With Saudi Arabia probably earning the title of the gem in our trip so far, we will leave the details of our adventures there for our next post, as it would feel more completed that way. So in this post it is all about two small countries that are probably among the wealthiest in the region.
Departing from Oman and via the newly open border between these two countries led us to Saudi Arabia and its notorious Empty Quarter. A vast desert that covers almost 655,000 sq km and evokes all that any overlander will dream when thinking of crossing a desert. The local Bedouins simply call it “the sands”.
These dunes can reach up to 300m, forming long chains of sculpted ridges that move up to 30m a year. Not sure if it is 100% true but we were told that even in this inhospitable land there is life! The Arabian wolf, the sand cat, the red fox and the desert lynx, all call this harsh environment home. Also this is probably the most unforgiving place on earth and it is definitely not somewhere where amateurs should head for exploring alone. Yes, you guessed it right! We did do it on our own and just as we pulled out to find camp on the first night, we sunk and got stuck in the sand. Not to worry though, as with the experience that we have gained from Australia’s coast and with a bit of extra digging, we were quickly out. That same night, among the pink dunes of the Empty Quarter, is where we fell in love with Saudi Arabia. But as I said in the beginning, let me leave that for the next post.
Therefore moving forward and influenced by a lovely family from Poland, that we met our second night in Saudi, we changed our plans and took the highway with direction towards Bahrain. This small kingdom has a rough exterior that takes time to get used to, but believe us, it’s worth the effort. Its location as the epicenter of the Gulf’s pearling past, Bahrain has a long history behind it that reflects to the country’s pride.
The day we crossed the border was a Formula 1 Grand Prix starting date, so we were asked by Immigration if we were there for the event. We assume that you can understand that was not our aim as we could not afford the ticket of almost 1000 euro per day!!! Forward to the country’s now, we were impressed to find out that the kingdom never stops expanding as every year grows up to 10% of its land by reclaiming it from the waters surrounding this collection of islands. Impressed? You will be probably picturing magnificent beaches by now, right?
Another fact about Bahrain then is that there is not one public beach in the kingdom. The few existing beaches are all owned by the king or a private enterprise and are out of limits. Maybe this is the main reason why Bahrain doesn’t appeal to travelers and is often overlooked. For the past ten years, Bahrain has been seen as an example of stability and relative freedom compared to the nations around the area and so its reputation is more of a reliable offshore banking centre and commercial hub than a tropical vacation destination. We spent a total of three nights here and one of the things we did there was “the Tree of Life”, a 9.75 meters high tree that is over 400 years old. It sits on a hill in a barren area on the highest point in Bahrain and it is abundantly covered with green leaves. It is not certain how the tree survives since Bahrain has little to no rain throughout the year but it is said that its roots are 50 meters deep, enough to reach the water.
Others say that the tree has learned to extract moisture from the grains of the sand. From the religious point of view, the tree is standing in what was once the Garden of Eden, and so has a more mystical source of water. From which ever version of survival you see it though, it is an impressive sight to see. After driving around the oil rich fields of the center of the Island, we reached the southern part only to find out that it is all privately owned and the access is very limited. So we headed back to the capital Manama that is one of the best Bahrain attractions. This ever growing city reflects the nation’s beautiful mixture of traditional and contemporary style. Manama’s skyline is full of glistening skyscrapers and other architectural buildings that reflect the beauty of the artistic skills of the people of Bahrain. The most striking part of Bahrain’s skyline is the set of twin towers which are around 240 meters high and also the Bahrain World Trade Center. These two iconic buildings downtown Manama created the perfect background for the night’s camp. Yes, you read it right. We were allowed to overnight and spend the night urban camping in one of the most centered locations in the kingdom.
