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Exploring the south west of Saudi Arabia

Our deepest destination South would be the small town of Al Wadiah, which is also Saudi’s most southern town. It’s about an hour drive from Sharurah, where we spent some days with the camel race. The town of Al Wadiah itself has not much to show, a well planned small town with new houses, some shops and government buildings. There was supposed to be a fort, but we couldn’t find it. Al Wadiah is known for a small war, fought between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, in 1969. This was the result of a former border dispute between Saudi Arabia and the British (when they were still in control of Yemen). Both countries considered the town and its surroundings part of their own territory. Even today you feel some kind of hostility in the air, especially if you drive from Al Wadiah, towards the actual border crossing. A pre-border crossing check, did not let us go further, unless we were escorted by armed border guards and then only for 10km to the next big check point (still not the border crossing itself). Left and right from the road, a high barb wire fence makes sure you don’t get out of your vehicle and walk around the check-points. This is as far South as we could go. We now embarked on the “most dangerous road” of Saudi Arabia, the 15, which goes all along (about 300km) the Yemeni border and at times it’s only a few meters from the actual border (if you drive the old sections of the 15).

The entrance of the last town of the Empty Quarter
Our Border Guard escort through the border zone (Fenced in on both sides)

After every 50km there was a small army outpost along the road with watch-towers, armored living containers, search lights and barb wire fences. There was hardly any traffic on the road. The road is going through the Empty Quarter, with sometimes some rocky hills, the scenery is absolutely beautiful. We started a little nervous, after a couple of kilometers, we started to relax. As long as we could make it to the end of the road (Najran), before dark, we would be okay. Not far from entering Najran, we drove off the road towards a small sand mining pit, to camp for the night. Nearby another big power network project was being developed. In record time, high and low tension networks are set up throughout the country (even in the most difficult to reach places). Early morning buses full of Bengali workers are dropped off to work on the installation of the towers for the power cables. They were a bit surprised to see a camper with Europeans near their worksite. Only some, or maybe none of them have ever seen such a thing in real life.

The military outposts along the road at the Saudi/Yemeni border.

Al Ukhdud was our first destination when we arrived in Najran. Najran is an interesting town. Najran and its surroundings used to be a very important economical hub in the region. Caravans with merchandise from the Yemeni coast came to this town through mountains and valleys from where they went either to the west of the peninsula to join trade routes towards Egypt, Greece, Italie etc, or to the west (The Levant). The region has been inhabited for over 4000 years and can be considered as one of the most important historical sites in Saudi Arabia. The old town (known as the archeological site of Al Ukhdud) is a protected area full of ruines of houses, forts, a mosque, etc. A large modern museum has been built near the site which normally displays all artifacts found at the archeological site of Al Ukhdud. However, due to the civil war in Yemen and the tense situation at the border, the artifacts have been temporary re-located to Riyadh, as a pre-caution. So the museum is closed, and the planning is to open again in 2024. We were, however, allowed to enter the small information center on the site and walk over the site. All ruines are accessible and you can walk all over. We walked almost 7 kilometers over dedicated footpaths but also in the old fort ruines, which are pretty impressive. The masonry work of the fort/town is amazing, with huge carefully carved granite blocks put on top of each other, interlocking without the use of mortar. On some blocks carvings of animals can be found and inscriptions which belong to the oldest written Arabic text. The entire site is still littered with old pieces of pottery. We were the only visitors and it was special to walk through the main street of the old town, knowing that this town was such an important place in human history.

The large modern built archeological museum at Al Ukhdud (which is presently empty)
The large carefully cut granite blocks, interlocking without cement of the Al Ukhdud city and fort. (Some with ancient inscriptions)
Pieces of pottery can be found all over the enclosed archeological site of Al Ukhdud (but not allowed to be removed)
Walking the thousands of years old “main street” of Al Ukhdud

Another interesting site was Castle Raum, a fort built by the Yemeni army, when Najran was still part of Yemen. Actually, Najran used to be an independent Emirate through history. Placed between the edges of the Empty Quarter to the east and the mountains on the west, it was a bit isolated and protected from invading forces from Kingdoms and Empires around it. Though it has been invaded and conquered several times. The Romans took it and used it as a staging post when trying to conquer Yemen.

