Outside Terminal 2 at Dubai International Airport ready to begin my weekend trip to Saudi Arabia.
I had visited Saudi Arabia briefly and 'ticked the box' back in 2014 when I got a transit visa and drove from Dubai to Doha via the Saudi city of Hofuf.
After the brief and fleeting visit I had wanted to head back and to especially visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of Mada'in Saleh.
Recently with the reforms under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman the country had greatly liberalised the entry of tourists. D For 463 SAR ($123) a multi-entry visa valid for one year could be obtained in only a few minutes after filling out a short application online.
As part of the reforms Mada'in Saleh was also being developed. While the site was officially closed for this until the end of 2020, it was still possible to visit during the Winter at Tantora Festival.
It would have been feasible to try and organise the trip myself, hiring a car etc. but the $950 price including flights for an organised trip with the local Trekkup meetup group was roughly the same price and with the benefit of not having to worry about all the planning and logistics etc.
At the groundside Costa Café for the pre-trip meeting with our tour leader Xini. There was nine of us total on the trip.
Airside in the Marhaba lounge. Our flight departure was pushed back an hour so there was plenty of time to enjoy some lunch.
Although there was a domestic airport at Al-ʿUla, there were only flights to/from the cities of Jeddah and Riyadh. We hence instead were flying into the city of Ha'il and then driving ~4 hours west to Al-ʿUla.
Our Flydubai flight FZ885 with the new departure time of 2:50pm confirmed.
Boarding just after 2:30pm.
Looking out at busy Sheikh Zayed Road and Sharjah beyond as we depart at 3:15pm.
Soon after departure the pilot announced incoming turbulence so we were treated to 30 minutes of moderate shaking and bumping.
A can of lemon ice tea purchased from the drinks cart after things had settled down.
Looking out the window to the green round spots in the desert from irrigated crop circles.
Disembarking at dusk at Ha'il Regional Airport. The elevation in Ha'il was 1,015 m so the temperature was a few degrees cooler than Dubai. While there was a pair of BMW 7-series waiting for some Saudi VIPs, we had a green airport bus for the ~200 meter ride to the terminal.
Most of the arrivals were workers coming from the sub-continent. We were unfortunately near the back of the queue but an airport official soon came to us and ushered us swiftly to the front. After only a few minutes we were then stamped into the country.
After having our bags X-rayed for alcohol and any other illicit substances we met up with our drivers Mohammed and Faisal.
We then loaded into the two white Toyota Landcruisers waiting outside.
Our drive this evening was 435 kilometers west to Al-ʿUla governate.
Making our way out of the city. On the way we passed an array of trailers and caravans that were setup for the Dakar Rally that was currently underway in Saudi Arabia.
Stopping for fuel.
Grabbing some water and snacks for the road.
Cruising west on Highway 75. We averaged ~140 kph and made good time on the long straight road.
And arriving at Madakhil Camp just after 10pm.
Checking in and waiting for our room keys. I was expecting much simpler and conventional accommodation so was pleasantly surprised.
Even though it was now 10:30pm the kitchen staff were ready with dinner for us.
And a tasty meal after the long drive.
My room / tent / cabin for the next two nights.
Quite comfortable and relatively new.
I then turned on the heat pump and crawled into bed before an early start tomorrow.
After getting up at 6am we met up for an early morning hike up to the plateau just behind the camp.
Hiking up in the dim light of dawn. The temperature was ~4°C but we soon warmed up with all the exhertion.
Our guide pausing while we staggered to keep up with him!
The camp below with the sun about to crest the horizon.
There were quite a few loose rocks the further up we got which made it quite tricky in the low light.
The sun bursting now over the horizon as we made it to the top just in time for daybreak.
Up above the plateau.
And a panorama showing the expanse of black basalt rocks sprinkled on top.
The rows of tents / cabins in Madakhil Camp below.
Surrounded on all three sides by the steep rocky walls it was an almost perfect place for our stay in Al-ʿUla.
Looking back with the path of our morning walk up the rocky valley visible center.
More rocky red landscape further behind us.
Another panorama showing the surreal vista all around us.
In the ethereal light of dawn the strange and otherworldly landscape almost made it feel like we were on another planet.
And a group photo after propping up my camera on top of a rock.
We then began the hike back down.
Pausing for a quick selfie on the descent.
And back at camp after the early morning mountain top excursion.
After a quick shower we headed to the dining tent for some breakfast.
I couldn't resist a piece of sweet halva with my hummous, eggs, olives and bread.
Also in the dining tent were a photographer and a journalist working on the media team for Extreme E, an upcoming racing series featuring electric off roaders.
