Al Ula and surroundings

After bumping into the Crusader Castle, we had to cross the wadi at the lowest point to avoid getting stuck. The wadi was beautiful with lots of palm trees with multiple trunks. On the other side of the wadi, opposite the castle, there were more ruines (fenced in), which looks like the wadi in and exit was guarded by the Crusaders on both sides, to control the entrance route into the area they were occupying in those days.

The ruines of a smaller fort on the other side of the wadi opposite the Crusader castle

The scenery of our track changed a lot. From volcanos and black rock lave fields, now we saw more red sandstone formations and more red sand. The track also improved and we noticed some local families along the way now, sitting in the shade of trees, having their picnics. This means the road was indeed a lot better. After a few more kilometers to our surprise, there was asphalt. Again we realized our map and the navigation system were not up to date. No more sand track for a while.  

Next surprise on our route was a partially fenced in old train station with lorries and a locomotive. Well, parts of it, and heavily stripped for parts, and left with garbage and graffiti.

The vandalized interior of the Ottoman railway station
The fortifications near the train station and the building with the water reservoirs for the locomotives

These were remnants of the famous Hejaz railway, built by the Ottoman Empire, which ran for 1300km from Damascus to Jeddah, constructed mainly to transport pelgrims to Mecca and Medina. During the Arab uprising and the First World War, the railway was often attacked and sabotaged. The Ottomans built fortifications for the army every 10km along the trouble areas to protect the railway. When the Ottomans were defeated, the railway fell into dispair despite a few efforts to restart the line. Soon, the iron tracks and sleepers were taken away by locals for different uses. The stations, guard houses and forts, were also stripped from all that could be used. Despite that, the main structures are still standing. The Ottomans did a good job in quality and architectural design (better than what I often see nowadays).  The lorries and the locomotive were laying on their sides as if they were derailed, when Lawrence of Arabia blew up another piece of rail way track. Looking at the “fresh” cut with a torch cutter, 2 lorries were taken apart for their heavy steel beams (despite the big sign near the site that theft will be heavily punished). We parked the truck and took a break not far from this site. Just to take in the beauty around it. The greenish hilly landscape with the many camels, the blue sky, it was amazingly beautiful!

The Ottoman locomotive probably blown of the rail track by the Arab rebels fighting the Ottmans (with Lawrence of Arabia)
The locomotives and lorries were made in Germany more than hundred years ago
The fresh cut made by a torch, shows that historic artifacts are still vandalized

Nearby there was also a beautiful cut rocks railway bridge, one of the 800 which were built for this single track railroad to cross the many wadis and gorges. Now they are in disuse or used as vehicle bridges. We followed parts of the railway, which, despite the removed tracks are still visible due to the elevated dike, on which the railroad was built. In other areas these dikes have been removed and used as base material for the adjacent road(s). I tried to imagine traveling with this train in the early 1900’s, crossing an amazing landscape, without roads and cars, far less people and houses, seeing the Arabian Oryx or Gazelle…..

One of the many railway bridges made by the Ottomans (nice and solid architecture)

Our goal now was to reach Al Ula before dark. Al UIa is one of the main tourist attractions of Saudi Arabia, due to the many historical sites, but also the landscape with enormous and beautiful red sandstone rock formations. 

The famous red sandstone formations, Al Ula is known for

Just before we reached Al Ula, there was a sign along the road pointing to the “Elephant Rock” the most famous rock formation of Al Ula. Its a huge rock, which has the shape of an Elephant. To our surprise (because we had seen on pictures otherwise), it was now fenced in, had a big parking full with cars, touring buses and luxury SUV’s. There was also a fancy restaurant and lounge behind it. We passed the Elephant and about 400 meters away, there was a rocky plateau, where we parked the truck and………we had an amazing view on the Elephant. It was also still weekend, so a lot of people were still picnicking around the Elephant. It was busy within the fenced area of the Elephant as well, quite a few people hanging out at the restaurant/lounge. 