Castle (fort) Raum. An old Yemeni fort overlooking the wadi’s and Najran

The fort became Saudi when the Saudi army defeated the Yemeni Army with help of the local tribes who opted to become part of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The people of the Najran region are people with own culture and traditions. These traditions and culture are strongly linked to those on the other side of the border in Yemen. Wearing the traditional dagger and a gun under the arm is part of the tradition. Not only that the majority of the Saudi population is Sunni, but in the Najran the people are Shia muslim. For an outsider like us, you don’t see the difference, but in real life the differences are big and that gives tensions at times.

The traditional Yemeni dagger for the Najran region

On top of a hill about 1500meters high, the fort has a very good view on three wadis coming together at Najran. A moderate steep walk, brings you in 30 minutes to the top. The fort is in a good condition and we could see from here the surrounding mountains, the town and the farm plots with the famous old mud brick “sky-scrapers”. These buildings can go as high as 7 stories and are made out of the same mud, gravel and grass as other mud brick buildings we have seen. The top floor is always the men’s floor, then the women, children, food supplies and then the stables for the animals. Main reason was to keep as much land for agriculture as possible, so built into the height. Most of the buildings we saw, were in a deteriorated state, but some were still inhabited. On the way back, we were stopped by a young Saudi, who gave us tea and coffee and invited us for for diner and to come over to look at his horses. He also showed us around a bit where the mud brick houses where. We skipped the diner invitation, since we wanted to camp near the biggest dam of Saudi Arabia, the Najran Valley Dam. However, when we reached the entrance to the park area near the dam, the military stopped us. The area was off-limits, due to its proximity to the border with Yemen. That was a disappointment, since it was also hard to find another good private camp spot nearby (the valley towards the dam is pretty much built up). The wadi in the valley gets wider once you get further away from the dam area and although there are houses on both sides, we located a small forested area, where we were pretty much out of sight for a camping night.

Climbing the 1500 meter hill towards the top where Castle Raum is located with a view on Najran’s mixed construction of new house, the old mud brick houses and the green patches of agricultural land
The old mud brick “sky-scrapers” of the Najran region

Najran has also a “modern” old town (besides Al Ukhdud) and two palaces, so off we went to see these. A large parking was all for us in the old town, so we parked and strolled around. The old Amarah fort or palace, (though looking old, it was only built in 1944) is in the center of the new old town, which is surrounded by a souq (blocks of small stores), The souq is also one of the very few places where the Yemeni daggers are made (and sold). Najran was also a famous textile center in the past and still you see a lot of shops where textiles or (traditional) clothing is sold. Interesting to see were items that Bedouins used during their traveling with their camels, like the water bags made out of goat skin or baby carriers made out of leather from camel skin.

The courtyard of Amarah palace/fort
The Bedouin “baby-carriers” made out of camel leader, for sale in the souq in old Najran
The textile stores of Najran

When we returned to the truck, we were pleasantly surprised to see another expedition truck parked next to us. It was a former Austrian army Steyer, converted into a camper truck. It was a German couple (Bodu and Regina), roughly our age, we also had driven down to Najran. We quickly entered into a conversation and had a lot of stories to share. Then Bodu came with the idea to go out for diner, something we haven’t thought about since we started traveling with the truck in the Middle East (besides the hotel stays and the invites by local people). He had Googled a nice Pakistani restaurant, about 20 minutes walk from the trucks, so off we went. When four Europeans walk through a town in Saudi Arabia in the night, when there are no other Europeans (at least not walking), its an eye catcher. So a lot of honking horns, “welcome in Saudi Arabia” or “how are you”’s are coming from the cars passing us. Walking the streets for a long distance, is uncommon anyway or its done by those who can’t afford to have a car (like a lot of the migrant workers). You also have to be very careful, there are almost no side-walks or pedestrian walkways and cars don’t seem to have much respect for pedestrians.

