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.