Red Sea was a defining moment in my journey round Africa. The continent was behind me now and the Middle East would exert different challenges. As the ferry eased out of the Sudanese port of Sudan, I remembered that I was, after all, in the core of the Rift Valley, my chosen route to reach its northern limit at Lake Galilee.
But I had concerns – Saudi Arabia had been off limits to overland travellers until recently. My wife Eileen and I had lived in Saudi for 14 years, up to the start of our global wanderings in our Discovery V8, Rabia; and I still had a valid business visa. I was relying on this to meet immigration requirements and to permit Rabia to enter the Kingdom.
During the Kenyan riots in January, when I returned to the UK, I had contacted the Saudi Embassy in London to ask for advice. Although I knew of the trend towards liberalisation in Saudi Arabia, I’d still been surprised to find that a new transit visa was available to overland travellers so, to avoid the risk that my current visa wouldn’t be appropriate for Rabia, I decided to apply for one.
The helpful staff steered me through the requirements and my application was sent off to the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Maybe because of the newness of this process there was a delay – and by the time I returned to Uganda my transit visa application was still outstanding. I heard later, as I approached Sudan, that the transit visa had finally been approved and was waiting for me in London.
This was too late for me but confirmed the fantastic news that a new gateway to and from Africa seems to be opening, which avoids the expensive and bureaucratic transit through Egypt. Besides, the route would offer a tantalising glimpse of a country previously off limits.
Next morning, we docked in Jeddah. Customs and immigration staff here process huge numbers travelling to Saudi for work and religious pilgrimage, and I soon cleared immigration formalities. Rabia passed through without mishap; and her permit to cross the kingdom provided adequate time to travel north to the Jordanian border.
Old Jeddah has enormous charm and appeal, but I already know the place well from my expat years and was keen to move on. I planned to visit one of Saudi’s hidden gems, mostly unknown to the outside world – the ancient Nabataean settlement of Madain Saleh.
Heading north out of town, there are two options to reach Jordan’s border post at Aqaba. The coastal road follows the Red Sea all the way but the second – through Medina and Tabuk – heads inland. With a short desert detour, this gives access to Al-Ula and the nearby Nabataean ruins. This was my choice.
Medina is off limits to non-Muslims but the modern road system conveniently provides a six-lane bypass round the city. My route ascended to a surprisingly high elevation and despite travelling in May – when Saudi’s increasing temperatures turned the coastal route into a cauldron – the air here was positively cold overnight.
Finding isolated campsites away from the highway in secluded valleys among the rugged peaks wasn’t hard. The passing landscapes were spectacular, especially in the early morning light: a lovely, warm glow cascaded over the desert just after dawn, and the sun caught the jagged blisters of past volcanic activity in sombre profile.
But my journey was a route through history as well as through dramatic scenery. Initially, I joined the ancient Hajj route from Mecca to Medina, so important to Muslims and travelled by millions every year. Beyond Medina, I was following the Spice Trail that brought the frankincense and spices of Yemen and Oman through Nabataean territory by camel, skirting the southern edge of the Nafud desert.
I was also travelling parallel with the Ottoman railway line (the Hejaz railway) and was reminded of the drama and colour of Lawrence’s work here by the abandoned trains and carriages that had just been left to rust where they had been derailed during World War I.
Had there been time, I could have taken the off-road option and followed the old railway the whole way through the desert from Medina to Tabuk – a four-day, classic, world class off-road experience. It’s one of many in Saudi Arabia that’s available without restriction to expatriates working in the Kingdom, but not to visitors or tourists – yet.
When we lived here, Eileen and I had enjoyed two local expeditions. We crossed The Great Nafud desert in Rabia, and circled the Rub al Khali during a five-week, 5000-mile journey of outstanding excitement. We had been inspired by these fabulous 4x4 experiences to take on our current travels.
We always felt that Saudi Arabia’s liberalisation would, one day, open up one of the world’s most exciting destinations for 4x4 expedition travel. Maybe, I thought, the discovery of the new transit visa was to be the start of that process.
The police invitation to stop for coffee and dates at the checkpoint after Medina was a nice surprise. However, while sitting round the coffee fire, the friendly banter was not quite as it seemed – my vehicle escort was being arranged.
A robbery against some off-roading expats some months back had gone badly wrong, resulting in the death of a Frenchman in the group. This had embarrassed the authorities, who prided themselves on the crime-free nature of Saudi society.
So, now I would have company all the way to the Jordanian border some 8000 miles away, with a well-orchestrated escort vehicle changeover every 30 miles.
While this was probably a temporary arrangement for foreign nationals the expense and logistics impressed me, but it was to curtail my camping in remote off-road spots.
Despite the beautiful desert scenery north of Medina, the best part of my Saudi transit was still to come. The World Heritage site at Petra is widely known; but the Nabataeans, who carved their spectacular façades and buildings into rose-red rock, weren’t confined to southern Jordan.
Their communities thrived between 1000BC and 500AD by servicing (and taxing!) the 1000-camel caravans on the spice route.
Further south, in current Saudi territory, a vast Nabataean settlement flourished at Madain Saleh. In some ways, this is more spectacular than Petra.
There are, of course, no crowds of tourists here, no gift shops and no hotel chains – just 12 miles of unspoiled, impressive remains rising from the desert and accessible by 4x4 without undue complication. But you do need a permit, which is available in advance through a local hotel (see panel, page 95). The place was so infrequently visited until recently that it was possible to find bones inside the rock-face tombs.
This wasn’t my first time here, so I knew that early morning and late afternoon provided the best opportunities to enjoy it. This time, visiting at first and last light of the day, I had the ruins to myself.