The famous Elephant rock

The Elephant was now illuminated with changing color lights, which made it quite magical. There was a nice atmosphere in the lounge where half circle couches were made in dug out pits, with a fire pit in the middle. In Europe it would have been a bit of different vibe with alcoholic drinks, a DJ, a “different dress code”. But still, sitting in the lounge under the stars, with a view on the famous Elephant Rock, was amazing.

The Elephant rock at night, nicely illuminated with the lounge area of the restaurant

The rising sun woke us up and the first beams were shinning on the Elephant. Except for a security guard and a garbage cleaner, everybody was gone. The day trippers (mostly locals) had left the usual mount of trash around the area, but only outside the fenced area. We drove towards the old town of Al Ula. Al Ula is an oasis town dating back thousands of years. Well actually, Al Ula became a town, after two other towns in the nearby area were abandoned. 

Its weekend, so the locals go out in the sand to picnic and camp

The old town is completely being restored, with a nicely paved mainstreet with shops and restaurants. The old collapsed mud brick buildings are re-erected to full glory, but not used as homes anymore. It’s a different feeling compared to walking through a real old town or village, with a mixture of abandoned and still inhabited homes, where life is real and not “Disneyfied” (made for tourists only). Many tourists of different nationalities are wandering around. There is still a lot of work to be done seeing the fenced off area, where behind it a larger part of the ruined town is being restored by hundreds of foreign workers. We stopped at one of the restaurants on main street to have a bite and a drink. The table was still dirty from previous guests and waiters were just walking around. Ordering and getting something to eat and to drink took very long, and without intervention a few times at the bar or by some kind of supervisor, we most probably, would never have gotten what we wanted. With the intention to create employment for the Saudi population, still many new jobs are done by foreigners, who (also) lake experience and education, but more important, motivation (they are here just to make money to sent home). That’s what it felt like at least.

The restored main street of the old town of Al Ula
THe old homes are transformed into shops and restaurant, nicely decorated

We left old-town Al Ula and looked for the big Ottoman train station in Al Ula. We didn’t manage to find it, but came across the visitors center of the historical site of Danan. Danan is one of the older towns in the Al Ula area, which over time completely disappeared under the sand and rocks. Situated under the high rocky facades of mountains near the wadi where the oasis is located, it used to be one of the important resting points for the trade caravans crossing from south to north and the other way round. High in the cliffs of the mountains facing the town, hundreds of tombs were dug out to burry the dead. One is well known as the Lions tomb, due to the large lion ornaments. It was presumably the grave of a king. We wanted to have a look, but we had to book in advance (yes, in Al Ula, all tourist sites have to be booked in advance (on-line or at the Winterpark). The tickets for some locations are free and for other a reasonable fee is applicable. Since we didn’t make a booking in advance, we could not get in, since it was fully booked. Well, we have seen that before! (We didn’t see anybody at the historical site, but the system said it was fully booked!). 

We made a booking for the next day. Actually we had to report at the Winterpark (which is a central dispatch point, where you can book all the tickets and from there big touring buses, drive the tourists to the sites. You are not allowed to use your own transport), but we insisted to come with our truck, since we saw that there was ample parking. For now we asked the ladies at the desk if they could direct us to the old train station in Al Ula, which they did. Like the one we saw the day before, if was fenced in but it was in a bad state. It was a compound with several buildings, including the administrive quarters of the then Ottoman Governor of the Al Ula region. A big rusty metal windmill was still there, which was used to pump up water for the watertanks, which were used to fill the passing locomotives. 

The still to be renovated old train station at the old town with the rusty windmill, used to pump water for the locomotives
After the railway became in disuse, also the train station was abandoned and used for different purposes. In addition mud brick homes were built around and the rail tracks were used as roof rafters.
In anticipation of a restored trainstation, an open bar has already been built. Its very lively

One of the most beautiful sites to visit in Al Ula is the Asheer Valley. A valley of sand dunes between huge beautiful red sandstone rock formations. Its completely fenced in and is only accessible via a gate for which you need a (free) ticket. The valley is like a park, well kept (you won’t find tracks of cars and trucks in the sand, since special equipment is used to keep the sand flat like a carpet). The asphalt road is wet by water trucks to keep it clean and dust free and you won’t find on single piece of garbage. Within the valley there are two 5-star hotels, but not like huge buildings, but very luxurieus tents with all the amenities you can imagine. In the surroundings of Al Ula in the the many canyons you will find these type of hotels. Large concrete structures are not allowed to maintain a certain balance with the natural environment. I must say it really looks nice these tented hotels, neatly spread out over the sand dunes with the red sandstone cliffs in the back ground. At night many rock formations are lit up and it looks magical. 

