Saudi Arabia was for many years a destination that was mostly overlooked or turned away by the fear of the unknown by many travelers. Because of its isolation from the rest of the world for years, any travel here seemed scary and out of bounds but now thing have changed. Modern day Saudi Arabia or KSA as a shortcut is a welcoming country that goes out of its way, welcoming foreigners with open arms! Welcome to new Saudi Arabia, a gem of a destination!
While still back in Australia, it took me three months to convince Rochelle about crossing this country. Finally, on the 14th of March, we were on its doorstep in the newly opened border crossing the Empty Quarter that lies beyond it. My excitement had reached its limits.
Upon our entry to the kingdom and after receiving the friendliest “welcome” we ever had in a land border, we rolled into the pink dunes of Rub al Khali (the Empty Quarter). After completing our vehicle insurance and filled up our tank with diesel at the price of 0.15 cents of a euro, we encountered fellow overlanders that had just crossed the opposite way and exchanged some information about the route. Rub al Khali or as known in English “The Empty Quarter” has been given this name because this area is a huge stretch of unbroken sand desert that has tested kings, adventurers and nomads for thousands of years. In the total region defined by deserts, the Rub al Khali is renowned for being especially daunting and inhospitable.
While it might not be the place to build a town, it has made it in the overlanders’ world as a top destination for adventurous travelers who want to experience a real natural wonder. It covers 650,000 square kilometers, to put that in a perspective, Rub al Khali is 40000 square kilometers larger than the country of France!
That staggering comparison makes it easy to see how the Empty Quarter earned the title of the largest uninterrupted desert on earth. Driving just before sunset in the driest place on earth and subsequently one of the most sparsely populated was overwhelming. The first 400km of our route here made it the perfect place to be if you want to find peace and quiet. Our route through the Empty Quarter felt like traveling to another planet. We were left facing an untouched landscape that feels like something out of a science fiction movie. In our humble opinion, if you ever want to leave the earth you know behind (without becoming an astronaut), then a trip to Rub al Khali is the next best thing. As you have probably guessed from all the descriptions above, out of all the places we have camped in the past this was probably the best free “sleeping under the stars” camping in the world we have done.
As it got dark, we left the road behind and drove about a kilometer before we found the perfect camp right in the middle of the pink dunes (after managing to get unstuck as mentioned in the previous post). Stepping outside of ordinary life and spending our first night in the Empty Quarter was a transcendent experience. Although traveling through the largest desert in the world is not something that should be taken lightly, travelers to the kingdom mostly overlook this part. For us, it’s their loss; anyone who has experienced Rub al Khali sees nature in its true, untamed magnificence.
As we moved north, we left the desert back and hit the Persian Gulf, where we met a Polish family of overlanders that we spent a day with, exchanging information about what lies ahead.
The next day, our plans to stay an extra day together suddenly changed as our first sandstorm moved in, making our outdoor setups unusable. So after an indoor dinner in a nearby local restaurant, we wished Pavel, Anna and their two children happy roads ahead and went our ways. After our short visit to Bahrain, suggested by our Polish friends, we came across Dammam that is the best place in the region for food and sleeping options. Here is where the causeway from Bahrain connects to the kingdom, making it popular with those wanting to hop across to its more liberal neighbor. Besides that, Dammam is where Saudi Arabia’s oil story began in the early part of the last century. In Al Khobar (a suburb of the city with a beautiful corniche is where we spent most of our time here, while a drive in the Half Moon bay area was the Saudi’s antidote to the alcohol driven clubs of Bahrain across the causeway. Always on the coast and just before entering Kuwait we visited Jubail, the largest industrial city in the world and home to the Middle East’s largest and world’s fourth largest petrochemical company. Jubail comprises the Old Town of Al Jubail, which was a small fishing village until 1975, and the Jubail Industrial City, the largest civil engineering project in the world today.
