Saudi Arabia, officially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), has been on the bucket list for a long time. Until very recently, it was only possible to visit on a business visa. And women weren’t allowed to drive or travel unaccompanied. Tourist visas were finally issued in 2020 and the dress rules relaxed. Women given a little more freedom. And then came the Time of Covid, when all the visas were withdrawn. It’s now open again and I’m lucky enough to be one of the first official tourists to visit. Though I'm also apprehensive. This country has one of the worst human rights records in the world.
The area that is modern-day Saudi Arabia formerly consisted of mainly four distinct historical regions: Hejaz, Najd and parts of Eastern Arabia (Al-Ahsa) and Southern Arabia. They were united by King Abdul-Aziz of the House of Saudi, in 1932. Saudi Arabia has since been an absolute monarchy, effectively a hereditary dictatorship, governed along Islamist lines.
Saudi Arabia spans the vast majority of the Arabian Peninsula. It is the biggest country in the Middle East, and the second-largest country in the Arab world (after Algeria). But most of its terrain consists of inhospitable arid desert, generally best avoided.
The new tourist e-visa is fairly easily acquired. It turns up almost as soon as I’ve completed the online form and paid my money. The cost now includes mandatory Covid cover insurance. It’s also compulsory to register vaccination status on the Muqeem Portal and download the Tawakkalna App which captures this status, tracks you and is a required passport to enter many buildings.
These two are a little more problematic, Google Chrome thoughtfully translates the Muqeem Arabic into English for me. Except it’s not very accurate. The page is reversed – vaccinated visitor becomes 'dungeon visitor' and Jeddah (port of entry) becomes 'grandmother'. I revert to Firefox and manage to progress as required.
I’m stared at relentlessly on my flight from Bahrain, hair uncovered. But the reception in immigration is fast and friendly and there’s no request to search my bags.
The Tawakkalna App can only be initiated properly on arrival. Which is fine, if your texts are switched on and the verification code arrives. Which mine doesn’t. It doesn't like foreign phone numbers. I borrow his number from the nice man on hotel reception.
I’ve met up with my tour group. There are seven of us. Married couple Andy and Andrea (she has a mischievous face and a very infectious giggle), art teacher Veronica, graphics designer Tony, ex chain of care homes owner Peter and veteran German traveller, Tom. Our doughty leader is Steve and our Arab guide is Emad.
Saudi Arabia is the only country with a coastline along both the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf and Jeddah developed as a port on the Red Sea. As a result, it’s the most multicultural, least conservative city in the country. So it’s a good place to begin.
I'm expecting a walking tour of Jeddah, starting on the corniche. But the local motto is ‘Jeddah is different’ and so is our tour.
Much of the land here is reclaimed and there are huge stretches of building site littered with cranes. But the work is literally ongoing and our guide Emad can't find a way though. We drive relentlessly up and down six-lane highways, the sea tantalisingly out of reach. I have a stream of photos of sculptures on roundabouts.
I can see pedestrian walkways and a gaily patterned bicycle lane winding alongside the corniche. No-one is using them, but then it is very hot - 35 degrees and more. There are a plethora of modern Moorish/Spanish style block hotels and malls chock full of designer shops. Sometimes it looks more like Florida than the Middle East. I think we’ve passed a branch of every American and British chain I’ve ever heard of. The Saudi economy (based on oil but now expanding into investment – Disney, Newcastle United (!) etc ) is the largest in the Middle East and eighteenth-largest in the world.
Up north, we stop at a building site. This is where they are planning to construct Al Walid, the tallest tower in the world. At a kilometre high it will outreach the Burj Khalifa in Dubai by 200 metres. At the moment, we have to use our imaginations.
Back down south. We've been driving for an hour and a half now. Jeddah is sprawling, but it’s also a case of déjà vu, déjà vu, déjà vu. I've decided we must be rehearsing for the Saudi Grand Prix, which will be held for the first time, in Jeddah, in December. Finally, a stop at the white, so called Floating Mosque. It’s on reclaimed land, prettily situated on the bay, and will be passed 50 times, as the F1 drivers lap the corniche.
Then, more six lane highways, further south to the Central Fish Market, on the main harbour. For the most part, this is manned by grinning Bangladeshi workers in uniform. Blue for stallholders and red for those washing and gutting the catch.
The white slabs are covered in gleaming fish of all hues and sizes. Emad takes our orders and we troop into a restaurant to feast on our selection. Lobster, popcorn shrimp, hammour and nagine. It’s absolutely delicious. We're eating in a new category of dining room. The Men with Foreign Women room. Emad stands guard while we go to the toilet.
More engaging, is the old historic centre of Jeddah, called Al Balad. The mud brick and coral houses, with their wooden balconies and ornate decorations are unique. They're also teetering and bulging dangerously. I wonder how many have collapsed. Sadly, they are being systematically torn down and rebuilt in the style of the originals. The area is a sea of hoardings and rubble.
Some of the original houses are museums, with cases full of fifties bric a brac and portraits of the Royal family to explore. We have to wait for prayers to finish before we can go in. Strong mint tea to drink on the roof of a tea house, with a great view of the carnage. Then through the souq here, endless rows of modern glass fronted booths punctuated with mosques so old they’re ground floor is below street level.
Finally, the ethnographic Taibat Museum. Several floors of elaborately linked chambers with reconstructions of costumes and way of life from all areas of the country, even the Red Sea (lights, nets and stuffed fish). Pottery, artefacts and koranic texts. There are plenty of charming (if not exactly sophisticated) exhibits to see.
Emad points out the passing solo women in their cars. Women have only been allowed to drive for the last two years. Change is being expedited by the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MSB) and is reported to be happening fast. Too fast for some of the older generation Emad says. Saudi Arabia has one of the world's youngest populations, with approximately 50 per cent of its population of 34.2 million under 25 years old. Emad isn’t averse to moving with the times himself. He’s actually a heart and lung surgeon who has worked at hospitals in both London and the States. He’s now looking at a new career as a tour guide.
The world's second-largest religion, Islam, emerged in the area known today as Saudi Arabia. In the early seventh century, the Islamic prophet Muhammad united the population of Arabia and created a single Islamic religious polity. Following his death in 632, his followers rapidly expanded the territory under Muslim rule beyond Arabia, conquering huge and unprecedented swathes of territory (from the Iberian Peninsula in the West to modern-day Pakistan in the East) in a matter of decades.
Saudi Arabia is sometimes referred to as "The Land of the Two Holy Mosques" in reference to Al-Masjid al-Haram (in Mecca) and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (in Medina), the two holiest places in Islam. (Jerusalem is the third.) Mecca is reputedly the birthplace of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The Hira cave atop the Jabal al-Nur (Mountain of Light) is just outside the city and is where Muslims believe the Quran was first revealed to Muhammad.
The Masjid al-Haram, is home to the Ka'bah (House of God), believed by Muslims to have been built by Abraham and Ishmael. Pre Islam it contained a back meteorite believed to be mystical and other pagan idols, but it was rededicated by Muhammed. This is Islam's holiest site and the direction of prayer for all Muslims (qibla), cementing Mecca's significance in Islam. Unbelievers are not allowed to visit Mecca and until recently have not been able to go to Medina either. (This hasn't always deterred travellers. Richard Francis Burton was one of the first Europeans to visit Mecca while in disguise as a Pashtun.) We’re told that things have now changed and today we’re going to find out if this is true.
We’re on the Haramain high speed (shinkansen style) train. The train links Medina and Mecca and the name means Double Haram -Two Cities. It was built for the pilgrims – ceremonial Hajj and less onerous Umrah involve visits to both This is an obligation for all able Muslims.
The journey to Medina is uneventful. The train is fast, on time and there is little to be seen through the heavily shielded widows. Now, for some reason, we have a 50 seater coach to accommodate our tour group of seven. I’ve got four seats to spread out my belongings. Medina is another cream city on a muddy sand backdrop, with a few scattered mountains as a backdrop. More renovation works. More diversions. We’ve now done so many U turns I’ve named our coach The Boris Bus.
