After leaving the harbor of Jazan in the early morning (because of the ferry issue), we drove in the direction of the mountain city of Abha. From the south to the north a long mountain range stretches between the coastal plains of the Red Sea on one side and the sand and gravel desert on the other side. (And in the desert smaller mountains and volcanos with large lava fields). In the mountains, you see a different Saudi Arabia, different people (different tribes), cultures and architecture (we saw that on our way to Jazan, when we drove through the mountains.)
Where we saw the many mud brick “sky-scrapers” in the southern part of the mountains, going north and with higher mountain peaks, the type of houses did not really change much, but the construction material did. A great example is the restored village of Rijal Alma, located in a valley on a mountain slope, completely built out of rocks. Multi-story buildings close to each other, with narrow alleys in between, surrounded by large terrace fields, where farming took place. It always surprises me how people before our modern generations, could do so much hard manual labor. No construction equipment or cranes or electric tools. Each rock had to be lifted by hand up the hill, cut to fit if necessary. People just did it!
The restored village is supposed to be a major tourist attraction. However, there were only a handful (and we were the only Europeans) tourists. Unfortunately, a lot of garbage can be found on the property and the restaurant in the village only serves coffee and tea, nothing else. There is a small museum inside the village, but much more could have been made from it. The idea of a “Heritage Village” is great, but it is missing the educational factor and proper maintenance.
Next stop would be the highest mountain in Saudi Arabia, which is called Jabal Sawda. From there we would then go to Abha. Half way the road up to the moutain, there was a police check point (like there are so many in Saudi Arabia). Normally, they just waive us through with a friendly smile, but now a police man came running out of the booth and waved us to stop. I was told to turn around the truck because I could not continue. The road was not suitable for big trucks up hill, was the message. In the beginning he looked a bit upset by our appearance (as if we should have known that the road was closed for trucks) but minutes later he was so nice to give us a number of tips, of which one was the best meat restaurant in the area.
So we turned around and had to do a 5 hours detour to Abha. We had to drive north on a big high way through a busy area, not so much our thing. After we reached the top of the loop we returned south on a smaller 2 lane road, through a narrow valley along a wadi which was part of a nature reserve. However, it was getting dark and the road was very busy with people doing dangerous overtaking maneuvers, so we wanted to stop and make camp somewhere. It was not easy to get off the road, due to its elevation. So once I saw a little gravel ramp I took it right away, even though is was very steep down and narrow, and that. in the darkness. In the wadi we found a small hill where we could park behind, out of sight from the main road and using it as a sound barrier, since the valley was narrow and the sound of traffic bounced all around.
The next morning we drove over a marvelous piece of road engineering. Cut in the mountains, jumping from one rock formation to another with high bridges, crawling through small tunnels and in the meantime pushing the pedal up hill. The slow trucks (up and down), where overtaken constantly by cars driving in between (also in tunnels), and surprisingly we have not seen any accidents. We saw large groups of baboons, sitting on the guard rails, watching the traffic passing by, as if this is their entertainment. But they actually wait patiently for people throwing food or garbage out of their cars and trucks. This is done regularly, although there are many signs warning people not to do this. In the narrow tunnels, we even saw Pakistani cleaners, picking up garbage. (Must be one of the most dangerous jobs in Saudi).
It was a beautiful and very exiting ride, which ended at another police check point (where we could easily pass) and a large truck stop (it’s an exhausting ride up hill for truck and driver), where the truckers take a little break. We continued to Abha which was now close by. Abha is quite a Hip and Trendy town, we liked it. It has a nice board walk or cornice, called the Fog Walkway. A steep high cliff is overlooking a huge drop off. On top of that cliff , a nice walkway with some restaurants has been developed. Due to its location, it is often very breezy ans fresh (now it was even cold). In the early morning you look down over the clouds and it gives you the idea that you are “above” the clouds.
A group of young Saudi girls passed by (without their hair and face covered). They were very curious about us and had a lot of questions. They made many pictures of us, but when we asked whether we could take a picture of Marja together with them, they denied unless their faces were not seen. They either turned their faces or hid their face behind their cellphones, as long as my camera would not see their faces). Yes, they still have a long way to go in that field! There was also this Bedouin or gipsy or homeless or camper guy (couldn’t figure it out), in an old GMC Station wagon, which looked like a small camper. On the roof he had a gasoline generator running, as well as a satellite dish, at the back I saw water and gas bottles and inside a huge TV, where he was laying in front on a carpet, surrounded by cups and pans. He was a friendly guy, offering tea, coffee and dates. Seems like he was in a very good mood and happy. Looks liked he had all he needed.