The hotel guests of the two 5-star tented hotels in the Asheer valley, can be airlifted to and from the airport of Al Ula by helicopter and from the helipad in the valley to the hotel by a luxurious SUV
At night, the rocks around the hotels are beautifully lit up

An even more stunning feature in the valley is the huge mirror building (Maraya) tucked away between dunes and red rocks. It’s the largest full mirror glass building in the world and it houses a huge concert hall (famous artists already performed in here) and an exclusive restaurant. It’s also famous as an Instagram location, since it gives such nice effects. Everyone is free to be close to the building and walk around and make pictures, but to park a truck right in front of the building is another story. So yes, we were chased away by security. But we never give up, so we drove around a bit and waited until it got more quiet. We tried again and another security guy just passed and we asked if we could park the truck, right were we wanted. He gave us a couple of minutes and we could make these iconic pictures, every overlander wants to make in front of this amazing building. Afterwards we parked the truck and were able to sneak into the building as well. There was a huge lobby for the concert guests with comfortable leather couches and a lot of nice artwork. The building is such an prestige project, that every day the entire mirror facade is cleaned by window cleaners.

The picture every overlander wants to make in front of of the Maraya (mirror) building

Near the Maraya building, was another canyon where a small pop-up exclusive fashion centre was built. It also had a small courtyard with some lounge chairs and a small restaurant nearby. It was a bit odd to have this little “fashion centre” in the middle of a sandy canyon. Very expensive shoes and dresses, elegant Arabian ladies being dropped off by luxurious SUV’s (and there are only 6 shops!). We sat down on the lounge chairs, ordered ourselves a virgin mojito and later virgin Saudi champagne cocktail. Just watching people from a terrace was something we had not done for a while. In the evening a light show was given with beamers on the rock cliffs next to us, where the small mall was. It was the day of the Arabian Leopard, so a story teller was telling a group of people about the importance of the Arabian Leopard, while amazingly real looking 3d images were projected on the rocks. What a beautiful night! The night was closed off with drinks and snacks presented by the restaurant.

Saudi Champagne cocktails at the small pop-up mall
The light show on the rocks at the pop-up mall. All about the Arabian Leopard

We woke up again with a view on the Elephant Rock, because it was the only spot we knew was good, when we left the Asheer valley the night before. We had an early wake up, since we had to be early at the Danan visitors centre (remember we had booked tickets). We arrived early, so we could do a quick bite and a coffee in the truck on the parking. As expected, there were only 6 visitors including us. In the visitors centre there was a staff of 8 ladies (mainly busy with their phones) and a guy to clean the toilet. Outside on the other side of the building was the waiting area. There our guide (story teller is the right word) and a ranger (with every tour group there is a story teller and a ranger present. The ranger is there to make sure the people don’t do silly things). A 50 seater touringbus took us to a site within the fenced area, where some excavation was done and where you could see some ruins. I don’t know what the authorities expect, but the staff/guest ratio is a bit out of balance. Outside the visitors centre there is also a police officer in a police car 24/7, just keep on eye on things! Since we opted to go to the next site with our own truck (the ticket was for two sites combined), we were picked up by a 20 seater bus, to drive us back to the visitors centre. The big bus had left with the other four visitors directly to the next site. I hope that the business model for tourism is going to be a profitable one for the Kingdom, but for now, it doesn’t looks like a profitable venture (though the organisation is perfect and professional, it is the booking system that can use some improvements).

Following the story teller in the early fresh morning at the archeological site of Danan
The only portion of the the old town of Danan visible. The majority still has to be excavated

The next site is a site with important rock art and inscriptions (Jabal Ikmah). With speedy golf carts we drove from the parking to the rocks (about 100 meters!). A very nice enthusiastic young Saudi girl explained us a lot about the art work and the inscriptions. The sacred site is a place where thousands of years ago stories were carved in the old language of Dadanitic, by travelers, who passed Al Ula. The carvings tell al lot about the people and their lives in those days. 

