One of the most difficult moments in overlanding as mentioned in the past is when you leave from a place that has won your heart. We must admit that leaving Najran was not an easy decision but as the journey goes on, we said goodbye to our friends and left Najran behind.
Our next destination was the regional capital of the tiny Saudi province of Jazan. This town was an anchorage for vessels travelling between the hinterland and the Hejaz, Yemen and the Indian Ocean. Later it was involved in the regional coffee trade and finally became a pearl trade epicenter.
For us, this Red Sea port served as a gateway to the Farasan Islands. Although we had no plans to stay there, we arrived late in the day (Voukefalas had been having fuel issues lately so we had to take it easy) and the boat had already left. So we registered, got our free tickets for the next day’s boat and planned to spend the night there. Keep in mind that this is an extremely hot place so with a quick drive-by look, in an hour or so, from the comfort of our vehicles air-con, to the Ottoman fort that overlooks the city and the lively port area, we retreated to an air-con room for the rest of the day as the heat was unbearable (45 degrees).
The next morning, after an X-ray check of our vehicle from the port authorities (as still in war with Yemen, strict security is necessary) we boarded the ferry to Farasan Islands. The plankton rich waters surrounding these islands are home to rays, dolphins, whale sharks and several endangered species of turtle.
They are also home to some of the few remaining stretches of coastal mangrove along the Red Sea, the habitat of the endangered dugong. With all this marine life stated in every brochure we got our hands on, I couldn’t wait to hit the waters with a regulator in my mouth. Unfortunately that was not the case! Ramadan was still in its peak and most of the shops including the diving ones were closed. In land, beside visiting the neighborhoods of the old pearl merchants, our attempt to visit Al Qessar,a collection of simple mud, coral and reed structures, failed as the heritage village was also closed, leaving us no other option than a sneak pick of the houses from outside. After one more night in a seaside recreational park that we called home during our stay here and with the daily heat immobilizing us for the most part of the day, under any sort of shade we could find (it reached 46 degrees in the shade) we made the decision to book our ticket and return to the mainland. We can’t say that we were disappointed or that it wasn’t worth our visit there because for one more time just the people we met and their warm welcome made us feel like home.
At this point our priority was an escape from the heat and that came in the form of a mountainous city that we have read about. Abha, except being the ideal base to explore the Asir National Park and its mysterious villages, also has cooler temperatures as it is nestled in the green, mountainous interior. Sitting 2200m above sea level, Abha can be bathed in sunshine one minute and shrouded in mist and fog the next.
This is the city contrary to everything you might expect out of Saudi Arabia. We spent a couple of days enjoying the cool climate in Asir National Park, as well as exploring the city and its surroundings before we moved back to the coast of the Red Sea for a quick overnight in Al Lith, on the south west of the holy city of Mecca. As Al Lith has no real attractions except its small compact waterfront area, the next day we took the highway for Jeddah.
We decided to give a miss to both of the two holiest cities of Islam, Mecca and Medina, as we have been told that during Ramadan they get way overcrowded with pilgrims from all over the Islamic world.
Jeddah is the historic crossroads of pilgrims and traders, as well as the most fascinating city of Saudi Arabia’s major cities. With a cosmopolitan and liberal air not present anywhere else in the kingdom, someone can enjoy the city’s World Heritage Red Sea architecture, bustling souks, laid-back coastline and its diverse, world class cuisine.
We were lucky to be hosted by a world class chef and good friend , Ali that except allowing us to stay in his house, he introduced us to some of the best restaurants in town while spoiling us with great homemade dishes each time at home. It couldn’t get any better! Besides being the commercial capital of Saudi Arabia, modern Jeddah is more than a thousand times the size of the ancient city where it is believed the mother of humanity, Eve, was laid to rest. It is a fast-paced city and a bit rough around the edges, with high-rises and a waterfront culture that are symbols of the kingdom’s modernization. This blend of old and new is what makes the ”Bride of the Red Sea” such an appealing destination that often is the first Saudi city foreigners like to visit.
