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.