Back in Saudi Arabia

After crossing the Saudi/Bahrain causeway, we were back on the mainland of Saudi Arabia. A small break after the hassle at the border posts was deserved, so we stoppend nearby the causeway on a stretch of re-claimed land on which a large abandoned construction site of hotels and apartment blocks was located. While having our coffee we received a message from the Association of Dutch citizens in Saudi Arabia, that they found us on Instagram and that they wanted to invite us to visit the Dutch Embassy in Riyadh to watch the next match of the Dutch soccer team. While we were actually planning to go north along the coast of the Arabian Gulf towards Kuwait, we decided to accept the invitation (doesn’t happen too often we can join a party at a Dutch Embassy). This meant we would drive westwards through the desert instead. We were now in the metropolitan area of Damman and Hofuf, which had not too much to offer to our liking. We even noticed that there was a lot of garbage along the roads and the town areas were proof of uncoordinated construction booms of the past and now (the Damman area used to be a small fishing village but changed almost overnight after the first large oil discoveries in Saudi).

Unfinished hotel buildings at the beginning of the cause way

We expected to go into a desert on a long road with ample options for camping, however, a big multi lane highway with lots of (truck) traffic, fences along the road and soft sand, made it a mission impossible. We tried some side roads, but either there were too many buildings or we could not get of into these side roads. We opted for a smaller road, for which we had to make a detour. It was now dark and still hard to find (even more) a good camp spot. I took a small driveway which stopped at a gate after 100 meters. I drove the truck left from the gate along a fence hoping to get a bit further away from the mainroad. However, it was deep soft sand so I got stuck in moments. Too late for digging, we decided to keep this a problem for the next day.

The next day, a SUV with a couple of older guys stopped next to us, asking if we needed help. Stubborn as I am, I said I would manage. They invited us, however, over to their farm in case I would manage to get out. Lower the tire pressure to the lowest level, 4×4 and dif-lock engaged, taking advantage of the cold stiff morning sand, I managed to get out.

We drove to the farm, which from far looked like a big grey industrial complex. Getting closer, we saw many large date palms, a grey unpainted building, towers (like bell or watch towers). When we got closer, somebody whistled to direct us to the gate. A large wide driveway lined with large date palms brought us to a large square in front of the “farm”. We were welcomed by one of the gentlemen who approached us in the morning when we were still stuck. He guided us into the house, which by the apparence looked more like a castle, with towers on the corners, and a very large wooden gate. Inside we were welcomed by more men, who by their behavior, look and clothing were men of importance. The reception hall was decorated with many deer trophies on the walls, paintings of ancestors, flags and swords. We were invited to take a seat on large gold plated chairs and were offered coffee and dates. Our curiosity was matched by their curiosity. Interested in where we came from, about our journey and of course the truck, still a novelity in Saudi Arabia. A big grey bearded gentleman entered the hallway where we sat. The man was in his sixties and had a very friendly face. He introduced himself as Sheik Nasser, the owner of the “farm”. Sheik Nasser is an important and wealthy man. The farm was like his man cave, his get away from town (Damman), where he has business interests. His brother was actually the one who invited us. The Sheik brought us to the main room, which was very impressive, like Great Halls in European castles, with large high gold plated chairs along the walls (about 60 of them), flags and ornaments on the walls, a large display in the middle with precious old swords. We were asked to take a seat on the throne in the middle, while I was holding one of these special swords. The Sheik wanted to make pictures of these “allien” people coming into his desert palace! His brother gave us a tour over the sprawling compound. A large courtyard with a traditional Bedouin tent, complete with carpets and cushions. The compound had a huge kitchen, with cooking pans as big as bathtubs (to cook an entire camel), separate quarters for each of his four wives and mother. Life stock like goats, chicken, horses and even rabbits (being the prey animals for the hawks). For the occasion of the visit of his guests, a goat was slaughtered in the traditional way. The brother now guided us in the favorite room of the Sheik, in which he hangs out in a casual way when having friends and family visiting him. The room was also richly decorated and a special hobby of the Sheik was on display, his large collection of teas from around the world. When he is in this room with his guests, he takes pride in preparing himself one of his collector teas in the most delicate way. We felt very honored that we were treated as such and in return we offered him 2 varieties of tea we were carrying with us, which were not part of his collection as yet. He wrote our names and the date on the packaging. Then he invited us for lunch, however, knowing that more male friends were coming and not knowing if this was an invite based on politeness only, we humbly declined the offer. Since he was not persistent, we assumed we did the right thing. To make up for a missed lunch, he set one of his servants in motion, who minutes later, returned with a big bag of fresh goat meat, enough for a couple of lunches, for us to take with us so we could prepare it ourselves in the truck.

