Monday, 4 April 2011

"Slow For Camels" - Driving The Desert, a pictur(esque) essay

Over 95% of Saudi Arabia is desert of some description. Just beyond Riyadh’s high-rise city skyline, there it lies; stretching to the horizon. The other day we drove to Hidden Valley, found 80 km west of Riyadh. It’s a pass between the rocky Tuwaiq escarpment, running along the west side of Riyadh and leading into a valley known as Wadi Nissah.

We took the Makkah Road west. After passing the Diplomatic Quarter, the road descended steeply, revealing a stark and spectacular landscape. In front of us lay the valley, beside us the tall, jagged escarpment rocks with their layered sedimentary strata.

We passed goats, sheep and camels and then a little later, on one side of the road came across a 'slow for camels' sign.

On the other side, was a small boy trying to sell a collection of brightly coloured toys and kites. In this heat, and out here where the traffic was relatively sparse, we felt quite sorry for him.

We drove further into an area which had once been the bed of an ancient ocean. The ground was covered in sea fossils. Every step we took was another 'look-what-I've-just-found' moment.

We picked up, exclaimed excitedly and then tried, largely unsuccessfully, to identify the many different shells that we came across.

Then, into the car again and off in the direction of some bright orange sand dunes. Just one stop on the way for that all important picnic lunch. And of course, water bottles all around.

There was a camel farm beside where we parked, and as we set off on the uphill sand dune climb, I couldn't help thinking that they had a much better handle on life. No energy being expended there.

I’d tramped on packed sand in New Zealand, but this was very different. One minute we were walking over rounded dunes and the next along sharp ridges. For the first time, I was very grateful for my black headscarf. Wrapped turban-like around my head and pulled down over my eyes, it kept the sun off and also protected me from the sand, which kept swirling around our faces.

Before I'd arrived in Saudi, I'd read about the long-skirted Victorian adventurer Gertrude Bell. As I trudged back to the car, feeling hotter and more out of breath by the minute, my admiration for her grew in leaps and bounds.

And tights!
Several cool water bottles later, we set off back for Riyadh and our compound. But not before we'd passed a possible overnight stop for a next visit. Complete with adjacent car park. And car.

Or perhaps not.


  1. Love the road warning of camels ahead. Really different surroundings from the luch countryside of Cumbria!

  2. The photo of the sand is scary as it looks as if you could get lost very easily. What a great trip you had.