We’re circling the Al-Masjid an-Nabawi several times, until we’re positively giddy, The minarets are tantalisingly glimpsed through fences and down side streets, as the driver stops to ask about the best route. Eventually, we stop just outside the enclosure and peep through the fretwork. Headscarves definitely required here. Just to make sure I’ve added a black bandanna face mask and sunglasses. Leader Steve, kindly says I look terrifying.
There are gorgeous intricate canopies, numerous glittering pillars and, to one side, the green dome of the holy mosque that contains Mohammed’s body. Pilgrims stream in and out. ‘You’re the first foreigners I’ve seen here in 20 years,’ declaims a Pakistani guy. An excited Moroccan woman wants her picture taken with us. Sadly, the restaurants with views over the enclosure are closed, or so we’re told. But we’ve already seen more than I had expected.
Elsewhere, there are more diversions round construction and when we do arrive anywhere more often than not we have to wait whilst one of the mandatory prayer sessions finish. The Quba Mosque may be the first mosque in the world that dates to the lifetime of Muhammad in the seventh century. Its first stones were said to be positioned by Muhammad when he escaped from the city of Mecca. The escape in the year 622 AD is known as the hejira and is year 0 in the Islamic calendar. At that time Medina was known as Yathrib and was a Jewish settlement.
This mosque is believed to be where the first Friday prayer was held - led by Muhammad. According to Wikipedia, the Mosque of the Companions, which I saw in Massawa in Eritrea, is also a contender for oldest mosque. Whatever, Quba is an important and holy mosque. Offering prayers in the Quba Mosque is equivalent to performing one Umrah. After we’ve waited for prayers to finish (and Emad and the driver have disappeared to participate) we wander over the pigeon filled square to have a look We’re the first non Moslem visitors ever, it seems. The door guardians are happy to participate in photographs, to celebrate this event, but the younger of them is fervent in his opposition to our entry and cannot be persuaded to so much as let us peek inside.
So, we’re off to the Masjid al-Qiblatain or 'Mosque of the Two Qiblas', to try our luck again. This is believed to be the place where Muhammad received the command to change the Qibla (direction of prayer), from Jerusalem (as this is where Muhammed ascended to heaven) to Mecca. This mosque also dates back to ancient times. Sort of. It was built during the year 2 AH (623 AD), one of the few mosques in the world to have contained two mihrabs (niches indicating the qibla) in different directions. However, in 1987, during the reign of King Fahd, the mosque was completely torn down and rebuilt. The old prayer niche facing Jerusalem was removed, and the one facing Mecca was left.
We're hoping they will let us look inside here. But it’s shut. Maybe they’ve been warned we’re coming?
The young man at the Quba Mosque has followed us, filming our departure and then phoned the tourism authority to complain about foreigners hanging around. No-one seems quite sure what to do with tourists in Medina. Our scheduled visit to the museum about Muhammed is off. Only pilgrims allowed. So is our traditional dinner. We’ve been confined to barracks. The tourist police inquire when we are leaving and are told, ‘Tomorrow’.
'Good', they reply.
We chance our arm at one more stop on our way out of Medina. Uhud Mosque is built on the site of Muhammed’s second battle, against the Meccans (there were three). Adjacent is the Hill of the Archers,– a crucial part of the battle plan. The archers were supposed to cover the rear, but they deserted their posts in search of booty and Muhammed was severely wounded.
There is a graveyard (tombs here are unmarked), adorned with lists of rules and exhortations from the ultraconservative Wahhabi religious movement within Sunni Islam. Wahhabi has been described as a "predominant feature of Saudi culture", although the power of the religious establishment has been significantly eroded in recent years. Everyone is climbing the hill, for the view, even though the sign forbids it. A police car is circling, but we depart Medina without any further drama.
The desert road, the old Incense Route, leads north through anthracite coloured rocky dunes and low mountain ranges – this is volcanic territory. First stop is a Hejaz Railway station. This Ottoman railway, was built to bring pilgrims from as far away as Syria and is famous for T. E. Lawrence’s sabotage attempts. Together with local tribesmen, he succeeded in disrupting services several times. I’m playing the Lawrence of Arabia them of course.
The station is fenced off, but there’s a hole in the netting just big enough to crawl through. There are reconstructed wooden carriages attached to an old locomotive. And no-one appears to castigate us. On our perambulations round Medina we stopped at the terminus. Naturally, the museum there was closed for renovation.
Driver Omar is Syrian and is bemused by us tourists and the long route. His usual job is ferrying pilgrims on Umrah. He is not averse to long telephone conversations while he’s driving the wrong way and struggling with Google and Emad’s directions. He amuses himself the rest of the time by eating sunflower seeds, spitting or flicking the shells onto the coach floor.
Lunch is at Khaybar, a small desert town in a fast food meets traditional Arab joint, called King Camel. It’s plate glass, metal railings and shiny scarlet carpet. It has ordering booths a la McDonalds. But we sit traditional style on the red plush and the food is placed on the floor on huge platters. Tender camel meat in a pilaff, and the usual dips and salads. And a chef cooking sweet and creamy rosewater soaked kanafa over flames. Our welcome from the local people continues to be both astonished and friendly. Steve is bemused and very touched to be given a watch by a young man insistent on rewarding him for bringing tourists to the country.
Khaybar was the scene of another ancient battle, this time between the Jews, who had introduced agriculture and ran the local date palmerie and the Moslems, led by Muhammed. The Jewish community were beaten and forced to agree to hand over half their annual profits. They were eventually totally ousted. We drive to see the old village on the site of the battlefield. A policeman arrives and tells us we cannot go in as the buildings are being renovated. There is no sign of any activity.
Plan B is to search out a viewpoint of the battlefield and the ruins of the Jewish Khaybar Fort, but Google fails to do the job again. After driving across rocky lava strewn desert for some time and past the ruined village three times it is agreed that we should give up and depart for our final destination, Al Ula.
The sun has set when we arrive at the Shaden Desert Resort, but the illuminated formations in the gorge are a stunning welcome. The hotel spills along the narrow chasms - my home is a luxurious mock Bedouin tent. There’s also a sundeck and swimming pool. Men only. Grrrr.
The territory that now constitutes Saudi Arabia was the site of several ancient cultures and civilizations. The prehistory of Saudi Arabia shows some of the earliest traces of human activity in the world. AlUla is a good place to start looking. However, The Royal Commission has taken over tourism in the AlUla area and the itinerary is changing almost literally minute by minute. Emails are flying into Emad’s phone. Steve flinches every time it pings.
This morning is billed as an exhilarating 4 WD ride through the canyons of the desert. Sure enough, we pile into Toyota Landcruisers. They’ve been restored and all the upholstery is covered with flapping plastic. And we proceed at leisurely pace. A stop for coffee by the road first. There is a little sedate off-roading to take in some more incredible rock formations. Mesas, buttes and hoodoos abound. Strung together like huge lines of pudding, dripping with sticky toffee. The highlight is The Rainbow, an arch that frames the landscape beautifully. The best view involves a scramble up some steep slopes and an inelegant slide down some shale. Then some more coffee.
A gap in a pair of giant rock pillars guarding the road. It’s explained that a large camel belonging to one of the prophets on an expedition attempted to pass through the original narrow gap, which widened to allow passage. The poor animal was still ungratefully slaughtered for meat.
Then, an oasis farm and café with the usual Arab lounging area, the unusually spicy Arab coffee and dates of course. The owner has connections with the royal family and is wealthy enough to have her own menagerie as an added attraction. There are peacocks, bantams, a giant tortoise (relatively young at 38), goats, gazelles (just about visible with binoculars) and ostriches. We’re told that another pen adjacent to the ostriches contains Australian ostriches. They look like emus to me.
And another café. This one is reached via a siq, a long chimney schism in the rock like the one at Petra. There’s a sandy opening, surrounded by sheer rock face and yet more divans.
And now it’s lunch. A palmerie, The Authentic Place, still more divans and carpets and succulent spicy chicken under the shade of the tall palms, the leaves cross-crossed above us. It would be a very pleasant place for a snooze before our planned stroll through the oasis. (What some exercise?). But the phone has pinged again. We’re going to the ruins of Dadan.
The cars take us back to the coach. The coach takes us to the ticket booth at the Winter Park. Then, we have to get on the official tourist bus to the Dedan ruins - ‘A Journey in Time’.( Well, it doesn’t go for 45 minutes.) The commission are determined to provide the ultimate tourist experience. Take it or leave it.
