Saudi Arabia and the Empty Quarter

There is no direct mention of type 1 diabetes in this story, but it does hint at the extra planning and monitoring required when doing adventurous things with type 1 diabetes. It also shows people who might be too worried to attempt something adventurous that type 1 diabetes doesn’t have to stop you. You just need to work harder than other people to make it happen.

It’s a bit of a “boys own” romp. I hope you enjoy the read.

The Empty Quarter – January 1998
(part 1)  

The planning was done and we were ready to go. I don’t think there was anyone who could accuse us of approaching this trip in a careless or thoughtless manner. It was now 16 months since the idea was first floated and there had been much discussion, many lists, much training and practice and many shopping trips in the preparation. But this was all for a good reason. This was going to be the most daring and potentially dangerous trip that we would be doing while in Saudi, or possibly forever.

The Empty Quarter is a part of the Arabian Peninsular that has been the source of many stories and the object of many adventures. It was The Empty Quarter that Thesinger crossed on camel, having only 1 pint of water per person per day. The Empty Quarter is as big as France, a fact that is often difficult for English or Europeans to comprehend. Nick and I had thought of all of this as we decided that we would attempt a trip into this unknown (to us) part of Saudi Arabia.

Part of the planning was to decide on what sort of trip it would be. A few decisions were made quite easily. There would need to be two vehicles, for safety reasons and for the ability to carry the provisions we would need. We would be staying on tracks, another safety precaution. We were under no illusions that we were explorers. We knew that we have limitations and did not intend to come unstuck dramatically by trying to outdo our limitations. Hence, we would stay to the tracks. This led us to investigate the existence of tracks. On the maps that we already had, there were a couple of scraggly looking tracks marked, one of which headed south towards Oman and another which headed essentially west towards the western side of Saudi. This second track would take us on a journey of 800 km or more and as we only had five days, it was decided that this track was not feasible. So we were down to the southerly track.

During this process, we had determined that it would be better if we had better maps. A hunt around Riyadh proved to us that we weren’t about to find better maps than we had, here in Riyadh. The friend who loaned us his apartment in London for our England trip is also a bit of a shopping buff for uncommon things. He suggested a particular map shop in London as a possible source for rare and exotic maps. While in London, we went to this map shop and found two rather large maps of The Empty Quarter.

One of the very important activities in the preparation was the gaining of sand-driving skills. We had learned that The Empty Quarter is largely sand and neither Nick or myself had any worthwhile experience driving in sand.

Many trips were organized, the object of which was to gain experience. Eventually the day came. It was time to pack and go. The amount of stuff that we had was staggering. We had an abundance of food, mainly packaged or dried food, but also fresh food for the first couple of days. We had a box full of UHT milk, also dried soup, tins of vegetables and tuna, dried fruit. The list went on. We also had five boxes, or 60 bottles, of drinking water. This amounted to 90lt of drinking water. As it was winter, I considered this was at least twice as much as we needed. For other use, we took five 20lt plastic jerry cans of tap water. We also had six 20lt plastic jerry cans for extra fuel. A seemingly insignificant item that we had gathered were three pieces of wood, intended for use in case we had to jack up a car in the sand. Scattered on the lounge room floor, this hoard of stuff looked amazing. I didn’t think we would be able to get it all into the cars, but with thoughtful packing, we managed it quite easily.

The next day, Tuesday the 27th of January, we were off. Nick came down at 08:30, we did the final check list and were on our way by 9 o’clock. The jumping off point was Hararrd, a terrible little grot hole on the edge of The Empty Quarter. It was from here that most of the few tracks left from. We had identified the beginnings of the track we needed two months previously on one of our many planning trips.

We rushed to Hararrd at 140 kph in order to get there before the lunch time prayer began. We had still to get the jerry cans of petrol and fill the tanks and we didn’t really want to wait around for a half an hour for the petrol station to open up again.

We filled the tanks and the jerry cans, much to the bemusement of the petrol station staff. We now had 120 lts of extra fuel, in addition to the 500 km worth in my tank and the 450 km worth in Nick’s. It was 11:30 and we were finally leaving the bitumen. We had also begun filling in the log sheets that we had on which we marked information such as time, odometer reading, direction etc. These log sheets would prove to be handy before the end of the trip.

The start of the track was a well graded and maintained track. We were heading East-South-East (ESE) and the weather was bright and sunny. By 12 o’clock, we were heading SSE. We had covered 13 km and the track was still the same good quality, graded track. I was a touch annoyed by the amazing quality. Weren’t we supposed to be heading into the wilderness? The countryside was sparse and relatively flat. But so far, there was nothing spectacular. Fifteen minutes later we came onto a farm. A check of the maps helped us decide which way to go to progress around. The readings we took at this point made me start to wonder a little. The direction was now SW. I confirmed this by carefully reading the compass well away from the cars. I had been warned that the metal body of a vehicle can affect the compass reading, so I moved well away. However, it was still SW, no matter how I did the reading. The map said we were supposed to be heading ESE. I wasn’t overly concerned though because the road / track was still very high quality.

Another 9 km down the track and it was now 12:30. We had reached a four way junction of tracks and were heading SW. It was time for lunch, so we pulled the cars over and ate in their shade. It was still Ramadan and we weren’t supposed to be eating. There wasn’t too much to worry about though because we were now 43km off the bitumen and the chance of having any passing traffic was diminishing rapidly.

After lunch, we decided on which one of the four tracks to follow and headed off down that track. 5 km further and we came to a farm that did not seem to have a track to go around. We headed back to the junction. More thinking and checking of maps and then we decided on the southerly of the remaining two options. Very soon we found another track heading in the direction we wanted, or more close to it anyway, so we took a reading and updated the log and set off. This was now a two wheel rut track and was skirting the boundary of the farm we had been at. After 9 km it came onto a well defined track, onto which we turned and headed SSW. This section proved to be the most difficult for finding our way back. We were leaving plastic bags filled with rocks at the various track junctions, to aid with determining which track to take when we returned. We were now 55 km off road and it was 2:15. The weather was, to be expected, bright and sunny.

We now found ourselves on another high quality, graded track that went as straight as an arrow, heading SSW. Our intention had been to travel SSE or SE, but who was I to argue. This was a quality track and was heading roughly in the direction we intended. Maybe the map was slightly off. Saudi maps don’t always bother to even have north pointing up the page, so maybe the north point was just a little inaccurate.

We motored along this stretch. Parts of it were fairly rough from the rocks, but we managed to get along at a good pace. The countryside was flat and featureless, utterly. All-of-a-sudden, this all changed. We could see some jebels (hills) developing over on the right and before we knew it, we were heading down hill into a small village. We stopped and took stock. We were now a long way from other people and the thought of driving straight into a difficult situation didn’t particular thrill us. We put our wallets under the seats (that’d fool them), identified a route around the village and set off.

The village appeared totally deserted. It was a live village as it was obvious that people lived there, but no-one could be seen. This suited us, so we drove past it and into the sand dunes behind it. We had descended from the flat, featureless plain that we had been travelling on and were now into some interesting countryside.

The sand dunes weren’t all that big and there were a couple of well used tracks that went across. We took the lower of these, put the cars in low gear and went in. Five minutes later, after much weaving about and rock’n’roll and revving of motors, we emerged out the other side and onto a salt flat. This was starting to look like another planet. For the next couple of kilometres, it appeared to be very rough dried mud, covered with a crust of salt and with scraggly looking bushes growing. We bounced along this bit and across the following mud flats (dry), only to find ourselves confronted with a major dirt road and a large village. The road was four lanes wide and was a constructed road. The village looked as if it was home to 2 or 3 hundred people with a mosque, power, the works. Who knows where they got the power from. We certainly hadn’t seen any power lines coming in and we were now 141 km from the bitumen.

We decided to take the left hand option, as this was heading SSW. May as well remain consistent. We thundered along this road for the next 30 km or so, sometimes in fifth gear, sometimes having to leave the road and take to the wheel tracks beside it. This road was being built and there was much earth moving being done. I couldn’t figure out why they would be building a road like this or where the money was coming from. The only answer that made any sense was oil exploration.

Suddenly the road came to an end, however the line of survey pegs continued straight as an arrow. We continued following the wheel track that accompanied the survey pegs for another 15 kms, to find that it ran into a line of low dunes. There was low vegetation in this place, with a covering of sparse grass as well. We carefully followed the tracks to the top of the dunes, but were not able to see anything of importance on the other side. With the time now approaching four in the afternoon, we decided to camp for the night. We found a lovely spot away from the track and with access to plenty of fire wood. Fifteen minutes later we were settled.

The Empty Quarter – January 1998 (part 2)

So long as their state of health allows them to, people with type 1 diabetes can do most things; it just takes more effort and planning. Last week Nick and I had just settled for the night, way out in the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, where Lawrence of Arabia had ridden across on camels.

With the time now approaching four in the afternoon, we decided to camp for the night. We found a lovely spot away from the track and with access to plenty of fire wood. Fifteen minutes later we were settled.

For tea that night (dinner or supper for those who are new to Australian English), we cooked up one of our stews. This involved some meat in the pot with plenty of vegetables thrown in, then cook it up for a while and enjoy. This was a very pleasant evening and wasn’t too cold. We were wearing the cloaks that we had bought, the ones that smelled like horse blankets, and felt very warm and cozy.

The next day we headed over the dunes in an attempt to continue following the survey pegs. There were no problems getting over, but when we got there, there was nothing to follow. We decided to head back across the dunes and out into the huge flat area to the west. We thought that, if we didn’t have a track to follow or landmarks to mark the way, then we may as well follow the compass. We chose west, as this would lead us towards the centre of the Empty Quarter.

We drove out onto the flat land heading due west. Only one kilometre later, we crossed a substantial, ie. two wheel ruts, track that was heading SSW. As this was the direction we had been heading the whole of the previous afternoon, we decided to continue in this direction by following this track. Also, the last we saw of the survey pegs, they were still heading SSW. Sure enough, the track took us back to the dunes and through to the other side. That was OK. We were still on a track and still heading SSW. Off we went.

This is where we left civilization as we know it far behind. We were now 189 km from the bitumen, across a line of dunes and heading into a wide open area. Hmmmm.

The two wheel ruts were still heading SSW, so we followed them. We found ourselves on a flat (as a tack) plain of small pebbles. Over to the left and behind us there were lines of low dunes. To the right, there was nothing but the same plain of pebbles. We continued on.

We soon found that we could travel comfortably in 5th gear and at 90 kph. We also found that the track was diminishing. There were many wheel tracks criss-crossing our path, tracks where a single vehicle had passed maybe in the last 12 months. I began to wonder if we were doing the right thing. The compass was due SSW, so that was reassuring. Obviously there had been many vehicles pass over this ground during an indeterminate period of time. That was good, I supposed. However, I wondered why none of the vehicle tracks were heading in our direction.

We decided to continue. We crossed low’ish areas which required 4th gear. We crossed low sand mounds that required 2nd gear. We crossed many vehicle tracks at right angles. And we just kept going. I must have checked the compass 37,548 times to make sure that we were still heading SSW and we were. We were now motoring at 90 kph, heading SSW. Lines of dunes came and went. I began to feel like that fellow in the movie ‘The Time Machine’, watching the world pass by while I remained sheltered from it.

Eventually we stopped for a reconnoitre. We had covered 80km in a dead straight line at 90 kph and all we had seen were occasional lines of sand dunes. I was starting to feel like I was part of a Salvadore Dali painting. We decided to venture the 1 km across to the closest dunes and have some lunch. We made sure we knew where we were and how to get back to the track after lunch. This was becoming eerie.

While having lunch, I discovered that Nick was feeling similar to myself, although he did not have the benefit of having the compass with him. He was trusting me to know where we were. We decided that it was best to continue on the same line, which was about to take us over the line of dunes, so after our lunch we got back in the cars and looked for a way over. We found a low section and I went up on foot to have a look. There was a small section that was appropriate to go over, so we aimed the cars up with me in front.

When the car got to the top it was impossible to see what was directly in front, so I took it on blind faith that I was aiming for the section I had seen. Nick was close behind me and was following directly in my wheel tracks. I took the car over and found myself suddenly aiming down at a rather alarming angle. Nick was right behind me. I threw the car into first gear and planted my foot, because I had learned through our practice sessions over the previous 12 months that there are two requirements for getting through soft sand; forward momentum and high revs. The car came down dramatically and revved its way up and out of the dip on the other side. It almost got stuck but didn’t. What a relief. I was now driving across the sand flats on the other side.

But where was Nick? He wasn’t in the mirror or anywhere within a couple of hundred metres. ‘Oh no’ I thought. I stopped the car and could see Nick’s car in the rear view mirror. He was at the base of the dune but didn’t appear to be moving. I drove back and stopped 50 metres away on a firm piece of ground. As I walked over, I could see that all was not well. It was not until I actually got to the car that I saw that it was on three wheels. The rear left wheel was hanging in mid air. ‘Oh no’ I thought, yet again. The angle that his car was on was almost picturesque. By now Nick was out of the car and had started to scrape away sand from the wheels. No problem, thought I. I shall get the trusty Jeep and we’ll have this car out in a jiffy.

I went back to my car and got in. I drove it towards Nick’s car, in a line that would enable us to hook up the tow ropes that we had and pull it out. That was the theory. The reality was that this sand was very slippery sand as well as being soft underfoot. I was no closer than 20 metres from Nick’s car when my car just ground to a halt. I tried reversing out to no avail. I tried low ratio, which I have now concluded is not designed for sand driving, to no avail. I was now in the sand down to the floor pan. At this point I decided to stop. Within the space of less than five minutes, both cars were bogged to the floor in very soft sand. This required some thought.

The Empty Quarter – January 1998 (the final part)

We were 90km from any track, in an almost featureless expanse of desert. For those in Victoria (Australia), 90km is from Melbourne almost to Ballarat. For people reading in the US of A, 90km is 55 miles. And that was only the distance to the closest track. The closest settlement was another 48km on top of that, and the bitumen was a total of 285km, 178 miles, from where the cars languished in the sun, and that is almost from Melbourne to Albury. It was rapidly becoming very important to get at least one car free.

Nick asked me to drive and he would push. He was remembering back to the time many, many trips ago, when we had become bogged in a puddle of sand and I had woken up in hospital the next day, largely due to the effort involved in pushing the car out. This was a worry that Nick had on top of the ones I had. I got in, put the diff lock on and prepared to get the car out.

The first attempt was hopeless – not a budge. The second attempt, however, had the car lurching forward and onto a more reasonable angle. It advanced 8 metres before stopping again. Our training had taught us that it is not good to continue to rev the car when it is obviously not proceeding, as it usually results in more harm than good. Therefore, when the car stopped this time and just revved, I stopped and turned it off. What to do?

We dug around the wheels with our hands and then tried again. No good. The car was down to the floor again. We had progressed into endurance mode, so we took plenty of breaks to eat and drink water. During one of these breaks, I suggested that we try our cloaks under the wheels to give some chance of grip. We discussed the pros and cons because neither of us wanted to wreck our cloaks. However, using the cloaks under the wheels won the day and so we tucked them under and tried again. IT WORKED, up to a point. The car progressed half a metre. This was all the convincing we needed that we were on to something. It was also the beginning of the breaking down of the barriers to survival thinking.

For the rest of the afternoon, until 5 o’clock, we scraped away at the wheels and used the cloaks underneath. We had also started to use the sleeping bags in the same way. There had been progress but the car was still utterly stuck, seemingly surrounded by a sea of sand. At 5 o’clock we decided that was it for the day. There was only a half an hour of light left and I was worried that our moods may dip if we worked into the gloom. It was time to set up camp.

We chose a spot on the leeward side of the cars. The wind was blowing in a gusty manner and we wanted to diminish its effect as much as possible. There wasn’t any chance of a wood fire that night, due to where we were, but we still had a pleasant evening, given the circumstances. While we were talking and joking and listening to Switzerland or Holland on the shortwave, we noticed a plane going directly over the top of us. We started discussing the possibility of signalling an oncoming plane using the torch that we had. We had no intentions of signalling that night, or probably even the night after, but we had to ensure that we had alternative ideas available. We were both becoming more aware of the risk of our moods dipping dramatically.

The next day we were ready to start work by 9 o’clock. Again, we were going to concentrate on Nick’s car, as that stood the best chance of getting out. During the previous evening, we had discussed many possibilities and had come up with two usable ones. They were to use the water boxes and the tarpaulin under the wheels. We emptied out the boxes of water and equipment and folded them appropriately. Then we prepared the space in front of the car for the tarpaulin. The boxes went in front of the wheels, covered by the cloaks and the sleeping bags, which, by the way, had shaken out very well the previous evening and had suffered no damage what-so-ever. I may just send a letter of gratitude to Colemans for their tough equipment.

When all was ready, I started the car and let it warm up. Then we tried it. Amazingly, the car would not budge. We checked everything. Each wheel was loose enough, the car wasn’t bedded on the floor pan. What was the problem? We wondered if the sand was such that it was more ‘slippery’ than we were used to and that, in combination with the slight incline that the car was on, was stopping it from getting a grip. Then came the next innovation. The jack.

We decided to jack each wheel of the car up and pack underneath with sand, cardboard, cloaks and sleeping bags. This was a long and laborious process. We had anticipated a situation like this, needing to jack the car up in the sand, and brought 3 pieces of wood to use as a base for the jack. But before they could be used, a space had to be dug out under the car for the wood and jack. This was hard work and took a while.

After the first effort using this new found combination of ideas, being the cloaks, the cardboard boxes, the sleeping bags, the tarpaulin and jacking each wheel of the car up, we were not able to drive the car out, but it gave us much more confidence that this was going to eventually work. The next attempt, after more jacking and packing, we were able to drive the car out. This was elation material. It was now 12 midday and Nick’s car had been bogged for 23 hours. Suddenly, here I was driving it out and onto hard ground. We were thrilled, to put it mildly.

It was time for lunch and a much more upbeat chat. We were no longer in danger and we both knew it. Through this though, I couldn’t help but think about my car. It was still totally stuck and I didn’t relish the idea of leaving it there. Even if we did come back to get it, we may never find it again.

While we were eating and resting, we talked over the techniques we had used to get Nick’s car out and refined them further. With this knowledge and experience, after lunch it took us an hour to prepare my car and drive it out, almost as if it had never been bogged. As quick as the cars had been bogged, we were able to drive them around to the hard side of the dunes and park them. What a turn around. We had been bogged for a total of 25 hours.

We decided to camp right there that night and regain our balance for the challenge ahead; that of finding our way out.

I had a terrible night’s sleep that night, because I couldn’t help but think of the potential difficulties that we faced finding our way back. We were putting virtually total faith in our abilities to follow the compass back and find ourselves within a bull’s roar of where we had left the track. If we were 20 km off, we might not even find any track. I tossed and turned and got some fitful sleep. At first light, I looked up to see a huge black bird of some sort, a carrion I suspect, hovering over me. I looked at it for a moment and then realized that it was one of many in a mob that was investigating us. I hissed at it and it took off with hilarious speed. It hadn’t realized that we were alive and so my hiss had scared it witless.

We packed the cars, discussed our strategy, and were prepared to leave by 9 o’clock. We back tracked to the point we had stopped two days previously, checked the compass and then set off. This was, in my mind, the greatest challenge; to find our way back. Then, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Even though we had had a fairly consistent wind blowing for two days, our tyre tracks stretched out in front of us, like a glowing train line. Because there were two of us and because there were no other tracks going in the same direction, I was able to follow our tracks easily. For the next 80km, my eyes never left our tracks. It seemed that the faster we drove, the easier it was to follow the tracks. I would make blindingly fast checks of the compass to ensure we were travelling NNE, and even faster checks of the mirror to ensure Nick was still there. But apart from those fleeting moments, my eyes were glued to our two day old tracks. There was one point where a flurry of other tracks obliterated ours. But because of our speed and the fact that there were two sets of tracks I was following, I was able to readily find our tracks on the other side. By a quarter to eleven, we were back at the first camping spot. That was the first tough part of the return completed, but there was more to come.

That night was brilliant. We relaxed and laughed and had the best meal of the trip. We knew that we were only 25 or 30km from the village and it took a weight of our minds.

