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The joys of Jordan for juniors
9:55am Friday 16th August 2013 in Travel
Forget expensive theme parks, zoos and aquariums, because Jordan is blessed with plenty of its own natural attractions to keep the kids amused, as Hannah Stephenson discovers.
"I'm saving my locust in this water bottle," an excited little boy tells me before running barefoot through the desert sand to show his playmates what he's found.
Several other youngsters have found a dung beetle which they are attempting to trap in another bottle and there are squeals of delight when the poor creature surrenders.
We're at the Captain's Camp in Wadi Rum, in the heart of the desert in Jordan, where great sandstone rocks create a dramatic backdrop to the tents in which we'll sleep under the stars.
It's night-time at the camp and the camels we rode out on to watch the dramatic sunset have long since departed, leaving the kids to help our friendly Berbers excavate our Bedouin barbecue dinner.
It's a local speciality called zarb, which is lamb, chicken, vegetables and rice cooked in a hot charcoal pit under the ground. The food is placed on trays inside the pit and then the whole area covered with foil before sand is piled on top to ensure no heat escapes.
The children are probably more excited about digging out the top layer of sand with their spades than they are about eating the food, but entertainment is never far away as they join in Jordanian dancing with the locals before running off, torches zig-zagging in the star-filled night sky.
Some 81% of Jordan is desert and 250,000 Bedouins live the life of their ancestors, selling sheep and goats, setting up roadside stalls piled with watermelons and other produce they've grown, or remaining in their primitive, makeshift camps, selling incense, henna, herbs and anything else they come across. One desert vendor tries to flog my companion a broken 1932 rifle. Now that would be a souvenir!
While creepy-crawlies tend to steer clear of the tourist camps in Wadi Rum, our affable Jordanian guide Basil informs me after our stay that there are two types of scorpions - the black and the blond - in the desert.
The Bedouin reputedly extract the venom from the blond scorpion, mix it with camel milk and honey and feed it to their infants so they build up a homemade immunity to the sting.
The spectacular rock formations at Wadi Rum - literally translated as Valley of the Moon - form a dramatic silhouette to the spectacular sunsets there, while the layers of granite, sandstone and limestone create a myriad different colours depending on the time of day.
Wadi Rum is perhaps best known for its connection with British officer T E Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, who passed through several times during the Arab Revolt of 1917-18.
Yet not much has changed over thousands of years and, while some Bedouins have made the most of the tourist dollar, there's a feeling that things are pretty much as they've always been.
While Jordan itself is a country surrounded by political unrest (it's fringed by Syria, Iraq, the West Bank, Israel and Saudi Arabia), which has had an effect on the tourist trade, I see no evidence of trouble anywhere, although hotels now scan your bags on entry.
The Jordanians are among the friendliest people I've ever met, engaging with the children, allowing you to barter at the market stalls without intimidating or pressurising you if you choose not to buy and doing their utmost to keep visitors happy.
The country has much to offer families: amazing ruins at Jerash and Petra; excursions into the desert; 4x4 safaris where you're driven precariously up and down the dunes; fantastic snorkelling opportunities at Aqaba, the main beach resort in the south, and the chance to float in the ever-shrinking Dead Sea.
It's a perfect place to mix culture and history with poolside fun, beaches and watersports.
First cultural stop is Petra, one of the new Seven Wonders Of The World and Jordan's most valuable natural tourist treasure.
At first the kids groan at the prospect of visiting this dramatic ancient city, but their grumbles soon turn into open-mouthed wonder when they see the sheer sandstone cliffs which form The Siq, the dramatic corridor to the Treasury featured in Hollywood blockbuster Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade.
It's a huge pillared facade carved out of sandstone which served as a tomb of an Arab king, gaining its name from the myth that an Egyptian pharaoh hid his treasure in the top urn.
Built by the Nabataeans, Arab settlers, around the 6th century BC, Petra became an important junction for the silk, spice and other trade routes linking China, India and southern Arabia with Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome.
In the shadow of the Treasury there's a trinket shop selling scarves, silverware and Middle Eastern lanterns, while the kids drag their parents towards hawkers offering camel and donkey rides further along the site.
My 13-year-old daughter, Grace, is fascinated by the shapes of animals in the rocks - an elephant, a fish, camels' hooves - and loves haggling over decorative bottles of sand and other distractions during what might otherwise be seen from a child's eye as a long, hot history lesson.
If you're taking children to Petra, go early - it opens at 6am so you can miss the heat of the day and, if the walk back seems too long, treat them to a donkey ride and then catch a horse and carriage from the Treasury back to the entrance.
Of course, food can be an issue with kids on holiday and there are some faddy eaters in our party.
But they have fun learning about Middle Eastern cuisine at the Petra Kitchen, a restaurant where we don what look like forensic gloves, are given boards and (fairly blunt) knives and are shown how to make such delicacies as baba ghanoush (roasted aubergines mashed and mixed with tomatoes, onions and peppers), tahina salad, tabbouleh and other local dishes.
Splash time is essential for anyone taking kids on a hot holiday so we head south towards Aqaba, playground for those who want the luxury of high-end hotels fringing the Red Sea, whose name stems from the red coral in the fertile ocean which is a magnet for divers and snorkellers alike.
Unlike some of the over-promoted Red Sea resorts, Aqaba has not been swamped by tourism, so dive areas aren't too crowded and sea life is abundant. In just half an hour's snorkelling we see living corals, barracuda, real-life Nemos and other fish.
No trip to Jordan would be complete without a visit to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, so called because nothing lives in it due to the high salt content.
Putting on jelly shoes and venturing in, I'm warned to keep the water away from my lips and eyes because it will be painful, but floating comes naturally in water with a salt content eight times higher than other oceans. It's like wearing a buoyancy aid.
After moaning about their cuts and scrapes stinging in the salty water, the children slap therapeutic mud all over themselves before going in again to wash it away and, hopefully, leave them with smoother, softer skin.
If you want your children to experience the Dead Sea, go to Jordan sooner rather than later, as this strip of water is shrinking by around 1.5m a year. By 2050 it may have disappeared completely, our guide warns.
Jordan may be off the tourist trail for some wary families because of the problems in the Middle East, yet it remains an oasis of calm - and a joy for juniors and adults alike.
Travel facts - Jordan
Hannah Stephenson travelled to Jordan with her daughter courtesy of Jordan Tourism Board (www.visitjordan.com). Royal Jordanian (www.rj.com/08719 112 112) flies daily from London Heathrow to Amman. Flight prices start from £228 each way.
The Adventure Company (www.adventurecompany.co.uk/0808 149 9568) offers the eight-day Journey To The Lost City family holiday which takes in Amman, Jerash, Madaba, Petra, Wadi Rum, Aqaba and the Dead Sea. Prices from £1,309 for adults and £1,178 for children, including flights. For more information go to www.adventurecompany.co.uk/tours/journey-lost-city