The prototype Extreme E racer outside in the camp carpark being charged up.
The battery gauge inside the cockpit showing 85.8% charge. I had owned an electric remote control 4WD offroad racer as a kid so it was quite interesting seeing essientially an upscaled version of it.
Two days later Ken Block, the American professional rally driver, raced the vehicle on the final stage of the Dakar Rally to promote and showcase the upcoming Extreme E racing series.
We were then met by our local guide for the next two days, Hatim. He had studied at university in Michigan but now lived back in Al-ʿUla.
We then loaded into the Landcruisers for a day of exploration.
Making our way through a nearby wadi.
Wadi is Arabic for a valley or dry riverbed.
The Landcruisers making short work of the soft sand.
Stopping to take in the steep canyon cliffs surrounding us.
Faisal and Mohammed.
We then ventured further into the wadi for a bit of hike.
Hatim leading the way as the wadi continues to narrow.
Being dwarfed as the wadi walls start to close in.
Hatim wrapped up in his black jacket and red & white keffiyeh.
Stopping in the narrowing wadi as we reached as far as we could go.
We then turned around and made the trek back. I tried to launch my drone to get an aerial perspective but with the cloudy skies and steep walls I unfortunately couldn't get a GPS lock.
Mohammed and Faisal patienty waiting for our return.
We then piled back into the Landcruisers for the drive out.
As we were driving along we spotted an approaching swirl of dust in the distance. As it got closer we realised it was the Extreme E racer out for a test run! I was expecting it to be relatively silent like a Tesla but it made a high pitched whine just like my toy electric offroader I had as a kid.
Stopping for some tasty locally grown tangerines.
Ominous dark clouds above as we drive towards Al-ʿUla.
The Dunkin Donuts kiosk at Winter Park, the main base for the Winter at Tantora Festival. There was now a small but steady stream of falling rain.
And at the sales desk where we went to pick up our tickets for our planned afternoon visit to Mada'in Saleh.
We had to wait a short while for the next departing bus so I went grab a donut and some coffee.
During our wait the rain steadily increased to the point where it was unfortunately announced that Mada'in Saleh was closed for the rest of the day.
After exchanging our tickets for entry tomorrow we headed into town to grab some lunch.
There was only nine of us but they must have brought out enough for a small army!
We barely made a dent in the mountain of food but we made a decent attempt!
After emerging from the restaurant the skies were blue and the rain now gone. We had a bit of time with our postponed visit to Mada'in Saleh so went to check out the 52 meter tall Elephant Rock.
Elephant Rock is surrounded by hundreds of other rock monoliths that have been formed over thousands of years through natural erosion.
Scattered amongst the rock monoliths were small local farms.
The landscape was as surreal as we had seen on our hikes this morning and just as otherworldly.
Looking down on a lane beside an irrigated orchard.
The water for the farms is pumped up deep underground wells.
Our driver, Mohammed, then took us to his own farm.
His farm below with crops of sugarcane, tangerines and dates.
The farmhouse middle-left surrounded by the red towering rock.
A freshly irrigated field of grass for animal feed.
Faisal relaxing on a rug.
Mohammed showing us the chicken coop.
Free range and plenty of room to roam.
I had always thought of Saudi Arabia as endless sandy deserts so it was quite surreal to be walking through a green, lush field surrounded by massive red monolithic rocks.
The goats munching on their dinner.
Mohammed posing for a portrait with his farm as the backdrop.
Walking back down the hill.
Some Arabic coffee and dates, It was unfortunate to miss out on visiting Mada'in Saleh today but exploring the surrounds and a local farm was not a bad alternative.
In the Landcruisers again.
And back at the camp with the moon now lighting up the sky.
After the long, eventful day we went for dinner at the dining tent.
And indulging in some baklava for a tasty end to day 2.
Dawn on the morning of day 3 with the sun starting to illuminate the sky.
After breakfast at the dining tent we checked out of the camp and met up with Hatim, Mohammed and Faisal for a second and final day of exploring of Al-ʿUla.
A short excursion offroad on our way back to Winter Park.
And just in time for the 8:30am bus to Mada'in Saleh.
After a 30 minute drive we were dropped off at the main entrance to Mada'in Saleh next to some restored train carriages. Mada'in Saleh was a stop on the Hejaz railway that ran from Damascus to Medina and through the Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia in the early twentieth century.
The Hejaz railway was a part of the Ottoman railway network and the original goal was to reach Mecca. However due to the outbreak of World War I it reached no further than Medina and 400 kilometres short of the holy city.
The railway was repeatedly damaged during the war, particularly at the hands of guerrilla forces led by T. E. Lawrence during the Arab Revolt, which ambushed Ottoman trains. Al-ʿUla Station was also bombed by the British during the war.