I decide to go back to our coach to fetch my laptop and write up today’s experiences whilst I’m waiting. ‘Knock on the back of the bus to wake up Omar’, instructs Steve. So I do. Except it’s the wrong bus and the wrong driver. When I do track him down, Omar is having a party on his own in our coach. Cooking on his gas stove, platters of dates and sweetmeats, smoking his shisha.
At least the wait gives us time to admire the rock formations. There are plenty of tall thin towers around this spot. Andrea suggests we produce a coffee table book called Phalluses of Saudi Arabia.
Eventually arriving at Dedan we get to look at rock tombs from a great distance. The lion tombs are those belonging to the VIPs. We transfer to another bus then, to view what I think is called a sink. I haven’t a clue. The explanation is incoherent and indistinct. From an even greater distance. It's dusk and hardly anything is visible now.
Then a bus journey of about 100 metres back to the entrance to Dedan. The guide (or rawi) suggests looking for more information on Goggle. So Google now has a new name. and this is what I’ve done.
‘Dedan was an ancient oasis city that was once the capital of one the oldest kingdoms of Arabia. It benefited from its strategic location along the ancient frankincense trade road between ancient Yemen and the Levant and the abundant underground water resources.
The historical importance of Dedan and the Dedanites goes back to the early 2nd millennium BC through the time of the Madianites, Dedan then became the capital of the Lihyan peoples between the mid-5th century BCE and the mid-4th century BCE (dates are still being debated by scholars). Although the Lihyanite kingdom took over the power in north-western Arabia they continued using the Dadanic script and language.'
I’m told that dwellings built more than 2 000 years are now visible. There’s the remains of a palace and temples. Monumental statues four metres high. I'm unable to confirm this.
Yet another bus to the “open library” of inscriptions in the rocks at Jabal Ikmah dating back as far as 1000 BC. Except it's dark now and we can’t see anything at all when we’ve clambered up the (many) steps. People are waving their phone torches around desperately. This is the only time each day they offer this tour at the moment. Mad.
I’ve read that Elephant Rock is iconic. I’ve been promised a visit there all day. It’s best at night I’m told. There are lots of little cafes and it’s lit up. We finally arrive and our entrance is barred. It's closed for renovations. It’s just too frustrating for words.
I peep over the fence from the height of our coach…and that’s it.
I've been told to be ready outside my tent with my bags to be picked up by the golf buggy that goes between the tents and reception /restaurant. Naturally, it’s 15 minutes late. I've decided to dub this The Sit Around in Saudi Tour. Today, we're visiting Mada'in Saleh or Hegra, the first UNESCO heritage site designated in Saudi Arabia. It’s a Nabataean city, sister to Petra in Jordan. The Nabatean kingdom filled the gap between the Dedanites and the Romans, presiding over the Incense Route. A bus to the Hegra site. Another Journey In Time coach. We have to sit on it for over half an hour before it goes. 25 minutes to get to the site.
Then another bus round Hegra. First stop is another siq at Jabal Ithlib. The sun lights the path just once a day giving rise to a so called mystical path. Close by is the Diwan, a meeting room in the rock - a place which hosted sumptuous banquets.
There are nearly 100 tombs to follow. We get a close up view of 18 of these at Jabal Al Ahmar. They have intricately carved entrances decorated with birds flowers and lions. Some of the eagles and urns are peppered with bullet holes. The Islamic extremists objected to the depiction of animal life. And others were just hopeful that there was gold in them there urns. They were disappointed.
The grand-daddy tomb further on is the isolated and unfinished monolith that is the burial place of Lihyan, Son of Kuza. It’s sometimes referred to as the Lonely Castle and it features on all the posters. We troop around the canyons and rock faces. There's filming going on in front of one of the important tombs. We're forbidden to go there. But that's the only thing ruled out so far So we're doing quite well today. And it's a glorious setting presided over by a string of stunning hoodoos.
Things have been going too splendidly. Emad is persuaded to abandon Tik Tok and phone around to find us somewhere to eat in AlUla. We follow a guide to the chosen restaurant to find a closed sign. We wonder who Emad called. Eventually, another traditional café is identified and we make our repast - chicken and rice (khabsa).
A stroll around the very newly renovated Old Town next. The main street is a string of modern stalls and cafes, with an Arab vibe. There's even a Dunkin Donuts. They front the 900 or so traditional Adobe dwellings that were old AlUla. The bulldozer is busy doing its work behind the hoardings, but there are plenty of ruined walls to be admired - a crenellated fort on a hill providing a suitable atmospheric backdrop. Or there would be if we bought a ticket and took a tour. Which would involve another Journey in Time bus back to where we are standing now. Fortunately, we spy a restaurant with a terrace and a cooperative waiter. So we get the view free.
Next, we set off for Ha'il. Somehow or other the journeys all seem to take much longer than expected. This is flat desert over a newly tarmacked and relatively quiet road. A few camels wander on the horizon.
Ha’il is a sprawling conurbation holding some 900,000 people. It’s evolved as a caravan stop on the pilgrim route, the centre of the area once ruled by the House of Rashid, in north Najd. It was conquered by the Saudis and incorporated into one kingdom by King Abdul-Aziz in 1932.
Today, it's an agricultural area, with a couple of reconstructed forts, Arif and Qishlah. There are good views from Arif, where three of the group manage to get locked into a chamber, causing a few minutes consternation. And there’s a cosmopolitan downtown area with the Barzan Souq that’s gradually opening up after Thursday evening prayers. The shops are modern, concrete and plate glass, but there are the usual rows of overly bright blingy gold and perfume shops. Some specialise in the local favourite, oud – to burn or to spray, Groups of young women, eyes gleaming from behind their niqabs, call out welcomes and ask for selfies.
It’s a neon lit comfortable hotel with little atmosphere, especially in the rooms. It’s typical, in Arab countries. Hot water is provided by individual water heaters. The green agenda isn’t even in the planning stages here, it seems. I’ve not seen one solar panel, despite the relentless sun and searing heat of the desert. Plastic water bottles abound and are replenished by the half dozen. As fast as Steve encourages the use of refillable water bottles and tap water (which he assures us is perfectly safe) Emad emerges beaming, with more plastic bottles ,and distributes them around the bus. Cutlery nearly everywhere is plastic and here even the breakfast crockery is throwaway plastic.
Dinner in the Asian Feast hotel restaurant. The manager is attentive and tells me I need to re-register my room card, as it’s been near my phone. No it hasn’t, I think, but I go along with it, even though I can’t remember my room number. Andy and Andrea helpfully supply it. Slight alarm bells are ringing, but I tell myself I’m just being paranoid. But no, half an hour later my door bell rings and he’s there with a plate of fruit I haven’t ordered. The chain’s now across the door.
Just over an hour north of Ha’il is Jubbah, famous for its UNESCO designated rock art, spread over two sites at Jabal Umm Simmam. There are the usual proliferation of petroglyphs and inscriptions, dating back as far as 10,000 years. They depict camels, cattle, African mammals (which used to wander up this way), ostriches and an ancient king or two. Possibly more interesting are the very graphic Kama Sutra type scenes. We’re not sure how old these are, but they are not referred to in any of the literature.
Another traditional Arab meal on another traditional estate. The words chicken and rice have become synonymous with lunch. As usual, we start in the lounge area or majis, where coffee (qahwah) is served. The custom is to have your teeny cup filled three times - just a sip each time -and then to shake it to show you have had enough. Coffee is always accompanied by dates. And sometimes it’s followed by tea.
As usual, there’s a tour to finish. In this case it’s a look round the old high rooms, rafters burnt black by smoke. (Nevertheless, there’s still a TV on the wall). Another little museum of 50s bric a brac. The piece de resistance is a working irrigation system. A pair of delightfully fluffy white camels in harness, stroll disdainfully up and down. This operates a series of pulleys, which enable two leather skins to scoop up water and cascade it into a channel.
For me, the highlight of this day trip is the Nefud Desert scenery, as we wind through an apricot sand sea of small barkhans.
Dinner is khabsa - again.