Next stop was the Ottoman Castle in the heart of the city of Abha. Saudi Arabia was once part of the Ottoman Empire, until the united Arab tribes with help of Lawrence of Arabia, managed to kick them out. Few places reminding you of that Ottoman era. The Castle (actually a fort), sits on a hill, which in the past controlled the area in and around the city. When we arrived (which was a tricky, narrow and steep road through a neigborhood), we found this Castle was also “temporarily closed”, this one due to renovation works. During our Saudi trip we have found many interesting places “temporarily closed”. You will find out only upon arrival. Usually to be explained it will be open “maybe in a few months”. Anyways, this castle is an impressive structure, but unfortunately, modern buildings have surrounded the fort very close, too close, which causes it losing its view from there, and it also limits the photo options for this structure.
As I mentioned already, we couldn’t reach Jabal Sawda from the other side due to our truck size, but of course we found another option which we wanted to try as well. A less steep and wider road would bring us up this mountain (the highest in Saudi Arabia). First we passed a small village where a beautiful mud brick palace (Abu Sarrah Palace) was built. Unfortunately, this was “temporarily closed” as well.
Continuing our road up hill it started to get foggy. People on the streets here were wearing heavy coats and winter hats, we felt like we were going into a wintersport area. It was definitely getting colder and it was so not looking Saudi Arabian. The highest point is almost 3000 meters, so it was understandable that we were getting into the clouds. It became so foggy, however, that we couldn’t see further then 5 meters and had to drive dead slow, on a narrow winding road, which we did not know at all. Another disappointment was waiting for us, when we came to the entrance gate of the view point (where also a hotel is located). Yes, the entrance gate was also “temporarily closed”. Workers at the gate said, there was no entrance for trucks due to works (whatever works there would be going mine). So we continued and looked for another road to get in (and all that while still in thick fog). We reached a point where it said “no trucks allowed”. This was probably the end of the road on which we were sent back the day before. So we stopped here, it was another location for the highest point. We made some pictures, but with all the fog, it was hard to see, we were now actually on the highest point. Anyway, we managed, we did it, and about 50 baboons were our witnesses! Nearby, there were two open vegetable and fruit stalls. The shop owners were in constant battle with the baboons. While we were selecting some fruit and vegetables, the baboons tried their luck, since the owner was helping us and paying less attention to them. They are so smart, they know how to distract people and they seem to be working in teams. But the helper of the shop owner was quick (mind you, this is a daily ritual, 7 days a week), with his baseball bat, chasing the baboons away. The “hold-up” failed. When we were done and paid the shop owner, we had to run to the truck, to avoid being followed and/or attacked by the baboons. We made it, without losing our fresh produce.
We drove down from the mountain top and followed a road with many old villages with mud and partly-mud buildings. Depending on the area, people use the materials they find. So higher in the mountains its mainly rocks and at the foot of the mountains its mostly mud. In between it’s mixed.
It was getting late and we now looked for a camp spot. Due to the cool temperartures, a lot of Saudis have their “summer retreats” in the mountains. Now it is winter and “too cold” to spend time in the mountains. But when temperatures reach 40 to over 50 degrees Celsius in the summer, those who who can afford it, escape to the mountains. This means also that the mountain area is pretty much built up. Not many secret and private places to camp. We were stopped on the road again by friendly people inviting us to come to their home, “very close, to have eat, coffee, shower and sleep”. Since we experience this friendliness several times each day, we made it our habit te decline these nice invitations. This time as well. But again a Big Thank You to all the nice Saudi people we have met over the last months and the welcoming words and gestures they have given us. That is really very much appreciated! A lit later, as always, we did find a lovely camp spot again, this time on a mountain top, even next to a cell tower, looking down on three empty mountain villas. The cell tower was very good this night as we needed to do some communication and the internet reception was excellent this way!
We left the mountain area again and headed for the desert, towards Qal at Bisham. Half way we found a beautiful spot in the desert between huge granite formations and granite boulders. This would be our place for a break day. We started with a lovely short hike and watched the sun set from atop the granite rocks. Next day Marja had some work to do and I wanted to work on my blog. During the day, two large herds of camels passed by, very close to us and the truck. A very, very old looking Bedouin passed by, asking about our presence, his helper (who did speak some English and was from northern Africa), translated for him what we were up to. He put up is hand, waived (like have a good journey) and went after his camels. We did another hike in the afternoon. On top of the granite rock formation, we found traces of early human settlement. They used the natural position of the boulders (like caves), as shelters. Small basins made out of rocks were nearby to catch water during the rain or were used to hold dirt to grow food. From here we also had an amazing sun set over the desert and the rocks.