On the throne at the desert palace of the Sheik
The big “camel” cooking pot in the palace kitchen
The large car garage at the palace

We thanked the Sheik, his brother and all others, for their hospitality and kindness, but could not leave before doing an extensive photo shoot in front of the “palace”. The Sheik also then asked if we had a name for the truck, which we don’t have. He suggested “Maidan”, which is the name of his “farm” (/palace/castle). I liked the idea and he offered to have some stickers made for on the truck, which 2 days after we left arrived at the farm. (We still have to collect them). We finally left after having a wonderful experience with Saudi nobelty. We were able to touch, feel and hear Saudi culture first hand, from people who live the way, a tourist will not easily encounter. Now we had to move on to reach Riyadh.

Saying goodbye to our new friends and the Sheik.

Halfway between the Farm and Riyadh we made a last stop in the desert. We thought based on the map that we were driving a small road, but again it was a well paved road, busy with traffic. Left and right there was soft sand, not easy to get of and find a camp spot. The area we drove through had many stretches of flat plains, which are kind of boring, I prefer to have some hills around me to “hide” our camp. Near a cell tower, was a small access road, which let us into the desert. Gravel planes covered with individual sand dunes. Gravel plans are sandy stretches of flat land covered with small stones, which make it easy to drive on, without getting stuck. It was nice to be in the serenity of the desert again. We had full moon, but far away we saw lightning in the skies. The weather was about to change. It started to rain, not much, but it felt strange, since we were in the desert and we didn’t see rain for months. But it was nice, especially the smell. When the first drops hit the soil, a chemical reaction causes a certain smell, similar to the first rain hitting the soil anywhere in the world.

Last camp night before reaching Riyadh

We liked our spot and wanted to explore the area a little more, so we took out the bicycles. The area was perfect for our off-road e-bikes, driving the gravel plains, navigating through a labyrinth of small sand dunes. We found multiple Bedouin camps with their camels. A few big trucks for water and hay with selfmade chalet style caravans behind them. Even in a big country like Saudi Arabia, it becomes harder to maintain the nomadic lifestyle. More and more (desert)land is claimed for construction, agriculture and gas/oil exploitation, and less land remains available for the free roaming of camel herds. A curious camel shepherd passed by our truck later to see why we were there, probably afraid that we were also part of an exploration team. It was really a great bicycle ride, with no roads, traffic or obstacles. We could ride wherever we wanted, in how many places can you do that?

Cycling with no obstructions in the desert
A Bedouin camp, with watertruck, hay truck, mobil home, traditional Bedouin tent and of course the camels.

Up to Riyadh, a city which from the beginning I tried to avoid, due to the stories I heard about being ugly, dirty, overcrowded and congested with traffic. We drove the old “back” road towards Riyadh, the Al Hofuf Road. Along the way, we saw a police car driving slowly on the side of the highway. In front of him there were two (European) bikers on packed bicycles. Mind you, driving on a long stretch of highway, almost in a straight line through the desert. We stopped a little further down the road and waited for them to pass. We wanted to give them a good cup of coffee. That offer was well received and we had a nice chat with them. The two police cars also stopped and joined us in the coffee break. It’s very unusual in Saudi Arabia to drive with bicycles on the highway and out of safety, the police automatically provides a safety escort. Just to avoid that the bikers would be hit from behind by passing cars or trucks. The German couple (Julia and Tilmann) are cycling from Germany and already had over 13.000 km on the teller!

The German bikers taking a coffee break along the highway to Riyadh with their police escort.

