Wadi Dana (Dana valley). Photograph by Scott Lashinsky.

From Vista to Valley

A journey through Jordan’s Dana Nature Reserve offers one photographer a chance to breathe deep and reflect on a year like no other

By / February 2021

It was 4 a.m. I was wide awake in my rented room. Perhaps it was my middle-aged bladder that woke me. Perhaps it was my nerves. Whatever it was, on this night, in the hours when nighttime blurs into morning, I couldn’t stop thinking about the journey ahead.

Two days before, I had checked into the Dana Guesthouse, a modest but charming 22-room stone boarding house initially designed as lodging for researchers perched high on a windy cliff overlooking Wadi Dana (Dana Valley) on the edge of the Dana Biosphere Reserve in southern Jordan. The reserve boasts over 800 plant species with some 250 animal species to boot.

A local friend had previously invited me on a day trip to the massive nature reserve, Jordan’s largest at 320 square kilometers. At the time, I wasn’t able to join him. But now, feeling an itch for adventure during the cool winter months yet still not comfortable traveling outside the country during the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic, the reserve promised a welcome departure from the normal sights and sounds of the city.

I had come to take in the whispering wind and calling of birds and other wildlife as well as hopefully catching at least a glimpse of the elusive Nubian ibex that the brochure teased. But I would see not a living soul, human nor animal, for the majority of my 15-kilometer (9-mile) solo hike through the valley.

With the scenic cliff-side views afforded from my room at the guesthouse, I felt like I was on top of the world. I had a birds-eye-view of the route, and I had the community of the guesthouse staff and the other guests to enjoy. The friendly, bearded, twenty-something receptionist whom I chatted with at night. The deaf, middle-aged caretaker who communicated with his own brand of sign language and a disarming smile. The small kitchen staff of three or four who prepared local delicacies. The Arab couple and the European ladies staying down the hall.

But as I set off through the valley, the landscape was barren, dusty, and monotone. It seemed to speak of loneliness and death. The dry empty trees scattered throughout. The small, solitary bone on the cliff. The cluster of black rocks that looked like a gravesite. A small, naked tree springing out of the one that most resembled a tombstone, as if to mock both the living and the dead—as if to say, “Let there be life, but let it be forlorn and fruitless.”

After a few downhill miles, the terrain leveled out, and I found myself standing in a vacant valley. With sandstone cliffs on both sides, there wasn’t a soul in sight. I was alone. And it was somehow just what I wanted. Silence. Purity of sight and sound. Mostly untouched earth. I felt at home, like Adam in Eden. I belonged in the reserve. I had no care in the world, except for getting to the other side of this valley.

Wadi Dana (Dana valley). Photograph by Scott Lashinsky.Sandstone rock faces in Wadi Dana at Jordan’s Dana Biosphere Reserve.

Though I knew walking straight through would lead to the other guesthouse on the far end of the trail, I did not know what lay between on the journey ahead. And with the trail unmarked, at times the best path to take was a mystery. I had to improvise. I fashioned a walking stick by sanding down a portion of a dead branch with a rock, having not had the foresight to bring a Swiss Army knife to a nature reserve. I had to go off course to avoid vast patches of thicket. I climbed around the brush on small cliffs, taking time to rest under a shady tree. And at one point, I even crawled. But mostly I walked.

With few signs of life, the valley’s remote brand of silence was welcomed. I admit that the grunting sound of an unseen animal nearby startled and concerned me at first, until I reasoned that there were likely no dangerous beasts in this wilderness.

The last few kilometers afforded humble encounters with a couple of birds and two dogs that appeared to also be on a thru-hike. I eventually spotted these same sheepdogs as I passed a small community of Bedouin nomads living in large tents near the end of the trail. More fleet footed than me, the dogs had already completed their journey by the time I trudged by.

Some four and a half hours after beginning the hike, I succeeded in navigating my way through the valley. Arriving at the guesthouse at the other side of the reserve, I kicked off my hiking boots and reclined into a hammock, having quenched my thirst with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. As I rhythmically rocked in the breeze, I reflected on the journey.

The experience reminded me of the year I had just lived through. I started 2020 with high expectations. New goals. New experiences. New destinations. That vista quickly turned into a valley when COVID-19 rocked the world.

But with all the loss, with all the uncertainty, there’s still a way forward. The unfamiliar, unknown valley can even be quite beautiful. We may have to find a way around an obstacle. We may have to divert, climb, or even crawl. But we’ll make it through, just like our ancestors who knew far worse.

There’s always a new kind of beauty along the way and perhaps a few familiar comforts at the journey’s end.


Scott Lashinsky is a photographer based in Jordan.