The Hutamayah Crater is off the road to Buraydeh and near the small eerily quiet town of Tabah. But no-one is quite sure exactly where it is. Emad solicits directions and the coach lurches along a dirt track and into a low caldera, past an even more deserted village and a dilapidated date farm, before we decide we must be in the wrong place. Back to the main road and past a sign that indicates Volcanic Orifices. Ah that must be it. The coach creeps another long desert track, this time coming to a halt on the rim of a deep crater, veined with green swirls. There’s a sparkling stretch of salt lake in the centre. It’s impressive and deserves a circumnavigation. Though true to form on this tour the path at the far end disappears inland, covered in steep shale, and we have to do a U turn.
Back to the bus. This time we have to reverse out and Omar attempts several times to turn the bus round. The last attempt results in catastrophe. The back wheels are firmly embedded in the sand. Emad has phoned his local friends, he says, who are sending a truck to tow us out. It’s another long wait. We watch out for the clouds of dust that signal the arrival of vehicles. A friend of Emad's turns up first. with a pick up. and attempts to attach a rope. Whilst he is planning his rescue the local fire men (Civil Defence) arrive with a slightly bigger pick up (their trucks are lime green here), snort derisively at these puny efforts and elbow him out of the way. Tow rope in place they attempt to move forward. The rope snaps with a loud bang.
More of Emad’s friends put in an appearance in assorted Landcruisers, leap out, dig for about 30 seconds and then stand round gossiping and drinking coffee. Time ticks by. Finally, John Wayne and the Second Cavalry to the rescue, as the back up to the Civil Defence team arrive. This time they have a super big proper fire engine tow truck. Finally, we’re pulled out and on our way. The ultimate U Turn. It’s more exciting than the rock art.
It’s now mid afternoon on Friday and all the local restaurants are closed. We’ve missed out on our khabsa so we descend on a supermarket and fill up on coca cola, crisps and ice cream.
We’re skirting Buraydeh, the capital city of the ancient province of Najd and heading to the souq at Mussawakaf. It's been rebuilt in traditional style with mud walls and triangular merlons up top and is utterly delightful. No-one seems to mind us wandering around with our cameras. There’s an auction of car boot style items stacked on trestle tables in the centre. All men. There are also men dancing and manning other stalls, selling items like gas masks from the Iraqi war. Up the other end of this large open area are benches and tables with women and one or two families enjoying picnics. I’m plied with cakes and biscuits.
And then dinner at our hotel at Unayzah. It’s khabsa.
Buraydeh is said to be the biggest camel market in the world. For my part, I’ve never before never seen so many camels (and goats and sheep). A heaving mass of animals winched in, flailing in the air, craning their necks for all the world like small dinosaurs, hobbled, squashed into cramped rows. The incessant bellowing. The indignity. The odd attempt to escape quickly curtailed by masters current and new, wielding their sticks. Red and white check cloth headed men weave in and out stern, proud, concerned as they buy and sell. The auctioneer’s voice firm above the caterwauling of the beasts. Enthralling and disturbing. Poor camels.
Half way to Riyadh from Buraydeh (if you drive the indirect route ) are the heritage museums of the twin towns -Shaqra and Ushaiger. Both were settled by Bedouins some 1500 years ago. Shaqra has a mud walled fort and several restored house, a mosque and a notable well. Both offer stunning examples of Najdi architecture, with its distinctive triangular windows and roofs, and ornately carved wooden doors. Some still bear the names of the families who lived there.
Ushaiger became a popular stopping point for pilgrims crossing to Mecca, thanks to its springs and low-brimmed olive and palm groves. More rural than Shaqra, It’s a living museum, draped with traces of an ancient way of life. Encased in thick mud walls, Ushaiger is a labyrinth of winding alleyways, shaded pathways and timber-framed walkways.
Our last stop for the day on our way to Riyadh is billed as a memorable sunset view from an escarpment. Except that Emad can’t find the spot. We follow a road that peters out. The sun disappears behind the low dunes. There is no view. It’s more the Edge of Reason than the Edge of the World.
Riyadh is the capital and largest city of Saudi Arabia. Emad says that the government’s new plans for the future- Vision 2030 -hope to increase the population from 8. 5 million to 30 million as the countries economy diversifies. Petroleum was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1938 and followed up by It has since become the world's second largest oil producer (behind the US) and the world's largest oil exporter. This is the only Arab country to be part of the G 20 major economies.
The Vision 2030 Homepage tells me that it is planned to expand the population to 15-20 million. It’s still a huge increase. MSB wants Riyadh to one of the biggest city economies in the world and incorporates a greening programme into his vision. He says, ‘We also aim to have Riyadh become among the world’s most prominent cities in terms of quality of life, tourism, and services in one way or another’. As you might expect Riyadh is a modern glitzy city, especially at night, when all the malls and scrapers are lit up.
A visit to the Al Masmak Palace Museum explains the history of the Saud empire and the establishment of the three Saudi states, the alter two founded from Riyadh. The storming of Masmak Fort in 1902 gave the Al Saud’s control of Riyadh. Royal family portraits are proudly displayed. This was a residence of King Abdul Aziz.
The city wakes up slowly on a Sunday, the first day of the working week. It turns out that some things aren’t open at all. The national museum was supposed to be the visit highlight. But it’s closed. Some of the hoardings confirm this. 'We haven’t changed the website yet', they admit. Though Google seems to know.
The adjacent Murabba Palace Museum is open, however. Abdul Aziz moved there from Al Masmak. The mud brick, white painted palace was the first building to be erected outside the walls of the old city.
Between Al Masmak and Murabba is the huge Deera Square, affectionately known as Chop Chop Square. At unannounced times, police and other officials will clear the area to make way for public executions to take place.
The other highlight of Riyadh is the 302 metre-high Kingdom Centre, more colloquially known as The Bottle Opener. It has a slightly curved sky bridge connecting two towers: it’s a weird sensation walking over it and gazing out. There aren’t that many scrapers - Riyadh is another low beige city melding into the desert. It’s walls were last demolished in the fifties, after being rebuilt several times.
This is a country which isn’t quite sure if it wants tourists yet. There’s plenty to see. Whether it’s open when you get there, or you’re allowed to enter is a different matter. Masks are currently mandatory in indoor public areas in theory, but in practice this rule is often not reinforced. The Tawakkalna App is also checked in theory, but in practice it’s phenomenally difficult to activate. Besides, the person in charge of checking often gets bored after looking at the first couple or so and everyone else just troops in. Let’s see if it all settles down as Vision 2030 develops. For now, I’m heading home.
Bahrain is the third-smallest nation in Asia after the Maldives and Singapore but it isn’t quite what I expected. I wasn't exactly anticipating a stereotypical desert island with one palm tree in the middle. Just a flat, arid island in the Persian Gulf, with maybe a few palms, joined to Saudi Arabia by a causeway. (I can see it twinkling below as we land in the dark.) But it turns out to be an archipelago made up of 50 natural islands and an additional 33 artificial islands. They’re still reclaiming land – one project currently underway is a Palm Resort like the one in Dubai. To be fair to me, the area known as Bahrain Island is definitely the largest by a long way.
UK citizens qualify for a visa on arrival and also don’t need a PCR test to get on the plane, but you do have to get one as soon as you arrive. It’s mandatory to download the BeAware app and book everything via that. (I'm not sure I would have chosen that name. At a swift glance it says Beware Bahrain). And you have to fill in a vaccination declaration form on the app too. It’s all relatively straightforward.
The flight attendants are all dressed as if they are working in an operating theatre- totally covered in PPE. And the food is pretty bad. They’ve forgotten to put any gravy on my lumps of tasteless beef. But otherwise it’s comfortable enough on my Gulf Air plane.
The airport is modern and calm and there’s hardly any queuing. Even the line for the compulsory PCR on arrival test isn’t too taxing. The clerks are super friendly and my result arrives before breakfast next day - all as promised. The only irritation is the argument with the taxi driver taking me to my hotel. He smiles, refuses to turn on his meter and charges me 8 dinar (about £15) for a two kilometre trip. (The return, metered fare is 3 dinar).