The next day and as pointed out by a good friend of ours that works here, “a visit to Bahrain would be incomplete without strolling through its traditional markets”. Located in the heart of Manama, Manama Souk is a placewhere you will get a true insight into the local culture of Bahrain beside buying souvenirs, spices, jewellery and other items which are popular here. It goes without saying that bargaining as in all of Middle East is the key to getting the most affordable prices in this souk. Overlanding and the needs of time make you do things that you have never considered doing before or made fun of others that do them. This was the case with the cheap restaurants based out of Ikea. Well, yes, we did it. In desperate need of wifi, we actually went and had breakfast in Ikea one of the days. Lesson learned for me, never say never! After another day of exploration and a great dinner with Mohamed’s family, we completed our Bahrain visit and crossed the bridge that connects Saudi Arabia to the kingdom and reentered KSA.
Moving north, we aimed to visit Kuwait that is cradled between Saudi Arabia and Iraq and is one of the most ancient and contested corners of the world. It may be as oil-rich and its architectural landscape as experimental as other Gulf countries, but Kuwait hasn’t embraced glitz and glamour in the same way as the other Gulf States have. Perhaps it is the conscious decision not to give into commercialism or the years lost to the Iraqi invasion and its aftermath that make Kuwait so unique. Geographically it lies far away from the Gulf travel hubs of the south, meaning that much smaller numbers of tourists make their way here. The result is a more authentically Arab feel to the country as it remains an oasis in a land of desert plains, and visitors may be surprised by the intriguing attractions on offer.
We ended up driving in Kuwait late in the day, after being the center of attraction at the border by the officials (they had never seen a Greek car drive in the country before) and all the pictures taken after they found out. That night we picked an area called Al Kihran to overnight, a mega-planned community along the south coast of Kuwait. The development, incorporated many kilometers of waterways connecting with the Al-Khiran estuary. Broad canals were excavated into lowlands and the spoil was used to build up the land for residential development. What a place for an introduction to a country! As we drove around, we found out that in the areas not developed yet Kuwaitis bring their expensive RV’s for a day camping and so we fitted right in.
The next day we moved to the country’s number one attraction, Kuwait City itself. While enjoying our coffee, we met a local gentleman that we nicknamed “Mr. Mohamed Hali Wali” (he didn’t wish to be named here). Hali Wali comes from a typical expression in Kuwait meaning “forget about it”. He was a knowledgeable older gentleman that got us into the where and how of Kuwait. All we can say is that the three hours we spent chatting with him were the highlight of our stay in the country. We learned things about the invasion of Iraq and how the Iraqi soldiers were begging for food as they were hungry and other facts that you will never hear in the news, as well as an overall inside look of the country’s status. What an encounter! Next was visiting the Kuwait City’s historic souk, while having breakfast with locals on the side of the road traditional café, followed by a stroll in the small alleys that were bustling with people and were packed with all sorts of local deals, from aromatic spices to clothing.
The Souk Al Hareem area, a bit further down, features Bedouin women selling charcoal kohl eyeliner and gold-spangled dresses. While we were taking pictures in one of the ongoing renovated buildings, we were invited by the owner to have a closer look in the inside, while having a friendly discussion that made us feel like home. Later that night, we picked the Corniche area, ten kilometers connecting winding paths, beaches and parks that is one of the city’s most popular thoroughfares. In the center of it all are the three Kuwait Towers, the country’s landmark, that sparkle with distinctive blue-green sequins. As Ramadan was approaching, the place was so full that it would have been impossible for us to overnight, so we moved onwards. We spent our final day in Kuwait scrolling around its famous malls that sell pretty much anything that you can think of or might want. It was here that Voukefalas starting batteries decided that they would like to rest forever in Kuwait. So with the help from our battery buster we managed to start him again and drive to the first car battery seller for replacement.
The next day and with the Kuwait adventure completed, it was time to head back to Saudi but our adventures in the kingdom will be the topic for the upcoming post. So long for now and don’t forget. “Instead of thinking how things may be, see them as they are. One destination is never the place, but a new way of seeing things.”