I’m driving a 2016 Ford F-150 King Ranch truck in the middle of a massive desert called the Wadi Rum, in Jordan, retracing the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Great Arab Revolt against the Turkish Ottoman Empire in 1916, during World War I. It took T.E. Lawrence and his band of camel-riding Arab irregulars two months to cross the Wadi Rum the following year in order to mount a surprise attack on the port town of Aqaba on the Red Sea. Aqaba is my final destination too, but I expect to be there by nightfall.
The foreboding desert landscape, as well as the exploits of T.E. Lawrence, were first made famous on a global scale in 1962, when Peter O’Toole played the titular role in the epic film Lawrence of Arabia, based on the Briton’s own autobiographical book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, published in 1922. More recently, the Wadi Rum stood-in for the Red Planet in the 2015 film The Martian starring Matt Damon. If you’ve seen either film, then you know how daunting the Wadi Rum landscape is. But Ford vehicles are no strangers here—Lawrence is known to have taken Arab leader Prince Faisal for a spin in a Model T—and neither are they ill prepared.
The F-150 King Ranch might as well have been made for these harsh conditions: its built to handle the elements, while still luxuriously fit for royalty—think a well-appointed interior with wood detailing, King Ranch leather trim, all-day comfortable seats (the driver and passenger can be heated and cooled, the rear heated), and loads of amenities like a voice-operated navigation system and an optional 360-degree camera with a split-view display. The key features for this ride, however, are an electronic locking rear differential that locks the rear axle for better rear wheel traction as well as special shock absorbers designed for off-roading. I’m driving on a variety of sandy surfaces, each of which feel entirely different under the wheels: Sometimes, the sand is so sunbaked and hard it’s like driving on a road; but the sand can suddenly turn into loose stuff that’s easy to sink into should I neglect to give the truck some throttle. Fortunately, the V-6 Ecoboost engine proves muscular enough to keep me moving.
But not all my time in Jordan is spent off-roading. Leaving the excellent Kempinski Hotel Ishtar (Swaimeh; 962-5/356-8888; kempinski.com) on the Dead Sea (the lowest point on earth) earlier in the morning, I drive south on Highway 65 (the Dead Sea Highway) past biblical landmarks to connect with the stunning vistas offered by the ancient, mountainous King’s Highway trade route that stretches from Eqypt to Syria. The F150 King Ranch displays good climbing power throughout the ride and passing speed when required, though the area is sparsely populated and traffic is very light.
The ongoing conflict in neighboring Iraq and Syria manifests itself in the form of numerous military checkpoints. Road signs are in Arabic and English so there is not much chance of taking a wrong turn east. T.E. Lawrence would find the herds of goats and camels a familiar sight, as well as the roadside produce vendors conducting business beneath the shade of a rickety wooden stall. More modern intrusions are the nearly invisible speed bumps and the often incongruously spiffy gas stations. My drive is cut short, however, by the news that riots by disaffected locals in Petra, angered by an unresolved land fraud scheme, sideline my trip to the ancient ruins there. I rue that I may never have another opportunity to see them.
Toward sundown, I glimpse the Red Sea from the hills above Aqaba. When Lawrence arrived here in 1917, Aqaba was a small village. Today, it is a thriving city and the Hotel Kempinski (King Hussein St.; 962-3/209-0888; kempinski.com) on the seashore is my luxury bivouac. But my thoughts are still in the Wadi Rum. The Lawrence of Arabia saga, in truth, was just a sideshow of a sideshow in terms of its impact on World War I, but the legend still captures the imagination—as does the magnificent desert where it all occurred.
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