When my previously hoped for November trip to Madain Saleh was postponed, I set about trying to quickly find a replacement for my monthly adventure. With very little warning and no time off from work, I decided it might be time to see what I could do with a tour group.
I contacted Haya Tours and discovered they were doing a trip to the Edge of the World on Thanksgiving weekend. Having no plans for the holiday here in Tabuk, and seeing that the Edge was on my Saudi bucket list, I decided to join the group.
I had read a little about the place, seen some pictures on Google, but it was hard to get a real idea of the place. Indeed, I took my own pictures, but they don’t really do it justice. It’s not unlike the Grand Canyon, the scale is simply to vast, the experience is so three dimensional that my poor little camera can’t even come close to capturing it.
Our instructions were to meet up at the Granada Mall at 7:30 in the morning on Friday. I flew into Riyadh Thursday night, the only flight I could get arrived after midnight, so I only got a few hours of sleep in the hotel before I had to catch my car to the meeting point.
We had a pretty large group, mostly made up of women. There was a group of Americans, a couple ladies from New Zealand, and a quartet of native Saudi women as well. In addition we had a contingent of Germans who were apparently in Saudi short-term on a contract to improve efficiency in certain industries… That was a funny conversation. And one older gentleman who’d been working in oil around the Middle East for 20+ years.
We all piled in to the 4-wheel drive SUVs and trucks and headed out of the city. We drove for about an hour and took the time to get to know one another. I was in a car with the 4 Saudi women and the lady from New Zealand. One of my favorite parts of travelling is getting to meet people from all over the place and hearing their stories.
The sky was looking very dark and threatening rain. In the desert, this is a big deal. We pulled off the highway where the “road” becomes a dirt track into the mountains and waited to see what the rain would do. It wasn’t just about our picnic being rained on, our guide explained, but because we had to cross a wadi. If it rained too much, we would be stranded on the other side for days. Laughing a little he asked us, “Did you bring your pajamas?”
Wadi literally means “valley”, but colloquially it refers to a river valley that is dry except when it rains heavily, and then its full of water. So, we waited for about a half an hour until the brief storm subsided and the sky was once more blue with fluffy white clouds.
Another long drive, this time off road, full of bouncing and drifting past beautiful desert plants responding to the recent rain and ever higher rocks jutting out of the ground sweeping past us. Oh, and camels. Lots of camels. They eat the an extremely thorny variety of acacia that grows out there.
We paused for a brief photo op at an oddly shaped rock and the ladies began shedding their hijabs. The three Saudi sisters had tied matching fancy pink turbans on under their hijab, so they could doff the black for photo ops while still maintaining reasonable modesty in mixed company. None-the-less they were fairly liberal, posing in jeans and bedazzled sweatshirts, using one of the ubiquitous selfie extenders to take group shots.
The drive in was not a long distance, but slow because of the off road terriain. Even though we only stopped once for official photo ops, I managed to get quite a few lovely photos of the desert as we traveled. Below are two of my absolute favorite shots from the drive in. You can see them all on my facebook page.
Finally we arrived. The spot we stopped at did not seem much different from all the other cliffs we’d passed along the way. The guide told us that we had 40 minutes to climb up and look around then we’d all gather again for a group photo before heading on to the next spot.
The ladies all abandoned propriety and shed our abayas as well. It was a little cultural vacation, this mix of local Saudis, foreigners, men and women. We were all dressed in “western” clothes, and for a while I forgot I wasn’t supposed to talk to men, and asked a few other visitors (not part of our group) about the best trail up to the viewing spot. Apparently, they forgot too, because they answered politely and without either the awkward formality or leering skeez that accompanies so many of my verbal exchanges with men in Saudi.
As we walked toward the area indicated, it became apparent that there was indeed an edge. As I crested a small rise and the full extent of the valley dropping away below us became apparent, all thoughts, all breath escaped me and I was filled with nothing but total awe at the spectacle of nature.
It’s hard to explain to anyone who has never been to see a great natural wonder in person. Photos and video are so easy to come by, most people are familiar with iconic natural wonders. So it’s hard to express why we should go to them physically, especially at great effort and expense, when we can see them for free from the comfort of our own homes.
All I can tell you is that it isn’t the same. Not even close. It’s bigger than the difference from 8-bit graphics to HDTV, from black and white tube tv to IMAX. We have so many more senses than the 5 everyone knows, and I’m not being supernatural. I’m talking about scientifically acknowledged ones. Plus whatever spiritual relationship with the universe you might have that makes tremendously huge things ping the sacred section of the brain.
The giant redwoods aren’t just “really tall trees”, and the Grand Canyon isn’t just another river valley. Standing at the edge, cliffs spreading out to the right and left of me and hundreds of feet below, ahead a vast expanse of sand stretching to the horizon. It is little wonder that this place is called the Edge of the World. Like standing on cliffs over the Pacific ocean, it seemed that emptiness before us was infinite.
The three Saudi sisters in the car with me had been among the last to leave the peak with me, and we’d chatted and taken many photos on the way back. Indeed, I have one of them to thank for pointing out to me that I should be using the Panorama function on my new phone to get the best shot. I think it turned out pretty well.Reluctant to leave and unsure of where we were headed next, we piled back into the cars and began bouncing through the desert again. The tour guide stopped us all for another brief photo shoot, pointing out the “Saudi Pyramids” and joking that the souls of the Pharos were visiting.