The next day was a long day. We found our way back to the salt flats without mishap and managed to traverse the sand easily. We nearly got lost in the small village, but found our way out and back onto the track we had come in on. Our next difficulty was going to be finding our way past the farm. Sure enough, we had a lot of trouble finding the track. We had left marker bags to show the way, but we couldn’t find one of these. So we had to trust the accuracy of the logs and turn off on a track that did not look right. Sure enough, within a couple of kilometres we found ourselves next to the farm. Five kilometres further and we found the four way intersection.

Twenty kilometres further and it was time for lunch. We pulled off the track and had a tuna salad. The food was there and we were about to re-enter the Saudi version of the modern world again, so why not live it up. It was just as we were packed and ready to hit the track that Nick saw that he had a flat tyre. How ironic. After all that we had been through, to have a flat tyre on a good section of gravel road, less than 20km from the bitumen.

Changing the flat was quick and easy and we were soon back in Hararrd, grot hole that it is. Three long hours later and we were back in Riyadh. We arrived back at ASASCO within five minutes of the time I had told Donna to expect us home. We had covered five days and over 1000km since we had left.

The Empty Quarter trip was over.

Saudi Arabia – A Trip To Najran

Sadly, one of the places of interest in this week’s story is currently a war zone. Najran is very close to the border between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Fortunately for us, it was a lot more peaceful when we travelled there 18 years ago.

It was the night before we were to leave for our camping trip to Najran and Donna and the girls were off to the party of a life time. It was the party for the Saudi princess, given by her sister, to celebrate her attaining of her Doctor of Psychiatry.

For 2 weeks before hand the rain had fallen relentlessly. It had actually rained (heavily) every night except for one, for 16 nights; and here we were planning a 6 day camping trip. I was working on the idea that for every night it rained, it increased the chances of the rain stopping and so not raining during our camping trip. I also believe in Father Christmas and The Yellow Brick Road. The night of the party, which Donna was advised not to arrive at before 11 o’clock (in the evening), not only was it raining, but the low sections of roads, such as underpasses, right across Riyadh were flooded. I couldn’t believe it. We still had to pack the car, let alone actually leave and sleep in the open for 5 nights.

Everyone was in the car and we were off to the palace. I had learned of a shorter way to get there and drove us into the traffic jam from hell. We were only 3 km from the party but we were stuck trying to get through one intersection for 20 minutes as every car in Riyadh (or so it seemed) tried to squeeze through a one-car opening in some roadworks. And it was pouring rain. We eventually got there, along with Mercedes, Lexus, Jaguars, Cadillacs, BMWs. I can honestly say that we were the only Jeep Cherokee there. HA!! Did we attract attention or what. No-one took a second look at the many Mercedes or their mundane occupants. But much attention was paid to the Jeep and the western woman and 3 little blonde girls that alighted there from. Donna and the girls were met by an official looking Saudi gentleman brandishing an umbrella. He escorted them under cover while bashing unceremoniously on top of the car to get the stupid driver (me) to move the hell out of the way. There were other guests to escort, or so it seemed.

I managed to get a couple of hours sleep at home before being woken by the phone at 4 o’clock. It was Donna ringing for her driver. She had enjoyed herself and was ready to return. I made my way back to the palace, surrounded by the usual Mercs, Jags etc, and the Phillipino drivers, and picked up Donna and the girls. I shall let Donna describe the party later. Needless to say, it was interesting.

Of course, it was still raining, but we got home in time to have a couple of hours sleep. In the morning, we packed up the car, an act which by now had become almost a ritual because of the many camping trips we have been on, and set off by 9 o’clock. Donna and the kids promptly fell asleep, so I drove along in solitude, with Donna waking long enough to change the cassettes for me. As I had already done this trip in May last year, there was little chance of getting lost, so we arrived at our assumed destination by 4 o’clock. Interestingly, we seemed to have driven out of the rain within half an hour south of Riyadh. Either that or the rain had stopped as a blessing to our little journey. Either way, it wasn’t raining and didn’t even look threatening. The sky was crystal clear, something that we have come to expect in KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – aka – The Magic Kingdom).

The first night was spent on the edge of The Empty Quarter. This is a huge area of desert in which there is virtually no civilization. There are no roads at all but it is roughly the size of France. The best that one can hope for is a rough track of sorts. We aimed the car into this at 4 in the afternoon, which we had decided was the time of day best for setting up camp and getting settled before it got dark. We found ourselves in the most serene and starkly beautiful place that I personally have spent an evening camping. It was primarily sand with small hills and rocks. We were within a kilometre and a half of the highway, so weren’t exactly in-the-middle-of-no-where. But we were far enough away from other people to consider ourselves the only people on the planet. Honestly, within a 50 km radius of where we were, there would have been less than 100 people. And the weather was magic. The sky was perfectly clear and the slight wind stopped in the early part of the night.

The next day (Saturday), we set off at 9 o’clock and continued heading toward Najran, which was 400 km away. I have discovered that it takes considerably longer to organize 2 adults and 3 children than it does to organize myself on my own. Whereas it took me an hour in the morning to have breakfast and pack to go when I did this trip last year, it took 3 hours for the same routine this time. But as this was a camping trip, it was very important to enjoy the camping aspect of it and not just consider the camps as a break from the road. We had plenty of cups of tea and casually went through the activities required. The girls had, thankfully, learned at last to go off and explore, without any prompting from me. Sometime in the last 6 months they have progressed to the point where I now have to yell at them to come back, rather than be encouraging them to go more than 5 metres away from the camp.

It is pointless trying to describe the scenery in this part of the trip. It would be next to impossible to do it adequately. There is just so much open; no fences, no buildings, no nothing except nature. It is beautiful. This went on for another 250 km before gradually changing to the foothills of the mountains in which we were to spend the next 3 days. The change is very subtle, but by the time we reached Najran, the difference was spectacular.

Najran, which I can now tell you is disputed territory between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, as it has been for 30 odd years, is in the high foothills of the mountains that run down the western coast of the Arabian Peninsular. It is nestled in amongst huge piles of rounded rocks, almost like piles of giant marbles that have been left lying around. It is quite a large town, but not overly attractive. However, compared to some towns that we have seen, it is very pretty indeed.

The site for the second night was north of Najran. I couldn’t remember exactly how far so I took an educated guess. As it turns out, my guess wasn’t too bad at all. We didn’t stay at the same place as I had last time, but instead found a spot on a solid rock plateau, sheltered from the constant but gentle wind that was blowing. Most importantly, there weren’t any people around to bother us. We set up camp and had a pleasant evening eating tea and listening to The BBC on the shortwave. The kids were in bed asleep by 7 o’clock and we were as well by 8 o’clock.

Day 3 began the same as the others. We were ready to roll by 9 o’clock. The objective for today was somewhere between Abha and Baha. Experience from my trip last year told me that we wouldn’t be able to camp up in the mountains due to the wild baboons that can be found there. I had decided to drive out of the mountains down onto the inland plateau and there was a choice of one road to do that.

Between Abha and Baha, the road is dramatic. There are spectacular views of soaring mountains of solid rock and sheer cliffs.

We saw eagles riding the winds coming up the steep valleys. The road generally follows the top of the ridges and is a heck of a ride. There are a number of hills which require second gear just to get over the top. By now we were seeing many of the stone buildings that are particular to this area. We were also seeing wizened old goat herders whom I’m sure were on a close, personal level with Mohammed or Moses. You would never have seen men as old and wizened as these. One fellow was herding his goats across the main highway just ‘round the bend which we approached at 100 kph. As I jammed on the breaks (dramatically) to keep from hitting his bloody goats and brought the car to a sudden stop, he indicated with a gesture of the hand that I shouldn’t drive so fast. Well, excuse me.

Abha is a beautiful town in the middle of the mountains.

It is reputed to be the summer holiday spot for the king and other members of the royal family. It is a lovely place. Apparently, it is not unknown for it to have some snow during winter as it is very high in the mountains. I’m not sure exactly how high, but it is high up, I know that much. We had lunch there and then got lost as we were leaving. Abha has a ring road and poor English signposts on the roads. We were on the ring road and looking for the off-shoot we needed. I was keeping an eye on the compass that I now carry in a convenient spot in the car and realized that we had gone too far. We back tracked to where the off-shoot should have been and figured out that the poorly signed road was the one that we needed. We are getting used to driving in places with little or no directions. It is annoying, but you have to make the best of what you have got. And, as I keep reminding myself, this is their country and I don’t know of very many towns in Oz that are sign-posted with Arabic signs.

We found our way out and headed toward Baha, about 250 km away. We found the road we needed to take us down to the plateau without too much hassle and found a nice little spot away from the towns. That was home for the third night.

The objective for the next day was Taif, where we intended to find a camping spot on the outskirts. During my trip last May, I had unknowingly taken the lower of the 2 roads that connect Baha and Taif and I did not intend to make that mistake again. The high road has to be one of the engineering marvels of the 20th century. By carefully studying the maps, we managed to find the turnoff onto the high road. It was at this point that it started raining. Now, keep in mind that we were very high in the mountains and close to the seaward side as well. As we drove along the beginning of the most stunning section of road I have ever driven on, it was pouring with rain, blowing a howling gale, thunder, lightening, hail and, to top it all off, fog.

We pulled over to the side of the road to have lunch. We had learned that it is best to be completely self sufficient so we were able to enjoy a perfectly adequate lunch while not leaving the protection of the car. As we were getting ready to move off, Donna wasn’t looking too thrilled with the whole situation, but was bravely being stoic about it. The kids thought it was great.

What stretched ahead of us was 250 km of unbelievable road going through countryside more rugged than anything in Australia. There were sections of road that consisted of huge bridges leading directly into unlit tunnels, which in turn fed onto another bridge. We must have travelled through 35 tunnels and crossed 75 bridges. At one point, we were crawling along in 2nd gear in the tearing wind, driving rain and fog so thick it was difficult to see the end of the bonnet. We drove carefully into a tunnel, only to emerge from the other side on a dry road without a sign of any fog. Fortunately, there wasn’t much traffic on this stretch of road.

We arrived in Taif by mid afternoon and went to a supermarket to stock up. Then we backtracked to a place we had seen as we had driven in and found a nice place to camp at the end of a dead-end little valley. The kids took off exploring and Donna and I setup camp. Later that evening, just as we were finishing our evening meal, Donna saw that we had visitors. There is a ritual governing many aspects of life here, including the way that a person approaches a camp. They come to within 50 meters of the camp and then stand and wait. The senior male member of the camp goes out to greet the visitor. We went through this ritual with the visitor, an older Saudi fellow who was obviously not a city dweller, stopping his car and getting out. I took Emma with me as I had a feeling I knew how the conversation would go. It turns out that we were on what passes for private property; his to be precise. He was a little concerned about our presence but was partially reassured when I told him that Emma was one of 3 daughters that were with us. He made a point of asking if there was a ‘madam’ (woman) as well and seemed to be a little less concerned when I told him that there was. By much use of hand gestures and faltering English from him and even more faltering Arabic from me, I was able to convince him that we intended staying just for the night and would be leaving the next day. He seemed OK about that and left us to ourselves. The rest of the evening was most pleasant.

The next morning we woke up to everything being sopping wet. There had been a very heavy dew during the night and we were saturated. As soon as the sun was high enough, we spread everything out to dry off. By the time we were packed and ready to go, everything had dried off quite well.

We drove back into Taif, getting lost a number of times in the process, and made our way to where the baboons congregate. This is at the beginning of the famous ‘Escarpment Road’, a road of thrills or terror, depending on whether you have a death wish. I have been down this road a number of times now and we all went down it last February. But this time Donna was not interested in going down. So we stayed at the top and watched the baboons.

The baboons live in family groups, with a dominant male, junior males, one or a number of senior females and then the kids. We were spell bound for a good 20 minutes watching the goings on as they ate the food we gave them. The senior males are beautiful and mean looking creatures.

They have a long mane of hair and extremely strong looking teeth. We gave him some mandarins. He allowed one of them to be shared between the rest of the troop while he took hold of 2 for himself. He then proceeded to peel the mandarin and separate it segment by segment. He put each segment in his mouth, sucked out the juice and discarded the flesh. A baby male was trying to get whatever he could and was backhanded a number of times for over stepping the disciplinary line. This was a great occasion for the kids. They have seen the baboons before but this time we had more time with them. They were right outside the windows of the cars and were actually climbing on the car. So long as we were in the car, the baboons did not see us as being a threat. When some idiot local fellows turned up and got out of their car, the baboons bared their teeth and scattered.

We were now on a tight time schedule as Donna had organized a whole series of social activities for the first couple of days back in Riyadh, beginning at 4 o’clock in the afternoon the day we were to be back. For this reason, we had to make sure that we got a certain way towards home before stopping for the night. We filled the car and off we went.

The road from Taif to Riyadh is an amazing road. It is 780 km long and 6 lanes of freeway the entire way. I have told people about this road before, but it still amazes me. The cost of building it must have been astronomical, especially considering that I am yet to see it busy. We filled up with petrol and set off, intending to cover 500 km before stopping. The first 200 km is mind numbingly boring. It is almost featureless and completely flat. After 250 km, the terrain changes and becomes much more interesting. At about this point, we noticed that we were being accompanied by some interesting looking clouds. Hmm, we thought. We started wondering if we were driving back into the weather Riyadh was getting. By the time we had covered 500 km and were preparing to stop for the night, we were sure of it.

We turned off into the low hills. We meandered our way through the hills and valleys, looking for a place that was secluded (not difficult considering where we were), not likely to flooded in a downpour, far enough away from the highway that the noise of the traffic wouldn’t disturb our sleep, not so far from the highway that we wouldn’t be able to find our way back. We found a spot that even appeared to have the possibility of some wood to burn. The kids loved having small camp fires and so it had become one of the considerations. We started setting up camp with an eye on the sky. I climbed to the top of one of the low hills and found that we were almost definitely going to get wet before the night was over. Within sight were 4 separate thunder storms and seemingly more following. I went back to the camp and we decided to wait for half an hour before committing ourselves further. Sure enough, half an hour later we had to dive into the car as the sky opened and dumped everything on top of us. We all sheltered in the car while the world outside went berserk. I have never seen anything like it.

As soon as the rain finished, and it finished as if someone had turned off a tap, we climbed out of the car to assess the catastrophe. It wasn’t as bad as we expected, but everything was extremely wet and we were now committed to sleeping in the car. We hadn’t unrolled the sleeping bags or air beds, but the ground sheet was very wet and the fire was out. We arranged the chairs and broke out the emergency rations of cans of food. We sat around the fluorescent light and ate food from the cans, corn flakes and biscuits and listened to The BBC on the shortwave. It was dark. It was cold. It was getting windy again and we knew that we only had a short time before we had to get back into the car. Sure enough, 2 minutes after settling down in the car, the heavens opened again.

This went on for half the night. The kids were fast asleep and Donna appeared to be getting fitful sleep. But I could only manage 5 minutes here and there and I was going slowly insane. Each time the downpours finished, I would get out of the car and go for a walk. During the last of these I realized that there were no more storms coming. The moon was shining brightly and I could see that the sky was almost clear in the direction the weather was coming from. As I wasn’t sleeping in the car, I did the best I could to set up a bed on the wet ground sheet. I was still there in the morning when the others fell out of the car. The sleeping bag was completely covered with dew, but at least I had had a few reasonable hours sleep.

In the morning we were able to put together a pretty good fire. We cheered ourselves up with plenty of cups of tea and finished off a good part of the food we had. We also had some chestnuts that we had bought in Taif, so we threw them on the fire. When they were ready, Shauna and I feasted ourselves on them, although we weren’t able to finish off the whole lot. Donna, Emma and Carly didn’t want to participate in this seemingly barbaric exercise so it was left to Shauna and myself to finish them. We tried but couldn’t get through them all.

We left the camp at 9 o’clock. We had just under 300 km to cover in 4 hours. The trip back to Riyadh was uneventful and long. The kids entertained themselves by counting down every 5 km we advanced. Carly informed me in which direction to drive to get to Riyadh each time we passed a sign showing the way. As we were on a 3 lane freeway heading directly to Riyadh, I was confidant that we were not going to get lost, but Carly wanted to make sure.

The question that we had in our mind for most of the trip, which was I wonder if it is raining in Riyadh?, was answered as soon as we got back. The road that we wanted to take to exit the freeway was closed off as an underpass was flooded and closed. We have since been told that Riyadh has been in a state of controlled catastrophe for most of the time we have been gone.

E X C E L L E N T ! ! !

T H E R E   I S   A N   A L L A H   A N D   H E   W A S   S M I L I N G   O N   U S.

And so endeth the latest saga. Stay tuned for the next exciting episode in ‘The Adventures of the Wandering Williams’s’, brought to you by your local distributer of petroleum products, sand and dates.

Hi. This is Donna with a bit about the party.

The girls went to bed early on the night on the pretence that they had to get up early to go on our holiday.

Alex woke them up about 10 o’clock. They sat on the couch expecting to just wait until I was ready and then take me to the party. Then they were asked if they would like to go too. They were all very excited, with Emma saying that it was her biggest wish come true. We all got ready and after being caught in a traffic jam got to the palace about 11:20.

I showed my invitation to the guard and we all got out of the car. Alex says he felt like one of the Filipino drivers dropping off their employers. We then walked through into the grounds and followed some Saudi women as I had no idea where we were going. There were a couple of women checking in the abayas which I did and then we continued around the corner of the building. What we saw was amazing. There was a huge circular dais and it was just like it was out of the Arabian Nights. There were about 500 women there with their own maids who had to sit out of the way of the ‘guests’. Luckily we then met up with someone we knew who then found the girl, Anoud (the older princess I had been teaching) who came and took care of us.

We all sat down, the girls being very quiet and trying to act ‘proper’. During the night there were a lot of maids walking around with different things to eat and drink. First came the home made chocolates, then cardamom tea and mint tea. No sooner was that finished then more chocolates came and fruit juices, orange, apple, strawberry, and banana in glasses with gold around the bottom of them and coloured sugar crystals around the top of them. Wafer biscuits were next with water and more chocolates on huge platters. Then arabic coffee and even more chocolate. During all of this the women were up on the dance floor dancing to live arabic music sung of course by a woman. No men allowed at this party. The women all had on very expensive clothing that would not have been made here, labels counted and which city in which country they were bought at. For all of the dances it was the same movements by everyone, a couple of steps backwards or sideward and just the hips moving along with their hands. Anoud says she hates dancing like this and hates the arabic music! I thought it was quite good because of the novelty of it but it did all end up sounding the same. The jewellery was quite amazing too although I was told that there wasn’t as much being worn that night as usual. Stones were the big thing, diamonds and jewels and lots of it around their necks and arms, hands, and dangling off their ears.

When it was time to eat, which was at 2am, we then went into another marquee and couldn’t believe the amount of food that was there. There was no way that even one third of it could be eaten that night. The girls and I tried to only choose what we thought looked like something we knew so in fact we didn’t have too much at all. Then it was the deserts and there were more there than I have ever seen anywhere. Carly had a huge pile of it on her plate which she completely finished off. Once the guests had finished eating then the maids got to go and eat.

The decorations were wonderful. There were huge tapered candles which had to be at least 4ft high that were blue coloured but the wax dripped red. The flower decorations were huge too and very elaborate and beautiful. Everything was done quite tastefully but you could tell that it was very expensive too. Everything was just oozing money! The girls got to play with the princesses and they had fun. I got to see how the privileged live and it was wonderful. The girls were dressed up pretty well and got plenty of attention too. They loved it. So did I. The women I think, are really quite pretty. They aren’t like the western women in shape, more rounded, but they do wear a LOT of make-up.

About 4 o’clock I phoned Alex to pick us up and he arrived half an hour later. We got home about 5am.  The girls went straight to sleep and so did I and then we were up a couple of hours later getting ready to go camping. The girls and I all slept most of the day in the car.

Saudi Arabia – A Trip to a Gigantic Hole in the Ground – Whaba Crater

The trip started off as planned. Nick stayed at our place on the Thursday night. We packed the cars and had plenty of cups of tea and got to bed by 10:30. The next morning, Friday, we got up at a quarter past 3. It was freezing. We managed to get rolling by a quarter past 4 and we were on our way. We stopped for my medication when the sun came up and we were by then in a place that none of the others had been to. About 120 Km along Makka Rd is the beginning of an area called ‘The Arabian Shield’. I have no idea why it is called this, but it is a huge area that is very rocky, with large boulder like hills. After the country side around Riyadh and through to Dammam, this area is very different indeed. We kept driving for a short while until it was time for breakfast. We pulled off the highway and ducked in behind a low hill. It was still Ramadan and even though travellers are supposed to be able to eat, we didn’t want to push our luck. The basic philosophy of the trip was to err on the side of caution. It was bloody freezing. This was now the coldest part of the day and there was a little bit of a wind blowing and we had our woolly hats, scarves, gloves, jackets and everything on. It was damned cold.

