Stage 6: Al Ula (ٱلْعُلَا)

Pink over blue

Sunrise in the desert is always an experience, but the one today is one of the most stunning ones I have ever witnessed. Ali wakes up at around 5 am and with him the rest of the crew starts to get up. The clanking noise of the kettle is difficult to muffle in such remote and silent place. It is surprising that Arabs go to sleep very late and are up early for the first prayer. After this, their day starts. To make up for the short sleep they take a nap every now and then to keep going. Ali is one of these. He tells us that he wakes up very early and then, at some point during the morning, he has to close his eyes for ten minutes to recharge. Anyway, even with the short sleep we got, we are grateful for being able to admire the beautiful colors of the sunrise in the middle of this desert. The pink clouds against the blue sky create a dramatic effect that stops all activity in the camp. Only Muna and Ali keep doing their tasks as they probably have seen this so many times before.

In the distance, the camp site

After a cup of coffee and packing up the camp, we say good bye to Ali as he has to go back to his regular job in Riyadh. Ali is an excellent guide. Entertaining and full of stories, with a good insight of the history of the Arabian peninsula, very deep knowledge of the terrain and a lot of contacts with the local people that allow you to explore off the beaten track.

After wishing Ali a safe trip back, we depart towards the famous Al Ula. According to Ali, ula is the name in Arabic for the light sand that the wind carries on top of the rocks. Hence, this place is called Al Ula (العلا). Fine sand with a flour-like texture tries to cover the rock formations. For off-road fanatics like me, this kind of sand is extremely challenging to drive in even with half deflated tires as we have them today. That is another fact Ali gifts us for our future experience in the desert.

The road to Al Ula is a little bit more fun than the usual roads we have frequented so far and, lucky for me, full of abandoned petrol stations! Ali tells us that, at some point in time, there was a regulation imposed by the government according to which gas stations had to have certain standards and the owners of those which needed big restoration and couldn’t afford the work abandoned them. Might be true, but we also encounter a lot of working petrol stations in not such good shape. I wonder in what condition would be the ones that were abandoned.

Give me shade, please

Al Ula is famous for its proximity to Hegra (Mada’in Saleh), the second capital city of the Nabataeans. The only buildings left from this civilization are the tombs carved on the huge rocks in the middle of the sand. The Nabataeans were a nomadic tribe that traveled across the Arabian peninsula and Levant that created a civilization and political system between the 4th and the 2nd centuries BC. Their capital city was Petra that they abandoned when it was conquered by the Romans and made Hegra their second capital city. The landscape is amazing, with a combination of rocks and sand. We are lucky as the blue skies are an excellent companion, especially for us photographers.

The place is beautiful, but I feel a little bit disappointed as the expectations were very high. The pictures we have seen in so many advertisements create an expectation that is not met in the actual visit. In any case, we enjoy the visit a lot and we learn new things about these ancient people.

The house where we are staying tonight is lovely in a very bizarre way. The lay out is somewhat strange. One of the bedrooms is outside the house and two of the bathrooms as well, which means that going to the bathroom is going to be freezing cold. There is another bathroom out of the house for one of the two bedrooms that are inside. The kitchen is close to the outside bedroom and there is a comfortable majlis and TV room. After all, three bedrooms and three bathrooms as that is all we need. Everything is new with the protecting plastics still on. Really strange. Not very cheap for what it is.

Tonight there is no signal so this post may be somewhat delayed. Not the worst of inconveniences.

Data of the trip

Total distance: 469 km; Total time: 14 hours; Moving time: 5 hours 53 minutes; Average moving speed: 79.6 km/h

  • Ziggy Alberts – Laps Around The Sun
  • Mac Miller – Circles
  • Jamiroquai – 2001: A Funk Odyssey
  • Camarón De La Isla – Calle Real
  • Brad Mehldau & Mark Guiliana – Mehliana: Taming The Dragon
  • Black Sabbath – Paranoid
  • Cody Canada and the Departed – This Is Indian Land

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