My Saudi Arabia - It's Not About The Sand

This is the second part of my journal reflecting on Seven years in Arabia… this is
My Saudi Arabia.

Well, it’s not all work, work, work living in Saudi Arabia!

There is the desert too and of course the sand!

Ok, so desert equals sand…


Well, yes… and no. There is so much more to it than that. I’m sure that just the thought of the word ‘Arabia’ will conjure up romantic ideas of bearded strangers swathed in unfamiliar clothing riding camels across vast areas of barren sand dunes… I admit it; this was the picture in my head too, before travelling to Saudi 7 years ago.

Ok, so here comes the scientific bit… geographical to be more precise!

Occupying approximately 2.3 million square kilometers, Saudi Arabia consists of several distinctive geographical areas. The western coastal plain, the Tihamah, extending along the Red Sea coastline with its many beautiful unspoiled coral reefs is bordered to its east by two mountain ranges. The northern half of the Red Sea escarpment is known as the Hijaz and seldom rises above 2,000 metres, but in the south the mountains of the Asir rise in places to over 3,000 metres. Both ranges drop steadily to around 600 metres in the Makkah region. The eastern side of the Asir slopes gently to a plateau which melds into the Rub al-Khali (or Empty Quarter), one of the largest sand deserts in the world, north of which lies the Najd.

The Najd region containing the countries capital city, Riyadh (my home) is mainly a rocky plateau interspersed by small, sandy deserts and isolated mountain clumps. At the heart of this is the area of the Jabal Tuwaiq, an arc-shaped limestone ridge with a steep west face that rises from 100 to 250 metres above the plateau. Separating Najd from eastern Arabia is a long, narrow strip of red sand known as the ad-Dhana.

Edge of the World, Tuwaiq Escarpment, North of Riyadh

I briefly mentioned the climate in Saudi in my last journal… Saudi Arabia is in fact one of the driest countries in the world, with no permanent rivers or lakes and rainfall averaging less than 13cm per year. In the Empty Quarter, ten years may pass with no rain! Marked seasons, in the Western sense, do not exist, only a dramatic change at the end of the year, from temperatures exceeding 50 degrees in mid-summer to bone chilling cold weather and occasional rain brought about by shifting winds in the winter months.

So, now we all know a little bit more on the geography of Saudi…

After arriving in Riyadh back in 2001, the desert quickly became my weekend playground and more than once my downfall! Hooking up with friends and the local Hash groups was my first eye opener to much of the local desert destinations such as Edge of the World, an appropriately named location north of Riyadh on the Tuwaiq escarpment. Just in case you are wondering, if you’ve never heard of hashing, it doesn’t involve drugs of any kind, which would be pretty foolish in a country still administering the death penalty, rather walks / runs following tracks previously laid by other members. Duning became a favourite, heading out to the red sands and conquering the dunes in my 4 wheel drive or on hired quad bikes… parties were such that couldn’t be missed – driving cross country for an hour or so to a secluded spot where you could party the night away under the stars or in a Bedouin tent set up with generator and DJ!

I did mention my downfall too, didn’t I? Well of course those would include getting my 4WD stuck in the sand on several occasions and having to dig my way out or make use of a much recommended pair of sand ladders. Another downfall would be the time that the loose desert ground went from under my feet, forcing me over and tearing ligaments in my ankle… 30 minutes walk from my car! Needless to say my fun was curbed for a month whilst I was in plaster and from then on I always tread a little more carefully.

As I became more familiar with the desert, my love for it continuously growing, I began travelling further afield with friends, camping out in remote locations for the night or more when time permitted.

A location I have visited on more than one occassion is Jabal Baloum, the highest peak in the Tuwaiq range. Baloum, or Faridat Baloum meaning Adam’s Apple.

Jabal Baloum. Tuwaiq Escarpment, south-east of Riyadh

The thing I love about this photo is how you can see the thorny acacia trees in the foreground growing almost perfectly within the shadow of a neighboring peak. It is a hot and harsh climate and this for me is a wonderful example of how nature will battle the elements and find a way to go on… a lesson can always be learnt from nature!