Next day we did an early walk around the granite rock formation we had our camp next to. We found that someone with heavy equipment (large drill equipment), had cut out a big block of granite out of the rocks and had left it (in 3 big chunks). Most probably, someone, or a company is looking for a good mining location, to mine the valuable granite one day. Even if you think these are all just rocks and boulders laying there for waste, one day, someone will see the use and value of it and it will be taken out of the desert. After we returned at the truck we had a good breakfast and left this wonderful spot with beautiful memories. We drove through a sandy desert, which slowly turned into a desert fully covered with pieces of lava, which were thrown in the air during a big volcanic eruption thousands or maybe millions of years ago. Slowly we climbed up again (though we were still on the North Plateau, which was already around 1600 meters above sea level), to about 2000 meters in the town of Al Baha. From Al Baha, we wanted to drive to the coast, to a nice area with some reefs, islands and mangroves. Again we drove via a stunning mountain road down from Al Baha, until we reached the beautiful little historic village of Thee Ain. Another amazing little town built out of rocks sitting on a hill made of marble, dating back to the 8th century. The location in the middle of a valley on the marble rock, near a river, is so beautiful. Though it must still have been a hard life to build and live in a village like that and being surrounded by multiple forts and look out points, people must have lived in constant fear of being attacked. As we will discover on our route up north, along the old trade route from the south to the north, more villages and towns going back thousands of years, were founded.
After visiting the village of Thee Ain, we drove the truck into a dry river bed, with a view on the village which was lit up during the night, which gave it a magical look.
Next morning we left, but unfortunately we found out we forgot to take the steps in. We hit a rock and the steps were pretty much beaten up. I could still squeeze the step ladder back into the truck, but it was clear I had to fix it. So we continued our plan to go to the coast and camp there. In our next camp I would fix the steps. A public beach area with paved parking, sun shades and an artificial grass lawn, was the perfect spot (on the Red Sea beach), to set up my workshop to fix the step ladder. It turned out a big job, actually, as I had to remove the entire step ladder and take it completely apart to be able to the bend the messed up parts more or less back in their original position. Luckily I have the right tools with me and also some parts of the Dakar Rally pieces we found, came in handy now. It took me a good half day to fix it in such a way, that we could use the step ladder again. Just before I was finished, two Border Guard vehicles came. In one was an officer who came to tell us that we could not park there, since it was the picnic area for families, so we had to move the truck either 30 meters to the front of 30 meters to the back. And mind you, there were about 40 of these spots and we were the only ones there, plus the weekend was over, so why the need to move? We felt we are a family too, actually. The officer also went into the truck, looked around, grabbed our documents bag and asked what that was. I showed him the car papers and he was satisfied. This was a good example of somebody who got a uniform which made him think he can do what he wants. It was rude and not necessary. Even his colleague was looking the other way, seemed annoyed with him. Anyway, the end result was, that we got permission stay (for me this was important, since otherwise there was a lot of stuff and tools to re-pack, un-pack and re-pack again from the truck).
The area where we were, has some nice little coral islands and mangroves with a lot of birds. So the next morning we did a nice hike through the area before we headed back into the mountains. We took the same steep narrow mountain road up, the one we took down tow days before. Crawling slowly up the mountain and again being watched by hundreds of monkeys, we halfway stopped at a parking area to admire the road and the mountains. A little later another overlander truck stopped (from Germany) on the parking as well. A nice young couple with their dog. And then, 15 minutes later, yet another over lander truck stopped, also from Germany. So, we had some nice conversations and a lot of fun on the parking and exchanged contact info. With the parking now full of interesting overland trucks, we got attention quickly, so many Saudis turned into the parking area with their phones in SnapChat mode. After a while we all said goodbye and we all went our way again. It was getting late, so we had to look for a camp spot.
Nearby was a park, but again a lot of fog and no leveled piece to park on. So we went down the mountain, out of the fog, looking for place further down the road. I noticed in the meantime that we were being followed again. This time it was a white sedan with tinted windows. I saw him already when we were driving around in the park, when he was kissing my bumper, even when I had to make turns on the middle of the road. Now, he stayed behind me. I pushed the pedal and over took some slow driving cars. I had some distance now and after a while, I went quickly off the road in a sharp turn behind a hill. He didn’t see that and passed me. I waited for a while and went back on the main road. The moment I did that, he just came back. He turned out to be a she and in my mirror, I saw her brake lights when she turned around her car. Now, she stayed very close to me for another 30 minutes, until we almost reached a police check point. She overtook me and reached the check point first. She said something to the police officer and drove on. When we reached the check point I had to park the truck on the side and had to show our passports. I had to confirm our nationalities and only after a phone call, we were allowed to continue our way. When we left I noticed that our “follower” was parked on the other side of the road, facing us. I waived to her, just to show that we were aware of her. She didn’t look at me, but I had the feeling she was not amused by the fact that I had “shaken her off”. And that is all “for our safety”, as we are explained.
All along our route now, there was either too much habitation or (when the valley got narrower) no space to park the truck. At the end we ended up in the darkness of night, to park next to an old abandoned farm house in a small village. Nobody saw us coming, so we were left alone.
We missed the desert with all it’s beauty and peacefulness, so the next morning we drove away from the mountain area and jumped back into the desert. Driving sandy roads, far sights, less and less homes and buildings, no more followers, until we didn’t see anything “human” again. And we were very happy…..