Going to south Saudi Arabia

The Dakar Rally was finished (at least for us). The rally itself still had a couple of days to go. And we where going south to the Yemeni border. First stocking up a bit at the city of Al Kharj. The moment we parked the truck we saw a very green expedition truck passing by. And I knew that truck from Instagram. It was a German family of 4, calling themself the Hippie Trail. They are popular on Instagram and have travelled to the far east. I honked my horn and they saw me. Within minutes they where parked next to us and we had a very pleasant chat. We all went to the supermarket and agreed we would meet at a place out of town after the shoppimg, near a restored building called a Pigeon Tower. Pigeon towers were (and some still are), used in the Middle East to lure in desert pigeons (with water basins around towers made of mud). The towers have hundreds or thousands of holes in them. Pigeons stay overnight and let their droppings fall to the bottom of the towers. The droppings (menure), is later collected by farmers in the area and used to fertilize their fields. It’s quite an impressive structure.

Meeting the Hippie Trail people on a parking lot in the town of Al Kharj
Having a nice chat with real world travelers
The Pigeon Towers of Al Kharj
The interior of the Pigeon Tower with thousand of cylinder holes where pigeons spend the night

Now we had more time to talk and learn more about this amazing family, who drives around with a very old, but super classic Mercedes Benz truck, all the way to the far east and back. The stories they had are too many to mention. It’s so amazing to see, that two young parents dare to take their children all over the world, do home scholing and show them the world with all its diversities and cultures. It’s daring to disconnect for a long time from the regular life at a fixed place, far away from family and friends. These are questions, a lot of world travelers are asking themselves or are being asked. Can you stay away from the “regular” world of home, work, family and friends, for such a long time. The thing is, you can’t have both (if you really want to be world traveler, constantly on the move, discovering new places and meet new people). Travel at times and go back to “normality”, is a hard mix, you are missing out on both places (its hard to explain for those who don’t struggle with such a dilemma). Still, it remains admirable, for those, who make the decision to cut themselves off from the “normal” world, and go about wandering into this big interesting world.

The next day was a rainy day, and we both hang around a bit. It rained and stopped, rained and stopped. It was weekend, so a couple of families and groups passed by to see the Pigeon tower, but actually, they seemed more interested in our trucks and our stories. People from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia, all passed by and of course many, many photos were made as well as drone footage. Somebody told us, that nearby there was a meteorite crater in the desert, so we looked at Google map satellite and located a grey circular spot in the desert. We drove with our trucks to the spot, only to find out that it was the local garbage dump!!. So no luck with that. Then we heard about a temporary lake in the middle of the desert, which will disappear in a few days (only exists due to the heavy rainfall). When we arrived it was like the biggest event of the year for the nearby town and villages. Hundreds of people (families and groups of young guys), had set up their picnic spots or were crossing their cars in the surrounding dunes. The moment we arrived with our trucks, all attention from the crowd was directed to our two families. Like we were some famous people, people drove with their cars, buggies and quadbikes towards us, all with their cell phones pointed to us. We are the entertainment, we are new and exotic. Its very understandable for a country which has only very recently been opened for foreign tourist who can travel through the majority of the country. And besides that, we also go to the areas not listed on the “must see” lists of most of the tourists. So yeah, it is not surprising that for some or many (still don’t know), we are “new” and especially with camper trucks like we have.

Another “photo shoot”
The Benz Baby
Photo shoot at the temporary lake…..

It’s like we were giving hundreds of mini interviews (always the same questions, “where are you from, what’s your name, how are you? Welcome, welcome to Saudi Arabia, you need any help?”, which are quickly broadcasted out on SnapChat, which was spreading our “fame” like fire. We were asked to join rides through the dunes (like the last time), but I refused. However, Thorbert (of Hippie trail), convinced me, so we both jumped in two old Toyota Land Cruisers and were given a ride around the place, and actually, it was nice (not too fast). I felt like a trophy being carried around, because we stopped many times at friends of the driver, who again made pictures, videos etc.

And this happens every day, thousands of SnapChat photos and videos have been made by now.
My ride, the old rusty Toyo(ta) Landcruiser

When we returned Marja and Michaella where busy talking to a lot of people (including ladies). When I stepped out of the car I was again asked to do a next ride, but now in a real dune buggy. That was a bit too much, however, I let myself convince again and I stepped in the buggy. (These are the ones they use in the Dakar Rally!). I had to buckle up and hold myself tight on special hand grips. There were red and blue disco led lights inside, big speakers and two high led lite antennes (to show others were you drive). Well if you have ever done a roller coaster ride, this is double or even three times worse. First of all, you are not on a fixed track, (so no idea where you going and where it ends). Secondly, it was getting dark and thirdly there are others racing as well in all directions. This buggy was flying over the sand dunes, almost vertical, diagonal, up and down, left and right with a big noisy engine behind my head. We almost (like last time), bumped into another car, standing still behind a dune. Man, I was shitting in my pants, I had to trust the driver, who I only just met, and he was just enjoying to scare the hell out of me. When we finally reached back at the truck, I almost kissed the ground when I stepped out.

