Volcanos and lava (fields and flows)

After leaving our last spot next to the old farm house, we had to get some stuff organized in the city of At Taif. First, we were low on water, so we checked around while driving and came across a big watertruck just getting off the road for a stop. Looking at the way he drove and the dripping water from the tank, the truck was full. So I drove behind him and asked the driver if he could miss some water. First he was hesitant, but after I insisted it was not so much water I needed, and it could get done fast, he agreed.

Filling the watertank, first with the big hose (but gravity won’t allow that )

I parked the truck next to him and first he wanted to use a huge hose and gravity to fill our tank, but since we were higher, it didn’t work. So now he used his little gas engine pump on top of his truck with a smaller hose and that worked.

Then with the small hose from the top with a gasoline motor pump

However, it went so fast and the communication did not go well, that our tank (which we filled via the main hole in the unit under the sofa), started to overflow. We had a lot of water going next to the tank into/onto the unit floor. I was afraid it would reach our battery and converter compartments, but luckily the unit is designed in such a way, that that did not happen. Still it took us a good 2 hours to dry out the unit (living unit and garage). Well at least our water tank was well topped up, never been fuller!  Next stop was for the renewal of our Saudi SIM phone card and after that a visit to the supermarket.

Saudi Telephone Company, who is the mean provider of cell phone coverage. You find them everywhere (their cell towers), very reliable coverage

All set, we were now ready to be in the “bush” for at least 2 weeks. On the map (which by the way is the most recent one we could find and is from 2009), we set out our route to go slowly north. We would go to the little village of Sudayrah, where the tar road would stop and a sand track would continue. Well, we found many tracks go in all directions and were connecting one Bedouin site to the other. We drove left and right, but could not find the main track. The sun was going to set and it was the night of full moon, so we gave up for the day and just parked the truck in the middle of nowhere, while camels passed us. Although it was pretty cold in the night, we spent a long time outside the camper, enjoying the full moon with hot chocolate milk.

Night camp with full moon

Next morning we just used the compass and “made our own road” to go into the direction we wanted. The sand was cold and stronger, and also not too deep, so we just had the 4×4 engaged, the truck did not have to work that hard. We passed several little farms and Bedouin camps on the way. Just driving the desert in your own pace and direction gives you a feeling of freedom, which you don’t have on roads with all the traffic rules and regulations.

We crossed a tar road and there several old Mercedes Benz water trucks were parked near a water fill station. They were nicely lined up and I had to make a stop to take a picture of them. These trucks are iconic for the Saudi landscape, since there are still thousands of them on the road (mainly used as water trucks or dump trucks). These trucks are either used by the Bedouin as a mobil water station for their camels or by Pakistani contract drivers (for water or dump truck). Especially the Pakistani drivers are often very proud of their trucks and maintain them well. Some look like new and are nicely decorated.

The famous old “nose” Mercedes trucks (nowadays mainly in use as water trucks)

After jumping over the tar road, we continued to drive to look for the Birkat al Khurabah pools. These pools form an “oasis” in the middle of the desert, with almost no habitation around them. They have been in use for thousands of years by camel caravans. The sites of these pools are protected sites and fenced in. Unfortunately, people from nearby villages have destroyed parts of the fencing and drive around the sites (with nice lush vegetation and very old trees) and do their weekend picnics (and as usual, leave a lot of garbage behind). Also water trucks come here to fill their tanks, leaving garbage and deep tracks). Since this area is not (yet) a focused area for tourism development, there is no visitors centre, no guards and no Pakistani to clean the area on a daily base. Hopefully in the near future these two beautiful sites will get the attention and protection they deserve. 

One of the historic pools at Birkat al Khurabah

Going further north, we entered a different scenery (the Harrat Kishb plateau) which we didn’t see before in Saudi. Sandy desert covered with millions of lava rocks, fields of lava flows and volcanos. In between there is a huge crater without a cone. (The Al Wahbah crater). The crater is about 2km in diameter and is white on the bottom due to the presence of sodium phosphate crystals. The Government made it very nice around the crater with a good parking, picnic shades and a visitors center with a little museum. Usually when you think about Saudi Arabia, you think about deserts, but not volcanos. But there is indeed a large area of volcanos of which some are relatively young. 

The Al Wahbah crater with the white crust of phosphate crystals

After visiting the crater, we went to an area where we could see the lava flows. These are congealed flows of hot lava. This is liquid stone that came out of the volcano and flowed down fast or slowly with a temperature as high as 1250 degrees celsius. When cooling down, it becomes as hard as rock, with sometimes beautiful shapes. It’s also very black, which is in strong contrast with the red or yellow sand of the desert. Lava is rich in minerals, which makes it a good fertilizer for plants and trees. 

At one of the lava flows with in the back the dormant crater
The shapes of the fluid magma (lava) still well visible

We took an hardly used path through the lava fields. It was the worst road we had driven so far. A path through lava pieces, a little bit flattened by previous traffic, but not enough to go faster then 15 km per hour. The scenery, however, was spectacular. As far as the eye could see, the land was covered with black lava stones. These stones (or actually drops of hot lava), were thrown in the air, miles high and came down miles and miles around the volcanos, burning and killing everything they fell on. Many volcano cones (big and small), could be seen from our path. No living soul could live here, no houses, no sheds, nothing was there, that would show any indication of human habitation. Still we found a green spot in the middle of the fields of black lava stones, which was free of lava and where grass and some plants were growing. An even more nasty little side track was going there, and we found some traces of a former Bedouin camp there (pieces of carpet, rusty cans, some clothing). It was nice spot to set up camp for the night. We did a hike around our camp and climbed the many lava bolders around us. The lava rocks can be very sharp and remind me of coral in the Caribbean Sea. When we returned to the truck, three camels showed up to our surprise. Its very hard to walk on all the lava rocks. They are uneven, sharp and move when you walk on them. It must be hard for the camels with their big feet as well. Still they do it, and walk from green spot to green spot in this fast area of “nothing”. 