Meeting new expedition truck overlanders from Germany in Najran

Anyway, we all reached the restaurant in one piece and I asked the man in the front, behind a desk with a computer/cash register, whether he had a table for 4 available. He looked me in the face and told me “no English”, the chef came as well (from Bangladesh) and he spoke a bit of English. I asked him the same question. Also he looked at me like “what the heck are you talking about”. I showed him the “wanne eat” symbol and he now got it. I also now understood, why they didn’t understand me. The restaurant like in Bedouin tents and in the houses (at least the men’s section) has no tables or chairs. Instead, the dining area of the restaurant was divided in small partitions, by tiled concrete walls about 1.5 meter high. On the floor, carpets and cushions. No menu, no wine-list and no waiter. A bit different from what we are used to. From a big cooler, I could choose some sodas or water and the chef had some samples of what he cooks (grills) in a display. But even that was not applicable, he had seen us and said he already knew what we wanted or needed. So within 45 minutes a whole parade of waiters, brought us different plates of food, enough for 2 nights! And I must admit, it was delicious. When we were done, the waiter came back, took the four corners of the “table cloth” (remember the piece of plastic on the floor in the ranger camp), knot them together and the dishes are gone! It was a fun evening, we had some good laughs, nice stories and sour knees and butt from sitting on the floor (will never be my thing, eating on the floor, tradition or not). We walked back via the souq, in search for a coffee place (where are they when you need them?). In one place, they sold coffee as beans, but this was not a coffee shop. However, they (two young boys) had a big coffee can on the counter so we asked if we could have some coffee from them. No problem, they even enjoyed us being in their store. We joked around with them and they found it all very interesting. They didn’t want us to pay for the coffee, it’s an Arabic thing to offer guests a cup of coffee (well we didn’t know that as yet)……

Diner with Bodu and Regina in the Pakistani restaurant in Najran

Next morning we all took it easy. Placed our chairs between the trucks and had coffee together, right there in the middle of town, and chatted for a while. It was funny to see, on a big parking lot, two big trucks with some Europeans sitting in a small circle, enjoying their coffee in the sun under a blue sky. Often young guys in cars stopped, and while filming and talking, stepped out and started talking to us. Funny thing is, nobody asked if it was okay, to jump in our “group setting and start filming and disrupting our conversations. Something that doesn’t come in my mind to do, when I see some strangers sitting, having coffee and are chatting. It was not that much bordering us and these “Snapchat Hold-Up” actions didn’t last long, if only because of the language problem. Although we had such a good time together, we wanted to move on and they as well. We sad goog bye to each other and we both were hopeful to meet up again later during our journeys.

Our coffee morning with Bodu and Regina on the parking of the Amarah palale/fort

I also noticed we were low on our water supply. The night before, during our walk, I saw a watertruck filling station, so wanted to go there first, before leaving town. The road into it, was a bit chaotic (roads can be very funny here and also the way people use them. All kinds of signs are just ignored, even under the eyes of the police). It was a one way street and a number of full small water trucks just came out of that street. I stopped the truck, to get hold of one of them. The driver had no time for me, but the second one did. In the meantime in a Toyota jeep behind me, the driver, was doing the “what is going on sign” and I told him that I needed water. He said, he was police, so I thought, oops, I did something wrong, however, he didn’t do anything or said anything more. I moved the truck a little bit off the road so that the water truck could park next to me. Within 10 minutes our water tank was topped up. Never did it so fast! I the meantime I noticed that the Toyota jeep was parked opposite us, facing me. When I left he moved as well and stayed behind us. He kept on following us through the entire town, all the way to the high way and continued following us all the time. So now I started to wonder what was going on? Did I do something wrong (going too close to Yemen from Wadiah, along the border to Najran, trying to get to the dam), was I considered a spy or journalist? Or were we being protected from something? Or maybe he wasn’t Police at all? I decided to stop at a gas station to fuel up and confront the driver who was now still behind me (even when being at the pump). I asked him why he was following me and he said again he was police. He asked me where I was going. He said he was there for our security (so were we then a target for something or somebody?). He did not give us more information. A bit stressful it was.

