In the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia

EDGAR retraces the famous footsteps of T.E. Lawrence to mark the centenary of his daring raid on Aqaba.

Damien Reid November 23, 2016

The sun was about to set behind the mountains as we descended into the Jordanian resort of Aqaba on the Red Sea but there was no time to soak up the beauty as we had literally minutes to spare to make the coastline.

The final few minutes of an 11-hour drive, which had taken us through mountains, across desert, through wadis, past military checkpoints and via the famous Wadi Rum had come to this, a sprint through afternoon traffic if we were to make our boat in time. 

Swinging into the carpark of the Kempinski Aqaba Hotel as if we’d crossed the finish line of a local rally, we abandoned our new Ford Edge in the driveway, key still in the ignition, engine running and ran for the makeshift wharf to catch the boat moored just off the coast. 

We made it with 90 seconds to spare after driving all day surrounded by the stunning Jordanian countryside before the local curfew that prohibits evening boat departures fell, and with that – still hot, sweaty and covered in a fine layer of Jordanian sand – we ‘took’ Aqaba. Just like Thomas Edward Lawrence of Arabia did almost 100 years ago.

Admittedly, Lawrence of Arabia did it without Wi-fi and five-star hotels, suffered heavily casualties and covered much of the same route on horseback that took him and his team eight weeks to complete. EDGAR took part in the ‘boys own’ adventure with Ford Middle East to discover more about its 2016 range of SUVs.

On the march

In July 1917, T.E. Lawrence of Arabia led a two-month march through the desert of what is now Jordan in an attempt to overthrow the German allied, Ottoman Empire and return the land to the Arabian people. An archeologist by trade, he’d spent a lot of time in Egypt and became fluent in Arabic as he befriended the locals. So when World War I broke out, he was called in to build a rogue’s army of local Bedouins to overthrow the ruling Turks.

With a handy 22,000 gold sovereign coins, and now working as a British military spy and saboteur, he quickly amassed an army of more than 500 men who fought their way inland, raiding the Hijaz railway en route and blowing up the tracks behind.

Their destination was Aqaba on the northern shore of the Red Sea at the foothills of mountains. These mountains were so treacherous that every one of Aqaba fort’s guns were pointed out to sea, so confident were they that no one could attack over land.

Lawrence and his men proved them wrong, storming into Aqaba in July 1917 and taking the seaside port by surprise and reclaiming the area for the Arab people. Lawrence and his gang rode on horseback, but there is a link to the Ford Motor Company after some rare footage was found showing him riding across Wadi Rum as the passenger in a Model T Ford driven by King Faisal.

It’s 20 seconds of grainy footage that now resides in the Ford archives in Detroit as proof of the company’s support of the British during WWI through the supply of 40,000 cars that were used as ambulances, tanks and transporters.

Dead straight

Departing the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar at the Dead Sea, EDGAR retraced some of the path in a modern Ford fleet that comprised the F-150, Ranger, Explorer, Expedition, Escape, EcoSport and the all-new Edge. 

It was an easy drive in the Edge, heading south on highway 65 that hugs the salt-encrusted waters before diverting for the windy mountain passes that took us to the town of Tafilah, which was the scene of an important battle for Lawrence’s army as it headed south.

To this point, the Edge’s offroad abilities were not being called upon but its twin-turbo, 2.7-litre Ecoboost V6 engine was more than enough for the hilly terrain, delivering 335bhp and 542Nm of torque running through a six-speed automatic transmission.

The trip down the mountain to Ma’an returned us to the plains and eventually we left the tarmac behind to venture off-road into Wadi Rum.

Exercising its all-wheel drive capabilities, the Edge was the least off-road capable vehicle of the bunch, being a car-based crossover aimed more for on- road performance than the sands of the Jordanian desert, but it sailed through, keeping up with the bigger boys without too much trouble.

Lunch was provided by local Bedouins who served up a feast of slow-cooked lamb, chicken, rice and spices cooked using the hot sands of the oven pit buried into the ground. Recharged, it was time to ‘attack’ the train on the Hijaz railway down the road and recreate Lawrence’s most famous battle.

In what seemed like a movie set waiting for Peter O’Toole, who played Lawrence in the epic 1962 movie, we rode the train the Ottoman Turks used, only to be attacked by the Bedouin army in a mock gun battle which saw us surrender to Lawrence’s men on horseback. 

The siege over, we retreated to the climate-cooled confines of the Edge and continued to complete our 300km journey that began at sunrise. The final leg over the mountains which were described as impassable in 1917, leading towards the Red Sea was spectacular with the main highway splitting a canyon of mountain rock as it weaved its way down to the coast.

With Aqaba having a sunset curfew on boarding boats, it was a sprint to the finish where a cold drink awaited with a leisurely cruise past the original canon turrets that were used to defend the port.

Jordan’s scenery was spectacular and the return trip back to Amman included a diversion to see the UNESCO world heritage-listed site of Petra, marked as one of the Seven Wonders of the World and Jordan’s most visited tourist attraction.

Carved out of the local stone, the Rose City was only discovered in 1812 but is estimated to date as far back as the fifth century BC.

It was a fitting conclusion to a minor, epic tour of our own, covering a distance that took Lawrence two months at the cost of many hundreds of lives.

Yet we completed it in a single day’s drive behind the wheel of a regular family car with mild off-roading capability that’s more than good enough for the occasional desert barbecue or drive across the beach on weekends.