A Bedouin Goat Adventure

I recently had a weekend trip to top all weekend trips: A group of Jerusalem friends and I drove to Jordan’s second largest nature reserve and spent two serene yet adventurous nights in an ecolodge run by Bedouins and spent a day herding goats with a local.

We left Jerusalem on a Saturday morning and the drive to the reserve was easy enough, although it’s always confusing crossing from Israel to Jordan. On both the Israeli and Jordanian side, there are a series of many windows, which you have to visit in no discernible order, present paperwork, answer questions, and get your documents stamped and shuffled. But about three hours after crossing the Allenby/King Hussein border, passing gorgeous desert scenery and goats, we were bumping along a little road that led us to the Feynan EcoLodge in the Dana Biosphere Reserve. (Note, if you don’t have diplomatic plates, you can walk across a border into Jordan and rent a car. Or, you can find transport from Petra, Wadi Rum, or Amman to Feynan).

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Th Feynan Ecolodge was built in the Dana Biosphere Reserve in 2005 by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, the NGO that governs Jordan’s national parks. (The lodge was also originally funded in part by the U.S. Government). It’s a solar-powered, low-energy use building – spare and elegant – that’s nestled unobtrusively at a the base of mountains. The lodge employs locals and supports the Wadi Feynan community, which is comprised of four Bedouin tribes. The reserve itself is 308 square kilometers of mountains and wadis (ravines) and is home to many plants and animals including ibex, caracals, wolves, hyenas, snakes, and scorpions.

Right away, I felt so chilled out by the very warm welcome by the Bedouin staff, the sweet tea, and the sunset hike that started just after we arrived. Our room was really cute too:

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Photo from Feynan Ecolodge.

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This is when we first met Suleiman, our awesome Bedouin guide. This guy really knows his stuff. Behind him is his family’s tent, located just down the road from the ecolodge.

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It was dark when we returned to the candlelit lodge, so we scanned the next day’s posted activities with our flashlights, which is when I saw that among the copper mine hike, the wadi hike, the visit-the-home-of-a-Bedouin experience, was an opportunity to shadow a Bedouin goat herder and frolic all day in the mountains with a herd of goats. I don’t know that I can even properly explain how excited I was at this prospect. First, I think goats are freakin’ adorbs, and I love a good hike. But also, a character in my book is a goat herder. And how much do I actually know about herding goats? Practically nothing. So this was a perfect opportunity to do research in the most fun way possible. My enthusiasm must have been contagious because I convinced my six friends to forget whatever else they had planned for the next day and to come goating with me. After a great candlelight dinner of tons of fresh vegetarian dishes, a short powerpoint presentation on the mission of the lodge, and stargazing on the roof, I took a hot shower (the water is heated by solar power), got in a cozy bed (in our totally dark room) and tried to contain my excitement for the following day.

We met our goat herder, Ahmed, in the lobby at 8:30am. He’s 20 but looks younger. This was perfect because the character in my book is a young guy too. Ahmed works at an airport most of the time, but on his holiday he returns to his home village of Feynan and makes extra money by taking out his neighbor’s 100 goats to graze.

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This is Ahmed, who finally smiled by the end of the day, but who refused to sing us a song. “I sing when I’m alone.”

Our group was concerned that eight hours was a tad excessive for goat herding, but Ahmed said there wasn’t any way to cut it short – the goats gotta graze, and you have to cover quite a bit of ground in order to find enough food. But don’t worry, he said in limited English, it would be easy. No sooner had he said those words than we began to climb up a mountain covered in loose gravel and we didn’t stop climbing (goatless, I might add) for like an hour. Just as I was starting to feel really bad about what I had convinced everyone to do, we finally spotted the goats that we were supposedly herding.

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I guess that’s how goat herding goes when you’re in the wide open wilderness. You just follow the goats the best you can and make sure they’re getting enough clover and grass and flowers. Goats can seemingly climb everything, even an almost completely vertical rock face. Our two pack donkeys were also especially agile, as was Ahmed.