There were many good camping sites around the base of the mountain and if you look closely at this shot, you can just see our campground on the right of shot, tucked away in one of the clefts. This shot, by the way was taken very early in the morning, awoken by the new days light streaming into my tent, I decided to take a walk around and watch the day break.

A couple of hour’s later, campsite struck, we were off again scouting the perimeter of the mountain, looking for the easiest way up. We soon picked our route, parked up and began the trek…

Walking the ridge, Jabal Baloum

The ascent took us around 3 hours, clambering up and over loose rocks, and walking along the narrow ridge at the top. The summit of Jebel Baloum is only 1045 metres above sea level, but from the top you get an awesome view of the surrounding valley below… a valley where desert diamonds can be dug for, ancient arrow heads lie scattered and sharks teeth can be found from when the land was once ocean. In fact, during the Cenozoic era, until about 15-20 million years ago, most of the eastern half of Saudi Arabia was covered by the sea.

The Summit of Jabal Baloum

To the south-west side of the mountain are strangely shaped rock formations known as the Pepper-Pot and Cathedral Rock, so called because of their pock-marked surfaces and curious wind-eroded shapes.

Cathedral Rock. Tuwaiq Escarpment, south-east of Riyadh

On a separate visit to Jabal Baloum, we stopped off first at one of the local archaeological curiosities along the way. Perhaps an hours’ drive from Jabal Baloum is a black rock headland facing a narrow pass between escarpment and sand dunes covered with ancient graffiti. As with all other destinations, given names by ex-pat explorers, this site gained the imaginative name of ‘Graffiti Rock’… one of two known similar sites in the area.

Graffiti Rock. Tuwaiq Escarpment, south-east of Riyadh

Here we found rock art supposedly dating from between 2,000 and 1,000 BC but could be earlier. Writing is said to be Thauudic, or pre-Arabic and the script dating from the Literate period, after 1000 BC. The art also contains human figures engaged in mock fighting with shields and throwing sticks, there are examples of wildlife, long since wiped out by hunters in Arabia… Ibex with great backward pointing horns, Oryx with straight horns, Ostrich and even crocodiles. There are riders on horseback and many of the human figures have their arms outstretched, the fingers and hands much exaggerated, which is said to be a common feature of primitive rock art and is thought to represent the attitude of worship or prayer.

Graffiti Rock – Detail. Tuwaiq Escarpment, south-east of Riyadh

Another location close to Jabal Baloum and Graffiti Rock is the appropriately named, ‘Natural Arch’, a form eroded into the escarpment about 160km south-east of Riyadh.

Natural Arch. Tuwaiq Escarpment, south-east of Riyadh

…and yes, that is me, sat on the top!

This was a fascinating place to camp, not only because of the obvious form of the Natural Arch and the opportunity to take many photos of friends jumping around in the centre, not because I happened to be dog-sitting my neighbours Chocolate Labrador, who came along for the ride, but also because of what laid around us on the floor… and no, that wasn’t due to Austin the Chocolate lab! It wasn’t desert diamonds or desert roses, it wasn’t arrow heads or 50 million year old sharks teeth, but again it was down to nature. Everywhere you looked were thousands of perfectly rounded stones… perhaps volcanic activity, when lava was thrown up into the air to then rain down on the surrounding area, creating what looked like a playground littered with marbles… who knows, but it looked great!

Natural Arch. Tuwaiq Escarpment, south-east of Riyadh

Needless to say, I’m not short of any paper-weights or book-ends at the moment!

Already there had been so much to see in the desert, so much more than just sand! So many new adventures and experiences. So many new discoveries and this had only been in the neighbouring regions, within a 2 or 3 hours drive from Riyadh.

This was all before I had the pleasure of visiting the region of Taif, camping amongst the Asir mountains, watching baboons clamber across the rocks and climbing into a crater 3 kilometers wide… but in the style of a good David Attenborough natural history programme, I’ll leave those for next time!

My Saudi ArabiaPart 1
My Saudi ArabiaPart 3, Travelling Further Afield


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