We continued on for 630 km up Makka Rd and then turned off towards the Whaba Crater. So far, everything was going well. We were where we hoped to be. We stopped on the side of the road in a very quiet spot for a bit of lunch. The scenery was beautiful. It is impossible to adequately describe this and a thousand other places that we saw. The best I can do is to say that we were in the middle of a volcanic area where all of the rocks are almost black. There were volcanic cones poking up through the ground all around us, and there was green as far as the eye could see. It was almost like we were in England or New Zealand, it was so green, except for the black rock everywhere. We had started getting into the habit of ‘circling the wagons’ when stopping. There was what seemed to be a non-stop wind blowing so that, and the desire for a little privacy, pushed us to place the cars in such a way that we were sheltered both from the wind and passing traffic; hence ‘circling the wagons’. Mind you, where we were by now didn’t have a lot of passing traffic.

We got to the crater by 4 o’clock, and everyone was stunned into silence.

This is the most amazing hole in the ground you will ever see, except no doubt for the Grand Canyon. Nick said something interesting along those lines. He has been to the Grand Canyon and he said that because of the hype and build up to it, when you get there it is big and beautiful, and also expectable. The crater is in the middle of nowhere and there is no hype or build up. Most people don’t even know it is there. This means that when you get there, you are overwhelmed by the reality, not your expectations.

We found a spot to make camp on the side of the crater, just down from the top. It took quite a while and a lot of effort to make camp because we had to carry everything from the cars, but we were completed before it got dark. We had our first visit from a passing Saudi, and our first invitation to visit at his home in the nearby village, which we politely and gently declined. He said that he was from Riyadh and worked for ‘the national garden’ ?? When he showed us his ID tag from his job, we realized that he meant National Guard, which is one of the security forces here. We were, of course, polite. We got another visit from another Saudi who just wanted to practice his English. A lot of Saudi’s like to practice their English if they get the chance. They are very friendly people and love to pass the time of day. To us it often seems like a waste of time, but there is no harm intended and no offence ever given.

Our first night under the stars went well. The wind kept blowing but didn’t affect us too much. Everyone quickly got into the swing of doing ‘private’ things behind a rock, something that they were going to have to get very used to for the rest of the trip. Nobody particularly enjoys that aspect of the experience, but Donna said that she now preferred to go behind a rock than a lot of the public toilets that she has seen here.

Moving on. The next morning, we packed up camp by 10 o’clock and struck out for the bottom of the crater. There are the remains of a small farm on a large ledge inside the crater and this place has lots of grass and date palms. This is where the track down to the bottom begins. When we got there, there were about 6 Saudi’s, 5 Indians and 2 western women sitting there talking. One of the Saudi’s, the one who was obviously in charge, was holding (innocently) a very impressive (to me) rifle. As we passed by, we asked the women if everything was alright. I asked them twice and Donna asked them as well. We were convinced that everything was OK and that the rest of their party was down in the crater and that they were waiting for them to return and did not consider themselves to be in any danger.

We headed down the very steep and rocky track. The kids were doing excellently, considering the size of the rocks we were climbing over and the difficulty of the track. It took us almost an hour to get down to the bottom, but when we did, everyone was very pleased that we had done it. The crater looks very different from the bottom. There is a salt pan and we walked across that for a while. Then we had a rest and something to eat before starting back up.

Because Nick and Donna were more impressed with the crater than they had expected to be, we began discussing the possibility of altering our plans to allow for more time there. We were thinking of spending an extra night there, or leaving later and stopping off on the way to Taif. This was the beginning of the changes to our planned trip.

By the time we had returned to the top, we had decided to leave later in the afternoon than originally planned, and camp somewhere along the way towards Taif. We had lunch and then set off. This is when things started to get interesting. After leaving the crater, we were heading along the track which was supposed to bring us to a village about 10 or 12 km away. After 20 or so kilometres, I realised that, not only had we travelled further than we should have, but also all known landmarks were slowly sinking over the horizon. The track was still of good enough quality for Nick to be able to continue in his car, but that was not the point. We stopped and had a conference and decided that, all things considered, the pragmatic thing to do was to stop right there and camp for the night. There was no sign of other humans apart from the track and the occasional 1 tonner that bounced along it about every 2 hours.

After I had recovered from a small hypo, that ended up being a most enjoyable evening. We set up camp and had tea – dinner for non-Australians – , listened to the BBC on the shortwave radio and generally relaxed. The wind which had been blowing during the day eased off during the early hours of the evening and we ended up having a most pleasant stay.

The next day we packed up and headed off in the same direction that we had been headed, working on the assumption that we were on a track that would eventually bring us out at the Makka highway. After travelling for 10 minutes, it suddenly occurred to me that the sun had not risen in the place that it should have, if we were actually heading towards the Makka highway. We stopped and got out the map. With a little waving of arms to get a general idea of angles, we realized that, instead of heading south south west, we were actually heading west north west. In other words, we were heading for Iraq with maybe 250 km of track ahead of us; not what we had intended. So we turned around and headed back the way we had come.

We got back to a junction of tracks and found a Bedouin camp there. Nick and I parked the cars a respectful distance from the camp and headed over towards it on foot. We stopped about 50 metres from the camp because we could see that there were women there. As the males of the family walked out to meet us, Nick and I practiced our meagre knowledge of Arabic. After 10 minutes of conversation, we learned that Al-Hofr, the village that we were trying to find, was in that (finger pointing) direction, so off we went. An hour and much, much dust later we came up on the outskirts of the village, where we were able to get a box of water and some petrol for Nick’s car. What else could a person need. So off we went for Taif.

As we drove into Taif, which was 3 hours away along the highway, Donna commented on how different it looked compared to Riyadh. Taif is in the mountains. The architecture is quite different as there is so much loose rock lying around. In the old days, before they discovered the ease of concrete blocks, the buildings in the mountainous regions were made of rock, and the old buildings in Taif still show this. I was able to find a supermarket from my memory of the place, and we stocked up on everything. We had so much food and water when we left the supermarket that the cars were groaning from the weight. From there we set out to find a place to sleep for the night.

Eventually we found a spot in an open area which wasn’t too close to residences, although still too close for my comfort. Trying to keep the kids noise down to a dull roar was next to impossible, so it seemed that we were constantly bitching at the kids to be quiet. We set up camp and had our tea. Then the fireworks started, literally. Because Ramadan was now officially over, the Saudi’s were celebrating by letting off fireworks. All night long there were the pop pop pop of fireworks. In the morning we decided that something was missing, so we discussed the various possibilities, with the fact that we were now a full 24 hours behind the original schedule well in mind. One of the options was to keep heading to Baha, on the original schedule, but then head down out of the mountains towards nightfall. When we calculated the distance we realized that it just wasn’t feasible. So we decided to see the main souk in Taif, which is very well known as being one of the better ones, see the escarpment road, which I have already seen and which is legendary, have chicken from a take away for lunch, then head back towards the place we had been the previous day. We could feel relaxed there and the kids could make all the noise that they wanted to. In planning the trip, I hadn’t taken into account the vast difference that 6 people, including 3 active children, makes compared to one person on their own. I had camped quite easily in the mountains during Hajj last year, but it wasn’t going to be so easy this time, so we decided to change the plans drastically.

We packed up and left camp by 10 o’clock and then headed to the find the escarpment. I had been there the first time I was in Taif with the friend from work, but when I was there during Hajj I wasn’t able to find it. I had gotten myself horribly lost that time, so I was hoping that I could find it this time. Well, as it turns out I was on the correct road last time, but had misjudged the distance. The escarpment is actually 30 km out of Taif, not just on the outskirts as I had remembered. Anyway, we got there. The escarpment road is the main road between Taif and Jeddah and Makka, so is well used. Just before you descend the escarpment, there are many baboons. The kids and Donna thought it was a blast to see them all, the mothers with little baboons hanging off them. The fathers are mean looking bastards and the kids were wondering why we wouldn’t let them get out and go and pat them. Donna got some tremendous photos (we hope) from the safety of the car. Then we headed down the escarpment.

The escarpment road defies description.

It is one lane each way and winds its way down what I judge to be about a 1500m height. Some of the bridges along the way appear to be hanging in mid-air. The road is a miracle of modern engineering. It is only about 15 or 20 years old. The driving on the road is a miracle of survival. Carefully driving down the single lane available and being confronted on a blind corner by 3 cars abreast coming up their single lane is a little daunting, particularly when the locals have no concept of GIVE WAY. The main rule on the roads in situations like that is SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST or strongest or dumbest or most arrogant or whatever. It is awesome. The views however make it all worthwhile.

We got to the bottom in 2 pieces – (Nick was in his car, ha ha).

We caught our breath, had something to eat and drink, then headed back up. I wondered what the smell was as we were going back up and finally realized that it was the smell of burning brakes and clutches that must permanently hang around that road. The locals come down at full speed. There are many obvious examples of cars punching holes in the concrete safety barrier. There is absolutely nothing on the other side to stop them gracefully descending hundreds of metres through fresh air before crashing and burning in a flaming wreck. And they do.

Donna and Nick thought Taif was great, and Nick intends flying back for a weekend sometime to see more of it. From Taif, after treating ourselves to a chicken lunch at a family restaurant, and making use of their wash basins for a little cleansing of the face, hands, neck and anything else we could safely cleanse, we headed back towards the crater. We wanted to find another spot similar to what we had before, and spend the remaining 2 nights there. We weren’t going to go to the actual crater, just nearby.

By 5 o’clock we had found what appeared to be a nice spot. An important consideration in our choice was the non-stop wind that seemed to be gaining in strength. We found a place that was out of sight of anybody else, far enough away from any tracks, quite picturesque, reasonably sheltered from the wind, and from which finding our way back to the main road wasn’t going to be a problem. We set up camp and got things under way. Almost immediately we got our first visit from some locals. Nick and I went over to do the traditional thing, practicing our Arabic as we approached the car. This fellow was a Bedouin. He was driving the obligatory white Datsun 1 tonner, battered and bent from years of crashing across the desert. He had absolutely no English, but we managed to ascertain that his name was Abdul and he was just interested in us. He wanted to know why we were there, but as I say, just out of interest. What fascinated Nick and I was that he had a woman in his car. Normally, if we had a woman actually with us (and not back at the camp) or if he had a woman with him, which he did, he wouldn’t approach us and put the woman in any danger of something untoward happening. Well, that’s normally. Abdul just came driving up to within the 50 m mark from our camp and wanted to chat.

The next morning at about half past eight, Mr Abdul was back, this time with a clear invitation to come visit at his camp. We explained about our MADAM and children and he indicated that this wasn’t a problem. Bring them as well. Donna, Nick and I had discussed this possibility previously and had agreed that if the offer was made, we would accept. So we did.

We finished off our breakfast arrangements and got our camp in order. Then Nick and Donna made sure that we had a gift to take with us, gathering together a packet of Mars Bars and a packet of biscuits. All of us were thinking of the worst possible situation, so we made sure that we did not have any cash on us. We also made sure that if our camp was raided while we were away, there was nothing vital that could be taken. For example, I took my medication with us in the car. We discussed ‘what if’ situations and came up with responses and actions to be taken. Then at 10 o’clock, the arranged time, we made our way down to Abdul’s camp. There were 3 apparent camps within a reasonable distance, and we weren’t precisely sure which one was Abdul’s. We were assuming that his particularly noticeable Datsun would be there. You will never have seen a car so dirty. However, it wasn’t. We slowly drove past the camp that we thought was the one and continued on to the next. We could see some activity in the first and when we decided to go back to that camp and park and wait for something to happen, a couple of young men came towards us, indicating that we should come over. Nick and I went over and it turned out that Abdul had gone to the souk in Al-Hofr and that this was the camp and they were expecting us.

We drove over, parked the car, then went on into the tent. Donna followed the women into another entrance and both Nick and I thought that would be the last we would see of Donna until we left. Nick and I were taken around the back to a different entrance where we did lots of shaking of hands and touching of the heart with lots of guys of varying ages, before being ushered into the tent. On the floor were the rugs and a stool thing that I was to learn later was for leaning on. We took off our shoes and made ourselves comfortable around the fire. Donna and the girls were ushered in as well. They were burning a log of the local scrubby tree, which I believe is an acacia of some sort. It produces beautiful aromatic smoke that, with the positioning of the fire, fills the whole tent with the smell. To say it was enchanting is not doing it justice.

We were to learn that Abdul, whose camp this was, was at the local village, Al-Hofr, getting something from the souk. The fellow who was leading the social duties in his absence was a youngish fellow from Jeddah who was the only person in the group who went to school. He had a bare smattering of English and we were all able to settle in quite nicely. He also had a pistol on his hip, but we were getting used to that sort of thing by now. Firstly they served up some cardamom tea in tiny glasses. The cardamom cleanses the mouth. When this was finished, we progressed straight into the real tea. This was brewed up on the fire and was served in small glasses, which is standard. It was very sweet which is again standard. The tea didn’t stop. As soon as a glass was emptied it was filled again. The women scampered about ensuring that everything was kept supplied, such as clean glasses, water, tea etc. While the tea was being served we were presented with a bowl of strange looking white stuff. It turned out to be dry goat cheese and was very nice indeed. During the whole procedure we were also presented with a large bowl of dates.

Meanwhile, Donna and the girls, who were surprisingly in the same part of the tent as us, were talking with the females of the family. The females only spoke to the females and the males only spoke to the males, except for mother / sons, brothers / sisters. The young females were fascinated by Donna and the girls. They couldn’t get their eyes off Emma with her light hair and big blue eyes. In the beginning the young females were all giggles, but they eventually calmed down and were doing their best to communicate. They all had their faces covered except for the eyes. We have since found out that the Bedouin women have the face mask that leaves the eyes uncovered.

After about 45 minutes, Abdul turned up. It was interesting to watch what happened when a new male arrived on the scene, which was constantly happening. All of the males would stand and shake hands, cover their hearts, kissy kissy etc, whatever the situation called for, then they would all adopt a new seat in the arrangement. It became obvious that the seating arrangements depended upon the relationship between the participants. When Abdul turned up, he immediately adopted the seat of authority because it was his camp. Even when his father turned up, Abdul maintained his seat of authority because it was his camp and his father was a visitor.

The kids went outside and played with the children of the camp. Emma wondered whether they were supposed to take off their shoes and run around bare footed like the others. Donna assured her that it was OK for her to wear her shoes. They all went out to the goat herd and basically had a good time, so we were told later. Emma desperately wanted to invite the children to our camp. We explained that we couldn’t do that, but I don’t think she really understood why.

Donna was being very careful indeed not to openly admire the jewellery that the women were wearing. Each of the women had a goodly amount of gold on them in the form of ear rings, bracelets, necklaces, rings etc. Goodness knows where this jewellery comes from as they did not appear to have any requirement for cash in their life style. Donna was talking (communicating) quite well with the women, talking about things like the beautiful eyes they had, babies, of which one of them had had 12, and all of that sort of thing. Donna did openly admire the henna patterns that the women had on the palms of their hands, and she was promptly offered to have it done. This was the icing on the cake for Donna. She agreed to have it done and so now she has an absolutely genuine Bedouin henna pattern on the palm of one hand, put there by a genuine Bedouin woman while sitting on the floor of a Bedouin tent surrounded by a herd of goats in the middle of the desert.

Nick and I were starting to wonder about how we were going to bring the proceedings to a halt in a polite manner. Not knowing the customs, we weren’t sure whether we were supposed to do it or whether the host was supposed to. We decided that, as we were heading towards the lunch time salah (prayer), we could use that as an opportunity to make the break. The right time came in the conversation, so we made our excuses and stood up to leave. This was where things could have become difficult, but much to my relief, it didn’t. They accepted that we needed to leave and so we all said thank-you very much (shokran quateer) and good-bye (marselama). We were offered to stay for the rest of the day (and evening ?) and for an evening meal. We were also offered to stay that night at the camp, all of which we politely declined. I believe that they received as much from the visit as we did and it is a memory that we will always have.

Interestingly, that afternoon we had a visit at the camp from a fancy looking 4 wheel drive that had 4 Saudi guys in it. It stopped the obligatory 50m from camp so Nick and I went out to greet it. They had on fancy looking sun glasses and had an air of big-headedness about them. We were able to ascertain that they were asking for food and water, so we gave them a bottle of water and a packet of biscuits. They queried the single bottle of water and then hinted at joining us at our camp. I was damned annoyed about this but as soon as Nick mentioned that we had a madam with us, they backed off, thanked us for the supplies and then left. The interesting thing was the ability to be able to compare directly between the Bedouin and the town Arabs. Chalk and cheese, and I definitely know which we all prefer now. As Donna said, it was interesting that they chose what was obviously a western camp to approach rather than the geographically more approachable Bedouin camp. We suspect that it may be because there is not a lot of commonality, or love lost, between the town Saudis and the Bedouin.

That night was the coldest night we had while on our trip. Due to the influence of the Bedouin experience, we all went around collecting wood lying on the ground and made ourselves a respectable fire. We sat around the fire and sang the traditional fire side songs before the kids went to bed. Nick, Donna and I shuffled off to bed a while later, with the wind blowing quite badly. That night was cold and long. We all had on all of our clothes, but the wind still managed to get through the sleeping bags. Nick finally relented and crawled into his car. The rest of us stuck to it but we were cold in the morning. We packed up camp and left at 9 o’clock, getting home by half past 5, tired, dirty and very satisfied.

I’m going to leave it there and let Donna add any comments or fill in any gaping holes. We were talking about it today and have decided to try to complete the trip but from the other direction, in October of this year. Donna has gained a new appreciation of KSA and wants to continue the experience. I for one am very pleased.

As Alex has said, it was a wonderful holiday. We all enjoyed it immensely. For me, the icing was the Bedouin camp and having my hand henna-ed. It is starting to wear off now, due mostly to the endless loads of washing I have been doing today. The most important thing to me about it is that it was done by the genuine Bedouin ladies and it looks pretty good. I would like to go back to the same camp in a year’s time for another visit. We have been talking about it and Nick, Lex and I have agreed that it would be a wonderful thing to do.

I have discovered a new liking for this country. I am seeing it now with a different outlook and have decided that there is a lot more that I would like to see and do here. I want to make the most of our time here and see more and experience more about the people here.

Saudi Arabia – A Trip to Lawrence of Arabia Country – Hijaz Railway

Today’s story is a bit of a long read, but I think you will enjoy it. It was a trip into some stunning country in the area where Lawrence of Arabia made his name. The Hijaz Railway.

At last the time has arrived for the second last long camping trip of my Saudi experience. This one has been in the planning for 12 months, ever since Nick, his mum Mary, Donna, the girls and I had first driven down the Hijaz Railway during the Medain Saleh trip last Ramadan. The timing for this afternoon has become quite important because there are a number of steps that must be accomplished before we can leave tomorrow morning.

Firstly, we have to do the shopping for the trip. We haven’t been able to do a lot of the organizing for the trip due to the hectic pace of activities over the past month or so, culminating with Donna and the girls leaving Saudi ‘exit only’ this afternoon.

Secondly we have to make sure all of the equipment is ready to be packed tomorrow morning. We have already checked the status of the gear over the past few weeks (that was one of the purposes of the Jebel Baloum trip with my mum), but we still had to make sure that we have everything. Because we are only taking one car, Nick’s, it is more important to make sure that we are not doubling up. There just won’t be the room.

We have decided to go to Kenny Roger’s for some broasted chicken for tea and then off to Tamimi’s for the shopping.

This all worked out well and we are ready to pack the cars in the morning. Off to bed after a chat and some liquid refreshments.

Day #1 – I suppose it is because of the excitement of the upcoming trip, but I have had a terrible night’s sleep. It is 06:15 and we are up. The packing of the car is always an interesting job as it sort of sets the scene for the rest of the trip. Get the packing wrong and everything seems to go slightly off the rails. However, the packing went well today, although we did have to remove the extra seats from the back of Nick’s car.

It is 08:00 and we are leaving. The weather is marvellous and the mileage on Nick’s car is 20342km. We are both very much looking forward to the next 6 days.