The airport, and my hotel, are on Muharraq Island. It’s home to artificial beaches, restful gardens, dhow shipyards and a small restored Islamic fort. Arad Fort was built to defend its own island (though it wasn’t successful in keeping the Portuguese out), but is now joined onto Muharraq. I’m told there are some nice sunset views across the bay to the scrapers of Manama. So I decide to go look on my last afternoon. I can testify to the views, but not the sunset. I fall asleep and set off too late. Then I go the wrong way and eventually arrive, just as it gets dark.
The capital and largest city is Manama, on Bahrain Island, though its hard to tell where one sliver of urbanization ends and another begins. The only gaps between buildings are the areas of reclaimed land, bulldozers sitting ready. I take my cue from the many linking causeway bridges.
My second misconception is my plan to walk to the tourist sites. There aren’t that many of them, but they’re very spread out and much too far away. Besides, its 35 degrees outside, which is roasting after autumnal England. So I commandeer a driver – at a rate set in advance, this time.
It soon becomes apparent that Manama consists of an ever increasing number of fancy skyscrapers and a large number of giant shopping malls. Some of them full of very expensive shops. Bahrain made its money first through pearls and fish and then through oil and gas. But it has also developed the first post-oil economy in the Persian Gulf, the result of decades of investing in the banking and tourism sectors. Many of the world's largest financial institutions are based here. It’s definitely a high-rise, high income economy. Some of the top end hotels seem to be having a Las Vegas style competition to produce the most extraordinary glittering edifice. The winner is probably the swirling, almost hexagonal tower that is the Wyndham.
Though the most promoted building is the Bahrain World Trade Centre, with its sail like twin towers. It features on all the photographs of Bahrain and is the first skyscraper in the world to integrate wind turbines into its design. (Don't ask me where they are.)
But Manama isn’t entirely scrapers. There’s a fascinating older centre with a labyrinth of winding streets forming the souq. It’s a great place for a wander, shady cafes, drinks booths serving a huge range of juices and my favourite lemon and mint sherbets. And hundreds of open stores and stalls serving a wide range of goodies. As always I’m drawn by the colourful and fragrant spice shops. ‘Saffron, saffron’, the hopeful vendors call after me.
There’s a cool modern souq too, in a double storeyed white building – the Bab el Bahrain. This is more tourist orientated and the stall holders therefore more persistent in their entreaties: ‘Come in - looking is free…’
More expectations confounded. Bahrain has some interesting historical attractions. It is the site of the capital of the ancient Dilmun civilization, which dates back 4,000 years to the Bronze Age. There are seven stratified layers, relating to the Kassites, Greeks, Portuguese and Persians and it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2005.
I had never heard of the Dilmun Civilisation before, but I’m lucky enough to get a guided tour of the excavations. The Danish archaeologist in charge, Steffen Lauersen, (he’s written published books on the subject) shows me the walls, halls and streets of the various places he is uncovering, He says they chiselled the giant blocks with tools made of natural bronze alloy. It’s an unexpected, but hot and dusty treat. They only have one small awning to provide shelter.
The Dilmun ruins abut (and run underneath) a large Islamic fort, the Bahrain Fort. This was renovated by the Portuguese, who ruled Bahrain from 1521 until 1602. There are some beautiful Islamic arches and more great views across the jade water.
In the late 1800s, following successive treaties with the British, Bahrain became a protectorate of the United Kingdom. In 1971, it declared independence. as an emirate an converted to an Islamic constitutional monarchy in 2002. Most of the signage is in English. ‘Suitings Corner’, over a tailor’s shop is my favourite.
And of course there are plenty of mosques. The Al-Fateh Mosque is one of the largest mosques in the world, with the capacity to accommodate over 7,000 worshippers at a time. The dome is currently the world's largest made of fibreglass. The mosque was built by the late Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa in 1987 and is named after Ahmed Al Fateh. Ahmed ibn Muhammad ibn Khalifa was the first monarch or hakim of Bahrain, commonly referred to as Ahmed al-Fateh (the conqueror).
Bahrain has a reputation for being seedy - the place where the Arabs go to ’let off steam’. It’s also known for violation of human rights. I did not see any of this. Perhaps I was lucky and didn’t look hard enough. The people were friendly, I felt safe and I had an interesting visit.
Saudi Arabia next.
South from Laayoune with driver naji and guide Khalil. The seaside town of Boujdour in Western Sahara is expanding rapidly, a spread of toytown houses still under construction. There’s a huge welcome gate flanked by statues of ostriches, the main thoroughfare is lined with stylised lamps and there’s an imposing lighthouse.
Dinner in a restaurant on the outskirts of town, as it's the only one that's open, unless I want pizza. It’s early and most of the charcoal under the rows of clay tagines on display is just being lit. The waiter says that conger eel is the only dish that can be served imminently, so, with foreboding, I settle for this. The leathery fish is still cold and the food can only be described as nasty. Back to my hotel, but I’m not going to be sleeping for some time. It’s the local football derby in Casablanca and it’s being televised, to much excitement. It seems that the entire population is watching in the hotel bar below. The whole building vibrates when there’s a goal.
South to Dakhla, off-roading for the most part, right by the crashing waves. There are mini dunes here, rolling into the ocean, the desert meets the sea..
Fishermen have set up camp at intervals, building fires behind rock slabs and we sit and drink more of the noxious tea with a hospitable group. The children are braving the ocean in their trunks; I admire their fortitude. Its breezy, even when the sun comes out, and I’m keeping my jacket on.
The fishermen invite us for a barbecue calamari lunch, but the road beckons. We speed on, spraying sand, dispersing flocks of white headed gulls and stopping to check the route with the locals, as the dunes shift constantly. The tents here are larger and decorated with flapping textiles. Guide Khalil says that people come for the weekend – but I’m not sure that's accurate information. Some of them seem to have brought goats.
Driver Naji struggles to find a safe way back up to the main road, the sand has shifted into new dunes since his last visit and he can't see the track, but he eventually locates a suitable path and instructs us to climb up ahead, just in case he's miscalculated. Then he careers over the sand and rocks to the top of the cliff.
This area is famous for its wind surfing and my hotel is a very up market all-inclusive beach club with wooden cabins, its own sports centre and fabulous sunsets across a huge stretch of rippled beach and the arid peninsula opposite, to Dakhla town. Like much of Western Sahara though, it’s still under construction. I have to be careful not to fall into the deep excavations as I make my way round to the restaurant at dusk. The hotel manager, Oliver, sits with me at dinner and we try to compete with the live music. He’s a delightfully polite and very attractive young Mauritian, so it’s absolutely not a chore.
Dakhla town is some 25 kilometres across the water, down a narrow peninsula. At the very tip, a conglomeration of small fishing boats, maybe a thousand altogether, pulled up onto the beach, pennants fluttering. In the main port, up the road, the larger trawlers are unloaded. The auction hall is a bustle of men in white coats, arms wind milling, shuffled plastic boxes and chutes of ice.
Lunch is fish, what else? Grouper, baked quickly in a very hot oven surrounded by a medley of sliced vegetables. It’s delicious, eaten in a Mediterranean style blue and white waterside restaurant.
Les Dunes Blanches is an astonishing valley of alabaster dunes and outcrops of dusty white pinnacles, inhabited only by a herd of camels. Khalil entices the camels to the car with the crackling of cake wrappers and one female with a cute calf, snowy to match the landscape, ventures so close I’m in danger of being drooled over as she reaches through the window. I can vouch for the fact that they have very big teeth.
Thankfully, the animals move away, rolling gracefully up the dunes and calling loudly to each other from mesas across the valley. Beyond this, ghostly fingers of peninsulas, dropping into the sea, dots of feathery flamingos, rippling flat sand and pools with perfect reflections. At the end, a giant dune, a blustery platform for admiring the whole panorama.
Next, the border with Mauritania. Endless flat white desert topped with scrub and enlivened by the odd mesa. Nothing but emptiness for 300 kilometres. The occasional truck careers past. Road signs are cause for excitement. The highlight is the crossing of the Tropic of Cancer.
This part of Western Sahara is coloured red on the FCO map. Khalil says it's not a problem. This is only because there are land mines left over from the war..... .................