The last part of the road is in terrible condition with large potholes. Trucks drive sometimes on snail-pace and with recent rains, it was even worse. We passed the largest “animal shanty town” we had ever seen. This is a huge area where people from the city keep their life stock (mainly goats, sheep and chicken). The conditions within all this little enclosures and “stables” is horrible. Respect for animals’ wellbeing is almost non-existing. Dead goats and sheep are lined up along the road between tons of other garbage. The smell is unbearable. Next to this shanty town of animal misery, is one of the huge power plants for Riyadh, a huge installation with thick black smoke coming from the chimneys. Our first introduction to Riyadh was not the best, to say the least. We came closer and closer to city center with its 8-lane highways and many feeder roads. Traffic in Riyadh is like the survival of fittest. We were told that if you follow the rules, you won’t get anywhere. Road divider markers are either gone or not looked at, indicators are not used and every inch of the road is used (so leaving some space in front of me for safety is constantly filled up). I was already surprised by the many car body-shops along the road, but now I understood why. The good thing is, that where in Holland (and most other European countries), you get a middle finger for all the dangerous moves one makes, here people are very gentle. No horns are used to signal discontent, no angry faces, just concentrated faces for an extensive give and take in traffic. So I let it all work out around me. I have the advantage of having the size and a foreign number plate (which usually gives you some benefit of the doubt in traffic).

We reached the Diplomatic Quarter in Riyadh where all the embassies are located in a high security zone. Armored vehicles, barriers, heavily armed soldiers and police were guarding the entrance into the area. Our appearance was reason for some concern. A big military style truck into the Diplomatic Quarter could be anything! We first were sent away to take another gate, but we never found it, so we returned. Now they let us through, but were taken aside for further investigation. A muscular army sergeant asked me some questions and when he learned that we were going to the Dutch embassy to watch the soccer match of the Orange Team, he showed a big smile and said we could go, however, he doubted whether we could park at or near the embassy. From satellite images we knew there was an empty lot next to the embassy, however, when we arrived big bolders blocked the access to it. We drove around and found parking along the road near the back of the Dutch embassy. The guard of the embassy came to us to advice us to move closer to the back of the Dutch embassy, since we were now closer behind the British one and they would get nervous when a big truck is parked behind them. So now we were in one of the most secure places of Riyadh, a safer place to camp for the night we could not think of. Since we were early, we made a stroll around and passed many different embassies. Very efficient to keep all foreign diplomates in one district. A Saudi gentleman (Mossaa) stopped and was interested in our trip and the truck. He invited us for coffee and lunch tomorrow.

At the Dutch Embassy in Riyadh

In the evening we went to the embassy wehre we met many Dutch people. There were also three other overlander couples, who were also traveling around in Saudi. It was nice to be in a different scene and watching the Dutch team playing again. Luckily the match was extended to the max, so we could stay longer than planned (when the match was over we had to leave the embassy right away, a very strict rule).

Next morning Mossaa was there to pick us up. It had rained a lot in Riyadh during the evening, so traffic was a bit of a chaos. He wanted to show us the old town of Diriyah, which is the birth city of Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, due to the heavy rainfall, accessibility was almost impossible. Also, parking was an issue, since all parking lots are in use by construction companies, who are building around the UNESCO site of At-Turaif, a huge complex of 19 hotels, 100 restaurants, museums, shops and academies etc, all in the style of the old town, which means, with mud bricks. The so called “City of Earth” development is a 63 billion dollar project (one of the 16 key projects of the Crown Prince for his Vision2030 plan), to attract 100 million tourists per year to Saudi Arabia. We passed the enormous construction site and it is absolutely impressive. Over 80 tower cranes, thousands of dump trucks and excavators are transforming a landscape of several kmsq into a cultural entertainment city. It’s the first project of this magnitude and part of the Vision2030 we encountered, and we saw now with our own eyes, that the Saudi’s are serious about their strategy of becoming less dependent on oil revenues in the future, by developing tourism.

Mossaa drove back to the Diplomatic Quarter to find a place for a coffee. It seems like the rain pushed everybody our of their living quarters, since all restaurants and coffee shops were completely packed with people lining up to get in. We finally found a fancy place to get a coffee and could have a nice long chat about Saudi Arabia, life in this country, the developments, culture etc. Mossaa is a Director of a Government program for re-forestation in Saudi Arabia (strange in a country which by my knowledge did not have a forest to be re-forested in recent times). However, Saudi Arabia made “green” promises (The Green Initiative) in connection with bringing down emission in the world and one of them is planting 10 billion trees. This number is part of a total of 50 billion trees to be planted throughout the Middle East. The trees are also planted to improve air quality and reduce the growing number of sandstorms (which also increase in intensity year after year). We saw similar projects in Oman, however, we doubt if the plan is sustainable, since these trees need water and water has to be brought to the trees. Water is a becoming increasingly scarce and Saudi Arabia depends heavily on desalination for its fresh water, which process is costly and consumes a lot of energy (which has a negative impact on the environment). Saudi Arabia is the largest producer of desalinated water. In Saudi Arabia 50% of drinking water comes from desalination and the capital Riyadh (7.5 million people) receives almost all its drinking water from desalination plants at the Red Sea coast, which is pumped through the city through pipes over a distance of 500km.