10:15 and the weather is slightly overcast and 18C. Everything is progressing well as we travel towards Buraidah and then on to Ha’il. The freeway to Buraidah, 6 lanes wide and 360km long, is a good way to leave Riyadh in a hurry, and that’s how we feel.

It is now 14:15 and the weather has deteriorated. The temperature is 13C, (it’s convenient to have a thermometer in Nick’s car), rather windy with high level cloud and a few spots of rain. Oh dear. We are 40km short of Ha’il and have a couple of hours before we need to think about stopping, so we can only but hope that the weather doesn’t get much worse.

16:00 and we have arrived at our overnight spot. Beautiful view across sandy low land with black hills scattered around. Weather chilly but otherwise almost perfect. Slight breeze with 30% cloud.

Stupid me sliced my finger with the knife as I was opening a bottle of fuel for the stove. It isn’t too bad and only required Dettol and a bandaid. Lots of blood though.

After setting up camp, we have had one of the best ‘super stews’ ever for tea. Chicken, potatoes, carrots, onion, cabbage, chicken stock cube and chicken noodle soup. Nick and I ate the lot.

The super cloak came in very handy during the evening as the temperature dropped quite a bit. I’m glad I decided to bring the cloak as I was considering not doing so. I was torn between using it for real and keeping it for show. But it is cold enough tonight that I’m glad that I brought it.

We were in bed by 20:00. I wore almost everything to bed but ended up taking most of it off during the night as I became too warm and uncomfortable. The evening was as most evenings in the desert are. The breeze had stopped, the sky was utterly clear and there was magic in the air. I wish I was able to convince those who refuse to leave Riyadh of what they are missing out on.

It is now the morning of day #2 and I had a very good sleep with a total of 7 or 8 hours. The only part of me that got cold was my feet, but that wasn’t too bad.

Day #2 – We have woken at 07:00. The weather is overcast but otherwise OK and the temperature is about 7C. We have porridge for breakfast, cooked by Nick. It is one of the best batches of porridge I have ever had and is followed by cups of tea and serious coffee, which is marvellous. It is actually reminiscent of the espresso in Rome.

While brewing the coffee, we have let the pot boil over and it seems to have wet the wicks of the stove. I will have to change the wicks this afternoon before we can use the stove.

After packing up camp, we are ready to leave by 09:15. It is about 330km to Al-Ula and we hope to be there by midday. We have to get petrol, a little more food and milk. Al-Ula is an interesting town stuck in the middle of an area which is central to both the Bible and the Koran. It was sort of eerie driving through there the last time we were here and I hope to have a similar feeling this time.

The drive towards Al-Ula is spectacular in its beauty. This is another one of those times when words simply cannot do it justice. I hope to include some photos with this story as that is the only way I have of possibly getting my message across. This part of the world is unbelievable in its beauty. The road is open and sweeping and a joy to drive.

For a large portion of this stretch we are cruising at 160kph. The car is a magnificent car to drive and does the 160kph with no problems at all. Cruise control helps.

At 11:15, we have covered 1000km since leaving home. The weather is very good, the temperature is 13C and spirits are high.

As we are travelling along the southern area of the Nafud desert and the scenery is so good, I am getting more and more keen on my next trip which will take me along the northern area of this desert.

We stopped for lunch at 13:00 just on the southern side of Al-Ula and sat by one of the old station houses. The weather is close to perfect being sunny with a little wind and 16C.

We have found the turn off for the railway at 13:54. Here we go down the Hijaz railway!

The Hijaz railway scenery is simply the most stunning scenery I have ever scene. In my opinion it rivals the scenery in Austria/northern Italy. We arrived at the selected camping spot, where we intend to stay for 3 nights, at 15:20. The weather is almost perfect; bright sunshine, 18C with only a slight breeze coming in from the SW.

The spot we have chosen to camp is ENE and 4 to 5km from the railway. We are tucked in behind a hill and are looking out over a sandy flat that extends for 3km to a high, black mountain. There are a few small acacias so we should be able to collect enough firewood to have a modest fire each night.

We have decided to spend the first of our 2 days here as a climbing day, attempting to climb the black mountain in front of us. The second day will be a walking day and we should be able to get a better idea of where to walk from the top of the mountain. At least, that’s the theory.

Amazingly, within 15 minutes of stopping, we have seen a herd of 150 goats with their herder. What we find so amazing about this is where we are. As far as we are concerned, we are in the middle-of-nowhere. Obviously we are not.

It is time now to start the process of setting up camp. This involves blowing up airbeds, collecting firewood, setting up the stove and getting the kettle on for a cup of tea, getting the various boxes out of the car etc. I know this sounds mundane, but it is a very important, if repetitive, part of the whole experience.

Tea is a steak super stew and magnificent, as always. After tea, we started up a fire and sat by it drinking tea and eating olives and dates.

After a tremendous day, we went to bed at about 21:20. Tonight it is no where near as cold as last night and a wonderful sleep will be had by all, hopefully.

Day #3 – We have woken at 07:20 to a magnificent sight. The sun rising is casting the most wonderful light on the hill that we intend to climb today. I am contemplating taking a photo, but I don’t think a camera could capture the view effectively. It is all so peaceful and beautiful.

We plan on being ready to start walking by 09:00, but as it is already 08:25, it is isn’t looking good for making that time. By 10:00 we are ready to leave, after Nick’s ablutions.

The walk across to the hill, which is about 5km of flat, sandy gravel with acacia’s dotted about, has taken an hour and a half. It is amazing how much the country side changes when you look at it from a different direction and from a different distance. What looked to be a fairly easy climb to the top is now beginning to look like a major trek. Plus, the hill that we are camped by is now a minor bump among many bumps, both minor and major. We are glad that we took the time to take a bearing with the compass before leaving the camp because it is starting to look like we may need it to find our way back.

The bottom of the hill is strewn with rocks which have been eroded from the hill over time. This has made the approach quite difficult. After an hour of tough climbing we have reached a point at which we have decided that we aren’t going to make it to the top and to be satisfied with the part of the hill we had managed to climb. We determined later that this was 2/3 of the total height of the hill. Regardless, it provided a spectacular view.

How do I begin to describe the vista that is spread before us?

We can see for 40 or 50km in a 180 degree sweep of the most pristine, unspoiled country that Nick or I have ever seen. Our hill, where the car and all of our gear is, has disappeared with the distance. So there is not the slightest sign that mankind has ever been here. And the silence! The weather also is perfect, without the slightest breeze. The wisps of cloud are formed into wonderful patterns that are streaking across the sky. Nick and I have agreed that all of the trips and camps that we have had during our 4 and a half years in Saudi have been practice runs for this moment and they have been well spent, because this is almost perfect. All that can make it better is if Donna was able to share the experience with me.

While admiring this view, we have been able to plan out our walk for tomorrow, which we expect to be about 12km around one of the nearby hills.

After eating our lunch, we have started the descent, very carefully picking our way down amongst the rocks. A slip and a broken ankle at this point would not be wise as we are a long way from the closest possible vehicle track.

After a bit of an arduous walk, due to the sandy nature of the low lying ground, we are back at camp by 15:30. We have collected some more wood along the way as we have found that there is plenty to be had in the wadi and even though it looks green, it burns very well indeed.

The evening meal consists of olives, the spiciest pickled onions we have ever eaten and a canned corned beef super stew. This have proven to be so nice that we both have had 4 large bowls of it. By the end of his 4th bowl, Nick has exclaimed that he thinks he is going to throw up because he has eaten so much.

The fire is again beautiful. The slight, gusty breeze that has persisted through the late afternoon and early evening has died away and we are able to sit by the fire and watch the sparks, fire and embers and smell the intoxicating acacia smoke. I have decided that the smell is so good that I am going to collect some small pieces of the wood before leaving this spot and use them at home in Riyadh in the incense burner.

Our sleep was the best yet. There is no wind at all, the sky is completely clear and, except for 4 o’clock in the morning, it hasn’t been too cold.

Day #4 – After a tremendous night’s sleep, we are awake by 06:30. This morning we decided to do something a little different, so Nick got up and made a cup of tea, which we both drank while lying in our sleeping bags, listening to the world news on the BBC.

The intention today is for a walk on the flat, following the route that we mapped out yesterday while up the mountain.

The time is 08:45, the sun is shining with not a cloud in the sky, there is no breeze at all and the temperature is about 16C. Can life get better?

After walking for half an hour, we have found the camp that the various goat and camel herders have been coming from. It is tucked in behind the next hill along from ours. It is an impressive looking camp with 3 or 4 tents and an unknown number of vehicles. We have already seen at least one Toyota one tonner. We have given the camp a wide berth and headed up a wadi to the left.

We have soon come across a wadi which looks quite interesting. We have followed it up and found that we now have a choice. Before leaving our camp, we had taken a bearing with the 2 main hills and this wadi we are now at the beginning of is heading in the right direction. The choice is, do we head up the wadi and over the saddle at the top into an unknown situation on the other side, or do we stay at ground level and continue to circum-navigate the hill, relying on the idea that we will be able to walk all the way around? We have chosen the first option and have headed up the wadi.

The wadi has gone into a closed area, surrounded on all sides by red hills. By the time we have climbed the hill which is in the most correct direction, it is time for an early lunch, so we have sat ourselves down and contemplated the view.

After lunch, we again have a choice. We know where we are in relation to our camp and are too close to head straight back. But if we turn to the right instead of left, we may find a way around the hill and back in another direction to camp. We have decided to go right for 45 minutes and then see what our situation is.

After 45 minutes, we are at the top of a saddle between two spectacular mountains. It is obvious that it is too far to continue, but we have found some more breath taking scenery. After a drink and a snack, we will head back towards camp. It is now 13:15.

14:00 and we are back down on the flat and starting to feel a tad disoriented. We have expected this to happen but that doesn’t lessen the confusion now that it has. At different times of the day, with the shifting sun and looking from different directions, everything looks completely different. We now have to take stock and check our bearing carefully. It would be so easy to turn left when the camp is actually to the right. Added to this is that we have found ourselves within sight of the Bedouin camp and do not want to attract attention or cause alarm. For this reason, and after carefully rechecking our bearings, we have headed off across the plain to the left of the Bedouin camp, with the intention of cutting around it and to the right, after passing by a small hill in the distance.

Everything is going to plan but, just before arriving at the small hill, one of the camp Toyota one tonners has come up to us. In it are a guy of about 25 and a young boy of about 10. They cannot speak any English and so we are communicating in very poor Arabic. We have told them that we are walking and that the countryside is beautiful. We already know from past experience that the main reason they have come over is to ensure that we are OK. We are at this point maybe 70km from the closest town, being Al-Ula, and 5km from the closest track that white men normally drive on. Plus, we are 6km from our vehicle, which they no doubt know where it is, so no one can blame them for thinking that we may be in trouble. Anyway, we have managed to show him that we are fine, if maybe a little nuts and so off he has gone.

45 minutes later we are back at camp and have found everything to be in order, much to our relief and shame. After almost 5 years of experience here, why do we still expect the worst when we have never been given a reason for doing so by these wonderful desert people?

A rice and tomato super stew tonight, which Nick has declared he will only be having one bowl of after last night’s effort. We’ll see.

We have started the fire up early as we have plenty of wood and this is going to be last fire opportunity. The tea is cooked quickly and we have sat by the roaring fire eating. The smell of the fire is intoxicating, to the point that I will be taking some small pieces of the acacia wood home with me to Riyadh to burn in the incense burner.

The early night is the warmest yet, but it will become colder later. Neither Nick or I can sleep very well.

Day #5 – 05:30 and we are up. We need to be on our way by 08:00 in order to get far enough along the road that we can be in Riyadh by 16:00 on Tuesday. Nick needs to be home by then. The early morning has given us the opportunity to watch the sun come up, which has happened at 06:15. It is all so peaceful and beautiful.

08:00 and we are all packed and on our way. The weather is perfect.

At the place that we camped last Ramadan, we have seen the 3 cars of westerners that we saw passing by on the railroad yesterday. In the 3 cars there appears to be 8 adults and any number of children. Proof again that the human is a herding animal. We have just waved and kept driving. They aren’t in any bother.

Twenty kilometres later and it is time for morning tea. Both of us feel like a coffee as we didn’t get to have one this morning. So we have stopped at a station and are brewing it up. Coffee, dates and oatmeal biscuits makes for a nice morning tea.

Up ahead is a herd of goats scattered over the railway. It is best to stop as the goats are apt to do anything. Coming along close behind is the herder and surprisingly, he has his wife and 2 children with him. The children are a boy and a girl. Amazingly, now keep in mind that we are probably 30km from anything that passes for civilization, the woman is fully covered. Not only does she have an abya on, but she has her face fully covered as well. I have never seen that before in the desert. Normally they have the face veil and the head covering, but never before have I seen the full kit. Who on earth does she expect to be covering herself from when she is so far from anyone else?

11:00 and we are on the bitumen. After berating myself for not taking a distance measurement when we first left the bitumen, I have made sure that I took one for the drive out and found that the camping spot was 64km from the bitumen at the start of the off road section and 87km from the bitumen at the end. Nick and I have agreed that the Hijaz railway is the most beautiful and special part of Saudi that we have experienced.

The next objective is to travel through (around) Medina, as non-muslims are not allowed to enter Medina, and get as far down the highway as we can before 16:00 in order to keep tomorrow’s distance as low as possible. We are currently about 1100km from Riyadh.

12:45 and we’ve had lunch. We are 15km on the Al-Ula side of Medina and about to go around on the non-Muslim’s road. Medina is not a very attractive town from the ring road. The most striking feature of Medina is the mountain which dominates the geographical centre. I have no idea of the significance of this mountain, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is mentioned in the bible and Koran.

16:15 and we have stopped for the night. We’re about 140km west of Buraidah which leaves 530 odd kilometres before Riyadh. We have chosen to stop now because very soon along the road the countryside becomes farmland and it is increasingly difficult to find an isolated camping spot, the kind we like best.

We have stopped 3km off the highway at the base of a small hill. The ground is covered in shale. There are no trees at all so there won’t be a fire tonight. There is evidence of a good amount of rain recently as we came close to getting stuck in mud. Now wouldn’t that be ironical! There are also many camels around, so we have chosen a spot slightly behind the hill and as far from the wandering camels as we can.

Tea tonight will be a tuna super stew. Yum, yum.

The evening meal was beautiful, but I kept myself down to 3 bowls. Nick had only 2, the woos.

Tonight is going to be a little bit fresh as we can feel the chill in the air.

Off to bed at 20:30, rugged up in most of my clothes. I wonder just how cold it is going to get?

Day #6 – Sadly, today is the last day of our holiday. We are up at 06:00, even though the sun isn’t yet up. The night has been the coldest yet, but neither Nick or myself have suffered that much. My feet got a little cold and I ended up with most of my night time clothes on. This consisted of a full set of thermal underwear, a pair of thick socks, a tee shirt, a woollen jumper and a thick, woollen hat. Plus I threw my super cloak over the top in an effort to keep my legs and feet warmer, even though the weight of it meant that I felt pinned to the airbed.

During the wee hours we could hear an owl hooting in the nearby hill. He must have been revved up because he kept hooting until we got out of bed.

The first thing to do is to get a cup of tea. Being as cold as we are out of bed, we see this as being essential. Besides, as the sun is not up, there is little point doing much else. Next is the porridge and strong coffee. I can’t stop thinking about the fact that this is the last magic morning of the second last long camping trip of my Saudi experience. It is going to be very sad to leave here.

By 08:30 we are on our way. On the 15 minute drive back to the highway we have seen much evidence of recent rain. In fact, as the sun rose earlier in the morning, we have been able to see a small lake in the distance, so there must have been a lot of rain recently. We have been lucky to have missed it. But now that we are leaving for Riyadh, it can rain as much as it likes.

The weather is fine with 50% light cloud cover, no breeze and 6C. That is the killer! Six bloody degrees! It is freezing. 550km back to Riyadh and we expect to be there soon after 15:00.

Well, here we are back at Nick’s place. The time is 14:50 and it is all over. (sigh …… fade to credits)

Saudi Arabia – The Trip to England

Today’s story is a bit long, so make yourself a cup of tea and sit down for a 15 minute read as the family and I jet off from Riyadh to London.

It was Friday morning and the packing was complete. All that was left now was to actually leave. Because of the b/s that we had been through building up to the holiday, it was impossible for us to actually believe that we were going. We left for the airport at 12 o’clock, in a bit of a daze because less than 3 days before we weren’t even sure if we were going.

We got to Bahrain at about 5 o’clock, with the prospect of  8 hours of painful wait for the connecting flight. The first thing we did was go to the cafeteria for a cup of tea. We were actually on our way to England and we needed to calm ourselves down a little. After an hour or so we decided we may as well do the transfer thing while we wandered around the duty free. While we were standing there, there was lots of banging and stamping and tapping on the computer. We wondered what was going on until the fellow handed the paperwork back and instructed us to go over to that desk over there (pointing) and the other fellow would tell us how to find the bus to the hotel. This was news to us, but we had just been given a room at the Bahrain Hilton for the remainder of our time before the next flight left.

We got to London at 7 o’clock on the Saturday morning. During the flight the air hostesses, who had been worded up by the kids, brought me a small bottle of champagne to celebrate my 40th birthday, which came about while we were somewhere over the Mediterranean, heading for Turkey.

The fellow and his cab were at the airport to meet us as planned. The trip to Steve’s place was uneventful. It still hadn’t really struck us that we were in London. Sure it was green and there were daffodils and other flowers and blossom everywhere and all the traffic and old buildings etc, but we had been on the move now for about 22 hours and we were feeling a little strung out. The cab driver told us that England had been going through a long period of drought and everything was as dry as a dead dingo’s ……. well, everything was pretty dry. After Saudi, I’m afraid we couldn’t see it, but that’s what he said.

Steve is a fellow at work in Riyadh who was generous enough to give us free run of his flat in London while we were there. This was a kind and helpful thing to do and we were most appreciative of the gesture. Not only did he give us his flat, but he provided us with gobs of information about the area that he lives in, London in general, how to hire the mini-cabs, catch the trains etc. We hope to be able to return the favour one day if and when Steve needs accommodation in Oz.

Richard, our friend from Riyadh, was at Steve’s place when we got there. He made us a cup of tea and settled us in. He even handed us a pile of notes that he had made about where to go, what to do, how to do it etc. This was the first of many people helping us while in England. We were most appreciative of his help. Richard left shortly after. That afternoon we walked around the area that Steve’s flat is in, finding things like supermarkets (Sainsbury’s), fish and chip shops etc. We were fascinated by all of the buildings everywhere. It is very different to what we are used to in Oz. The roads are narrow, the houses are small and usually together, the gardens are beautiful. There are little cafe’s everywhere and lots and lots of other pommy things, as you can probably guess. We were to eventually get used to all of this, but we were enjoying the experience immensely at this point. Isn’t it funny how even tuning in to a local FM radio station and listening to the banter has a special feeling when you are in a new place.

The next day, Sunday, we began the exercise of learning how to catch a train into the city, or anywhere else for that matter. We had been given lots of instructions by both Steve and Richard, but so far it was just theory to us. We rugged ourselves up expecting the worst and off we set. With much cross checking of maps and instructions, we managed to quite easily find our way to Oxford Circus tube station. This was where we had organized to meet Nick at 10 o’clock, outside the Palladium theatre. We were to quickly come to the realization that, so long as you put a little thought and planning into it, the London train system is wonderful, an opinion which comes as a surprise to most Londoners.

We were early and so was Nick. From there we set off, with Nick as the guide, to find the open top buses that take rubber neck tourists ( like us ) around London. We found them at Victoria station and bought tickets. It is a wonderful way to see London. We sat up top, which was a bit chilly, but the sun was shining brightly and we were having a great time. We saw all of the famous sights around London. I strongly recommend that if anyone is coming to London for the first time, they take one of these bus trips. We saw the things you would expect like Trafalgar Square and the statue of someone-or-other and 10 Downing St. and the houses of parliament and on and on and on. There is just so much to see in London. We took the kids to the largest toy shop in the world and they had a great time. We had a wonderful day, in which we managed to learn quite a lot about the train system, something that was going to prove very handy over the days we were in London.

The next day, Monday, had been set aside for Donna and Nick to go shopping at all of the famous places while I escaped and took the kids elsewhere. They managed to go to Mark’s and Spencer’s, Selfridges, Harrods and others, while the kids and I made our way to the Science Museum. Donna and Nick had a good time and so did we. I was starting to notice that there were a lot of French speaking people around. For all the time we were in London I noticed a lot of French people. Not an important fact, but I was very aware of all the things that were different. We don’t get to meet many French speaking people in Oz.