Driving the tire killer road of lava rocks

A little green oasis in the middle of the lava rock fields
The edges of the lava flow with rock debris. Very sharp, like the coral reefs in the Caribbean

A long and slow ride was waiting for us the next morning. Going at snails’ pace, we followed the “lava road”. I kept the tire pressure low, to avoid getting a puncture with all the sharp lava stones. For hours and hours, we drove with camel speed, through a moon landscape of blackness, where life seemed to be ruled out. In the afternoon we reached a brand new tar road, which stopped in the middle of the lava fields (and no idea how and where they want to continue the road). For us and the truck some relief. The new road was crossing the lava fields and passing more volcanos. We stopped at a sign, which indicated a camp or hotel (Kaybar Crater Camp). A tented camp (very luxurious) and a couple of big American trailer homes, were located at the end of the guarded side road. Overlooking the famous “white volcano” (and three others) and an enormous (geological) recent lava flow field. We parked the truck near the camp and made a good hike around one of the volcanos and over the lava flow. From atop the volcano crater, we could see the black lava surrounded by green grass. It was another unusual sight for us. Nearby we also found a huge collapsed cave (the roof came down many moons ago), which was accessible by a step ladder, but due to falling rocks of the remaining part of the roof, not allowed to visit. It was enforced by camera surveillance, so we parked the truck in front of the camera, so nobody could see that we still went into the cave. It was indeed a bit scary due to the type of lose rocks formations, but still absolutely worth it. Thousands of bats have been living in this cave (Um Jarsan Cave) from well before humans started to visit the cave frequently. Nearby was also the White Mountain Geological park, but the roads seemed washed away by recent heavy flooding. The combination of big sharp rocks and deep cuts in the sand because of heavy rain, made it quite impossible and dangerous to continue. A small gorge in the lava field, filled with water, trees and tall grass, was where we made camp. It was like a little oasis in the middle of the harsh black rock environment. Lots of birds were flying over and near this little oasis and had nests in the holes of the walls of gorge. 

Kayhbar Crater camp
On a lava flow with the white volcano in the background
A “young” fresh lava flow field surrounded by green grass
The truck parked on top of the cave (and in front of the camera)
A little oasis at the bottom of the collapsed cave
A small canyon with a wadi. Like an oasis in the middle of the lava fields. Our night camp spot
The oasis in the canyon

Via the little oasis town of Kaybar, we crossed first a tarred high way, and continued our path through the lava fields. It was not getting easier for the tires, but the scenery remained spectacular.

We entered a wadi via a steep declining ramp with lots of big rocks and loose gravel. Patience is everything to avoid sliding down or breaking up the truck. Entering the wadi, a huge cliff with a beautiful rock face was waiting for us. It even looked like we noticed an unfinished facade of a grave chamber like in Petra (Jordan) or Hegra (in Al Ula KSA). But maybe it was just an illusion. We passed the wadi via a very narrow road up and down again, from where we saw a valley with a number of small volcano cones. It was like a scenery of Jurudisic Park (only that volcanos were not active). We made only about 60km today and including all the stops, we were under way for over 8hours, so we stopped for the day at the wonderful site, with a view on the volcano cones. As usual we closed off our ride with our Happy Hour in front of the truck, which was surrounded by black lava rocks, mountains and flows. It was 100% silent, no birds, animals, or even insects. However, the latter, turned out a mistake. When we went back in the camper, we had thousands and thousands of little mosquitoes in the truck. We had left the door open and there was a light on. So many mosquitoes we never saw before during our trip. We didn’t expect them here at all. There was no water, no mud, so where they came from and where they breed, we couldn’t find out. It really took us two days to get all of them out of the truck or killed. We used poisson, the mobil ventilators and the vacuum cleaner. If the world ever gets hit by a meteorite, an atomic war or other mayor disaster, I think only the mosquitoes will survive. 

A tough road. Sometimes we had to move the bigger rocks
Sometimes there was no road or track at all
The big wadi with the “Petra” facade
The valley with the small volcano dooms, where we camped

After a night of fighting with the mosquitoes, we woke up early and continued our slow ride through the lava fields. We reached a large wadi with lots of water and many palmtrees. To our surprise we saw a large structure in the distance, which turned out to be a ruin of a Crusader fort/castle. We never expected that here, since there is no mentioning of it on our map, nor on any of our digital maps or on the internet. It consisted of high walls and towers and was on a rocky hill overlooking the wadi. Floods in the past or recent, caused the collapse of part of one of the towers. The Crusades are a dark part of the history of the Arab Peninsula. Maybe the reason why there is no mentioning of it. Though fenced in (but the fence is partly destroyed by floods as well), there is no sign about the castle/fort itself.

By “discovering” the fort/castle, we now left the lava fields and entered another region of Saudi Arabia, a region rich in human history and unparalleled natural beauty, Al Ula. 

The collapsed Crusader castle at the wadi
A view from where the tower of the castle collapsed into the wadi

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