After a very nice and informative morning, we said goodbye to Mossaa and drove towards the Edge of the World, which is one of the top destinations for tourists near Riyadh, but not before making the decision to fly to The Netherlands within the next days, since we received a message that Marja’s mother was not well and the doctor advised us to come over as soon as possible. We booked the first available tickets, which was 2 days from when we left Riyadh. The Edge of the World is a hard to find location since it is not advertised as such or much. There is no infrastructure in place to inform tourists about the location. Based on our Garmin information we found the location, we thought. I made a mistake by clicking on a location called Edge of the Desert, which was going south from Riyadh, while we had to go north. We came from the north part of the city and had to cross the high ways through the city which were very congested. On the outskirts traffic was going very slow due to flooded roads. When we reached the Edge of the Desert, we realized it was not the Edge we were looking for. It was dark already and we didn’t want to drive all the way back. So we tried to find a camp spot, which was not easy, since it was an agricultural area, with fences or dikes along the road. But as you know by now, we always find a good place to camp, so we indeed found a small valley in the night, where we drove in, plowing through heavy sand to a spot, away from civilization. When we woke up in the morning we were standing about 50 meters from a Bedouin tent with 30 camels!

Flooding near Riyadh

So now we had to go back north again to the right Edge, The Edge of The World. This means, driving through Riyadh again (oh did I look forward to that). At least there was no rain, the flooding was over, but traffic still busy. It took a good 4 hours to get near the Edge of the World. We did a Saudi “short cut”, which means, driving through or over the centre shoulder of the highway (instead of driving another 30 minutes to a roundabout further down), and drove on an elevated 2 lane road, which was going along the shore line of a wadi. We saw a lot of water, actually we saw a fast flowing river with many small rivers. Along the waters edges we saw many Saudi’s picnicking and camping. Mind you, it doesn’t really happen that often that people from Riyadh and surrounding areas can picknick along a river (with water). Riyadh is almost in the middle of the country and the Red Sea or the Arabian Gulf are many hours driving away. We reached the entrance gate to The Edge of the World, but were informed that the access to the Edge was closed. The rain made it too dangerous to be there and the remaining road was flooded. Now, I realize I forgot to tell what The Edge of The World actually is. The Edge of The World is a high cliff (escarpment) with an amazing view of the horizon. It’s difficult to understand without having been there or without an attached picture. Unfortunately, we were not able to visit The Edge. Since we were planning to go back to Riyadh the next day, we decided to stay near the flooded wadi. We made camp on the “river” side between the Saudi’s. They were going crazy with their 4×4’s, crossing through the water and often getting stuck in the mud. Others were having picnics near the water

Saudi families spending time at the flooded wadi

Next morning we were surprised that the “river” was almost gone. The flow of water had stopped since the rain stopped. All the other cars were gone since last night, so now we were alone. Well not completely. The night before another overlander (from Austria) passed by asking about The Edge, he parked his truck a little away from us. The next morning he passed by again and had a coffee and a chat with us. He was a very experienced overlander, having visited many countries and he had nice stories to tell.

The time had come now to leave again for Riyadh. We made provisions with the Mercedces Benz dealer in Riyadh to park our truck for the coming three weeks, when we were in Holland. So after preparing our luggage and organizing our fridges and the rest of the camper for our departure, we arrived in time (though the navigation system gave us a run around in the city with the smallest roads it probably could find). The truck was parked in front of the entrance, with security guard and cameras, could not be more safe than that. We trusted our solar system with the batteries and let the – still full – fridges run. An Uber picked us up and delivered us with ample time left, at the airport. We broke up our world trip for a second time and the Arabian trip for a third time. I started to realize that traveling the world and be disconnected from everything is an utopia. Can one really be disconnected from everything? Like disconnect from real life (what ever that means), disconnected from family, friends, work and assets?

Leaving the truck at the Mercedes Benz dealer in Riyadh

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