There, except being spoiled by Ali’s hospitality, we decided that it was time to look into Voukefalas’ fuel problem that was first developed back in Australia but here with the all the off road routes and the uphill drives had gotten worse. So we booked an appointment with a mechanic in order to have it fixed. Worth mentioning here is that the time for the appointment we got was set for 10pm at night. During the day, in Ramadan, people fast from sunrise to sunset and therefore any movement in daytime hours is minimized (shops close, office hours change and so on). That is not the case for the night that everything comes to life and things start happening after the sun has set and they have broken the fast. After finding the issue, our mechanic had to drop our fuel tank and clean it.
A really time consuming job that took lots of effort! Almost ten years of diesel flow of fuel from all types of pumps around the world had caused a huge clog in the fuel lines that starved our engine. To cut the story short and at almost 2am, Voukefalas was as good as new and it was time to pay our bill. ”Consider this as our welcome to you in our country” was the words of Abu Fatwa (the head mechanic) for the bill! We were in shock! Now you can understand why we go on and on about the hospitality and the people of this country. After being almost around half of the planet, we have not experience hospitality at this level anywhere else! From Ali’s offer to allow us to take over his house to Abu Fatwa (our mechanic) and Mani from Najran to the fisherman in Farasan Islands and to all the other people we came across, we thank you for making us feel emotionally connected to this country.
After our unforgettable stay in Jeddah, our time to move on had come once more. The goodbyes were as always hard but we were sure that we would be back one day and that made things a bit easier. Moving further 80 kilometers north of Jeddah, on the coast of the Red Sea, we stopped for the night in Thuwal, a Hejazi village in the Makkah Province of Saudi Arabia.
The next day our aim was to reach Yanbu, that is a fast becoming an appealing tourist destination, due to its amazing pristine white sandy shores. However, at first glance, the backdrop of refineries and petrochemical plants shocked us and hardly painted the area as an attractive highlight. Fortunately, this was the new Yanbu, which sits 15km south of old Yanbu. Old Yanbu has a history dating back 2500 years but in more recent times it is remembered as the place where TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) stayed.
Yanbu’s modest old town is small and easy to navigate but also well preserved and quaint, while just at the north of the town is where the vast, open desert gives way to blue waters. This is the area that is really worth spending your time. There we had arranged another overlanders’ meet up with a Greek biker that we met via social media and was also traveling in the region. Konstantinos is a travel writer and has been traveling the globe for many years. Sharing travel stories over a Greek cooked dinner was a great experience. After a couple of days in the sea and the sun, we turned inwards and toward the country’s best known highlight.
Al Ula is a small village that is nestled in a large, spectacular valley with palm groves running down the centre of a wadi (dry riverbed) and red-sandstone cliffs rising up on either side. It has a delightfully mysterious air about it as it is the gateway to Saudi Arabia’s version of Petra, Madain Salah, a World Heritage Site. The old-town ruins are among the best examples of traditional northern Arab architecture, with a history that stretches back to the 6th century BC and it is surrounded by pre-Islamic sites. The city’s strategic location along several trade routes for spices and incense coming from the Levant, Egypt and North Africa made it an important hub of that time.