I drove quietly in Rabia through some of the most impressive rock carvings anywhere in the world, enjoying the awesome experience. The intricate façades were all around me, glowing bright red and cast in deep profiles by the low desert light.
The absence of travel restrictions made me even more respectful of the place and I felt privileged to see this gem at its best. Will it stay this way after Saudi tourism has been developed? We’ll see.
I rejoined the desert road to Tabuk and headed north-west again. I’d detected a minor fluid weep from one of Rabia’s lower radiator hoses and stopped briefly at Tabuk to replace this with a spare from my stocks. This was a smart move – the weep would soon have been a flood since the fracture was just breaking through. ‘Stay aware of the small clues,’ I reminded myself.
This was no time to drop my guard. The track descended to the Gulf of Aqaba, through rugged mountains and rock pinnacles. The nearby Jebel al Lawz is believed by some to be the real Mount Sinai of the Old Testament.
I reached the Jordanian border, said goodbye to my last Saudi police escort and made a trouble-free entry into Jordan. Camping that night on the beach before Aqaba was a delight. I cooled off in the sea, snorkelled over beautiful coral and fed a myriad of reef fish with my stale Saudi bread. Even better, I enjoyed my first beer since Ethiopia.
But there was bad news, too: petrol increased in price an astonishing seven-fold from Saudi’s 6p per litre. A bigger shock was awaiting us later when we crossed to Turkey.
My next destination was Wadi Rum, the jewel in the crown of Jordanian off-road destinations. The next day I followed my co-ordinates, recorded during a previous visit, to make the entry to Wadi Rum by the southern desert route – by far the most scenic 4x4 way into the area.
It wasn’t easy. New highways had been built around Aqaba and old tracks had been lost; but I was soon navigating over an indistinct track of soft sand, wash-outs and gravel, through increasingly beautiful scenery. If you come this way, be sure to visit Rum village to pay your entrance fee…
The hallmark features of Wadi Rum are the 3000-foot-high jebels, the red, sandy plains that run to infinity and the abrupt rock faces rising from the desert.
This is the stuff of classic off-road travel, surrounded by lofty peaks and offering some of the most dramatic desert driving you’ll ever experience. But travelling independently in Wadi Rum has its challenges, mostly concerning soft sand. Unlike the Rub al Khali or the Nafud deserts though, the risks to life and vehicle aren’t so threatening, since the area has a lot of friendly nomadic Bedouin, herding sheep and camels.
In any case, the whole of Wadi Rum’s 560 square miles is now designated as a protected conservation area and is monitored by the famous Desert Patrol Force, previously mounted on camels but now equipped with 4x4s of a certain Solihull pedigree.
Navigating an interesting route through Wadi Rum’s landscapes needs some research. Almost by design, good maps for private travel are scarce, probably to protect the growing numbers of small travel companies, guides and chauffeured 4x4s who provide travel here.
I planned a route lasting three days through the valley. Camping under the blanket of stars in some hidden valley, surrounded by the cold silence of the desert, was especially relaxing and nostalgic for me. I was sure this would be the last time I would camp with Rabia in desert conditions before she would retire from active expedition service. She had been here before in these same enchanting campsites 124,000 miles earlier and had never really let us down, twice round the world. If ever Land Rovers needed an example of reliability, this 3.5-litre V8 Discovery 1 is it.
Wildlife is mostly absent during the heat of the day but scurries around in the cool night air. With luck, the nocturnal sand cat might pass fleetingly, or a wild goat or jackal ghost across the nearby landscape as a brief shadow. The rare Arabian Oryx was reintroduced to Wadi Rum in 2002 but remains elusive to all but the most stealthy and observant.
My final day broke with a windless dawn and crystal, Prussian blue skies over the sandy desert. The weather overnight had been strangely ‘wrong’. Heavy rain had fallen in late May in one of Arabia’s driest locations, but the result was a landscape of startling clarity.
My exit from Wadi Rum was one of the most photogenic stretches of my desert travels. My enduring memories were of incandescent sunsets, demanding off-road tracks through beautiful scenery and wonderful, friendly encounters with local Bedu, who unfailingly found
my ‘secret’ campsites.
There had also been terrifying moments when I hit soft sand unexpectedly, but I had never been in serious trouble. My space-saving strips of heavy-duty cord carpet (which replaced my heavy sand ladders) provided quick release on the one occasion where I lost traction.
I drove north and took a room at Madaba before meeting Eileen at Aman international airport that evening. The full team was now back together to complete the journey back to England.
We continued north by the Dead Sea, increasingly aware that this was a highlight of our journey from Cape Town. We were still in the Rift Valley, but not for long.
Finally, we camped on a wooded slope overlooking the Golan Heights – a shady, barren carbuncle on the other side of the heavily fenced border that snaked through the valley below us. Over that border, to the west, Lake Galilee glowed fiery red in the setting sun. Some 7500 miles south, at the other end of this longest valley in the world, the Zambezi estuary marked the valley’s final dissipation into the Indian Ocean.
After following the fault through 11 countries, we had reached the northern limit – our destination. We travelled to Damascus and stayed at the Convent of St Paul’s to the south of the old city, where the nuns provide a calm haven for weary travellers in this colourful but turbulent city. We moved on quickly through Lebanon, where we visited good friends, before travelling north beside the Mediterranean.
Soon after crossing into Syria, we headed to Crac des Chevaliers – a crusader castle on a gigantic scale, with a macabre charm. We camped here, beside the southern wall of the ruins, and planned our passage ahead travelling through Central Turkey.
‘Would there still be something new ahead?’ we wondered, after the glamour of circling Africa.
But we needn’t have worried – there were indeed plenty other surprises in store as we headed west towards home.
The full story can be found in the June 2011 issue of LRO. Download a digital issue, or order a back issue by calling 01858 438884.