My other ride, the crazy dune buggy.
The girls doing a photo shoot with their new friends.

The Hippie Trail family was invited by an Indian family who originate from the town called Kerela in India. The Hippie Trail family is well known in Kerela, due to a large amount of publicity dedicated to them on the local and also the German media when they were there. When they arrived through Al Kharj, they were recognized and invited by the Indian family. And since we were together with them, we were invited as well. Driving back into town, we reached their house, where a small crowd was waiting to see the two big foreign trucks arrive. Many family and friends were invited to meet us and the trucks. Good thing of most of the Indian, Pakistani and Bangladesh people is that they speak reasonable English (though with accent, which makes it sometimes not sound like English at all). Food and drinks were served and we, togehter with the Hippie Trail family had to eat first, while everybody was watching us eat (not the famous Indian food I was hoping for, but pizzas from Dominos and Kentucky Fried chicken, soooo not Indian or Arabian). There were more people in the room than chairs or couches to sit (yes, this time we were seated on a couch and not on a carpet), so some were standing with their nose right above my food (but, we are getting used to things being different from what we are used too). After the “diner”, there was some talk about everything and of course an extensive photo session. We were given presents by the family, which was very generous. It was interesting to see, how this migrant family from India is living in Saudi. They still have a different culture and a different perspective. Coming from a land with less opportunities, the father and mother, looked for a better place, to offer their children a better future. Working hard to be able to send their children to good schools and colleges, so they will be able to have a better life. Something which you see in many prosperous countries. We drove off, but not before we had an extensive midnight showing of our “home on wheels” to about 30 people!! It was raining with thunder and lightning, so both the camper trucks, found their way to the same parking lot where we met the day before, to spend the night.

Getting gifts from the Indian family (Dani)
The Indian family who invited us

It was raining continuously when we woke up and our “neighbors” were still in Dreamland. We sent them a message to say goodbye and drove south, towards dry weather and the sun. We were aiming for a crossing (partly) through the Empty Quarter by skipping a piece of the tar road, just to get that lone feeling again.We were first going into the direction of Wadi ad-Dawasir, one of the largest and richest agricultural areas of Saudi Arabia. It is unbelievable to see how in the desert you will find thousands of green circles with (mostly) green gras, watered by a rotation sprinkler system, which gets its water from wells. Its like when the Dutch reclaim land from the sea, the Saudi’s claim agricultural land from the desert. From here we started to cross the Empty Quarter (not like completely, because that is almost impossible by our truck). The Empty Quarter consists of long high and low sand dunes, which are going almost in a straight line from East to West. In between there are narrow sand or gravel fields or very wide plain like valleys. Sometimes there are roads made out of salt crushed, dug from the plains (but often these are partly covered with sand at present). Sometimes there are openings between long dunes, so that you can slip into the next valley or plain, which means you are actually going a bit more south again (which is what we wanted). If there is no opening, you will be driving too much to the East. We try to go over lower sand dunes, but often we get stuck and then we have to work (taking the shovels, sand ladders, lowering tire pressure etc). On top of that we know what we use in fuel on tar roads and we can make up to 1800km, but with driving on sand and gravel the fuel consumption is a lot more and there are no gas stations in the desert!

The beautifully decorated entrance gate on the highway, of Wadi -Ad-Dawasir
Normally this is sandy desert land, but with sprinkler irrigation, grass is growing in this green circle and camels are eating the grass.
Crushed salt roads in the desert (often made by the oil company). When not in use anymore, the desert slowly reclaims the road
Going over the lower sand dunes
Getting stuck in the sand happens frequently

The City of the Sands, or better known as Al Faw, is a Unesco site (located on the edges of the Empty Quarter), and a very important historical place for Saudi Arabia. The origins of present Saudi Arabia can partly be found here. Since the 70’s they are doing archeological excavations and still they have covered only a small section so far. Traces of trade between Greeks, Romans and the Arabs going back to 100 BC. The site is fenced in and a visitors center has been built. However, the place was abandoned, not maintained and closed. You could see some pieces of ruines, but that’s it. Not worth it to visit like this and a shame for an UNESCO site.

The fenced in archeological site of Al Faw
The brand new visitors center at Al Faw. Closed and not maintained (dead palm trees and garbage around the place)

Enjoying being back in the serenity of the Empty Quarter, we made our camp for a few days in a valley near beautiful rock formations. We had some work to do in the truck (some of the parts of the Dakar Rally cars we found, like the mud guards, came handy as extra protection pads in our bicycle box) and not driving for a day or two is nice as well. The distances in Saudi Arabia are long. The next day we took the e-bikes out and did a long trip over sand dunes (not that easy), gravel planes and we hiked on the plateau mountains. The sceneries are amazingly beautiful from these plateaus. The mountains are part of a range which is like a natural barrier for the Empty Quarter. Behind these mountains you see endless and endless rows of red sand dunes. On one of the higher mountains we found the remnants of a pre-historic village. Rocks were built in a circular formation and on top there must have been twigs and animal skins made into a dome, so it was a shelter or hut. The little village was at that time overlooking the large endless plains to the west and the sand dunes desert to the east. Its hard to imagine the life these people had in this vast emptiness. On other plateau hills we found many graves (rocks put on top of each other in a certain formation, facing Mecca), and there are hundreds, maybe thousand of these plateaus still to be discovered. The history of these region goes back thousands and thousands of years. The link of present day humanity from north Africa and the rest of the world goes through this mountains and desert. Just being here (especially in the night) and feel the drive of the early humans going through these hostile environments and forget about present day human life, gives you a different perspective of life.