So far for each of the evenings, we had been having things like bacon, ham steaks, fish and chips for tea; all the things that you either can’t get in Saudi or are just not the same quality. With the kids it was difficult to organize to go out of an evening. Besides, after our daytime activities of wandering the highways and byways and parks and gardens of London, we were too tired to really bother about much night time social activity.

During this period, Nick had found out that a friend of his was ill and he (Nick) wouldn’t be able to come with us on our driving trip as planned. This was a shame. However he still came with us when we went to pick up the campervan. He was sad to be missing out on the couple of days of the trip that he had planned to be with us and still wanted to be involved enough to help us with getting the van. As it turns out, it was a blessing that he was there. The place where the campervan place was ended up being right over on the other side of the city. We met Nick at the tube station and called the company, who then came and picked us up. The company is run by an Australian fellow who sounds like he has been in England too long because he sounds distinctly British. We signed all the papers and got all of the paraphernalia from the company and finally managed to set off back to Steve’s apartment by around 11 o’clock. A funny thing happened while we were signing papers. One of the questions was ‘Do you suffer from Epilepsy (blah blah blah) or diabetes? Of course I answered yes. As we were about to drive out, the fellow came out of his office and said that he had just noticed that I had answered yes to that question. I thought ‘Here we go again.’ He asked whether I was insulin controlled or by tablet. I told him that I was using insulin. He then said that there may be a problem because the insurance company would not insure someone who was using insulin. I said that I was only the backup driver and Donna would be the main driver. He then said that, so long as I didn’t say anything, we would forget that he had even asked me the question. Naturally I agreed. When is the legal and financial world going to catch up to the medical world?

We had been told to fill up the car with petrol at the first garage which was just around the corner. We were in the driveway of the garage when the van died. We all thought ‘Good start’. It had been almost bone dry of petrol. Nick, Donna and the kids pushed the van to the pump and I filled it up. Fortunately it started immediately. Now came the reason why we were lucky that Nick was with us for this part of the excitement. If he hadn’t have been, it would have taken us hours and hours to find our way back to Steve’s apartment. As it was, we didn’t get back there until midday. It may look straight forward on the maps, but when you add all of the double decker buses, buildings, narrow streets, incredible amount of traffic, suddenly it looks considerably different. Anyway, we got back to Steve’s and started loading the van. An hour later we had loaded the van, said a sad good-bye to Nick, who we planned on seeing a week and a half later at his mother’s place, had lunch and were ready to go.

Fortunately Steve lives reasonably close to one of the main northern exits from London which we found with only one wrong turn. I think I was starting (as the backup driver of course) to get a feel for the van and for the driving conditions. We continued on our merry way for a number of hours, driving through rolling green hills, finally arriving at York.

The first priority was to find a camping ground. This ended up being quite easy except it was full. However, they directed us to another one outside of town which was quite easy to find and was a nice spot. This was the first of many, many camping grounds we were to experience, and the beginning of the development of our routine for arriving in a new town. The first thing was to find in the books that we ended up collecting, a camping ground that had a few stars and (most importantly) a playground for the kids. Once this was done, we had to find a shop where we could top up on the essentials, like food. Once that was completed, we could then make our way to the camping ground, book in, park the van and setup for the night. It got so we could almost do it our sleep.

The van was tremendous. I cannot recommend this highly enough as a desirable option for seeing Great Britain. The price was very reasonable considering it was our (independent) transport and accommodation. The van provided enough sleeping space for both of us and the three kids. In another year it would only provide enough room for 2 of the kids but at this age they were OK. It had heaps of cupboard space, a stove, a gas and electric refrigerator, an AM/FM cassette deck, plenty of lights, all the cutlery and crockery and pots and pans, pillows etc etc etc. Plus we were given all sorts of helpful books and paraphernalia to help us plan our journey. It was excellent.

The next day (Wednesday), we left York. We drove slowly through the town as we left and marvelled at the beauty of the place. It is so old and so well maintained. There are still Roman aqueducts there. Not too far out of York there was an old, old church that we stopped to look at. Above the entry door was the date 1176 (or some such). We were impressed into silence as we quietly inspected the inside. This was not the last time that we would be awed into silence. We were to see many things and places that are hundreds and hundreds of years older than Captain Cook.

We had chosen to stay off the main motorways wherever possible. We headed north on the A68, which took us through some stunningly beautiful country. One of the nicest places was where we stopped for lunch, a village called Corbridge. We bought fish and chips here (which were not very nice) and were enthralled by the old stone buildings. I was also surprised by the sign on the wall of the shop, which said that, due to a rash of forgeries, they would not accept any Scottish 20 pound notes. This was news to us. We didn’t even know that Scotland had its own currency, but we do now.

An hour up the road we crossed the theoretical border from England to Scotland. We just had to stop and commemorate the occasion by buying a cup of tea from the roadside van there for that purpose. It was getting colder every time we got out of the car. I was glad we had taken jumpers and coats, hats and scarves with us because we needed them. Not far from that place was a lovely village with a babbling brook (you can’t call them ‘creeks’ in that setting. They have to be ‘babbling brooks’.) running through it. There was an ancient stone abbey ruin that we stopped to look at. I think by this stage we were approaching the saturation point for beautiful, historic, English, Scottish things. Donna and I were about to burst. It was all just too much. I kept looking around for the TV crew who were setting us up and making a documentary called ‘The Silly Rubber Necks Who Fell For Our Practical Joke.’ But I couldn’t see them.

We continued on down the road, almost in Edinburgh by now. As we got to the very far outskirts of the city, there was a small village. We drove through the village, following the signs closely, and found ourselves heading back the way we had come. This was a surprise. We turned around and tried again. This time we found ourselves heading away from Edinburgh, but in a different direction. We stopped, turned around and tried again. This time we deliberately ignored the signs at what seemed to be the vital spot and we managed to magic ourselves through. We were now in Edinburgh.

We had arranged to meet up with some people whom we had met in Riyadh and who lived on the other side of Edinburgh, so we drove along the main route through the city and out the other side. We finally came to a village like I have never seen the likes of before. It was a seaside village, on the shore of whatever harbour Edinburgh is on, and all of the buildings were made out of a very dark, almost black, rock. We eventually met up with our friends and they took us to their house for a cup of tea and a chat, an exercise that had suddenly become very interesting now that we were in Scotland. You can literally cut the accent with a knife. Our friend’s house was stunning. They are in the process of doing it up, and have been for 18 years. It is 3 story and has a lovely building outside, which has been a garage cum conservatorium in the past. They have completed some of the rooms and the final effect is beautiful.

We stayed that night in the local camping ground and the next day we headed back into Edinburgh to do a bit of rubber necking. Of course, we headed straight to Edinburgh Castle, which is actually impossible to do. All of the roads are tiny little windy roads that weave in and out all over the place. Fortunately, the sign posting is good so, as long as you are careful in following the signs, you should get to where you are headed. We found ourselves at the bottom of the hill that the castle is built on, so we parked the car and walked up. We were a little disappointed to find that Edinburgh Castle is a tourist Mecca. There were people and buses everywhere. Still, we paid our money and went on in. It was wonderful. Each person received a nifty device to hang around their neck which had earphones that provided a point-by-point description of what you were looking at. I suppose it was a little bit gimmicky, but if you ignored that, the information that was provided about the castle and the history of the city and Scotland was fascinating. The views of the city from up there are marvellous.

After the castle, it was time to leave Edinburgh and head north. We had decided to try to get to Inverness that day. It was a long drive, but we were driving through different country now. There were mountains close by that had snow on the tops, so it was becoming even more interesting.

We got to Inverness in the afternoon and immediately went to the supermarket. We were surrounded by strong Scottish accents and people talking to each other saying ‘Aye’. We stocked up and then looked in the books for a camping ground. The most apparent one we could find was about 8 km out of town, so we headed off there. It turned out to be the most basic camping ground we were to have. It was just a vacant paddock surrounded by trees with a toilet block and, as it so happened, was probably no more than 3 km from Loch Ness. We were the only people there and were greeted by the manager who was an elderly Scottish gentleman. He was very interesting to talk to. He was 74 years old and had worked most of his life with British Telecom in the Edinburgh area and had retired to Inverness about 10 years ago. He had never married but did not regret that because he had his dog to keep him company. His dog was 84 years old in dog years. He charged us 6 pound for the night, but brought us gifts of shortbread, biros with the camping ground logo on them, ‘sweeties’ for the girls and a couple of small bibles. He was a lay preacher. His gifts far outweighed the cost of the camping. That night was very cold. The wind in the trees made a very peaceful noise.

The next day we drove into Inverness. We walked around the centre of town and up the river, which had marvellous displays of daffodils. The central area of Inverness has a mall which has many ‘Scottish’ shops. There are many shops which have kilts and thick woollen jumpers. Some of these shops were obviously aimed at the tourist, but many others were obviously there for the serious farmer or highland gentleman or lady. There is a castle in the heart of the town and we chose to visit it. This was a most enjoyable time. The people in the castle provided a sort of play to describe aspects of the castles history. That doesn’t describe it very well, but is the best I can do. From that we learned a lot about the history of troubles between England and Scotland over the last 700 years. We also learned a lot about the Scottish people. We are now much clearer on why the Scots do not appreciate being referred to as English.

We bought some food and sat down in the main pedestrian mall for lunch. The weather was very cold. While we were eating lunch with shops nearby selling kilts and thick, ‘made in Scotland’ jumpers, a fellow started playing the bagpipes. The setting was magic and Donna and I were spell bound. I shall never forget the feeling we had and am feeling a bit choked up even remembering it.

It was at about this time that we reviewed the trip so far and wondered whether we were doing too much time in the car. We looked at the maps and the rough itinerary that we had and realized that the next part of the planned journey would add 650 miles and obviously a considerable amount of time in the car. This was the leg up to John O’Groats, the most northern village in Scotland. We talked about it and decided to cut this section out. It wasn’t until a few days later, after it was too late to go back, that I realized that some of the information that we had with us was in kilometres and some in miles. It wasn’t 650 miles for that section; it was 650 kilometres. We could have done that section as it turns out. Oh well. Next time.

From Inverness, we drove along Loch Ness, which cuts across Scotland from east to west. As always, the sun was shining brightly. Forget the rubbish about the Loch Ness monster because that just cheapens the beauty of the area. It is a very beautiful place indeed, with many small villages dotted around the shore. There are castles and forts and rolling green countryside. Loch Ness extends from Inverness about 2/3 the way across Scotland. As soon as it finishes, another Loch begins, which then goes from there to the west coast. We finished at what became our favourite spot in all of Scotland, a place called Fort William. This is not the most picturesque place, although it is very pretty, and it is not the most historic, although everywhere in Scotland is riddled with history. It is a combination of things which makes it our favourite place.

Fort William is close to the highest mountain in Great Britain, which is called Ben Nevis and which had snow when we were there. A fellow at a supermarket told us that, during the previous winter, the town had experienced quite a severe period of cold weather. The power went off in the whole area at one stage and the temperature was down to minus 20 or 30 or something. The roof of the supermarket collapsed under the weight of 15 ‘feet’ of snow. We had a marvellous feeling as we walked down the central pedestrian mall through the town.

From Fort William we again altered the planned route. We headed north through some true ‘highland’ country to The Isle of Skye. We were at snow level through this stretch which was very remote and wild. This brought us out at a bay along the edge of which the road twisted and turned. The road was one lane and I don’t mean each way. It was truly one lane. About every half kilometre there was a slightly wider section with a sign indicating that this was where you could pass oncoming cars. Everybody (what few other people there were) were very polite with this passing ritual. Donna and I thought about the idea of having this arrangement in Saudi. What a joke! There is no way that they would understand the concept of  ‘giving way’ and then everybody gains. Survival of the fittest, strongest, most arrogant, you get the picture.

Eventually this windy, narrow road brought us to the bridge that crosses to the Isle of Skye. This is a toll bridge and it cost 4.50 pound to cross. I thought this was a bit steep but reasoned that it wasn’t so bad considering that the return journey would be toll-less. Wrong! It cost 4.50 pound on the way back too. Apparently there is a great hullabaloo about this with the locals, who are not exempt. They have a choice of 2 ways of getting on and off the island. They can use the bridge at 9 pound a go, or an old car ferry that has been operating since Adam was a boy. They don’t even get the opportunity of buying a season ticket or concession rates. Bit rich we felt.

The Isle of Skye is amazing to see. By now, because we were so far from any city of consequence, the prevalence of signs in the native language (which we still haven’t worked out what it is) was growing. There were tiny villages scattered around and we saw genuine houses and sheds with thatched roofs. The sheds were being used as sheds, but the houses were being used as tourist places. The weather was cold, windy and overcast, which added to the bleakness of the experience. There are virtually no trees on the island except those in people’s gardens. I was told later that this is because it is so far north and has an almost permanent wind whipping in off the north Atlantic. I suspect that whatever trees used to be there were stripped many hundreds of years ago to provide wood for fires and building and have never grown back.

We drove north for 20 or 30 kilometres to a village called Portree. This is straight out of a story book. It is on the edge of a small bay and is surrounded by hills. Walking through the streets and along the wharf was like walking through the set for an Errol Flynn movie. There were tiny shops along tiny streets. There were shops and guest houses along the street leading to the wharf, and they looked out over the bay. In front of them was a vista in which it was easy to expect a sailing ship to come around the headland under full sail and with the skull and cross bones flying. We took some photos, but there is no way they can reflect the atmosphere and the feeling of this magic little village. We stayed that night at a camping ground just outside of Portree and the weather was cold, wet and windy. The next morning, when I was talking to the fellow from the camping ground, I said that the weather had been a bit bleak the night before. He said ‘Aye. Bleak it was.’ I know it doesn’t sound much on paper, but the way that he said it told me that I was further from home than I had ever been before.

From the Isle of Skye, we had decided to head back to Inverness along a road further north of the one we had already been on. The day was the first rainy day that we had had since being in Great Britain. We drove back through the island and across the (golden) bridge to the village on the other side. From there we headed north again along the narrowest road that I have ever been on in my life. It was raining and cold and we had the water on one side and a cliff face on the other. It was interesting. We stopped for morning tea in a pine forest. The morning teas had become fairly standard when we were on the move, as the van had everything we needed.

We got to Inverness by lunch time and walked through the main centre. I bought a great jacket, made out of the greasy canvassy stuff. It is a shame that it will possibly be a couple of years before I get to use it properly. There were large areas of daffodils in full bloom on the banks of the river, with the castle that I mentioned earlier above them. You may be able to tell that I am running out of words to describe everything. Beautiful, historic, spellbound etc lose their meaning after a while.

That night we stayed at a camping ground 20 kilometres south of Inverness. As I was booking us in, I pulled some coins out of my pocket and one fell on the floor. The fellow said something about finding it and I said that it didn’t matter because it was only a brown one (one or two pence). He then said ‘I can tell that you are not Scottish. That might have been 2 pee!’ This became a catch cry for the kids.

The next day we continued to head south. Our journey now was heading for Wales, but we had a way to go. We were still using the minor roads as these offered a much better opportunity to see and do things as we went. We drove through an area that was a skiing resort and still had some snow, although nowhere near enough to ski. At one stage, the snow was at the same level as we were, but we weren’t able to reach it on foot. We stopped for lunch in a village that was 10 or 20 kilometres from Balmoral Castle. Donna caught a glimpse of it from the car window as we were driving along. There are castles everywhere in England, so you quickly lose the urge to stop and go in. A lot of the castles are opened up to the public, for a healthy sum of money as it happens. That night we stayed in a town in southern Scotland called Perth. This was an excellent camping ground. We were becoming expert in tracking down and finding the better camping grounds.

The next day we continued south, still using the minor roads. As we were due to meet friends of ours in Newport in Wales on a particular day, we had to keep moving now. Therefor, we travelled through Glasgow on the motorway without stopping. I have to be honest and say that what we saw of Glasgow didn’t entice us to come to a screaming halt. That night we stayed outside a town called Penrith. Penrith has a ruined fort almost in the heart of town, which has been very well preserved in its semi demolished state. It was interesting walking around and reading the stuff about it. Having dates like 1150 and 1275 presented to us was almost passe now as a lot of the historic places we stopped at referred to dates like that. The camping ground was in a small valley near a river and there were deer wandering around nearby. We didn’t actually see any, but I’m a sucker for a good story. We did, however, see squirrels in the camping ground at dusk. The kids were rapt.

Just near the camping ground was an historic spot that was apparently King Arthur’s Round Table. At least, that’s what the signs said. It was not, as most people think, a round table. It was actually a place that had been created which was a round meeting place for the locals, where presumably they would gather to discuss matters of common interest. There is a diagram which describes it and shows what it might have looked like. With a little bit of imagination it can be seen that this might have been the case.

Near to this was another historic sight called ‘Mayburgh Henge’ which is quite an amazing place. It is a huge area that was built from stones carried from the local creek, about half a mile away. It is thought that it was a gathering place of some sort, except in the middle of it are standing stones, similar to Easter Island. Only one of these remains, but there used to be 8. It is estimated that this place is 3 or 4 thousand years old.

The next day we travelled along the motorway, past Manchester and Birmingham, to a place called Malvern. It was at this time that we started to hear about the problems caused by the IRA bomb threats. As it so happens, one of the motorways we had been traveling on was mentioned, as was a large portion of the southern train system. It seemed that the closer the election got, the more trouble was coming from bomb threats. What annoyed me most was that they had threatened bombs at Heathrow and Gatwick airports. This could definitely have an affect on our plans, but that wasn’t for over a week yet.

After a night near Malvern, we travelled into Wales and to our friends from Riyadh. The countryside for 30 miles or so on the Wales side of Malvern is beautiful. It is very similar to The Dandenongs. Our friends were staying with her parents while they found a flat for her and the kids. He was returning to Saudi a week after us. It was good to spend some time with them in their natural environment. The Welsh accent is a funny one to get used to. Her parents were wonderful to have us for tea. We all went for a Cook’s tour of the surrounding countryside and it was beautiful. They live near Newport. We talked with them for a good part of the evening and it was most enjoyable. That night, we slept in the van parked out the back of their place, on the banks of a little creek. We could hear the sounds of the creek while we slept and consequently got a very good night’s sleep.

Before heading to Devon and Nick’s mum the next day, we spent the morning with Paul and Vicky wandering around Newport. Donna and Vicky talked non-stop. Vicky hopes that she and the kids will be able to be back in Riyadh within a few months, which we hope happens. This is the family that we took to the cave a week or so before we left Riyadh for England and we all get along well.

At lunch time, we set off for Devon, which is across the Seven Bridge from Newport. Less than an hour after crossing the bridge, we heard on the radio that there had been a bomb threat made on the bridge and the motorway leading to and from it. Of course, most of these threats were just that, threats. But a couple of them had been accompanied by real bombs. We are safer in Riyadh.

We drove to Nick’s mum’s place. Apart from the main highways, the roads in Devon are tiny small little windy roads that weave their way through the hedge rows. We eventually found Mary’s place and were greeted with a warm hello and a hot cup of tea. Nick had left her place only an hour previously, but was expected back because he had left his camera behind. Sure enough, half an hour later Nick turned up to get his camera and so we all had a cup of tea.

Mary’s place is beautiful, and has a view of the seaside. We drove down to the sea during the afternoon and had a walk along the shore. That night we talked and relaxed and had a most enjoyable time. The next day we went to Tintagel, which is supposedly a castle associated with King Arthur. Mary wasn’t too sure about the worth of visiting there but we had agreed that we would go to Tintagel on the first day and then go to Exmore the next. As it turned out, everyone thoroughly enjoyed the trip to Tintagel. It is an old, old castle or fort built on the top of the cliff, with the sea crashing on the cliffs below. Even though the buildings are in ruins, not surprising since most of them were built in the 11th century, the site has been exceptionally well preserved and looked after. There are many helpful signs telling about the history of the place. One of the things that I liked was the cave that was in the cliff underneath the main castle. It was supposedly Merlin’s cave.

We took many photos at Tintagel as it was a beautiful place. A short walk from the castle is a very old church that was surrounded by a cemetery. One of the gravestones had a date of 1064 or something on it. This was the oldest gravestone that we had seen. The church itself was beautiful.