The Saudi sisters I was riding with asked the driver if they could put on some music and quickly linked one of their phones to the cars stereo via bluetooth. Riding through the Arabian desert, the Arabian music, traditional and modern, blasting through the speakers until I felt it in my bones, fusing with the vibration of the SUV and the shaking of the uneven desert terrain — I felt like a really glorious stereotype.We arrived at our second location, and like the first, it didn’t look like much from where we parked, but now I knew better. We wandered around the nearby area, looking at a dropoff that was so straight it could have been a quarry, the fault line in the ground had sheared off the rock so cleanly it looked man made.
The guides said we could walk up to the view, or they would ferry us up a small group at a time in one of the cars. I was quite fine walking, but as I overheard the eldest of the Saudi sisters entreating the others to ride in the back of the pick up truck “like Bedouin”. Her entreaties for company were a mix of English and Arabic, but I picked up the gist, which was “cool Saudi experience” and decided to join them.Five of us climbed in the back of the truck. We started off sitting (all but the eldest sister who stood in the truck bed holding on to the roll bar), but soon we followed her lead and were all standing side by side holding on to the bar, bouncing along the road, feeling the wind in our hair. “It’s like Titanic.” she exclaimed, and I threw my arm out and replied, “king of the world!”, and truly for a moment it felt like we were.
There is something amazing about sharing adventures and experiences with like-minded people. I like having friends to explore with, but often find myself travelling alone. So when I find strangers in my travels with whom I can share the joy and the excitement of adventure, it’s almost like an amplifier. Riding in the back of the truck with these women, being welcomed into their adventure, we did create something more. Talk to strangers.Just as we were nearly bursting with giggles and bounces, the truck rounded the top of the rise and the new view displayed to our right stopping the laughs and jokes with an involuntary chorus of “oooooh”s. The truck came to a stop and we all piled out.
The guides told us to look for fossils, but no one really took this very seriously. After all, what were we going to find out here? Dinosaur bones? We climbed around on the cliff edges, admiring the views and taking more pictures. The other groups slowly caught up with us by walking or being ferried up in the truck. Once everyone arrived, a couple of the guides started picking up fossils and showing them to us.
The cliffs we were standing on, high in the air, in the middle of a vast desert that spans the entire peninsula had once been on the bottom of an ocean. We’re taught in school that this is the nature of the changing surface of the planet. I’ve seen fossils in museums with little tags saying where they were found. I’ve watched documentaries that show in beautiful computer animation how the land masses have changed over time. Nothing really compares to being there.
Driving for hours through a desert, riding and climbing up cliff crests to see the vast emptiness around you, then looking down at your feet and seeing a seashell embedded in the rock. Or of turning over a rock and realizing it was part of a fossil you have now uncovered for the first time.
After some final ooohs and aaaahs as we pointed out fossils stuck in the rock to one another and collected a few souvenirs from the loose fossils that had been dislodged by wind and rain, we piled back into the cars once more and headed back into the wadi. About halfway back to the main road, we pulled over in the shade of some larger trees.
One of the guides drove a few of us ladies a ways off to avail ourselves of a little ravine behind some acacia while the rest of the rest set up a little Arabic desert picnic. When we got back, the carpets we all arranged on the ground and cake and dates had been set out along with carafes of spiced arabic coffee and sweet black tea. And just in time too, since all of us were now quite hungry from the exercise and adventure.
In the US, we only have access to a couple varieties of dates, but here in Saudi there seem to be dozens of varieties. Our picnic had no less than eight visually distinct kinds. The cake was very reminiscent of sweet cornbread but with a date paste layer in the middle. Many of the westerners there were experiencing arabic coffee for the first time that day. Its a green coffee blended with cardamom and other spices. Bitter and served in tiny cups it is a perfect compliment to the dates and other sweets.
There was also a tin of what looked like biscotti, but turned out to be savory with a slight caraway flavor. The Saudi ladies informed us that they should be dipped in hot milk. Sure enough, there was also a caraffe of hot ginger milk. I don’t know why I’ve never had that before, but I’m never giving it up. Also, you should make some right now. Go on, I’ll wait. I bet it works great with soy, rice, almond, coconut or hemp milk too.
Slightly sweet and very spicy, I would have been content to sip the ginger milk like hot chocolate, but we did try dipping the savory bisuits and oh my goodness! Savory crunchy buscuits in hot sweet ginger milk… a local snack I will happily add to my arabic coffee and dates any day.
Full and sleepy, we piled back into our cars and headed back into the city. We chatted and listened to music, shared stories of our lives and other adventures. It was quite a lovely day. When we arrived back at the mall we said our farewells. I took a card from the Kiwi and left my blog and email with the Saudi sisters, requesting that they send me any of the pictures or videos that I was in with them (they took a lot).
And there my day might have ended, for my plans were just to hang out at the mall until it was time to go to the airport. But the universe has a strange way of bringing us what we need, and in the absence of friends, family or feast on Thanksgiving, I was given a chance for two out of three.
Please read on in A Traditional Saudi Diner at Nadj Village… coming soon!
And don’t forget to check out the rest of the pictures on facebook 🙂