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.