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)