My plane landed over a sand sea in the Sahara Desert, to the south of Laayoune, an intricate pattern of interlinked crescent dunes. Today we’re driving across it, heading south towards Mauritania and off-roading on part of the route of the now defunct Paris-Dakar rally.
First, we pass the phosphate mines that make the country an attractive proposition economically. There’s a conveyor belt more than 60 miles (100 km) long, carrying phosphate from the mines to the piers southwest of Laayoune. We follow this, despite notices forbidding entry to anyone not employed by the mines (the guards just nod us through) and head across a desert track.
Then we get into the dunes proper. The views are nothing short of stunning. Guide Naji is wearing his traditional Sahrawi robes, the blue perfectly complementing the gold of the sand. Ebony sprinkled silver dunes stretch to the horizon. There’s the odd nomad with his herd of goats. Three camels are chewing lethargically together - creating classic Sahara backdrops. There are snowy bleached bones littering the surface.
A diminutive desert fox, with huge ears, peeps out of his den in the sand and scoots off rapidly into the distance , leaving a trail of tiny pawprints.
Lunch is eaten on a rug behind some acacia scrub. Chicken, cold fries, carrot and beetroot. Naji and Kahlil, use the acacia thorns as cocktail sticks and make a fire out of some sticks, so they can brew tea in a little blue pot. It’s strong and disgustingly bitter. They add copious amounts of sugar. I pour mine away while they're not looking.
There’s that stillness that comes when no-one else is around no-one around. That is, until we meet two Landcruisers heading past us, into the wild. Kahlil has told me I’m the only tourist in Western Sahara this year. He’s obviously been stretching the truth a little. When challenged he says he meant in Laayoune. No-one goes to Laayoune. The cars are two more of Naji’s fleet, one is driven by his brother; Naji's one of eight children, lived in a nomad tent until he was 15 and has never been to school. He’s taught himself fluent French and Italian and is happy to chat with me, tolerating my bad French - incroyable.
We continue our journey to Boujdour and the coast.
Laayoune (or El Aaiún ) is the capital (or principal town see Western Sahara in a Nutshell) of Western Sahara. About 40% of the population live here in this seaside city. The modern city is thought to have been founded by the Spanish captain Antonio de Oro in 1938. In 1940, Spain designated it as the capital of the Spanish Sahara. Tourism is virtually unknown but the tourist office have hopefully dubbed it 'The City of Sands'.
Woken by the sound of the muezzin. We’re on the same time as central Europe here, in Laayoune, but on a more westerly latitude. The sky is full of cloud rolling in from the Atlantic, on these wintry mornings, so it’s dark until nine o’clock. The people in the shops are gloomy too – guide Khalil says it because they don’t like getting up when the weather is like this and often stay in bed until midday. I don’t notice that their mood improves as the day progresses.
Crimson Moroccan flags flutter on most of the buildings and are draped across the facade of anything remotely civic. This is a sparsely populated country with few urban areas, but these are under development as Morocco strengthens its foothold. And this is the capital. (I’ve tried asking guides Khalil and Naji about politics, but as far as they’re concerned this is Morocco and they’ve never heard of any conflict or a dividing wall.)
Laayoune is a small, very quiet, but up and coming town, surprisingly modern There’s a lot of building work, streets being re-laid, It is divided in two by the dry river of Saguia el-Hamra. The town is divided in two by the dry river of Saguia el-Hamra. On the south side is the old lower town, constructed by Spanish colonists. here's the cathedral - still active. The traditional and busiest area, La Zone Populaire, is crammed with tiny booths, market stalls, fruit barrows and open air juice bars.; To the north glass buildings and a huge palm decorated square with those sleek tent style canopies.
Dinner is a typical feast, a fried fish platter - a huge heap and very tasty indeed in an open fronted restaurant. Then my new guides, Naji and Khalil, and I wander round a small community fair, jam-packed with locals. There's a children's' carousel, a whirling waltzer and a brightly illuminated jump-and-smile, while all the passengers scream and ooh and ah. Next door a tented Arab market, stalls stuffed with trinkets, clothes and Turkish delight.
Tomorrow I'm off into the Sahara Desert...
I only have an hour at Casablanca to connect to Laayoune, but it’s a very straightforward connection. The only slight obstacle is trying to work out whether my next flight to Laayoune is domestic or international. Morocco regards Western Sahara as its own territory and has occupied roughly half of the area for many years. Naturally, therefore it’s domestic.
At Laayoune I’m the first to the immigration counter and the last out to the baggage area. No visa required, but the immigration officials are almost paranoid about checking I’m not here to work – this is not a tourist destination - and insist on calling my guides to vouch for me. Fortunately, Naji (who owns the company but only speaks Arabic and French) and Khalil (who speaks English) are waiting outside and advocate for me. Then I have to navigate customs, where my bags are thoroughly searched. Alarmingly, my cameras indicate to the man on the scanning machine that I am a journalist. Naji and Khalil have to do their stuff again.
Finally, I’m allowed though, to Laayoune, the capital, (or principal town of the area, depending on who you believe), on the western edge of the Sahara. It’s a shame that my bag isn’t here too. It obviously didn’t have the same easy connection.
Western Sahara has never been a nation in the modern sense of the word. In ancient times it was home to Phoenician colonies, who disappeared with virtually no trace, There is too much desert to encourage any kind of development. The land has existed as a trade route - a link between the Sub-Saharan and North African regions. In 1884, Spain claimed a protectorate over the coast from Cape Bojador to Cape Blanc, and the area was later extended. In 1958, Spain combined separate districts together to form the province of Spanish Sahara.
Western Sahara (Arabic Al-Ṣaḥrāʾ al-Gharbiyyah), is a disputed territory, partially controlled (20%) by the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (supported by Algeria) and partially occupied by neighbouring Morocco (with tacit support from France and the United States). Western Sahara was formerly part of the colony of Spanish Sahara. The land was relinquished by Spain, after pressure for independence, but phosphate deposits made it an attractive proposition for both Mauritania and Morocco, so independence didn’t happen. Morocco got there first.
A guerrilla war with the Polisario Front contesting Morocco's sovereignty ended in a 1991 cease-fire and the establishment of a United Nations peacekeeping operation. The UN sought to offer a choice to the peoples of Western Sahara between independence (favoured by the Polisario Front) or integration into Morocco. But the proposed referendum on the question of independence never took place due to “lack of agreement on voter eligibility”. An approximately 1,000 mile long defensive sand berm, built by the Moroccans, runs the length of the territory, roughly separating the two sections. I tried asking Khalil and Naji about politics, but as far as they’re concerned this is Morocco. They’ve never heard of any conflict or a dividing wall.
Western Sahara is virtually all desert and is very sparsely inhabited. It has a population of just over half a million people.
Tourists are rare in Western Sahara and there are few people outside Layounne. The main danger is from landmines. There’s a 30 kilometre militarised zone either side of the Berm containing landmines and there are a number of fatalities in this zone each year. You are not allowed to cross into the eastern side. Thid is even more sparsely populated with no diplomatic presence from any country. The FCO advise against travel cross the border with Mauritania because of land mines. Again. this area is coloured red on their maps. I'm hoping it's safe as long as I to stick to the road, as I'm going south to Mauritania.
Wikipedia says that the land here is 'Among the most arid and inhospitable on the planet'. So, there isn't much to see n Western Sahara except desert and a couple of small coastal towns. And I'm going to be driving through both....
With immaculate timing the army has staged a coup in Sudan, just as I am leaving Eritrea for Addis, en route to Khartoum. They immediately shut the airport. I pass on this information to the desk clerks at Addis, when I arrive, but everyone keeps insisting the flight is still scheduled to leave. Until they finally cancel it one hour after it is supposed to depart.
Cue bedlam, as the Ethiopian Airline officials try to dispatch everyone to hotels. Somehow, I manage to weave my way out of immigration very quickly, losing everyone else in the process. I’ve no idea how to get to my hotel. There’s no bus. Eventually, a customer service agent on his way home takes pity and drops me at a different hotel. He also, amazingly, manages to alter the airline paperwork, so that I can stay there.