Following the end of World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire many sections of tracks fell into disrepair following years of neglect and the railway was unofficially abandoned in 1920.
We then made our way to the main welcome center. Hegra is the historic name for Mada'in Saleh, which means 'Cities of Salih' and refers to the Islamic prophet Salih. Hegra, or al-Hijr in Arabic, means "The Stoneland" or "The Rocky Place".
Inside where we were welcomed with Arabic coffee and dates and given a brief introduction for our visit today. Apart from business or pilgrimage, up until recently Saudi Arabia was quite a hard place to visit as a simple tourist, so it was quite surreal to be in a room full of other visitors and about to visit a UNESCO World Heritage site I have had only dreamt of visiting previously.
As well as some beautiful photos there was some accompanying history of the Hegra and Nabataean people.
Previously a nomadic people in northern Arabia, the Nabataeans inhabited a region that is now southern Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia by 4th century BC.
Their two major cities of Hegra and Petra were located on the incense route from Southern Arabia to the Mediterranean port of Gaza for shipping onwards as well as continuing overland to Mesopotamia.
Their wealth and prosperity came from their ability to source and store water in the harsh desert. The resulting monopoly on the desert trade routes allowed them to extract taxes from the camel caravans – laden with frankincense, myrrh and spices – that stopped at their garrisoned outposts for water and rest.
Mada'in Saleh lies in a relatively flat sandy basin, which 2,000 years ago was a substantial aquifer. Although the water levels have dropped from just a few meters below the ground to more than 20 meters today, it was sufficient at the time to support a major city and its agriculture.
Their trading links with the major powers of the ancient world also resulted in many cultural influences and a cosmopolitan society.
Although ruled by a monarchy, tribal and family relationshps were also important ways of organising their society. Inscriptions also suggest that women had property and inheritance rights.
At both Hegra and Petra, important members of society commissioned monumental rock-cut tombs for themselves and their descendants, of which 130 still exist today.
In 106 AD, the Nabatean Empire was annexed by the Romans and Red Sea routes overtook land trading routes. Nabatean cities were no longer centres of trade and slowly declined and eventually were abandoned.
After meeting our guide for our visit to Mada'in Saleh this morning, Ibraheem, we took the short bus ride to our first stop, Jabal Ithlib.
Ibraheem explaining how Jabal Ithlib was a special place for the Nabataen people. Through the middle of Jabal Ithlib is the Siq, a naturally formed passage leading into a sacred area. Within this area are inscriptions, shrines, altars and sanctuaries.
To the right of the passage is a rock-cut hall known as the Diwan, where Nabataeans gathered for ritual feasting or political discussion.
Ibraheem telling us how the Diwan has carved benches where guests would eat, drink and listen to music.
The Nabataean alphabet developed out of the Aramaic alphabet and used a distinctive cursive script from which the Arabic alphabet emerged.
Ibraheem showing us how certain characters in the Nabataean alphabet resembled Arabic script. It is now almost universally accepted that Arabic script originated from Nabataean.
A temple carved into the rock with a baetyl center. Baetyls are sacred stones that symbolise the deities the Nabataeans worshipped.
After a short bus ride we moved onto the large rocky outcrop of Jabal Al Banat (Qasr Al Bint or Palace of the Daughter).
Following the discovery of Petra by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812, Charles Montagu Doughty, an English traveler, heard of “other Petra-like sculptured cliff-monuments, bearing many inscriptions” at a distant place called Mada'in Saleh.
To avoid the danger of "wild bedouins", he joined the Hajj caravan from Damascus and reached the site of the ruins in 1876 "after three weeks’ tedious riding".
Doughty discovered evidence of a settlement that had once thrived, but which was now swallowed by time and sand.
Surrounding the “old ruinous sand-plain” where a people had once lived, Doughty found the spectacular tombs, “full of men’s bones,” hewn out of the towering sandstone outcrops that overlooked the site of the old city.
From Doughty's “Travels in Arabia Deserta” 1888:
“Little remains of the old civil generations of El-Hejr (Hegra), the caravan city; her clay-built streets are again the blown dust in the wilderness.
Their story is written for us only in the crabbed scrawlings upon many a wild crag of this sinister neighborhood, and in the engraved titles of their funeral monuments, now solitary rocks, which the fearful passenger admires, in these desolate mountains ...”
Ibraheem telling us how significant human remains and artefacts were excavated from the Tomb of Hinat, daughter of Wahbu. Around 80 people from several generations had been buried there between the first and the third centuries. Nabataean jewellery also found in the tombs included a necklace made of dates, symbolising wealth and fertility.
