complete two first ascents – a grade 4 and 5 – which we were privileged to christen “Women Rising” and “Sisterhood”.

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Finally after a few days of training and familiarizing ourselves with the geography of the area, we set out to climb to the top of Jebel Burdah’s famed Stone Bridge, a natural arch high up on the mountain, which took us several taxing hours to reach. After traversing various unprotected sections, my teammates and I finally hoisted ourselves onto the very top of its spectacular stone bridge, where we were able to take in a dazzling 360-degree-view of the Wadis below…

Stay tuned for Part Two of Women on a Mission’s Jordan expedition.  

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