Ali Barqawi is a Jordanian photographer and filmmaker who specializes in documenting adventure expeditions around the world. Back in 2016, Ali learned about the newly-formed Jordan Trail Association (JTA). As the association began planning the country’s first long-distance thru-hike — an epic journey that travels through 52 Jordanian villages — Ali joined the efforts, volunteering in a marketing and media productions role. Since then, Ali has explored the trail in great depth, completing the thru-hike once, and promoting the budding tourism industry in his homeland while doing so. Hoping to learn more, we asked Ali a few questions about these newfound experiences.
What did you do before you were a full-time photographer and videographer?
I worked as a business strategy consultant for about 15 years but eventually came to the conclusion that it was not the life I wanted. I always imagined a nomadic lifestyle that would take me from one adventure to another, from one country to the next. I craved that sense of freedom. So, between 2009 and 2010, I decided to quit my job, sell everything I own, and travel around the world for a year. After that, I focused my energy on combing my two passions of travel and visual documentation, turning all of my attention toward a career in freelance adventure travel media production.
What were you doing when you first heard of the Jordan Trail?
I left Jordan in 2006 to pursue career opportunities elsewhere. Ten years later, I planned to return after spending some time in Goa. It was then that I learned about the Jordan Trail through an old friend, Muna Haddad, who was the president of the JTA at the time. When Muna told me about the trail, this whole concept of a 400-mile (650-kilometer) footpath that begins in Um Qais and ends along the Red Sea in Aqaba intrigued me — especially since it would show me a different side of Jordan after all these years of being away.
Did you start making plans to get involved immediately?
After hearing the news from Muna, the idea of crossing the whole country by foot didn’t leave my thoughts — I knew I had to find a way to make it happen.
From there, Muna and I talked about several ways to collaborate, trying to see how my skills could be of use to the association. Luckily, they needed help promoting the trail and spreading the word about this new destination and outdoor experience in Jordan.
Ever since I returned to the country in mid-2016, I’ve been volunteering and collaborating with the JTA, though my work has expanded beyond this one project. Because of this, I’ve been able to explore the trail on four different occasions — one of which included hiking the full length.
Was completing the trail what you expected?
From a hiking perspective, the trail offered all that I hoped for and more. There was something amazing around every corner and it was an experience I’ll remember forever. But from a professional point of view, it was a nightmare and went completely different than what I expected. The group I was with was trying to complete two different projects; to document as many of the trail’s details for logistic’s sake, plus capture footage for a promotional video, and the two kind of clashed. But telling a story visually is never an easy endeavor — it’s all about troubleshooting.
Even after hiking it a few times now, does the trail still find ways to surprise?
The trail is just spectacular — and I totally mean that. The changes you observe in the landscape as you walk southbound are absolutely mesmerizing. From the lush green hillsides of the north to the rosy mountains of Petra and the sky-blue waters of the Red Sea, the trail offers different experiences and sensations around every turn. I suppose it all depends on the season and the group you’re hiking with, but what I know is that it’s never ceased to amaze me.
What I also love about the trail is that 70 to 80 percent of it involves camping in the wild, away from the hustle and bustle of cities. Although there are opportunities for home-stays along the way, they’re more common in the larger villages and cities on the trail. Altogether, the diversity of the route exposes you to a wide variety of biomes, historical sites, and cultural and social interactions, which always make for a rewarding experience. So, even though I’m traveling across my own country, I am still learning about the habits and traditions of other Jordanian communities.
What has long-distance hiking taught you?
Long-distance hiking has taught me so many lessons, and future journeys will only add more. The most valuable lesson I’ve learned so far is that it’s truly a battle between your mind and body. In any challenging endeavor, at the end, it all comes down to how strong the mind is. Whether you’re climbing Ama Dablam in the Himalayas, summiting Kilimanjaro, or hiking the Jordan Trail, your body is designed to handle a lot of pressure, so it’s usually the mind that gives up first.
It has also taught me about the pleasures that a simple life in nature can yield. It has helped me appreciate the simple blessings we tend to take for granted in our daily urban lives and become calmer and more thoughtful.
What’s the biggest physical challenge when it comes to completing the Jordan Trail?
The type of challenge you face on the trail depends on whether you choose to hike it unsupported or hire local guides to help you along the way. With the former, the biggest challenge is managing your water supply. Although you come across natural sources of water along the way, they typically require filtering. Whether you opt to hike it unsupported or supported, though, one of the biggest obstacles is persevering day in and day out, when the mind and body go in opposite directions. When those moments come, you need to have a strong mind and a tenacity to keep your body moving.
Do you have a favorite memory from your time on the trail?
My favorite memories include those moments of deep connection formed with my fellow companions, those simple interactions with others while hiking or sitting around the campfire at night. In my eyes, they are the most valuable and memorable. A trail like this allows you to form connections that are honest, deep, and everlasting — and that is by far my favorite part of any expedition.
Other highlights include every sunset and sunrise I got to see. Those serene moments when the sun dips behind the horizon or rises to light up the day are the most enjoyable on any trek.
Do you have any words of encouragement for people who may be interested in completing the trail but have never done anything like that before?
Bring your sense of adventure, a positive attitude, and a sleeping bag, and come ready to hike. I can promise you it will be an experience that you will enjoy and remember forever.
The Jordan Trail Association will be leading their next thru-hike in March of 2019. To learn more, visit their website!