The white Toyota Land Cruiser following us for almost 200km. (Secret police?)

We continued our trip and after about 180 kilometers (he was still kissing our back bumper), I took a turn towards the A’abar Hima Archeological site. An Unesco site known for its huge quantity of rock carvings and inscriptions. There our bumper kisser, stopped us and told us he would leave us at this point, but………..somebody else will take over from him. And before I could ask him again, what it was all about, a police car with flashing lights came racing towards us and turned around and parked behind us. The moment we started to move on, he started to follow us as well. So now it was not a “secret” police anymore, but a real police car with flashing blue and red lights. So, it was for our protection and those who had bad intentions with us, would now know that we were under protection and surveillance. Although it was a bit of an odd feeling, there was some kind of excitement with us, but also it was a bit annoying, that we lost our freedom and privacy (because we did not know, will this continue during the rest of our journey?). When we got close to the Unesco site (which was completely fenced in), the police officer overtook us and directed us to another road. There was the site of 3000 year old water wells (and the oldest known toll station in Saudi Arabia, where the camel caravans had to pay fees in order to be able to cross the land of a ruling king or tribe) and a very important inscription location, made by a King Himyar, who won a battle against the Abyssinian in 518 ADS/CE. The inscriptions are one of the oldest Arabic texts (Ancient South Arabian Script).

The turn off to the Hima archeological site, where we “lost” our “secret agent
The 3000 year old wells of Hima
The old Arabic inscriptions and carvings at the Hima wells

We walked around, but even now the police officer was following us with his jeep. I started to look around “are there any bandits or snipers hiding behind the rocks?”. We looked for more rock paintings and inscriptions, but couldn’t find more. I asked the police man if there were more locations, because this by far were not the almost 1000 paintings they were talking about on the info sites. He directed us to a next site, when another police jeep joined our escort. Indeed we arrived at another fenced in site with many more inscriptions, but still not the quantity we expected. The other police man then indicated that about 50km into the desert, there was another site, but it was a tough 4×4 ride he indicated. So now with two police jeeps, we drove deep into the desert, away from regular roads, houses and farms. The scenery was amazingly beautiful and indeed it was a tough ride through tick sand. But we arrived at an amazing site, a huge rock formation, full of hundreds of inscriptions and carvings, made in the hard rocks. The site used to be a toll station as well and it almost looked like the first advertising signs and lists with toll tariffs. We wandered around a bit and were taken by the beauty of the surroundings and tried to imagine the times when the large caravans passed by this station. Taking rest and negotiating the passing fees with the toll officers. It reminded me that despite globalization, toll stations can and probably will come back (look at Brexit).

The police escort into the desert
We love these rock inscriptions!
Thousands of rock carvings and inscriptions near the old camel toll station

We wanted to stay and camp here for the night, but the police officers didn’t allow us, they guided us back to the nearest town (Hima), where they escorted us to a double fenced compound with some buildings and tents. It was safer for us here. We didn’t see that coming. However, when our escorts left, we took a run for it, racing into the mountains getting rid off our escorts, and reclaim our freedom and privacy. We drove into mountains of the North Plateau of the Najran region, an area not (often) visited by foreigners. Good roads, but hardly used. Many abandoned gas stations (like everywhere in Saudi Arabia actually), villages and lots of mud tower houses. Before sunset we drove off the road into the desert to see the sun set. To our surprise we parked next to a rock formation full of rock carvings. Not only that, nearby the truck were remnants of an old village and graves. Saudi Arabia is full of archeological sites, especially along the old caravan routes. Some still to be discovered, some neglected, or being less important, or just lack of resources to further investigate them. Anyway, we camped at a place we choose ourselves, free of supervision in a nice area and even next to an historical site.