The entrance to a smaller tomb with a pair of sacred animals on guard at top.
Archaeologists have discovered that the Nabataeans at Hegra wrapped their dead in layers. Closest to the body was the finest cloth such as dyed wool. The next two layers were of a rougher, plain linen. The top layer was a leather shroud, sometimes with handles for carrying the body in the tomb.
We then moved on to Jabal Al Ahmar.
The natural sandtone formations at Mada'in Saleh are the weathered remains of stone layers whch formed between 510 and 475 million years ago.
Another tomb in the side of Jabal Al Ahmar.
Ibraheem showing us the 'Living Museum' on his phone, an app that showed 3D details and descriptions of each of the main areas at Mada'in Saleh.
Looking across to a nearby natural rock formation that looks eerily similar to a face.
At our third and penultimate stop, the majestic Qasr Al-Farid. Carved into a massive boulder, Qasr al-Farid, or “The Lonely Castle" due to its physical isolation, is the largest tomb at Mada'in Saleh.
Ibraheem telling us how the Nabateans had a unique construction technique where the tombs were chiseled out of the rock from the top down with no scaffolding was required.
Hence Qasr al-Farid appears to have never been completed as the craftsmanship slowly deteriorates closer to its base.
All the other tombs of Mada'in Saleh contain only two pillars on their façade. Qasr al-Farid however has four and suggests that the owner of this tomb was immensely wealthy and an important individual in Nabataean society.
Qasr al-Farid is the most famous tomb at Mada'in Saleh and the view from above make the reason for this readily apparent with its strikingly mystical and breathtaking 2,000 year old beauty.
At the final stop at Al Sanea Tomb. As part of the Winter Festival there was a planned theatrical performance and we were greeted by a mute but inquisitive actress dressed in period costume from the time of the Nabataeans.
We then followed the actress to a market where the performance began.
Soldiers with swords and shields.
Although the play was entirely in Arabic it was quite cool to see open air theatre at such a historic location and where the audience could roam around and watch the performance from which ever angle they wished.
A man in a black thobe in front of Al Sanea Tomb looking like an archangel.
The play reaching its climax where a lady was mistakenly killed during a sword fight.
The recently demised being taken up to Al Sanea Tomb for internment.
And some dates and coffee at the end of an amazing performance! I was initially a bit dubious watching a play but it was very well put together and really helped to visualise what life was like millenia ago at Hegra.
Inside the Ottoman era fort which had been fully restored and was now acting as the Hegra souvenir store.
On the bus again for the drive back to Winter Park.
And where we spotted some restored Land Rover Defenders on duty for Uber.
We then met up with Hatim, Mohammed and Faisal and headed into town for some lunch. Top-left is Ibn Saud, the first monarch and founder of Saudi Arabia, on the right is his son and current monarch, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and bottom-left is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
While yesterday we had table and chairs, today we decided to get the full cultural experience and eat on the carpeted floor instead.
And enjoyed another sumptious spread of delicious arabic and asian cuisine.
In the late-afternoon we moved on to Al-Ula Heritage Village, also known as Ad-Deerah, the traditional Arabian village established 8 centuries ago and inhabited until the 20th century.
In the 20th century the new town center was established beside the old town and eventually the people left the old buildings. The last family is said to have left in 1983.
Looking down on the remains of the old dwellings. The ground floor was used for storage and reception with the traditional majlis while the first floor was the private area of the house.
A colourful and artistic interpretation of Elephant Rock.
Inside Majid al-Izam (Mosque of the Bones). The Friday mosque of the town, it was built of stone and its interior walls coated in clay. The name of the mosque comes from a histroical story that the Prophet Muhammad prayed here and designated the mihrab (niche in the wall indicating the direction to Mecca) using a bone.
Three local girls in traditional dress.
We then drove up the hill to Al Ula 360° View Point.
The concreted park surrounded by the precarious fence at its edge.
Some locals also enjoying the view of the majestic red-rock mountains disappearing into the horizon.
Looking south-east to Al-ʿUla town with Ad-Deerah bottom-left.
After the drive back down again we said farewell to Hatim and thanked him for the great two days.
Stopping to refuel as the sun begins the set.
And then started the 435 kilometer drive back to Ha'il.
Some roadside Nescafé during a quick pitstop.
Back at Ha'il Regional Airport for our flight back. There was some concern it would be delayed after bad weather earlier in the day in the Emirates, but luckily our Boeing 737 had recently departed and was on its way from Dubai.
Airside with my boarding pass.
And about to board at the end of a fun and amazing weekend in Al-ʿUla!