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Our group was less sure-footed and some of the ascents were a little hair-raising but the views were incredible and totally worth it. From up on a mountain top, we could see dry river beds snaking along the valley and our herd of goats dotting green areas on the sides of mountains. It was so, so quiet out there until a goat bleated, one of the donkey’s brayed, or a cuckoo bird sang.

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Two especially memorable moments of the day: Ahmed milked a goat so we could try fresh milk. Warm milk right from the teet of a Bedouin goat, mmmm. I took a huge swig and stood in shock for about fifteen seconds at the sheer goatiness of it.

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Near the end of the hike, we ran into another goat herder who was carrying a baby goat, born hours before. Its umbilical cord was still attached, and the new mom goat was trailing close behind, both bleating for the herder to set down her newborn, and eating whatever she could find along the way. Seeing a just-born kid in the wilderness of Jordan is something I’ll never forget. (Unlike drinking warm goat’s milk from a water bottle, which is something I’d really like to forget. Did I mention the mouth of the water bottle had a little clump of goat fur on it?)

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Just-born baby finding her legs.

A few things I learned about herding:

  • Each herder has his (or her) own way of communicating with the goats. Different sounds like yells, clicks, and whistles let the goats know where to go and who to follow.
  • The donkeys stop if you say “shhhhhhh.”
  • Generally, the male goats are sold for meat (and sell for about $150). The herds are almost all female, except for two males goats. Two male goats are necessary, because if it was just one goat, the lone male would be so awash in options that he wouldn’t even try to impregnate any females. Add another male to the mix, and there’s a little competition, which means more goat babies.

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After a mountaintop lunch, a quick nap for Ahmad, and lots and lots more walking, the day was winding down and Ahmad dropped us off at the ecolodge on his way to take the goats home. It was just a regular work day for him (okay, probably an annoying day for him taking all of us novices around with our constant ooohing and ahhing) but for me, it was a magical one. Despite being pooped from eight hours of climbing mountains, we took advantage of the gorgeous light and perfect weather and our friend led us in rooftop yoga.

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Another great candlelight dinner (this one we snuck wine into – the Bedouins are Muslims and don’t drink, but they didn’t seem to mind too much that we brought our own booze). For the second night, we chatted with the Bedouins and other lodge guests (from all over the world) by the fireplace. It was cozy and fascinating to get a peak into Bedouin life. I pictured the Bedouins to be uneducated roamers who want to keep to themselves. But these guys all went to school, speak great English and were warm and funny (and good looking, I might add). I asked Suleiman why he wouldn’t just sleep at the lodge rather than go back to his tent. “I’d feel too claustrophobic,” he said, adding how lucky he is to get to sleep under the stars every night.

The next morning, we ate our second delicious breakfast – fresh cream, jam, cheese, breads, dates, and eggs – and went on a plant hike, led by Suleiman, who pointed out the incredibly diverse flora in the reserve, including artemisia, a vegetal, menthol-y herb that is great in tea. Speaking of tea, the Bedouin have a saying “A woman is like a teabag, you don’t know how strong she is until you put her in hot water.” And speaking of women, we didn’t see any Bedouin women throughout the weekend. It wouldn’t be culturally appropriate for them to work in the lodge around men, we were told.

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Suleiman demonstrating the sudsy, soap-like properties of a desert plant.
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So much tea! With so much sugar! By our last glass, we were brave enough to ask for no sugar.

After the short hike, we participated in a cooking class where we made fresh falafel, little pizza-like flatbreads with cheese and za’atar called manakeesh, and salad. It was fun, delicious, and such a treat to enjoy one last meal in the desert before packing it up and heading back to Jerusalem.

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Desert, mountains, wadis, good friends, mountain hikes, sunset yoga, great vegetarian food, contraband wine, a comfy bed, and all those freakin’ goats. For me, it doesn’t get any better.

To goats,

Em in Jerusalem

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