The next day we drove to Exmore so as to have a walk across the Exmore Downs, which are actually up. Bit confusing. To get there, Mary took us to a small village on the seaside that had the narrowest streets we had seen. Many of the streets between the houses were so narrow that I could almost touch both houses by stretching out my arms. We seemed to drive forever along narrow windy roads. At one stage, I had to stop the van and roll back to the bottom of the hill to get a better go at it. The hill was too steep for the van the first time I tried to get up.

The walk that we had is one that Donna and Shauna will remember for a long time. The wind was blowing quite well and the weather was clear but cold. Also, we were in the highest place in Exmore and there weren’t any trees, so it was cold. We all rugged up well and Emma and Carly didn’t seem to mind the cold too much. But Shauna was not happy about it. We walked to the highest point and saw quite a few other people doing the same, including some teenagers who, according to Mary, were on an organized long walk where they had to find their way using a map and were staying out overnight. I didn’t envy them that as it would have been unbearably cold at night.

We said good-bye to Mary after having sandwiches for lunch, followed by a true Devonshire tea in a charming little restaurant. We headed towards Southampton. In this region, there were many fields that were bright yellow in colour. We had learned from our friends in Wales that this was mustard and it was tremendous to see. We were heading to an area called New Forest, assuming it to be some sort of wooded area. As it turns out, it was in a manner of speaking, but we had learned that the concept of a wooded area or bushland is quite different in England to what we are used to in Australia. Still, New Forest was very nice indeed. We stayed at the best camping ground that we had been to on our whole trip and which was called ‘Sandy Balls Camping Ground’ on ‘Gods Hill’, I kid you not. We have a photo to prove it. This was a great place and one of the few camping grounds I have ever been to anywhere which I could say that I would be prepared to spend a week at.

The following day was our last day of driving. We packed up and headed reluctantly towards London. We were reluctant only because it meant our holiday was getting closer to finishing. We got to Steve’s flat by midday, regardless of the various bomb threats which had closed down a whole new set of motorways and train lines. They had severely impacted Heathrow the night before and they were still trying to clear the backlog.

After unpacking the van and having lunch, it was time for me to strike out on my own and return the van. What a drama this ended up being. This time, not only did I not have Nick with me, but I was on my own, making the necessary map reading much more difficult. Also, and this was very silly of me indeed, because the van had run out of petrol within 1 mile of us picking it up, I was determined to get it back there with as little petrol in it as possible. What a mistake that was. The first trouble happened when I was on the M25, a giant ring road that travels around London. The van spluttered and then stopped. I managed to organize for some emergency petrol by using the emergency phones on the side of the motorway. Expensive but effective. For some reason, the half hour wait and gallon of petrol at twice the pump price didn’t deter me from trying to return the van with almost no petrol in it. The next step of the drama came when I was close to the place, but didn’t know which exit to take of the main road. I ended up totally lost. A quick phone call to the van place got me back on the road and heading in the general direction. But then I became hopelessly lost again. I was very close now and knew exactly where I had to go. By process of elimination (ie. going around the block a few times), I knew that the van place was directly underneath a huge intersection where 2 or 3 motorways cross. The problem was, how do I get down there? While trying to figure this out, I again ran out of petrol, this time in the middle of a very busy roundabout, just near a rather dicey looking part of town. Plus there were police everywhere, obviously looking for IRA meanies and with 3 weeks growth on my face, I didn’t exactly look clean cut.

Another frantic phone call to the van place, which had to be heading towards closing because it was now after 5 o’clock, received the news that I was very close now and they would send someone out to get me. Thank heavens. Twenty minutes later, a friendly young kiwi chap turned up with the jerry can. We had trouble starting the van but eventually got it going. Then I followed him along the incredibly complex route from that point to the van place. Was I relieved.

The following day, our last Tuesday, was spent in London. We had worked out a list of things to do. Amazingly, even though we were on holidays, that particular day wound up being one of hectic train hopping as we navigated the tube from one place to the next. We achieved quite a lot that day, including the discovery that our planned trip to Paris, scheduled for the next day, wasn’t going to happen. We went to Waterloo station to buy the tickets for the train trip. The fellow behind the counter informed us that, as we were Australian, we would need visas for the trip. Everything that we had read and found out from other people had told us that we didn’t, so we went off and phoned the French embassy. Sure enough, the rules must have been changed recently because, being Australians, we needed visas. I have since been told that the French have recently changed their rules and have made many previously visa exempt nationalities now visa requirers. Apparently they even require visas for transit passengers. Unbelievable!! Anyway, the Paris trip was off as we did not have time to organize the visas before the time we would have to leave to go to Paris.

We were disappointed that night, but put our minds to making the most of the situation. We decided on an extra day in London, giving Donna a better opportunity to visit the big shops, something that she had been wanting to do. That was decided for the Wednesday. For the Thursday, we decided to take the InterCity train to Bath, on the recommendation of Richard, our friend from Riyadh.

On Wednesday we went into London and visited the big shops, including Harrods. As some will know, shopping is not my forte, but it was a good day for Donna and the kids. I did enjoy seeing Harrods. The people there are very helpful. They had no qualms about recommending another shop for some specialized books that we were looking for. They also readily provided an e-mail address for us to be able to contact to get advice on the availability of some books. I was thoroughly impressed when I saw part of the department selling musical instruments. There were at least a dozen grand pianos sitting there in all their glory, just waiting for Liberace to come gliding in and tinkle a tune. I wasn’t impressed though when they wanted to charge me a pound to have a pee. When I got into the dunny, it was impressive with marble and brass everywhere, and more mirrors than you could possibly use. But a pound for a pee? We were exhausted that night.

The next day was fantastic. The Bath train left from Paddington station, and this is a huge place where the trains come in under a giant roof. Sitting there having a cup of tea before the train left, it was easy to imagine what it must have been like when they were steam trains. The InterCity trains are wonderful. They are very modern and travel at 200 kph but are as smooth as glass. From the comfort of the panoramic windows, we could watch the countryside roll by. Bath is a town that dates back to Roman times. There are Roman baths in the centre of town, hence the name. There is a river flowing through the town, past the beautiful garden. We had a marvellous day walking around the town and sitting in the park. We caught the train back to London later in the afternoon and arrived back at the apartment by tea time. It was a brilliant day and helped to compensate for missing out on going to Paris.

And so we come to our last day in England. This was a day that we would have preferred didn’t arrive because we had had such a good time. It also happened to be the second day of rain (light though it was) of our holiday. We rugged up and went into London. We visited Westminster Abbey which was a wonderful place. I was a little confused and I think Donna was as well because Westminster Something-Or-Other is where Charles and Di were married, but this did not look like it could have been the place. It was nowhere near the size that it had looked on TV, although it was certainly huge. we later came to the realization that there is a Westminster Abbey and a Westminster Cathedral. Problem solved.

Next we walked to Hyde Park and went for a walk. We had morning tea sitting beside The Serpentine underneath a huge Willow tree. After that, we continued walking through the park towards Speaker’s Corner and Marble Arch, then had lunch at KFC in Oxford St.

That afternoon, Richard came to the flat to say good-bye and helped us carry the suitcases down to the mini-cab. He was very friendly and helpful during our stay. The IRA were able to have an influence over our holiday right until the end. The trip to the airport was affected by hold-ups on the motorways due to bomb threats. The cab driver was able to avoid most of the delays by taking 13,000 little detours and byways. When we got to the airport, there was extra security. All of the approach roads had police inspecting all vehicles. It was a little bit scary to see everyone so serious about the threats. The police certainly did not look like they we taking any chances and were stopping about 1 car in 5. Once we got to the terminal and had our bags inside, the suitcases were immediately strapped up on a machine so they were impossible to open from that point on. The IRA had certainly achieved something.

The trip back was uneventful. We returned along the same route that we had used previously, which involves a 6 and a half hour flight from London to Bahrain. We went straight to the counter and did the transfer thing but unfortunately this time they didn’t consider that we needed a hotel room. That was a shame but to be expected. It was only a 5 hour stopover but was long and painful.

We finally arrived at Riyadh by 3 o’clock. When we went outside to get a cab to our apartment, we discovered that for some reason, the 50 or so cabs that are there weren’t. We had to wait almost half an hour before getting one, but we eventually did and were at the apartment a half hour later. The difference between driving in London and Riyadh is surprising. In London the streets are narrow and congested and the drivers are basically very courteous. In Riyadh, the streets are wide and straight and everyone drives at break neck speeds. We were cruising at 150 kph on the way to the apartment. None of the drivers are courteous in any way and it is this that makes driving in Riyadh a bit of a pain sometimes.

When we arrived at the apartment, there was what seemed to be a small welcoming committee for us. Everything was in order and our holiday was finished.

Next comes the week long camping trip in the south of KSA in October. Not long to go.

Saudi Arabia – A Trip to Medain Saleh

It’s 1999 and we’re in Saudi Arabia.

The trip to Medain Saleh was first suggested by Donna 18 months ago and the planning for it began 15 months ago, so no one could accuse us of attacking this trip in a care-free manner. First of all we had to learn more about what we were going to visit as none of us really knew much about it. The information we had was as much as contained in the book of trips that all westerners have and the word-of-mouth information we had picked up over the years. We knew that there was historical significance and the name of ‘Lawrence Of Arabia’ came into it somehow. But that was about all we knew.

During the early days of the planning, Nick’s mother, Mary, was included in the trip. Mary is a camper of many years experience and we all get along famously, so it was all of our pleasure when it was determined that she was able to come from England. Plus Mary is a person who gets great joy from seeing things Saudi and is full of enthusiasm.

One of the most difficult and frustrating parts of the organizing was getting the letter giving us permission to visit Medain Saleh. It is an historical site of great significance and is one of the few places that are actually being truly cared for by the authorities, so a visitor must have a letter of permission from the Ministry of Antiquities. Obtaining this was no mean feat. We started the process some 4 months ago. Neither Nick, Donna or myself knew how to go about obtaining the letter and any locals that we spoke to about Medain Saleh didn’t have a clue what we were talking about, so it was a drama right from the start. However slowly, slowly we were able to find out the ‘what / where / who’ of obtaining the letter. We finally got it only a week before leaving.

The question of what to take with us for the camping isn’t a problem now, as we have been on enough camping trips to have removed the guess work. The most important aspect of the trip to be catered for was the fact that it is the middle of winter and it can and does get very bloody cold. We bought jackets, thermal underwear, socks, boots etc etc, enough to make sure everyone was warm. This was a blessing in another way too as it was a preamble for our up-coming trip to Europe and gave us an introduction to cold weather. We’ve been here long enough now to have begun to forget what cold weather really is and we do not want to turn up in Europe unprepared. Besides, we have learned now that, coming from Australia, we don’t know what cold weather really is anyway.

As is often the case here, our plans could have been derailed right up until 2 days before we were leaving. My work may have meant that I was unable to go, but that was finally put right and the last potential block was taken away. Mary and Donna did the final shop and we were ready to go.

Eight o’clock on Friday morning and Nick and Mary were at our place. We had our last civilized cup of tea and set off. The weather was disgusting!! It had rained on and off for 4 days before leaving and was actually raining as we left ASASCO, but we put on our brave faces and drove into it. This was not camping weather, but neither was it time to be negative. Quite the opposite actually; now was the time to be positive. As we drove up the freeway in the driving rain, I pondered the difference between ‘positive’ and ‘sheer stupidity’. I never did actually come to a conclusion on that one because I was too busy driving the car through really awful conditions.

The first place of significance was Buraidah, a small city 400km up the freeway. We didn’t see any of the countryside on the way there because it chucked it down the whole way. By lunch time, we were 100km past Buraidah on the road to Hail, a name that was starting to look rather appropriate. We found a broken down farm shelter to squat under while eating lunch, and considered ourselves lucky.

That wasn’t going to be the last time we were to consider that. The wind was blowing, the rain was falling, it was freezing cold; what a way to start a camping trip.

By stopping time, we were 60km short of Hail. It is always best to stop well away from townships as it can be more difficult finding an appropriate place to camp the night when near a town. As it happened, it only took us 10 minutes to find a good place to stay.

It was an abandoned, partially demolished house 100m off the highway and facing away from the road. The rooms had been used by mules and smelled as you would expect, but there was an acceptable veranda which was almost waterproof and which kept an area dry, big enough for us all to sleep as well as cook and eat our food. This was home for night number one. We were 600km from home, 60km from civilization in an area of rock and sand, it was raining, it was cold and there was thunder and lightening. Not quite what I had pictured when we were planning the trip.

Day number two had us up and about at 6 o’clock. We had all managed to stay dry during the night as the veranda was mainly waterproof. Now the sky was crystal clear and the weather was beautiful. It was hard to imagine what the weather had been the previous day because now it was perfect. By 9 o’clock we were on the road. Our plan had us covering between 500 and 600km each day on the way to Medain Saleh, so there was no need to rush the morning routine. We had porridge for breakfast, cups of tea and some serious coffee for Mary and myself. It was a leisurely morning routine, one which we would keep up for the rest of the trip.

After setting off, we drove into Hail 40 minutes later and found it to be a thriving small city. The people are obviously proud of their city because the part of it that we saw was very well kept, with gardens and fountains and workers picking up any stray rubbish. As we drove through we saw a wonderful sign which instantly reminded us all of where we were. The sign directed travellers on the road to Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Jordon and Tabuk. This was too good to pass up, so we did a U turn and got a photo.

After Hail, we were on the road south to Medina, but soon turned off this road and on to the road to Al Ula. The map said that this was the road for Medain/Saleh. The countryside soon changed from the basically flat country we had been having to flat, sandy country with hills of rounded rocks. We were now heading west towards the mountains that run down the west side of Saudi, so the hills became more dramatic the further we drove. Soon we were in country that was quite beautiful and the further we drove, the more so it became.

We found Medain/Saleh without any difficulty, although to find it Mary did have to turn around and see the sign pointing to it. For some reason they have the road sign facing the wrong direction which means that you cannot see it as you drive along the road towards it. Strange. We were at the gates a couple of minutes later.

We had no real idea of what to expect when we got there, because we had been working with sketchy information the whole time since we started the planning. What we found was an area surrounded by a fence, with gates on the entrance and a guard house.

As it was now 4 o’clock in the afternoon and we had found the entrance, it was time to camp for the night. We drove back a few kilometres to the bottom of a hill of huge, rounded rocks that we had seen and pitched camp there. We were at the base of a cliff of sandstone and facing west, so when the sun went down, we got the whole glory of the sunset. The kids went off to explore and we set about pumping up air beds, rolling out sleeping bags, putting fuel in the stove and hurricane lamps and getting tea ready. The wind was blowing a bit, but it wasn’t too bad.

During the evening we started to talk about the plans for the rest of the trip. The rough plan had been to spend 2 days at Medain/Saleh, then drive south to Medina and back to Riyadh. Nick made the suggestion that we could spend one day at Medain Saleh, then find the Hijaz railway and try to drive along that. The Hijaz railway is another historical place that none of us had much information about, but which is in the same part of the world. We considered that, as we were this far from home anyway, we may as well see this also. (Editor’s note – The Hijaz Railway has huge historical significance as it was here that Lawrence of Arabia was fighting with the local Bedouin against the Turks as they were building this railway into the Arabic territory)

Six o’clock on Sunday morning and we were all rising to a magnificent sight. The rising sun was shining on the mountains in the distance and the colour was wonderful.

We could hear the prayer call coming from the village down below and see some of the white houses, so it was all very Arabic. The weather was very cold, but not long after the sun came up we all started peeling off layers of clothes. Donna had the most on, followed closely by Nick, then Mary, then the girls then me. It was a standing joke that I didn’t seem to need as many clothes as the others, but that didn’t stop me using my heavy cloak that I bought 12 months ago. Nick and I both took them along and they received a lot of use. This time, however, we didn’t have to use them to help us get out of a sand bog, fortunately.

We were at the gates to Medain Saleh by half past 9, but there wasn’t anybody else there. The gates were half open but there was no one around to take our letter authorizing us to visit. We went to the guard house and knocked on the door, but there was no answer. We went around the back and could see signs of life, such as a coffee pot and mugs, but no people. We waited for 5 minutes before deciding to go in anyway. After 4 months of asking people, phone calls, faxes, trips to government offices etc etc etc, blah blah blah, we just drove through the gates without anyone being the wiser.

Just inside, there was a large sign showing where places of interest were. We drove to the first one, still not sure of what to expect. We drove around the bend in the track and saw an amazing sight. In front of us was a huge tomb carved directly into the side of the hill. The outside of the tomb was 25 meters high, with a doorway and many ornate carvings decorating the facade. Inside the tomb, (none of them were blocked off) was a room with alcoves off to the side. We don’t know much about how the people were buried so I cannot comment on that, but the tombs were amazing. They were all carved directly into the ‘living rock’, as the saying goes.

From the first site, we drove on to another. We could see another huge tomb in the distance which was even bigger than the first. The tombs appeared to be grouped, with a number being carved in to each hill. Some hills had as many as 20 tombs. Some of the tombs had information about them, giving the history of the person for whom the tomb was made. We learned that this place dated back 2 thousand years or more and showed Greek influence in the designs that were displayed.

Carly made a funny comment as we walked around one of the hills inspecting the many tombs that were there. She was walking ahead and stated ‘Here’s another hole in the wall. Oh, this one’s nice!’, said with a strong New York accent. The innocence of a 7 year old. Nick and I almost wet ourselves laughing.

It turned out that there were hundreds of tombs, so there was no way that we were going to even try to see them all. We did see an interesting place that had been made between the hills. They had carved small waterways to direct the rainwater into an underground hole that was used to store the water for the town. It was easy to see the channels that had been dug for the purpose and the underground storage was in perfect condition. What amazed us was that all of this was made 2 thousand years ago, using hand held picks. The marks made by the picks are still clearly visible.

We drove on from site to site until we eventually came on to the actual town of Medain Saleh. This was almost totally gone, but there were a few remnants of mud brick buildings scattered amongst the date palms. Apparently, Medain Saleh was a thriving town on the trade route through the area, and existed until early this century. It was considered to be the richest place for hundreds or thousands of kilometres, with the main part of its wealth coming from trade. It was also one of the stops on the train line that was built connecting southern Europe with the holy cities of Medina and Makka. The reason for the train line was to make it easier for pilgrims to travel from Europe as well as Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Iraq etc so as to make their ‘umrah’. Umrah is the once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage for Muslims to Makka and Medina which every Muslim is supposed to do.

The train line was built in about 1915 or so and only operated for 12 years. We are yet to learn more of its history, but it seems that it was constantly being attacked by someone or other. Lawrence of Arabia is part of the history but I don’t know what role he takes. The train line is obviously the Hijaz train line, which we had decided the night before we would explore.

After lunch, we continued investigating the tombs, but found ourselves starting to be a bit ‘tombed out’. There are just so many. By half past 3, we had seen as many as we could handle and so left Medain Saleh, because of circumstances, unlikely to ever return. From a starting point of knowing almost nothing about the place or its history, we had come to learn that it is a wonderful and fascinating place full of historical significance and beauty.

As we had decided that we were going to be following the Hijaz railway for the next part of the trip, and this involved 150km of off road, we needed to stock up on certain essentials, like food and water. We drove down the road headed for Al Ula, hoping to find a shop of any significance. Only a couple of kilometres along the wadi, we found a tiny little village of mainly mud brick, with children running around and old men talking. In this little village we were able to top up with petrol and get some water and fruit. We were set. We drove back to the same site we stayed at the previous night and proceeded to set up camp.

The weather was still bright sunshine with crystal clear skies, but this afternoon also had a bit of wind. The pattern is that the wind picks up in the later afternoon and continues until about 8 o’clock. But on this afternoon, the wind was stronger than normal and had begun blowing earlier than normal. This meant that the evening was not as enjoyable as the previous evening. We got the camp set up and dinner cooked, all without drama, but there was a slight down mood pervading the camp. However, by 9 o’clock the wind had eased off so we all went to bed feeling a little happier.

Day four started like all the others. We weren’t in any great rush. By 10 o’clock we were set to go and drove back down into the small village of the previous afternoon. As we drove through, people waved to us and the children stopped playing long enough to stare at the ‘hawadji’. They don’t see very many westerners in this neck of the woods.

The wadi we were in now was beautiful, with lush groves of date palms. There were also orange trees along the road. There was a lot of agriculture of many different kinds. This was not the large scale agriculture that you get around Riyadh, but the small market garden type that you find in the mountain regions.