The enclosed compound where the police wanted us to camp, no way……..
More mud tower houses along the road up into the mountains
Even today, new houses are built in the area, in the traditional style with the same materials

The road next day, we started to crawl higher and higher into the mountains. It also started to get cooler, even cold at night. On one of the higher locations with a great view over a small town and with the sun going down in front of us, we camped again. Of course we were noticed and twice people (guys with their big dagger knives in their belts), came over to ask us to come for diner. It’s hard to say no all the time to so much kindness and hospitality, but we decided to hold off for a while. Especially if we can only communicate with Google translate on the phones. It is very tiring and I am afraid that the translation is not always correct. Besides that, we are the subjects of interest and that’s not always nice.

The camp spot on a high mountain, overlooking a small village
The view in morning from our camping spot high im the mouintains on the village

The wow factor kicked in when we continued our drive the next day. A new road with almost 30 tunnels went deeper into the mountain region. We stopped many times just to look around. We saw groups of vultures hovering above valleys, small deer running on steep mountain slopes and hardly any traffic. Occasionally some houses and in the valleys, ruines of the mud tower villages. We arrived in the little mountain town of Al Fayd where on a small square an auction of goats and sheep was taking place. In a 4×4 meter confinement, goats and sheep were dropped off from arriving pick-up trucks. “Wild” looking men (the real mountain dwellers), often bare footed, wearing daggers and some even with guns, were buying and selling goats. There was even an official government auctioneer present and some police men, to make sure nobody was going to use his knife or gun. We were not sure if our presence was really appreciated, especially since there was now a women watching. Not only that, we saw many men wearing a small “garden” on their heads. We found out that these were the famous “Flower Men” of the region (especially from the village of Habala) A sad story of a tribe who lives in the mountains of the Asir region. For centuries living in almost unaccessible villages, fleeing the oppression of the Ottoman Empire. Forced at the end by the Saudi authorities to leave (sometimes by force) their villages (especially Habala), to make room for tourism development. Seeing tourists at “their” little goat and sheep auction, could remind them about their tragic history. We kept distance and didn’t make too many touristic pictures. However, at the end, two gentlemen came to us, and asked if we wanted to buy the two remaining (not so good looking) sheep. Wondering about where to put them in the camper, I declined the kind offer to buy.

A section of the amazing new mountain road with over 30 tunnels
At the action, men walk with guns and daggers and some on bare feet
The Government auctioneer in discussion with buyers and sellers. One of them is a member of the tribe they called “Flower Men” (with the greenery on his head)

Just before leaving town, I saw a man at the roadside, selling the Yemeni daggers. Though, not in favor of buying souvenirs, this was something I wanted to have. I saw them in Najran and could hold off my temptation. Now, I decided to get me one. With Google Translate in the hand, I started the negotiations. More people stopped and I had a little bit the feeling, that the more people arrived, the higher the price got. Eventually we came to a reasonable price. Driving the truck with a big dagger on my belly was not so comfortable and the risk of getting circumcised, when doing an emergency break, was a serious possibility.

Happy with my Yemeni dagger

The moment we entered the higher regions of the mountains, we started to see the Hamadryas Baboons. An indigenous Baboon for the mountain areas of Yemen and Saudi Arabia, but also on the African continent on the south side of the Red Sea. In Saudi Arabia, the growth of human population in the mountain areas brings the baboons in conflict with humans. The lack of natural predators (the Arabian Leopard is almost extinct as well as the Arabian Wolf and Hyena), also makes the baboon population growing fast. You see thousands of the baboons along roadsides (especially parkings and truckstops or garbage disposal areas), where they beg, scavenging for or stealing food). The problem is growing since there is proof that they are now even found in the center of the country in Riyadh. Studies are now made on how big the population is and what to do, to control it. Also when we stopped at places, large groups started running to our truck and even jump on the truck. A garbage bag on the back rack was quickly taken by one of them, while being chased by the others to get something out of the loot. Since my window was not closed, one even tried to get in the truck cabin with us. Only a punch in the face by me, avoided having an “extra passenger” in the truck.