Old Arabic script at Jabal Ikmah

To nice it up, the local tourism bureau includes a real workshop on the site for the visitors, where you can engrave your own name in a sand stone, with tools they used in the old days, but your name in the old Arabic script (and from right to left). A big group of staff members was waiting for us when we arrived with our golf cart “Ferrari”. Security goggles, an apron and gloves are provided and off you go, under the watch full eye of guides and rangers. There is even an ambulance on standby the whole day in case you hammer your fingers in pieces. Yes, the Saudis think about everything. As souvenir you could take the piece of rock with your name on with you, after – of course – the courtesy cup of Arab coffee and dates. Before we left the site, we visited the visitors centre, which again was a beautiful brand new building. A nice reception area with leather lounge chairs and couches and of course a western style souvenir shop with a lot of stuff you don’t need for too high prices, so were in and out. 

Under the watchfull eye of the “teacher” engraving her name in old Arabic language in a sand stone
The end result

We had time left for our next “appointment” and drove around a bit. Around Al Ula you find many beautiful rock formations and in between many date palm plantations. The combination of colors (red of the rocks and green of the date palms), is stunning. And since it was Sunday and we did not have a full breakfast yet, we looked for a nice private spot to have a “Sunday brunch”. In Al Ula it is not difficult to find a beautiful spot with a great view (we had a mushroom rock in front of us, whereby you think, nature is challenging its own gravity) and privacy. So yes, we had a nice brunch with croissants, pains au chocolate, fruit cocktail, salmon, etc. We are always surprised ourselves by what we carry with us in our home on wheels. Never short of anything!

Green date palm plantations between the red rocks
How nature does its own balancing acts
Creating its own muffins

Our next tour was a night tour at the famous Hegra site (the equivalent of Petra in Jordan). However, we arrived earlier coincidently during our tour around Al Ula. So we popped in the visitors center to see if we could do the day trip instead of the night trip. But, of course the day trip was fully booked!! The site is huge, there are at least 20 big buses driving around from location to location and people can hope on and off once they are inside. However, with some creative thinking of the receptionist, we got a booking for two days later, but could get in now (hopefully the bus was not full). Well, we were with 5 persons in total for a bus of 50.

Hegra is on old satellite town of the Nabataen people, who’s empire had the city of Petra in Jordan as capital. Though not much can be seen from the old town itself (and excavations are still going on), Hegra (like Petra) is mainly known for the impressive rock tombs with massive decorated facades. Over 100 tombs have been carved out in the sand stone rock formations, sometimes very big, for whole families. The most impressive one stands on its own (no other tombs in the free standing rock mountain). This tomb has never been completely finished and was never used. It was made for an important Nabataen general who presumably died during battle against the Persians. His body never made it to the tomb. But the site was his, so could not be used for anybody else.

The famous tombs of Hegra
The interior of one of the tomb graves

There are several tomb areas where the buses stop and you can go wandering around as long as you want and take the next bus to come. Each site has a story teller and a ranger, again all well organized. Except for one tomb, all tombs have been raided over time and not much was found. The tomb of Hinat (daughter of Wahbu), contained the remains of around 80 people, probably of the same family, from different generations. Inscriptions tell the story of an important woman in the Nabataen society. Via the newest technics, a reconstruction of the face of Hinat has been made and its unbelievable to see a person who died almostv 2000 years ago come to live again in such away, you can almost relate to her. 