Maintenance day. Using the mud guards from the Dakar track to strengthen the bottom of the bicycle box on the truck
Biking through the dunes, heavy but the bikes can do it
The graves we found on top of the plateau mountain. There are thousands of plateau mountains in the Empty Quarter
The remnants/ruins of a pre-historic village on another plateau mountain
The Empty Quarter is immense and beautiful

Cycling through this area itself, gave such a liberating feeling. Knowing that nobody ever did that (no reason to just go here and cycle). A Bedouin with a pick-up full of hay, passed us and his eyes were falling out of his head. You know what a Fata Morgana is? He turned around and started filming us with his phone, otherwise his buddies would never believe him. We drove a bit over 90km through this amazing landscape, which later turned out to be part of the Oroug Bani M’aradh Wildlife Sanctuary. (Also a UNESCO site)

The Sanctuary is completely within the Empty Quarter and is home to the endangered Arabian Oryx. We drove for miles and miles through an amazing landscape (the sanctuary covers an area of 12.000km/2 (which is huge). After two days driving we saw a number of buildings and antennas, which we assumed to be an army or park rangers camp. It turned out to be the latter. A big number of SUV’s were parked near concrete buildings and there was a large Bedouin tent at the entrance. Two rangers came out of an office and directed us to a parking spot. We were welcomed (they did not even seem surprised that we came through the back door, since there is also an official tar road from the mainroad leading to the camp). We were invited into the tent (where another 15 rangers were sitting on the carpet, drinking tea/coffee and eating dates) and were given a seat on the carpet as well. One ranger spoke a bit English so we had a small conversation going. Coffee/tea, dates, the usual ritual was offered to us. The ranger told us that we should have lunch with them, after that we would register at the office and then he would drive us around in the park. So, this was going to be a long program, but a nice one. First the guys all went for prayers, then they came back and we sat around a huge plate of fruit, we were invited to join. After that a number of Bangladeshes came in placing three pieces of plastic sheet on the carpet in the middle of the tent. On that they placed containers with yogurt, cans of coke, plates with sauce, green leaves and in the middle a plate with warm food (rice, with veggies and lamb meat). Separately there was a stack of round flat bread. In Islam, you wash your hands first before eating (that’s important since we all eat from the same big plate with our hands) and you only eat with your right hand (yes no forks, knives or a separate plate and not even napkins). We got our own “table”, so we were digging in our own sharable plate, on the carpet with a plastic table cloth. It’s an interesting way of visiting a park, don’t see that happening when visiting a park in The Netherlands. But again, it was fun.

The Bedouin tent at the park rangers station
Park rangers of the Oroug Bani M’aradh Wildlife Sanctuary
Lunch served at the park rangers station. “Table” for 2
Getting into the rangers park jeep

After lunch we went with our “own” ranger to one of the park vehicles and did a small tour through the park (you are actually not allowed to drive around the park with your own vehicle, so we were lucky the first two days). We saw the Arabian Oryx and the Al Reem Gazelle, two of the endangered species finding protection in this Sanctuary. Part of the park is completely protected, another part allows grazing by camels and there is a hunting zone. It was a rather short drive, because we got the impression that the rangers prefer to stay in the big Bedouin tent. Life is tough for these guys, drinking, tea, coffee, praying, playing games, having lunch, watching their phones (cells phones are really a big addiction in the Middle East, but where not in the world?). I did not have the impression, that the park rangers work here with passion for nature and wildlife, but maybe I am wrong. In a country where all people behave and where there is a very low crime rate, why should they be on patrol all the time?

The endangered Al Reem Gazelle

Leaving the ranger station, we sneaked back in the park (knowing now that most of the rangers are not on patrol), we continued our drive through the Empty Quarter. The sand was getting heavier and the dunes more frequent and higher. It was time to get back to the tar road (not what we really liked, but it was simply not possible anymore). On our last night before reaching the tar road, we were surprised by two visits out of nowhere, by Bedouin people. First three young boys who were going completely ballistic about our presence here. They were over enthousiast, had to calm them down a bit (all positive though). Then a large old 6×6 Mercedes water truck passed by and a Toyota pick-up, both camel Bedouin, who asked us (like the boys) to come to their house to eat. And then to know that only minutes before they all passed by, I told Marja to enjoy our “last” night in the desert before hitting the road and going faster down south. Even in Saudi Arabia, you really have to look for places to be alone for a number of days. Not always easy to find.

2 of the 3 energetic Bedouin boys (showing up out of nowhere).

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