I try to take stock, which is difficult, as my brain isn’t functioning. The hotel in Addis has no soundproofing whatsoever. It’s very close to the airport runway and groups of noisy passengers arrive all night. So, I haven’t had much sleep. There is no information about when flights will resume. Do I still want to go? I’m trying to find out how safe Sudan is. The FCO advice now says they advise against all but essential travel. Not a total ban then. Ethiopian Airlines say it will cost £750 to amend my ticket if I decide to go back to London. That’s not a great incentive. And my flat is booked by Airbnb guests.
Technology is against me. The Wi-Fi in the hotel crashes, closely followed by the landlines and my mobile signal, so I can’t gather any more information or take advice. It’s just a tad stressful. At midday I’m told the flight will go at four, so I decide that if it actually departs then I will make the journey. The plane is a Dreamliner, big enough to hold all the passengers from the two delayed flights in addition to today’s manifest. It takes an extra hour to load all the wayward passengers and even then, we sit on the runway for what seems ages. I’m convinced that a cancellation announcement will be made at any moment. But, no, we’re just sitting out a storm.
It’s a bumpy flight: ‘Rough weather ahead,’ announces the captain, to my consternation. But we make it to Khartoum, the first plane to land after the airport re-opens. The Sudanese leap out of their seats to much jollity, cheering and flag waving, the second the plane hits the tarmac. To my relief, I’m welcomed at immigration, met with no difficulty and escorted to my hotel. The streets are quiet. A policeman pours a dozen locals onto my mini-bus for a lift across town. They’re not allowed to walk the pavements.
The hotel is welcome luxury – hot water and decent food. But I’m rattling around. There are only two other people eating dinner. One of them tells me that everyone else has just left as I've arrived. Am I mad or adventurous?
An estimated two million people died as a consequence of disease, famine, and war during the Second Sudanese Civil War from 1983-2005. Children from all sides involved were enlisted to fight. The United Nations has described the Sudan/Darfur conflict fighting between rebel groups and the government one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Between 2003 and 2008, at least 300,000 people were killed, and three million displaced. In 2010, President Omar al-Bashir was charged with genocide by the International Criminal court, but remained in office. Following months of pro-democracy protests against President Omar al-Bashir, he was ousted by the military and arrested after 30 years in power. But the military took over government leading to ongoing conflict between them and pro-democracy civilians.
Sudan has only taken its current geographical form relatively recently, combining the lands of several ancient kingdoms. I’ve written more than I usually do about the history of the country here, as it’s such a crucial aspect of visiting Sudan.
46% of people live under the poverty line, however, Sudan is not eligible for sorely needed debt relief, due to still being on the United States list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Negotiation is ongoing.
We’re leaving this morning for Karima, in the north, of Sudan, to escape the protests about the coup in Khartoum. Guide Diba, driver Mubarak and I, head out of town,
Through Omdurman, Khartoum's twin city, but out of bounds because of the coup. Our highway divides the Western Desert from the Bayuda Desert, the eastern most stretch of the Sahara. For the most part, it’s a mainly level, but beautiful panorama, stretching far way to the horizon, clumps of dunes beckoning. There are scatterings of grey basalt patterning the sand: curry powder to golden, flecked with geometrically spaced scrub. There’s a breeze flowing and walking is like bathing in hot water. The few cars we meet waft orange trails behind them, camels chew laconically on acacia and donkeys line the edges of the tarmac. These are the most common form of transport, most commonly harnessed to carts.
Mubarak and Diba find a lunch spot under a suitably shady flat-topped tree and decant three chairs and a trestle table from the boot. Diba then prepares a variety of salads, arranging them artistically on platters. She has just placed the last dish, when the wind gusts strongly and deposits the whole lot upside down on the sand. We pack up, and half an hour down the road, set up again by a roadside community erected to service the road – the first in Sudan. Mubarak disappears into the café to entertain the locals while Diba and I eat. There seems to be plenty more food, enough for us to eat far too much and still leave bag-fulls with the café crowd.
We pick up the Nile again after 200 miles, having cut off a huge bend and we now follow the green irrigated belt. Jebel Barkal, an isolated flat topped mountain appears in the distance, and as we cross the river, I can just make out my first Sudanese pyramids at its base. There are five and a half and two bits, circa 600 AD and some crumbling piles of others that are 1500 BC; they are magnificent, glowing in the setting sun.
For two periods Nubia and Egypt were ruled jointly (hence a crown with double cobra heads), by the so-called Black Pharaohs. The Nubian kingdom of Kush (as it was known) was actually the superior power. (See Sudan in a Nutshell.) Jebel Barkal was considered a holy mountain - no less than the residence of the super god Amun. If you use your imagination you can see the Egyptian crown complete with cobra crest in the mountain side. There are the remains of the old capital Napata and pre and post Egyptian dynasty temples to explore, round the base, unsurprisingly mainly dedicated to Amun.
Much was destroyed when the capital was moved from Napata to ancient Merowe. However, there are a few pillars and some carvings remaining, and it’s still possible to get a perspective on the size and orientation of the complex, which was extended over many years. It’s approached by the remains of an avenue of sand battered rams.
The most interesting bas-reliefs are in a room carved directly out of the mountainside. The frescoes in this temple to Mut, were deliberately destroyed by fire, but are being painstakingly restored by archaeologists. Most of the famous gods of the Egyptian pantheon are represented: Mut, Amon, Horus and (outside) Hathor, with her cow ears.
Back to the pyramids, for a daytime view. Diba proudly explains that there are over 300 pyramids in Sudan, double the number in Egypt. The pyramids here are all brick built decoys - the tombs are below ground and have separate, hidden entrances. This group of five and a half, though not as magnificent as those at Giza, are striking. There’s a little museum with a few headless statues and some jewellery, but the most important artefacts are in the Khartoum museum, the one that is closed.
Diba persuades me to climb Jebel Barkal for the evening Nile view. (It’s a sign of our times that autocorrect on my phone offers Nike rather than Nile). The path is steep and it’s a climb rather than a hike. It’s also very windy on top. But there are great views across Karima, the temples, nestled way below, the pyramids behind us and the river. We descend using the fast route – sliding ankle deep, down a sand lake.
My Nubian style hotel, on the outskirts of Karima, has 22 domed rooms surrounding a circular green lawn (the sprinklers run all night). It’s very romantic, lit by hurricane lights in the evening, but I’m the only guest.
Down the road, El Kurru is the site of some of the most important archeological remains in Sudan, dating from the 25th Egyptian dynasty and the Early Kingdom of Kush. There’s a necropolis divided into three areas by two wadis: kings, queens and horses. The tomb of the pharaoh Tantamani, accessed via 33 steps, is the only one open and it’s fabulous. The decorated chamber with its star patterned roof is the equal to many of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, though, to be fair, it post-dates these by a thousand years.
Nearby, some gorgeous mini canyon wadis and a petrified forest; hundreds of huge trunks half submerged in the sand, toppling and abandoned forever, as the Nile flood plains retreated over millions of years.
It’s a relaxing day. We shop for our picnic lunch at the small, quiet market at Karima. It’s next to an open British built brick souk that runs down to the river.
Next, we take a canopied motor boat cruise down the Nile, and up to the cataract, looping around tranquil islets and admiring the papery white sand stretches and the glistening rock reflections in the still water. Yellow weaver birds are darting in and out of their basket nests, dangling high over the water, perennial Christmas decorations. It’s blisteringly hot, literally. I have flip-flops on and when we moor up, to stroll across an island for cataract views, the sand I’m kicking up burns the soles of my feet. Even the giant monitor lizards are abandoning their sunbathing and are sliding into the water to cool off. We eat today’s salad and fruit at a deserted 'resort' on one of the islands and afterwards everyone dozes on the shady beds.
It’s Sudan, so no day is complete without ruins. Nuri is approached through myriad irrigation canals, dividing mango and date orchards. There are enough small bridges to rival Venice, varying from ornate painted metal to rickety planks. There’s another acropolis at our destination, with 19 pyramids and 53 tombs. One of these is the remains of what was the largest pyramid in Sudan, that of Taharqa, one of the double cobra pharaohs. We’re accompanied by a group of screaming children who assemble themselves into an orderly group and pose as soon as they spot my camera. These are the first tourists I've seen.