The most famous and biggest tombs of Hegra

After returning to the visitors center we had to kill a small hour before we could do the night tour. No problem, there was again plenty tea and coffee available and the area was furnished comfortably. This time the bus was almost full and we drove in the dark to a location which we had not seen during the day tour. It was a site of religious importance for the Nabataen people, tucked away in a narrow canyon. Again a lot of inscriptions and rock art, but now with hundreds of small lanterns along the footpaths, which gave it a different dimension.  When we returned to the bus, the bus was gone, but instead there were about 10 horse carriages waiting for us. With a blanket over us (it was still cold during the night), we continued the tour in the dark in a horse carriage to the next stop. Very nice. Again we stopped at a site, which we did not see during the day tour (mind you the area of Hegra is many km2). A valley with about 15 large tombs, with beautiful facades, but now wonderfully illuminated. Some of the tombs (the royal tombs) had guards in front of them in costumes from that time. Thousands of small lights were spread out over the area in front of the tombs, creating an atmosphere of being in an entertainment park (no cultural value, but tourists love shows…). The story tellers told their story and after the last one, we all were directed to small seats on the ground (on cushions and carpets). There we were treated on Arabian snacks and moctails and alcohol free wine. Though it was all very impressive and beautifully done, it was a bit hasty (next group was on its way) and a bit too touristic to our liking. But that is part of Vision 2030, tourism, entertainment, shows etc. (And if archeological sites have to be exploited for these projects, it’s not a problem, as long as its done in a responsible way). The horse carriage brought us back to the visitors center where the truck was parked. We had a last chat with a young Saudi couple from Riyadh. And from the clothing (no abaya and face cover) and behavior (showing of public affection, which is still not done in Saudi), they were modern Saudis, stepping away from certain strict religious rules (especially for women). These are signs that not only the Saudi landscape is changing, but also society. 

The religious canyon of Hegra
Hegra during the night tour. Re-inactors playing guards at the royal tomb
The end of the night tour near a couple of tombs.

Again we spent a night at the Elephant rock (it was closeby and we started to get used to the place). The next day we decided to leave Al Ula and go to find some well known rock sites at one or two hours distance from Al Ula. The first one is the so called Rainbow Rock, an Instagram site for overlanders. The architects of nature made a huge arch or bridge of sandstone (actually natural erosion did the master job). We were alone, so perfect for our Insta pictures. (Unfortunately it was a cloudy day). The moment we were finished, a group of very nice Emirati guys in pick-ups, who camped nearby, passed by to make their pictures.

The rainbow arch rock, popular with overlanders and Instagrammers

After they were gone, a group of four people walked towards us. They started to talk in English with us, but soon, they found out that we were Dutch and they were as well. They were from the Dutch province of Brabant and were in Saudi (Al Ula) for work. A Dutch company is organizing hot air ballon trips over Hegra once or twice a day and they were the pilots and staff for these ballons. We had such a nice click and conversations, that we invited them into the camper to have coffee with……speculaas (a typical Dutch treat), which we had in our storage. After an hour or two, we said goodbye and since we indicated that we also wanted to fly the ballons, but were informed that they were fully booked for the next couple of days (which we knew already from when we inquired while we were in Al Ula). However, they said they would check for possible cancellations the next day, and let us know if there was any luck for us.

The nice people from Holland we met at the rainbow arch

Not expecting a positive outcome, we decided to go to the next “famous” site of nature’s rock art. The stone pillars of Algharameel, about an hour drive from Al Ula. The stone pillars, standing straight up, are the remnants of a huge mountain, which over millions of years disintegrated due to erosion. The columns consist of iron oxides, which made these pieces of the mountain stronger and more resistant to erosion, hence they are “left behind” as pillars. Sometimes the lower layers of these pillars are of soft stone, which erodes faster and the pillar will collapse. From a distant, these pillars look like the remains of a city or temple, especially when the sun sets. We were able to crawl over the rocks to the highest point of the hill where the biggest pillars where and made camp there. With the sun setting, the view on and through the pillars was magical. This is also a famous star gazing spot, and we understand why. It was beautiful!

The rocks pillars of Algharameel
Sunset at Algharameel

Late in the afternoon we got the message, that we could come for a balloon ride, but we would have to be there early in the morning, around 6:30. Which meant we had to get up before 5:00 and leave our site in the dark. So I checked for the way out before it was completely dark, so I would know where to drive – or better, to crawl – in the morning. At 5 in the morning we got up, dressed and left the site, with all our lights and flood lights on, so I could see where to go and where not to go (sharp rocks). In the process some campers nearby got an early wake-up call as well (the noise of the engine and all the lights). At least, they could also take advantage of a nice looooooong day. It was about 80 minutes to get to the balloon site and we were in time, so we could still have a breakfast, while the staff of the balloon company was arriving.