We drove into Al Ula to find that it was a prosperous and pretty town. They have a huge fountain in the middle of town. As I have explained in earlier stories, I have come to the conclusion that the elaborate fountains are a display of their prosperity and pride. Who can blame them? We got some food for lunch and then drove on. As we left town, we drove through a large area of old, mud brick buildings. I’m sure that some of them are still being used.

The route to the beginning of the off road section of the Hijaz railway found us travelling south towards Medina. After leaving all of the towns behind, the countryside once again became extraordinarily beautiful. The mountains were on the left and right, but we were now travelling in a wide area of gently undulating land between them. We could see the beginnings of the remnants of the railway over on the right hand side of the road. From this point on we were following the directions in the book. Sure enough, 79km from Medain Saleh we saw the microwave tower and knew to turn off there.

At this point there was the first of what would turn out to be many railway buildings. I can only assume that these buildings were built by the Turks. They are 2 story and made of solid blocks of quarried rock. The workmanship was excellent. Each station site has 3 buildings, one being a building to provide water pressure from the huge water tanks on top, one being the station itself and one being either the station master’s house, or accommodation for travellers. Whatever they were, they are fascinating to see because they are so very different to all other buildings in the area.

We stopped there for lunch, before setting off on 150km of off-road. The track was either following the railway embankment or was actually on the top of the embankment. Scattered along the track were old, abandoned steam engines, railway carriages, water tanks etc.

The book pointed out most of the things that there were to see. Every 25 or 30 kilometres was a station. We began by stopping at everything there was to see and even exploring all of the station buildings until it became obvious that the trip was going to take a week at that pace. Plus we learned that the station buildings were of a standard design, so each one was essentially the same as the one before. Interestingly, what did vary was the rock used to make the buildings. Each station was a slightly different colour, dependant on the colour of the rock in that location. This proved that the rock was quarried on site. It also helped to explain why many of the stations had a number of mud brick buildings as well. The workers must have first lived in tents while they built the mud brick buildings, then lived in them while they built the rock buildings. We were all astounded by the visions of what life must have been like for them as they built the railway through spectacular but very isolated country. Here were we exploring and feeling rather adventurous, but we had modern 4WDs and were only 50km (as the crow flies) from a modern bitumen road. The railway builders didn’t have any roads and pretty rough and ready looking machinery. We all felt humbled.

We continued along the track for 100km to a station in a place that must have been the main station along this section of the track. At this point, there was a marshalling yard with a complete train sitting on the track. There was also another complete train on its side. In the hills surrounding this site were what the book refers to as Turkish defensive positions. These are old fortress type structures made out of the rocks. Along the track were other piles of rocks which we believe are what the book calls Turkish graves. If they are, a lot of Turks died while building the railway.

That night we stayed at the 100km point. There is a large area between mountains at this place, as well as a river. And shock upon shock, the river had water flowing in it! We don’t know if this is because of the recent rain or if the river is fed by a spring in the mountains, but we were fascinated to see a flowing river. There are a number of buildings associated with the railway as well as a number of Saudi farms, of the small kind, not the large kind. We found a place that had heaps of fire wood and was out of the wind. The kids went off to explore and we set up camp.

This was the best night of the whole trip in my opinion. We had a lovely camp fire after tea, which the kids always love to have. Everything was just beautiful during this camp.

The next day, day number 5, we set off as usual after porridge for breakfast. Packing the cars was becoming an automatic exercise as we had done it so often. The intention this day was to finish driving along the track, then head to Medina. From there we had to get a couple of hundred kilometres towards Riyadh so as not to leave too great a distance for the final day. Plus the country along this road between Medina and Buraidah is beautiful. The kids and I travelled on this same stretch of road back in October, so we knew what to expect.

By stopping time on day 5 we were 230km from Medina, at the bottom of a hill, 5km from the highway. The site was slightly up the hill, so we had a beautiful panorama across the expanse to the next hills, some 20km away. Mary enjoyed this spot as we could hear bird noises. These ended up being some sort of owl, which Mary was very happy to find. There were 2 of them apparently and the noise we could hear them making was as they called to each other across the place where we were.

This was by far the coldest of the 5 nights. I still managed through the night with only a jumper on, but it was touch and go. In the morning, which had to be an early start because of the distance we needed to travel that day, it was bitterly cold. Having said that, it can’t have been too bad because nothing froze. The milk and the water that were left out over night didn’t freeze. But I was cold to the core and everyone else agreed that it was the coldest we had for the whole trip.

We were on the road by 8 o’clock. By lunch time we were on the Riyadh side of Buraidah, with 320km still to go. We found a lovely spot well away from the freeway and on the edge of a lake. The water in the lake was obviously from the recent rain. There were huge sand dunes, so the kids took off running up and over them. We had a very leisurely break from the road.

When it was time to leave, I did the silliest thing anyone did for the whole trip. I decided that I wanted to see how close I could drive to the water, so carefully drove out onto the sand flat. I was only 30m from the dry sand when the car started to sink. I managed to keep it going until we were only 10m from the dry sand, but that was where the car decided that it didn’t want to play any more and stopped. No amount of coaxing could get it to move. Nick, who did not want to be a part of this ‘fun’, was safely on the dry sand, so I waved him down and we hooked up 2 tow ropes. With Mary, Donna and the 3 girls behind the car, Nick in his car in front with the tow ropes and me in our car in low ratio, we managed to get it to squelch its way out of the mud. The funny part was that everyone behind the car was completely covered in mud. Fortunately it was mainly wet sand, so it cleaned off quite easily.

Three hours later we were back at ASASCO and the trip was over.

We all rate this trip as the best camping trip yet.

Marathon des Sables – Chapter 4 – The Magic Kingdom

The Magic Kingdom

It was a hectic four weeks before I found myself in Saudi Arabia.

With such a whirlwind of organizing with passports, airline tickets, visas and a plethora of other details, my head stayed up in the clouds for days after my arrival. Coming from Brisbane, Australia and landing in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, culture shock doesn’t really explain the avalanche of impressions and emotions. In 1995, the first impression that a new arrival from Australia to Saudi Arabia got as they disembarked from the plane at the airport in Dhahran was the heat. The flight arrived early in the morning, at about one o’clock, and after grabbing my cabin luggage I walked down the stairs of the plane to the tarmac, along with the many other jetlagged passengers. There to greet us was a line of the huge, weird looking airport buses that can be found at many airports around the world.

Crammed on to the bus were dazed looking people, predominantly men, from all over the world, each gripping their cabin luggage. I found myself surrounded by people from Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, the Philippines, plus one or two other Aussies and Kiwis. No-one was in a chatting mood as we were all in the same dazed state of mind.

The bus was soon at the entrance to the check-in hall, where we all grabbed our bags again and shuffled off the bus and into the hall. This was where I encountered the next overwhelming impression that told me I was no longer in the closeted safety of Australia. As we shuffled forward to join the long queues of people waiting to check in, I had a real sense of being in a Saturday afternoon movie with Gregory Peck or Charlton Heston, as there were quite a few guys in the lines wearing strange head gear and loin cloths.  We could see many khaki uniformed guards with machine guns over their shoulders. I remembered back to all of the people back in Oz who had either expressed their personal concern about my safety, or just outright advised me not to go. The impression that we are fed by the media in Oz is that the Middle East, and  particularly Saudi Arabia, are dangerous places where any clear thinking Australian would not choose to go. And here I was standing in a hot, humid, cavernous shed in the middle of the night with hundreds of people from exotic parts of the world, some wearing exotic clothing, staring down a long line of new arrivals, all being watched over by serious looking fellows with machine guns.

I stood there, looked around and a scene from The Wizard of Oz came to mind. “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.”

Eventually, after a lot of checking, unpacking, packing and stamping of passports, I found myself out on the public side of the door. In 1995, the airport at Dhahran, which was the gateway to Saudi from anywhere in Asia, Australia and New Zealand, was not a great introduction to the country. It was old, run down, a little bit smelly and just had a musty feel about it. After the long flight and the last ninety minutes of passport control and queuing, now stepping out to see a rather drab forecourt, my excitement level had not yet started to rise. Fortunately, I had no problem finding the driver holding a sign with my name on it, so was soon on my way to the hotel.

I don’t know about you, but I am always fascinated when I arrive in a new city. For some reason it’s always at night, with the exception of London. But everywhere else I’ve flown to from Australia, it’s always night when we arrive. And with the flight landing at one in the morning, the time taken going through the process at the airport, then finding my car and driver, it was three thirty in the morning as we drove from the airport to the hotel that they had put me in for the rest of the night. Consequently, the city was quiet.

It seemed like forever that we were driving up near-empty freeways, then turning onto deserted surface roads. The street lights were glowing yellow and what I could see from their light was quite different to the impression I had got from peering  down from the window of the plane. Up there, everything was neatly laid out, with the freeways sweeping in graceful curves around the city. But from down here it was clear that I was now in a third world country. Saudi doesn’t like to consider itself a third world country; it has huge oil reserves and has spent a large fortune on infrastructure over the past fifty years. But at street level at four o’clock in the morning driving down deserted roads, it was easy to see that it wasn’t far removed from being just that.

At least now I could tell the naysayers back home that the streets are paved, not sand or gravel, I didn’t see any mud brick buildings on the drive from the airport and I didn’t see a single camel. However I was certainly going to be seeing lots of each of these before my time in Saudi was finished.

For a person living with type 1 diabetes, one of the difficulties with travelling across time zones is the adjustment of medication times. Depending on the flight details, there is both the ongoing adjustment necessary while travelling and then the final adjustment after you arrive at your destination. The time difference between Brisbane and Saudi Arabia is eight hours, but the flight is broken in the middle with a stopover in Singapore. It’s not easy to explain to a person who doesn’t have to live with it the importance, the danger, the concern that the person with T1D has while making the adjustments. Having insulin is not like taking a pill for a headache. Having an injection of insulin is more like squirting high octane fuel into the engine of a drag car. Insulin is not a fuel, but it’s the best example I can think of right now.

If you don’t squirt enough of the fuel into the engine, it will simply stop. But if you squirt too much fuel, the engine will momentarily run too fast before exploding. But, and here’s the scary bit, when a person with type 1 diabetes is doing long distance flights,  timing their insulin injections is like trying to squirt in just enough fuel into the engine of the drag car while it’s in the process of doing it’s ¼ mile run. Too little and their blood sugar level runs high; too much and they risk having a hypo, ie. severe low blood sugar level and it’s immediate dangers. But now complicate that by changing time zones and day becomes night, breakfast becomes dinner and midnight becomes lunch time.

So after a couple of hours of fitful sleep, I had to very carefully time my morning routine. I knew that I was being picked up by the company driver at nine o’clock, so I knew that I had to not only ensure that I was presentable for my first day on the job at a new company, but I also had to make sure that I had my morning insulin no sooner than fifteen to twenty minutes before I would have my breakfast available to me. I was also working on the assumption that the breakfast would have enough carbohydrate for me. Keep in mind that I had arrived at the hotel at four o’clock in the morning, so had not been able to check the things that most people just take for granted or dismiss as unimportant, such as availability of food. Having just arrived in the country, all I had with me were the remnants of my emergency travelling food. If necessary that would be enough to see me through until the driver arrived, and then I would ask him to stop at a food shop of some sort. But as this was my first day on the job, I didn’t want to start by causing unexpected difficulties.

People often say, when they hear about this sort of situation, “Oh yes but, they need to know that you need your food and that you need ……. “. Yes, that is correct, but when you live with type 1 diabetes every minute of every day of your life, the dynamics of these situations take on a different colour. I don’t feel that I need to hide my diabetes, not at all. But conversely, I also don’t want my type 1 diabetes to become what people think of when my name is mentioned or they are in my company. It’s hard enough having to juggle the insulin, food and energy requirements every minute of every day, without adding the complications of making those around you think of you as “the diabetic”.

With all of these unknown factors and concerns, my first morning in The Magic Kingdom went without a hitch. I did manage to make myself presentable, and I did manage to have my insulin injection, followed by an acceptable breakfast within the  right timeframe. The little wrinkles that often present themselves didn’t let me down this time either. There wasn’t enough carbohydrate in the continental breakfast offered by the hotel, but I was able to obtain a glass of orange juice to boost it up. Exciting stuff, huh? But sadly that sort of mundane detail becomes vital to a person living with type 1 diabetes.

After a short stop over at the company office, where I was introduced to too many people whose names I didn’t have a chance of remembering, the driver took myself and my luggage off to the accommodation that had been arranged for me. The plan was that I’d be spending a couple of months in Dammam, which is on the east coast of Saudi Arabia, then moving to the head office of the bank, which is in Riyadh. Riyadh is the capital city of Saudi Arabia and is 400km into the desert. I was fascinated at the prospect of that new adventure, but for now I had the new city of Dammam to get to know.

It took fifteen minutes of carnival ride to get to my temporary accommodation. I didn’t know which way to look, there was just so much to see. By first impressions Dammam is not a pretty city, but it was new to me, it was exotic and it was exciting. Having never been overseas before, except to New Zealand, this was my first out-of-Australia experience. I thought Singapore on the way over was exciting, but this took it to a whole new level. Everywhere I looked I could see guys dressed in the flowing, white robes with the red and white checkered head gear. I was soon to learn that most of those fellows are Saudis, as all Saudi men wear the “thobe” (white robe) and “shumagg” (red and white head covering). I could also see the occasional woman wearing the flowing black robes, which I came to learn is called an “abya”.

After we arrived, the driver knocked on the door of the unit I was to be sharing with another Australian. I stood back and waited a moment before the door was opened. The driver started introducing himself and explaining who I was, but I just stood there with my mouth hanging open. Because who should have opened the door but my best friend from high school, George. I kid you not. There we were on the other side of the planet and George opened the door.

Well, you can imagine how the next few hours were spent. “Do you remember when …..? and I wonder what happened to …… “. We had a lot of catching up to do. Fortunately for me, George was able to introduce me to many of the things to do with Saudi Arabia that a newbie from Oz finds confusing or confronting. He was also able to explain the intricate workings of the work situation, the relationship between the company we were both working for and the bank that we were working at. I felt a bit silly, to be honest, that I wasn’t already clear on much of this, but I was to learn over the next five years that most westerners arrive in Saudi for the first time in a similar dazed and naïve state of mind.

One of the curious things that George was able to explain to me that very first evening was when we went to a local shopping mall. As we were walking around, seeing Saudi families out doing the same thing, I noticed that there were many young Saudi fellows walking through the mall holding hands. Coming from Australia, I drew an immediate conclusion from that. I nudged George in the ribs and whispered “I thought that sort of thing was against the law in Saudi”. He laughed and said that it is. However what I was seeing was a local custom where male friends hold hands in some social settings, like walking through a shopping mall. Coming from Australia, where that would have only one conclusion, I found this quite interesting. Before my time in Saudi was finished five years later, I was to learn hundreds of interesting tidbits of information about Saudi, the Arabian Peninsular, the Arabic people, their culture and their language. I also learned a lot about western cultures and people. But that might be for another story one day.

The original plan was that I would stay with George in Dammam for three months, but it soon became apparent that it wasn’t necessary. By the way, the names Dammam, Al-Khobar and Dhahran are almost interchangeable, as together they form a  large urban area on the east coast of Saudi Arabia across from Bahrain. The plan was that I would use this time to become more acquainted with the computer operations side of the business. I soon realized that my main focus was going to be with the IT workers in Riyadh, not Dammam, so started the cogs turning so I could move there. After only four weeks in Dammam, I found myself on a plane to Riyadh.

I was to find that many westerners in Saudi vigorously prefer Dammam to Riyadh. Their reasoning is that, because Dammam is Shiite and Riyadh Sunni, Dammam is more easy going and accepting of western customs. For example, it is quite common in Dammam for western women to go shopping in one of the shopping malls without covering up with the abya. However in Riyadh that is a definite no no. Many westerners, both male and female, find that alone is enough for them to not like Riyadh and prefer Dammam. Donna and I never saw that sort of thing as a problem. We went to Saudi expecting things to be different and were not greatly surprised when they were.

For me, Riyadh was the place to be. I loved it. Mind you, it was difficult for me to settle in, with me even contemplating leaving and flying home during the first couple of months there. But after teething problems with the accommodation and finding a group of expats that I got along well with, I was eventually able to bring some stability into my week-to-week life.

Why I preferred Riyadh to Dammam was because of a number of things. Firstly, it was 400km into the desert. Riyadh in 1995 was a city of over a million people, with all of the things that a large population requires. And yet it was 400km into the desert from the east coast. I find that fascinating. Also, Riyadh is the seat of government for Saudi Arabia. It is the centre of power for this fascinating country and is the main residence for the King of Saudi Arabia. Plus it is BECAUSE Riyadh follows the more conservative side of Islam that Donna and I preferred to be there; of course Donna after she and the girls joined me there in 1996. We didn’t travel half way around the  planet to pretend we were still in suburban Brisbane. We learned how other people and cultures live, how their view of the world is both similar to ours and differs from ours. We learned that, even though we were living in a city that has the infamous “Chop Chop square”, where convicted criminals are occasionally beheaded, the local people are friendly people devoted to their families and in so many ways no different to us. I could wax lyrical on this subject for hours, but that is not the purpose of this story so I shall leave it there. In summary, my family and I fell in love with Riyadh and the Arabic culture.

One thing that Riyadh also had was a shortage of easily accessible forms of entertainment for your typical western families. This was another aspect of Saudi Arabia that many westerners had a problem with. In both Dammam and Riyadh, and I’m guessing Jeddah as well, there were no cinemas. Nope, none. Zero. Yes, you heard correctly. Plus there were no places like clubs or discos that you could go for a drink and a dance. And of course that raises possibly the biggest issue that some westerners have about Saudi and that is that the whole country is dry, ie. no alcohol was legally permitted within the country. There was no grey area on this subject at all. Alcohol is banned within the borders of Saudi Arabia.

But this is where Donna and I and the girls might be a little different to some other people, in that none of this bothered us too much. We soon learned to make do with what was available and to make our own fun. There were videos to replace cinemas and heaps of restaurants to go to. There were fascinating and exotic markets, called souks, to go to as well. As for alcohol, well …… I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say that virtually every westerner soon learned how to overcome that strict rule. It was actually quite humorous the various ways that people managed to provide the expat community with a range of liquid joy. And this was another aspect of living in Riyadh that was so good, and that was living the expat life. Throw a bunch of westerners together and they soon learn to establish a sense of community more colourful and vibrant than life back home. This was one of the aspects of our time in Riyadh that Donna particular loved.

A significant part of “making our own fun”, that had been vital for helping me get through the first twelve months without Donna and the girls, was going out of Riyadh for trips to the desert. As I’ve already described, Riyadh is 400km into the desert, so it is completely surrounded by desert of some sort. And with five or six major highways into and out of Riyadh from other cities in Saudi, there were heaps of opportunities to go exploring.

This is where the majority of western expats drew the line. I estimate that 90% of western expats went to the desert at least once in their time in Riyadh. But only 60% went twice. When you consider those who went on, let’s say a monthly basis, you’d be down to 10% or less. During the first couple of months that I was in Riyadh before the family came over, a large part of the difficulties I was facing came from a combination of the limited range of activities available that did NOT require large amounts of liquid joy, the unwillingness of most of the guys I was living with in the block of units to commit themselves to a weekend activity and then follow through, combined with the afore mentioned reluctance of most expats to go to the desert. Since a child, I’ve always been into walking and exploring, so to keep myself sane I had to work out some way of getting out to the desert. I had a car; that wasn’t a problem. The problem was finding someone to go with.

Over the next couple of months, my state of mind deteriorated to the point where Donna was suggesting I give up and come home during our weekly telephone calls. I wasn’t about to do that, but that’s how bad I sounded to her on the phone. My state of mind wasn’t dangerous; I was just lonely and frustrated. I could see a solution, but couldn’t find anyone to enable me to put it into action.

The crisis point was reached one Thursday morning, which in Saudi is equivalent to our Saturday morning. I had arranged with a couple of the other fellows who lived in the block of units that we were going for a drive to the desert. I had ensured that they were committed and clear on departure time etc. I even made the clear understanding that they needed to bring a bit of food and water, as we were leaving the city and they wouldn’t have an opportunity to buy any. Everyone agreed and life was looking good.

On Wednesday night, which is the equivalent to our Friday night, work was finished for the week, so there was the usual bar-b-que and party at the block of units. A goodly group of expat single males were there to party the night away. I noticed that a couple of the guys who were coming to the desert the next day were well into the party, so I reminded them of the activity the next day and they confirmed that it was still on and they’d be there.

