I’ve spent the last few weeks in New Zealand. It's been great, but now I’m ready to head back to Riyadh. Living out of a suitcase is only fun for so long.
On my last weekend away I visited Hanmer, a small alpine village with thermal springs. It's a very pretty spot, neatly tucked under mountains which are often covered in snow. It's about as far from Riyadh as you could imagine.
Along the main road was a house we stayed in for family holidays when I was little. My uncle worked in the former Queen Mary Hospital and his family had their home in the grounds. We'd often spend Easter together and I remember the autumn leaves littering the ground then, as now.
Beside the house was an old chestnut tree where we’d have conker fights. Other times we’d bike around the hospital grounds, and in the evenings swim in the hot pools. Some days there’d be picnics with bacon and egg pie, still warm from the oven. We'd collect wild blackberries, carefully manoeuvering our way around the prickly bushes, but never managing to escape without a scratch or two.
In Riyadh a picnic means packing up the 4 wheel drive and setting out into the desert. The food is different: there’s certainly no bacon and egg pie, and the adventures along the way are nothing like the brambles and berries of a New Zealand setting.
Here’s what I mean.
Our most recent trip was all about finding desert roses. We'd seen them in Riyadh’s National Museum and heard about an area not too far out of Riyadh, where we could find some ourselves. These 'roses' are natural formations of crystal clusters of gypsum. The 'petals' are crystals fanning open in radiating flattened clusters. They’re remarkable examples of the shaping power of wind and sand.
One of our party knew the spot because he’d been there before. The rest of us followed behind in a flotilla of cars. Of course quite apart from desert roses, there were small digressions every so often when we saw something that interested us.
We stopped for these crumbling Ottoman ruins, which suddenly appeared out of nowhere.
We passed Bedouin tents, and then not far away saw a farmer on his camel with a flock of goats. It looked as if nothing much had changed over the centuries.
We got out of our cars where the ground was just mounds of rocks rich in sea life and coral. This whole area had once been an ancient seabed and there were fossils everywhere.
It reminded me of the camel from Kipling’s How the Camel Got His Hump who 'ate sticks and thorns and tamarisks and milkweed and prickles.' He was punished for his laziness by the Djinn of all deserts. I’ve always loved this story and standing here, I could imagine the Djinn rolling in on his magic carpet to punish the vain and irascible camel.
I looked at the silhouette of our car against the darkening sky and decided it was also worth a photo. It looked so small and vulnerable.
But the blackening sky was more than just a good photo moment. It meant that rain was not far away. But with the ruins of an old fort visible in the distance, we decided to beat the rain and explore before leaving.
Just as we'd seen enough the rain started. We ran for the car as water pooled on the ground and sand turned to mud.
With rain, Bedouin farmers, Ottoman ruins and desert roses, this picnic bore little resemblance to past experiences. But then I'd have to say, that's pretty much how life is here. Something unexpected around every corner.