After a short change of scenery in the nearby Kuwait, we reentered Saudi from an inland border that takes you to Hail. This city was once the capital of all the Arabian Desert and home of Hatim Al Tai, the Arabian poet of “One Thousand and One Nights” (also known as “Arabian Nights”). Today it is the capital of the north-central region and is known for hosting a Desert Festival. Our reason for coming this way though was to visit a place where millennia are carved on its rocks. Jubbah, located 90km north of the city of Ha’il is the most famous rock art site in Saudi Arabia. The carvings found here cover a wide range of representations as well as a large period of time, with some possibly being 10000 years old.
Up next was “The Edge of the World” (Jebel Fihrayn), an unexpected dramatic geological wonder in the rocky desert northwest of Riyadh. The site takes its nickname because of its location on the top of an escarpment that once you reach, you are rewarded with an uninterrupted view of the horizon. It is part of the much longer Tuwaiq Escarpment that drops a sharp 500 meters down into an ancient ocean bed. As the road was not clearly marked and in a doubt as to how to get there, we teamed up with another passing vehicle.
We helped each other through hard core tough terrain before we reached the cliffs’ end. While standing on the cliffs, you will be able to spot dried rivers weaving across the land and see camels moving far below. These camels and their herders follow a well-trodden path, as an ancient caravan route once passed within its shadow.
With that ticked off the bucket list, it was time for the capital Riyadh, one of the wealthiest cities in the world. Our first night here was on the parking lot of Saudi Arabia’s national museum, a World Heritage Site that displays the Kingdom’s genesis story and it was once a walled, mud brick way station along the desert trading routes. This state-of- the-art museum is one of the finest in the Middle East. Its two floors contain eight well designed and informative galleries, covering Arabian prehistory, history, culture and art.
The galleries display evocative rock carvings, engaging models and even a full-scale reconstruction of a Nabataean tomb from Al Ula’s Madain Saleh. A visit in Riyadh can only be considered completed after a visit to Masmak Fortress though. This square fortification was built around 1865 and is like a scene out of the movies: “A big fortress representing an empire”.
It was the site of a daring 1902 raid by Ibn Saud and is nowadays the epicenter of the city, where the grand Mosque is located as well as a big open space where the square of the public executions is located (still in practice in the kingdom). All and all, Riyadh from far was a pictured city of soaring modern towers rising up above the surrounding desert but by looking up close, we found out that it is still cautious and feels more conservative than other Saudi cities. With that said though, the winds of change are definitely sweeping the nation and are also affecting Riyadh that recently hosted the country’s very first music festival, where a female singer performed live for the first time in Saudi history. Since we are not much of city people as you know, after three days we decided to leave behind the noisy capital and start our route south.
Located in the south of Saudi Arabia, the province of Najran shares borders with Yemen while its capital, Najran City, is located 35km from the actual border. With the Saudi-Yemen war still going strong, on our way there, we were not sure if it would be a wise idea to visit this place. As we were reassured about the cease of fire between the two countries because of Ramadan, we decided to give it a go. Now and after being there we can say that that decision was one of the best in the whole trip because it made us experience the most hospitable place on earth.
History states that Najran has 4000 years of agricultural background and that for about 1000 years before the dawn of Islam, Najran was a major center of the caravan trade in frankincense and myrrh (aromatic organic substance obtained from plants). Not sure if that is the reason that the levels of hospitality are at that point but we had never been in any other place where people stop in the middle of the road just to say hi to a stranger and that come out of their homes bearing gifts for the foreigners passing by outside. There are no words to describe how this made us feel. The population of Najran belongs mostly to the Ancient tribe of Yam.
To us the Yam’s People hospitality came in the form of a group of young guys that for three consecutive days hosted us around town, introducing us to pretty much the entire city. An archeological site was opened especially for us and a feast was organized especially for us. Also a camel farm that the owner owned the Camel Champion of the area’s races hosted us, explaining all about the camel races in the region. The famous Arabian horses were offered for us to ride and many more. All we can say is A BIG THANK YOU to Mohamed and his group for making us feel like home. Najran has definitely gained a special place in our hearts and we hope we will be back one day.
Our story will stop here though as in the next month’s post, we hit the coast of the Red Sea, tackling more uniquely beautiful and mind blowing sites that this gem of a country has on display.