It was nice to be early, since we could follow the whole process of a hot air balloon being set up. Baskets (5) of different sizes (depends on the size of the balloon in connection with the weight), were laying on their sides, with the empty balloons rolled out. The baskets were attached with a rope to cars, to avoid that they would fly away, when going up. With a big fan, air is blown into the balloon to fill it up, so that it starts to get it’s shape. When there is enough air, the gas burner of the balloon is ignited and the air in the balloon heats up (hence the name hot air balloon). When the air heats up, the balloon starts to rise (that is what happens with hot air). Its important that the outside temperature is cool or cold, which makes the balloon rise or fall. Once the balloon is up, the pilot (thats the title of those who operate the balloon), and the passengers board as quick as possible. (There is only a limited amount of gas (in 4 bottles) in the basket, to provide the balloon, constantly with hot air to make it rise, and to sail.) You don’;t fly an air ballon, you sail it.

The set up of the hot air balloon

One by one, the balloons took off in the early morning sun, which is a beautiful sight. With no engine noise (as there is with helicopters and planes) just the occasional burst of the gas burner, the balloons sailed away on the current of the wind. The idea is to fly over Hegra. The balloons sailed at different heights. Each height has a different wind direction and that’s the only way the pilot can more or less change the direction of the balloon, by going higher or lower. The pilots also have radio contact with each other, so they know where each balloon is (if a balloon is flying above another one, the pilot in the balloon below, can not see the one above him and could risk a collision in mid air between his balloon and the (hard) basket of the balloon above him.

Ready to take off

It was our first time flying a hot air balloon and it is beautiful. In a small basket, in the open air, just floating on the winds with no engine noise is such a different experience. We flew over the desert, over the tombs of Hegra, small farms and roads. A nice way to end our visit to Al Ula. We landed in an open field, where the following cars and staff rushed to as well. The pilot needs a ground crew, to “catch” the balloon. The balloon is still full of hot air and with a little wind it will drift away and will scrap the basket with pilot and passengers over the ground and not vertical but horizontal. And with a hot burner in he middle, people got get nasty burn wounds, so the landing is a very delicate situation. Luckily the pilots are very experienced and all balloons landed safely and the hot air was quickly released. It’s also important that the landing area does not have too many sharp objects, which could damage the balloon once emptied and laying on the ground. Together with the ground crew, we rolled up the balloon and placed it in a very big bag. A Bedouin with a pick-up Landcruiser, is hired to transport the balloon and the people back to the “balloon airport”. There we witnessed the refilling of the gas tanks for the next day and hereby we had seen the whole hot air balloon experience. Very impressive!

Sailing or drifting over Hegra
The date plantations seen from the balloon
Packing up the balloon

Since we were still in Al Ula, we decided to do one more thing, which was visiting the view point on top of the plateau (Harrat View Point), from where you could see the entire Al Ula area. A very steep, narrow asphalt road brought us up the plateau. At the far end, we saw a whole bunch of phone and communication towers and a hip and trendy bar (which was closed). The guards to the restaurant were sleeping or watching movies on their phones when we passed them. They did not notice us. So we visited the restaurant, which has beautiful lounge couches, from where you had a spectacular view. On the way back the guards noticed us and were surprised that we came from the restaurant. (So much for security!) Back at the truck a bicyclist from Italy (we passed him already when going up the hill), came along for a chat. He biked all the way from Italy, very brave (like the German couple we met near Riyadh in December). He looked skinny, so we gave him some food to eat and coffee/tea. He was full of nice stories, it was a real pleasure to meet with him. After he left, we got a message from the balloon people, that they were going to have a drink at the restaurant, where we were and where we just came from (it was now open). So we did take the chance to meet again and have a nice last chat and before our final goodbye (well, what is final?). After such a nice day, it was now really time to leave Al Ula.

The comfortable couches at the closed restaurant at the high view point of Al Ula

Al Ula seen from the view point

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