After a meal and a bit of exploring in one of the shaded areas of the valley (still in the 38 degrees heat) we picked the natural formation of the Elephant Rock to camp for the night. This area is a part of the environmentally conscious plan of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman and has been developed in harmony with cafes and small restaurants, while the elephant shaped rock in the background creates a peaceful place to relax. A bit away, and as the desert starts calming the land, we found shelter under the red-sandstone cliffs for the night overlooking this surreal setting. The next day we paid a visit to the often dubbed ”second Petra”, Madain Salah, that for many is equal, if not more impressive, than its famous cousin across the border in Jordan. Both of these ancient settlements were major trading cities along the Nabataean trade routes, as confirmed by recent excavations of houses and a market area for traders and caravans. However here it is the 131 enigmatic tombs, which combine elements of Greco-Roman, Nabataean and Babylonian, that grab all the attention. Although the site was not fully open to public, the well organized tour provided with the entrance fee gave us a great introduction, revealing many of the essential elements of Nabataean funerary architecture. As our guide informed us, there was some archaeological evidence of plaster work and suggested that people feasted outside familial tombs – a Nabataean version of the Day of the Dead, I assume. Away from the ruins and in the valleys surrounding this area, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman is developing a number of exclusive hotel complexes, which have some impressive architectural features that we needed to see. Sculptures from different artists decorating the desert plains, a 5star hotel that uses retro airstream caravans as rooms for its guests and the largest mirrored building in the world, measuring 9,740 square meters, were just some of them.
The Maraya concert hall (Maraya means reflection or mirror in Arabic) was designed to reflect and highlight the natural beauty of the desert environment around Al Ula. The pictures we got with the reflections of the surroundings on the building were at least mesmerizing as you can imagine. After a total of four nights spent around Al Ula and our Elephant Rock free camp, we headed a bit further north to the last highlight of this area, the hanging bridge. It is another photogenic natural rock formation that captured our camera lens. Later that day, we returned for one more time to the Red Sea coast in Dhuba.
Dhuba or Dhiba (we saw it written both ways) is a small port in northwestern Saudi Arabia that serves as a supply line for the new build cross-border city of NEOM Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman latest project. In our plans was to spend our time in the area, while following the coast up all the way to the Jordanian border but the development of NEOM had blocked all access to the sea. Limited in areas to visit, we reached the Catalina plane wreck that lies in the tip of a small cape and camped in the only stretch of beach that we were allowed. The following days and with the permission of the friendly coast guard that came by our camp a couple of times (the area is heavily patrolled as it is right across Egypt) we enjoyed the undeveloped Saudi’s northern Red Sea coast that currently has some of the country’s least visited beaches. In fact, this was the least developed stretch of the Red Sea in the entire kingdom in our experience, with much of it literally just desert fading away into the sea, completed with camels roaming in the sun on the empty shore. A surreal sight to see! We were told that this situation is about to change, though, as stretches of this barren coastline are being developed into resorts. Fortunately, isolated spots are likely to remain for quite some time yet, so hurry up and get there before this natural beauty is gone forever.
The last chapter of our Saudi expedition started in Tabuk, a growing tourist destination, where we regrouped after many days of free camping on the coast and got ready for what proved to be the best memory before we said goodbye to Saudi Arabia. Wadi Disah, our very last destination in the country, is a mountainous region and one of the most beautiful natural landscapes in Saudi Arabia. The valley lies 400 meters above sea level and it is nestled between towering escarpments. The Wadi itself has two entrances and although the southern entrance is considered the most beautiful and most visited one, we, driven by our GPS as most of the time, picked to enter from the north and take our time enjoying this natural wonder.
Al Disah translates in our guidebooks as ”the valley of palm trees”. When you arrive there, you see exactly why. The luscious valley floor is surrounded by massive sandstone cliffs and pillars that are perfect for exploration. There are a lot of different things to do there but our focus was the off road route through the Wadi, characterized by freshwater crossings of natural springs and palm oasis with thick shade to camp. This place was such a joy that we drove from north to south and back a couple of times, spending a number of nights camped in different places within the Wadi. Finally, it would be fair to say that there would be no better way to finish our stay in the kingdom than Wadi Disah.
The circle had been completed and after a total of three months in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia it was time to take the road towards the border and enter into Jordan. I find it difficult to write the right words in order to do justice and describe how spectacular this country was and how impressed we were with each and every one of the people we met. All we can conclude is that the real journey of discovering this country was not in the search of only new landscapes, but gaining a whole new perspective of the way you experience this newly opened country to the world and the people living in it as a whole. See you soon, KSA!!!