The Hamadryas Baboons are looking for food in the garbage along the roadside and parking

Driving towards to coast of the Red Sea, we passed several wadis with a type of palmtree we haven’t seen yet, some areas were beautiful, but the urbanization was getting “worse”. I say worse, since without the type of zoning you see in Holland for instance, beautiful areas are getting destroyed and polluted. From about 2000 meters we slowly came down to sea level, are driving the plains that area between the Red Sea and the mountain range. Jazan was our next destination, from where we would take a ferry to the Maldives of Saudi Arabia, the Farazan Islands.

On the way down from the mountains, we encountered several wadis with a kind of palm trees we didn’t see before

First we reached the port, where we went to the ferry terminal. There we were directed to the offices of the Harbor Authority, where we should make a booking for the ferry crossing. Two gentlemen were there to assist us. But now it turned out that I and the truck had to go on the cargo ferry and Marja on the passenger ferry, since the cargo ferry does not take (female) passengers. Normally that is not a problem, but, the cargo ferry goes at 7.00 in the morning and the passenger ferry at 3.30 in the afternoon. That was definitely a “no go” for us. I tried to insist that Marja should come with me on the cargo boat, but I was not able to convince them. Then after a while one of the guys said that there would also be a ferry for passengers at 8.00 in the morning (why not saying that from the beginning!). He also said there was only one ferry per day, except for the weekend (and it was not weekend!). So we doubted his passenger ferry options. We made the bookings anyway and were told to be at ferry terminal at 5.00!! In the moning.

Nearby the ferry port, just before the heavily guarded Aramco oil terminal, there is a nice public park with a corniche (boulevard) with ample parking, and since we didn’t want to drive too far from the terminal, we parked the car there. It was for us the first time to reach and see the Red Sea. We did a nice stroll along the corniche, where big signs are placed by the coast guard, telling people not to swim. Many locals walk around with their children (also a lot of play-grounds in the park) or having a tea or picnic. It was hot and humid, a big change with the climate in the mountains.

Reaching the Red Sea for the first time and doing walk on the corniche in Jazan.

It was 4.30 when the alarm clock went off and we jumped out of bed, got dressed, took a cup of tea and went to the terminal. The terminal, where we stopped yesterday,, was only for the passenger ferry, so Marja had to get out of the truck. Normally a bus would then bring her to the terminal, but the driver didn’t arrive yet. Marja had to wait in the guard room of the police officers at the gate. They actually also didn’t want Marja to go wit the bus, so when another employee in uniform arrived at the gate, they asked him to bring her to the actual ferry station. In the meantime, I had to find the cargo ferry terminal, which was a little further down the road. On arrival (it was now almost 6.00), the guard waived me to go back (without saying a word). I drove a little further back and stopped just to see what next. Then another guard came and did the same. So I stepped out and showed him my booking paper. He tried to explain to me, to come back later, around 9.00. That didn’t sound right. The ferry was supposed to leave at 7.00 and guards were from the coast guard and not ferry staff. With all that uncertainty, I decided to cancel the trip and message Marja directly to not board her ferry and to come back to her gate so I could pick her up.

Marja in the meantime had arrived at the station for the passenger ferry, where she was waiting in the “only female waiting room”. She observed that the female staff in the employees areas were not wearing their abayas and walked around in T-shirts and jeans (promising prospect for what it would like on the Farazan islands). Also some of the female passengers were wearing jeans under their abayas. When she got my message, she now had to go back, so one of the ladies of the staff, offered to drive her to the gate, but not before putting on her abaya. It was an interesting short ride. Young Saudi people open up when you are one to one with them and tell you more about their lives and desires. When she arrived I was waiting outside the gate and when she jumped in the truck, we drove away from the port. We skipped the islands and were going north, back into the mountains

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