Let’s leave out the rest of the night’s partying, because we all know what a night like that usually becomes. Instead we’ll jump forward to 9 o’clock the next morning, with me sitting out in the common area waiting for them, ready to go. Ooze forward now to 10 o’clock, with no change in the scenario. Take another step to 11 o’clock.

That’s it! I’d had it! I couldn’t take any more. I stormed off with a dramatic banging of doors and went for a drive to calm myself down and consider what I was going to do about this appalling situation. This was now do-or-die. This situation had the potential to kill the whole Saudi episode for my family and I and that would be a disaster.

I drove around the city for a while and finally found myself in the DQ, or Diplomatic Quarter. This is the part of the city where most of the foreign embassies exist. Foreigners were allowed to go there at any time, while locals were either not allowed to go, or needed to justify to the guards on the entrance gate why they wished to enter.

The DQ was enormous, the size of a whole suburb. It had it’s own shops, parks and gardens as well as the many embassies and other official buildings. It was in the DQ where you would find the embassy for the U.S.A., for Britain, for Australia, New Zealand etc. Not surprisingly, it was not difficult to identify the embassy of the U.S.A. Even in 1995 it was all of the following – the biggest, the most elaborate, had the most impressive gardens, appeared to have the most guards and also had the most in-your-face concrete barricades and uniformed guards with big guns in plain view. Of course it also had a big American flag on a big flagpole. Conversely the Australian embassy while certainly nice, was smaller, unobtrusive, not easy to find unless you knew where to look and overall subtle. Ya gotta love the Americans.

I found a peaceful looking place to park the car and sit out on the grass. Yes, the DQ also had possibly the only proper grass lawns in all of Riyadh. So I chose a peaceful, quiet place to sit and think and contemplate the next few months.

At this point in my Saudi experience, it had not been determined whether Donna and the girls could come over. All of that discussion was yet to eventuate. All I knew at that point was that I was there on my own, I was very lonely and I was going not-so-slowly nuts. If I was to stay and survive, I needed to have something to plan for and look forward to.

Over the weeks I’d been there, I had never heard anyone say that they had been to the desert on their own. What I had heard was lots of inference that precisely the opposite was true, ie. the desert was not somewhere that one should venture by themselves. But then the attitude of most of the westerners was that you simply don’t leave the city, simple as that, so in my mind that threw into question many of the general attitudes of the westerners. I had now been forced to the point where I needed to think outside the square. Standard solutions had not worked. So by process of logic, clarity and elimination I came to the conclusion that I had to learn how to go to the desert on my own. Suddenly I felt much happier. I had a mission, a challenge, an objective, a goal. On the face of it, that may not sound like a big decision. So what, go to the desert on my own? Big deal. But when you consider that temperatures in Saudi easily reach 50C, the desert stretched for hundreds of kilometres in every direction around Riyadh, there was almost nothing in the desert except many things that could kill a car and that there were very few people to be seen in these hundreds of kilometres of nothing, it was a big decision; many would say stupid.

Over the next week I asked lots of questions of anyone who would stand still long enough. The most important thing that I learned, something that could derail the whole endeavour, was that the government had an expectation that westerners did not need to travel outside the city of their work. Now this is where people who haven’t experienced Saudi Arabia can easily develop a bad opinion of the place, but the reality is not as bad as the explanation sounds.

Every person in Saudi Arabia has what is known as an Iqama. This is nothing more than what a lot of countries have, which is an official form of identification. All muslims have a green Iqama and all non-muslims have a brown Iqama.

On each of the highways in and out of each city there are checkpoints. Yes, I know; this is starting to sound like communist Russia or Nazi Germany, but the reality is much more benign and unexciting. As you stop at the checkpoint, you needed to show your Iqama to the guard. He may also ask for your driver’s licence and car registration papers, which were always kept in the glove box. If you are not a Saudi citizen, he may also have asked for your travel papers, which was simply an official letter from your employer stating, in Arabic, that you were entitled to travel outside the city. Similar to the “don’t ask / don’t tell” official attitude to the liquid joy, the official attitude to the travel letter was that, so long as it was written properly, on official letter head, stating that the holder had an employment related reason for travelling outside the city, no further questions would be asked. It was as simple as that. In my five years of driving the length and breadth of Saudi Arabia, I was never asked to show my travel letter.

So that became my main requirement for that week. Off I went to see Mohammed, a charming fellow from Pakistan whose reason for existing was to organize “stuff” like paperwork, official letters, airline tickets, travel documents and general semi-official advice for the westerners. I asked him what I needed to do to get a letter saying I could travel outside Riyadh. He had been asked for this hundreds of times over the years, so he understood that it was important for many westerners to not feel restricted too much or cooped up. The bank needed the westerners, and Mohammed took it upon himself to keep the westerners happy. It was a very sad day for us when he told us that he had finally received his green card and he and his family were leaving Saudi and moving to the U.S.A.

So, by the end of that week I had my official travel letter, which was maybe the single most important piece of paper I would have during the whole five years in The Magic Kingdom, with the exception of my final airline ticket home.

Next came the logistical planning for my first foray into this unknown and scary place called “the desert”. I decided on it being the coming weekend for my first trip and had a lot of thinking and organising to do, not least being deciding where to go. Talking to my fellow westerners, I heard the name “Hidden Valley” mentioned on numerous occasions. I also heard names such “The Edge of the World” and “The Empty Quarter” mentioned. But the two most often mentioned pieces of advice were Hidden Valley and a book of desert trips around Riyadh that was available that had been written and published some years earlier by an enterprising westerner.

Interestingly, there was little point asking any of my Saudi work mates for guidance, even though they would have been more than happy to give me advice. You see, where I was planning to go and what I was planning to do wasn’t anything special for them. Some of them had grown up living in the type of desert I was planning to go to.  And I was to learn that what we called desert, they referred to as farm land. I kid you not! One time when I described a particularly spectacular place that I had visited over a weekend to one of my Saudi work mates, he gave me an incredulous look and told me that his family farms camels and goats there, so it wasn’t desert. Believe me when I say that to anyone visiting Saudi Arabia from outside the Arabic Peninsular, what I had seen that weekend was vast, spectacular, awe inspiring desert.

By the Wednesday evening the where, what and how for my first solo foray into the Saudi Arabian desert had been organised. This included a backpack, bottles of water, lots of food, a hat and other obvious safety gear, plus the book of desert trips. I was to determine years later that I was hopelessly unprepared on that first journey, but luckily for me that didn’t matter.

So much about Riyadh was fascinating back then. Apart from being the centre of one of the more unknown and closed off countries in the world, the evidence of almost limitless money was everywhere. Over the following years I learned a lot more about the recent and brief history of modern Saudi Arabia, but that first drive out of the city was a real journey into the unknown for me.

After navigating my way to the outskirts of the city, I found myself on a six lane freeway hurtling along at 120kph. That was the sign posted speed, but many drivers seemed to simply ignore that and go blasting past me. As I was driving the rental car, which was a Hyundai Excel with a small four cylinder engine, I soon learned to stay out of the fast lane. That was where the bigger cars were powering past way in excess of 120kph. I didn’t stand a chance there. Over time I also learned to stay out of the slow lane, as this is where the many trucks trundle up and down the freeway. In summer, when the air temperature often reaches 50C, the bitumen can start to melt. And with the heavy trucks travelling in the slow lane, the surface of the road took on what, in a small car, was a frightening carnival ride appearance. The trucks left serious grooves in the bitumen during summer, making the slow lane a dangerous place to be in any standard type of car. Even 4WD cars, with their bigger wheels and more robust suspension, could struggle in the slow lane.

So the middle lane it was as I left Riyadh behind. I didn’t get a clear idea of my surroundings on that first drive out of the city as it was all too new to me and there was simply too many things to look at. But I was to learn as time went on that Riyadh is surrounded by new areas that are being turned into suburbs. It was fast becoming a large and significant city. One of the differences that having almost limitless money gave Saudi, compared to what we are used to in Australia, is that when they decide to allocate a section of land for a new housing development, they build all of the infrastructure first, then open it to the housing developers. So I was driving past vast areas where all of the roads, footpaths, power supply, water supply, sewerage and telephone had already been built. All that was left to do now was to build the houses and shops. But I’m not talking about an acre or two. I’m talking about entire suburbs that stretched away from the freeway for kilometres, where everything was in place except for the buildings. And it was all just sitting there like it had been for years.

I learned that the Saudi government managed it’s oil wealth for the benefit of the country by having five year plans. Each five year plan would have main focus points, like building hospitals or building universities and schools. Obviously a previous five year plan had a focus for establishing suburbs, so all of the infrastructure was there and now it just waited for private industry to catch up and build the houses. The six lane freeway that I was on that carved it’s way through the desert in great, sweeping curves was part of an earlier five year plan. I came to learn that the whole country was criss-crossed by a network of modern freeways and highways, connecting all of the major cities and towns.

Eventually I left the waiting-to-be-built-on suburbs behind as I continued heading west. But I hadn’t gone far before the road descended at a steep grade. Over in the slow lane, the many trucks were now crawling down the hill in low gear and the smell of burning brakes and clutch plates was quite apparent. For the rest of us in the middle lane, we just continued to descend at 120kph, while those big boys in the fast lane went rocketing past at whatever speed they wanted to drive.

This is where we’ll look at another aspect of Saudi that most westerners point at and cluck their disappointment. All of the drivers of every vehicle on the road was male. Not a single female driver was to be seen anywhere. The reason for that is that women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Yes, it’s true. None of that urban legend or hear-say is incorrect. Now I’m not going to justify the Saudi government’s law but just say that, in 1995, that was the case. Pressure is afoot now in 2014 to change that situation, but to date it has not yet succeeded in changing the law in Saudi Arabia.

Also, speaking of big boys in the fast lane, one of the curious things that I saw many times over the years while driving the length and breadth of Saudi Arabia was that the super-rich, such as princes, government ministers, their sons and other rich business men, seemed to have the freedom to drive their super-rich cars, like top end Mercedes, Ferraris, Rolls Royces, Porches, you name it, as fast as they liked in the fast lane. It was common to see someone coming up from behind in the fast lane, flashing their lights furiously at whoever happened to be ahead of them. As they blew past slow old me doing 120kph in the middle lane, they had to have been doing in excess of 200kph, still flashing their lights and without slowing down a jot. It was comical to watch, unless you were the poor sod who had dared to pull into the fast lane to go past a slow coach in the middle doing only 110. You can take my word for it that a Hyundai Excel doesn’t accelerate rapidly from 110 to 120, no matter how hard you push the accelerator to the floor. I quickly learned to stay out of the fast lane unless absolutely necessary. This was particularly the case when driving on the 400km, six lane freeway from Riyadh to Dammam.

The big descent that I was now going down was known as German Cutting. The reason for this was something to do with the company that designed the freeway and the cutting being a German company, so the westerners simply knew it as German Cutting. It became an important landmark when planning days out in the desert. The conversation would go something like “You get to the bottom of German Cutting, then turn right. Travel for another five kilometres and you’ll see a track beside a fence.” For this first trip, when I was hoping to find Hidden Valley, I needed to get to the bottom of German Cutting then turn left.

About half way down German Cutting, which enables the freeway to descend from the plateau on which Riyadh is situated to the vast expanse of the Arabian shield beyond, the road emerges from the cliff face in a long, steep swoop. As it does, you suddenly get a view of the area at the bottom of the cliff. In a flash of scenery change, I could suddenly see my first village, with it’s assortment of houses, mud-brick buildings, dirt roads, donkeys, a few camels dotted around, date palms and children riding their bikes. I could suddenly see all of this from above, so high was the escarpment and the road that I was on. This was my first view of Arabia outside of a big city, so I was now entering the real Arabia and my heart jumped. It was only now that I fully realized that I was starting a true adventure, one that would last for another five years.

Table of Contents

Next Chapter

Marathon des Sables – Chapter 5 – The Desert – A Love Story

The Desert – A Love Story

After turning left off the freeway – oh, let me take a break here and describe something else that I find quirky – Our network of freeways in Australia is not a smudge on what I’m told they are in the U.S.A. Yes we have freeways, but until recently they’ve mainly been for connecting point A to point B. It was only ten or fifteen years ago that they started to connect up into the beginnings of a network. In Saudi Arabia, they had all this oil money and they needed to rapidly modernize their country, so they brought in experts from all over the world to help them build a modern infrastructure. Hence German Cutting.

But America being the home of the freeway, the Saudis had obviously brought in experts from the U.S.A. to help them design their freeways, which resulted in some very impressive engineering feats. Riyadh has a spectacular junction of freeways and highways, which the westerners call “Spaghetti Junction”. It’s one of those landmarks that westerners use to navigate around the city.

But even a simple intersection of a freeway and a highway out of the city was designed by the experts with the future in mind, so it had a full clover-leaf intersection. In 1995, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Australia was yet to build its first clover-leaf intersection. So I hadn’t experienced the need to do a 270 degree loop in order to join the cross road. Plus keep in mind that in Australia we drive on the left hand side of the road, but in Saudi Arabia they drive on the right hand side, so their roads are designed accordingly. It took me a long time to get used to turning left from a freeway to a cross road on a clover-leaf intersection, and doing a right hand exit followed by a full 270 degree right hand turn. It never became natural to me in my whole stay in Saudi Arabia.

OK, so I had just turned left from the freeway and was now driving along the minor road, looking for the next turn to the right. I had no idea where I was going, except that the map in the book was telling me what to watch out for. Now that I was at the bottom of the escarpment, I was surrounded by impressive rock formations, all weathered and gnarled by the centuries of wind and sand. I didn’t know whether to look left or right, so I drove slowly and tried to look at everything.

Eventually I had travelled the distance dictated by the book, and could now see a gravel track going off to the left. At this point it looked like a simple gravel road, so I didn’t hesitate to turn my little rental car onto it and continue away from the main road. Ahead of me the gravel road climbed gently until it went over the top of a rise about a kilometre away, so I carefully drove towards that point. By now I was fifty kilometres from Riyadh driving a Hyundai Excel with a 1.2 litre motor and standard tyres, driving along a gravel road heading further into the desert. What I didn’t need at this point was a flat tyre, an overheating engine or a rock through the sump.

It wasn’t long before I got to the top of the rise and found that the gravel road deteriorated gradually to a gravel track that continued on around a few winds and turns. There were now rocks and holes in the track that I needed to carefully steer around. What I also found was that the track was descending into a small valley of some sort, with almost vertical cliffs on either side. At the bottom of the cliffs, which were roughly thirty metres high, were many large boulders that had broken away from them over the eons. As I carefully drove further I could see the cliffs gradually widening out. I knew now that I was in Hidden Valley and could easily see how it got its name.

The landscape in that small valley, for a first time visitor who was a keen bush walker at home, was mesmerizing. I slowly drove along the track trying to look in every direction at once. Going off the main valley on both sides were other small valleys. Every twist and turn in the track found another treasure to investigate. A number of times I was so busy trying to absorb everything that I was seeing that I almost drove off the track or hit a rock. Luckily I was crawling along as slow as I could go, so I wouldn’t have done much damage anyway, but inadvertently damaging the car at this point in the proceedings was not a good idea.

After crawling along for fifteen minutes, I finally decided that it was time to stop the car and go exploring on foot. I pulled off the track and opened the door, only to be smacked in the face by a wall of heat. I had been driving with the car window down, but I had also been sitting in the shaded protection of the car. Once out of the car and on foot, I was exposed to the full force of the sun. And even though this was only early summer, it still had a force that I wasn’t expecting. One redeeming feature of the summer heat of the desert around Riyadh is that, being 400km inland, the humidity is zero. We found it amazing when we went to Dammam just how much hotter it felt. Zero humidity compared to 100% humidity is a vast difference.

I gathered my stuff together in my backpack and took off to the right on foot. The floor of the valley, or “whadi” in Arabic, was covered in rocks, so walking was difficult. And the rocks were sharp and brutal. There was very little plant life, but there were scrubby looking bushes with huge needles on them for self protection. There were also one or two strange looking small trees with papery bark that simply peeled off. These strange trees had large, leathery green leaves and I was to learn later that the westerners call them Scrotum trees. Later in the year the trees were to bare large seed pods, each with two large seeds inside, that had an uncanny resemblance to well, based on the name you can probably work it out for yourself.

I was in exploring heaven. I walked for what seemed like hours, over rocks, past cliffs, along narrow goat tracks, all the while slowly moving away from the car. At last I sat down in whatever shade I could find to have a drink of water and turned my attention in the direction of the car.

It had vanished.

I thought I hadn’t walked far, having walked very slowly and sat down and rested a number of times. But now, as I looked back towards the car, it simply wasn’t there any more.

This was my introduction to something that I saw others struggle with as well over the years, when I took newbies out for their first experience of the desert. As there are very few landmarks, or at least not the sort of landmarks that we are used to seeing in our home countries of Australia, New Zealand, the U.S.A., Canada and particular England and Europe, our way of navigating is compromised. Even though we hardly ever consider it at home, we must subconsciously keep track of trees, light poles, fence corners, creeks etc, to have a subtle understanding of where we are and how far we have travelled. But in the desert, where most of those landmarks just don’t exist, our in-built navigation system doesn’t work. Here I was looking back in the direction of the car, expecting to see it half hidden behind a large, fallen boulder, and it had simply vanished.

I didn’t panic, but I also can’t say I wasn’t concerned. Don’t forget that this was my very first experience of exploring the desert, and now I couldn’t see the car. To make things worse, as I looked back in the general direction of the car, I could see that there were two whadis coming together, but with their coming together bit pointing towards me. So I was now looking down two whadis. Which one had I walked along to get to where I was now standing? My gut told me it was the one on the right, but I couldn’t be sure. I looked for anything that might be a landmark, such as a bush or peculiarly shaped rock, but there was nothing. It all looked the same! I was rapidly losing confidence that it was the whadi on the right that I had walked along.

I sat down again to collect my thoughts and calm down a bit. I wasn’t in full panic, but I could see it coming over the horizon. I looked at the two whadis and, after some careful consideration, could see that the one on the left was coming slightly downhill to where I was, whereas the one on the right was generally level. I thought back over the last half hour to try to remember if I had walked down a hill at any point. I thought back over all of the giant rocks and boulders that I had climbed around and over and wondered how I could ever tell if I was going up or down. But I finally concluded that it wasn’t likely that I had been coming downhill, so I decided to try the whadi on the right.

An hour later I was back at the car and breathing a small sigh of relief. My choice of the right hand whadi had been correct and consequently I had found the car. It was a lot further than I had expected, causing me a number of times to reconsider my choice of the right hand whadi, but I persevered and had finally found the car and safety again. This was a lesson for me that I was to call on again and again over the next five years in Saudi.

There was a funny episode some years later when my friend Nick and I took a Canadian newbie out for his first desert exploration walk. We were again in Hidden Valley, but this time many kilometres further along. We measured it once in the car and the Hidden Valley area is 92km long. After having breakfast as the sun came up, which is a surreal experience in the desert, the three of us had set off for a long walk. We intended to be away from the car for six to eight hours, so had plenty of water and food.

After hours of walking and exploring, our Canadian friend was obviously getting weary, so we started heading back to the car. During the day we had climbed cliffs, crossed over the high point from one cliff to another, traversed a number of whadis and generally had a good time. We had stopped for lunch and boiled water for a cup of tea on a makeshift camp fire. Nick and I had given Bill a grand introduction to the desert and the beauty of the country outside of Riyadh. But now it was time to be bringing the day’s activities to a close.

As we emerged from a whadi and faced the huge expanse of the greater Hidden Valley, Bill looked along the valley and could see a bright sparkle. He gasped with relief and gushed that it was the sun reflecting off the windscreen, so we were almost there now. He then proceeded to hurry along towards the car so he could enjoy the comfort of a soft seat and some shade. I told him that we were further from the car than he might think and we still had a way to go, so he still needed to pace himself. He couldn’t believe me and pointed at the car. “It’s just there!” he said, and scampered off in that direction. Nick and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders.

An hour and a half later we reached the car. Bill was red in the face and way past his comfort zone. He flopped into the seat of the car and guzzled from the can of soft drink he had left behind for that purpose. He struggled to understand how the glint from the windscreen that he had seen was over 5km away. That is one of the many astounding things about the desert. Nick and I loved it. Bill, not so much that day.

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