The roads are well maintained. The tarmac has far fewer pot holes than the streets of Brighton at the moment. It even has line markings and cats’ eyes. Mubarak keeps the land cruiser spotless and specialises in ice cold water, as well as pockets full of boiled sweets. Diba is refreshingly efficient and speaks reasonably good English. What I don’t understand I clarify on the Internet. (I’ve commandeered the modem, seeing as I’m the only guest.) It’s all, thankfully, very professional.
The hotel usually organises buffets and they are still providing a four course choice at each meal. Even our picnics are more like sumptuous banquets. I’m eating far too much at each sitting. Nevertheless, the waiters are concerned, whispering to Diba that I don’t eat much.
Everyone seems fairly relaxed about my baggy western dress, despite the fact that strict and, in some cases medieval, sharia law applies here. All the women are fully covered, and there’s definitely no alcohol.
The electricity has been off all day but it’s come back on, in time for bed.
Today, it’s the ruins at Dongola. The road east and north in Sudan hugs the edge of the fertile Nile strip, passing through more flat sand stretches - this time the golden Nubian desert. There is a small sand sea and Mubarak has a great time careering over the dunes in the Land Cruiser, while Diba and I hang on grimly. The sand is blown constantly, so the surface is pristine, like new snow. It seems a shame to step on it. The drifts accumulated on the road are cleared with caterpillar ploughs.
Dongola was an early Christian settlement and walls and pillars denote churches and palaces with a delightful setting overlooking the river. There’s a ninth century fortress and some Sufi Beehive tombs too.
The view is pretty, but it’s scorching hot and I’m not really concentrating as the sand kicks up an insect who lands in my hair. I shake my head vigorously and Diba can’t see anything, so I assume it’s leapt away. I’m happy to get back to the car and we wind through whitewashed houses and palm trees for another, much livelier market. As we park up, I’m stung above my ear. The insect has been lying low all this time - I screech and rummage in my hair and manage to knock a large winged object onto the car matting. Mubarak and Diba declare it not to be poisonous, but Diba is keeping her distance.
Lunch is taken in a traditional Nubian house, owned by a delightful family with some curious children. Whilst I’m eating, I feel a tickle on my arm. I decide my imagination has become overactive after my recent encounter. But no, I’m bitten again. I jump out and whip off my top. Insect Number Two comes flying out. Fortunately, the children have disappeared.
I come back from each of my explorations with my trainers full of red sand and Mubarak helps me to wash my feet. Then he leans over and whispers into my ear. ‘I give you massage later tonight’. Things have definitely got much too exciting. I pretend I don’t hear and resolve to make sure my door is properly locked tonight.
It’s been an adrenaline packed day.
All of the landscape so far on my travels here has been desert. Desertification is a serious environmental issue in the Sudan, due to over-exploitation of the soil through human activity and climate change. And, driving to Meroe is a full on desert experience. For the first three hours we bump down Wadi Dom. The dried up riverbed is vast; the Bayuda Desert a mass of yellow volcanic rock topped hillocks interspersed with grey flat patches. Every so often Mubarak throws in some dune bashing for good measure. Kamikaze goats dash across the track, tails bobbing. The goats here are very energetic and have long floppy ears that frame their faces, King Charles spaniel style.
We stop at the ruins of the medieval Ghazali monastery and visit the nomads in their wicker houses. As with everywhere in Sudan the people are extraordinarily friendly, gentle and hospitable. You certainly wouldn’t know there was political upheaval. We picnic with the goats and donkeys, battling the wind again. The lifted sand forms a haze and makes my eyes stream.
The highlight of the day, and possibly the whole trip, is a halt at a well,. Here pairs of donkeys haul leather bags from a deep tented bore. Men stagger with the sacks and pour the water into low edged pools. Camels gather in groups, stretching their long necks down to drink. Herds of goats also take their turn and patient donkeys hover. A seven year old boy, small for his age, manages all the camels with aplomb, brandishing a rope whip and charging after a group of twenty who are wandering away. He corrals them as effectively as any sheep dog and brings them safely back.
Today’s finale is a ferry across the Nile. The boat is metal and decrepit. It looks to me as if the bow is lower in the water than the stern, but we arrive swiftly and safely. Diba says that these ferries rarely sink - unlike the Nile pleasure boats.
Accommodation tonight is in a not entirely welcome tented camp. My tent is spacious, with beds, wooden furniture and a concrete floor. However, this is definitely not glamping. My bathroom is situated in a block behind me and I’ve been given a lecture about checking thoroughly for scorpions before I use the toilet or shower. The compensation should be a view of the Meroe pyramids, but the wind is still throwing up too much dust for me to see them.
The wind has whistled through the canvas all night, keeping me awake, and I’m having to abandon my contact lenses, there’s so much sand in the air. This makes for interesting exploration, as my spectacles are for emergencies only and distort shapes on the ground. Steps look like vertical trapezoids, so they’re not very easy to negotiate.
There’s a camel running amok in the yard, protesting with very loud braying because an over optimistic employee has been trying to break him to the saddle. A stream of men are running after it, as it tries to make a break for freedom.
Today’s ruins, at Meroe, are over two hundred pyramids in three groups. The necropolis was built for the new capital, after it was moved from Napata. In the third century B.C., Ferlini, an Italian explorer of the early nineteenth century, taking avarice to its limits, blew the tops of most of the royal pyramids in search of treasure. He didn’t find much - most of it had already been stolen. This area has reliefs with hieroglyphics, and Meroitic script on it. The kingdom was invaded by the Greeks and then the Romans so there’s a lot of later interesting graffiti and artefacts around too.
The Qataris are now supporting a reconstruction project, with some of the smaller pyramids, antechambers and pylons, so it is possible to get a better feel for the original appearance. Although as is often the case with restoration, for me, the result is overly modern and so, less evocative.
There’s also the royal city itself, with the remains of palaces and temples - Amon features heavily again. We finish the day perched on top of a dune waiting for the sun to set over the largest, southern group of pyramids. The breeze is whipping up the sand to the extent that rivulets of sand are snaking across the top. I’m caked in tiny particles. At least it’s free exfoliation. The sky behind the monuments is so murky that the pale sun looks more like the moon, dropping into the V between two tombs.
Back to Khartoum today, via the best preserved Meroite temples in Sudan. All these temples are dedicated to the lion-headed Meroitic god, Apedemak, who takes precedence in this period, Amon is thrown in as a subsidiary on the bas reliefs, for good measure. The ruins at Naqa have been partially reconstructed and one small temple at Mussarawat fully rebuilt. Though the purpose of the sprawling main buildings there remains a mystery. One temple is dedicated to the elephant god and there are many animal frescoes. One theory suggests that this was a huge animal trading area, dealing in exotic beasts from both Africa and Asia.
I’m still the solitary tourist in Sudan. Even if the coup hadn’t taken place, I’m not sure the sites would have been much busier. Many of the ruins have been neglected for some time; the main reconstruction took place in 1969. There was an upswell of interest at the beginning of the century, when some work was done. Very recently there have been more restorations , as the various civil wars have ended and the political regime softened. Stands for some interpretive signs have even been erected. No information has been attached as yet though.
It’s difficult not to make comparisons with Egypt. I suppose the short answer is that Sudan’s ancient ruins provide quantity, rather than quality. Karnak this isn’t. However, these lesser known archaeological sites certainly add depth to my knowledge of Egyptology and ancient history. And the everyday life of the people and the red hued desert scenery definitely make the visit worthwhile.
Back in Santiago, the capital of Chile, from Bolivia, I’m picked up this time by a fussy little man called Maurizio, who talks non-stop for 20 minutes in unintelligible English and delivers me to a very smart boutique hotel. I’ve time for a wander round down town. It hasn’t changed my opinion from my last visit. Santiago is a pleasant enough place, more than pleasant if you want to shop (plenty of those) or eat out, especially around the bohemian Lastarrio barrio with its many small bars and cafes. But there isn’t really anything exciting to look at.
A small, dirty river runs through the middle, lined with some park areas and statues. It's a hotchpotch of building styles, some old, mixed in with the new, if you look hard and upwards. There’s a presidential palace, an imposing cathedral on the main square and several other spires or older colonial style buildings (such as the old fire station) interspersed with the many shopping outlets and street stalls. There’s also a domed central market building. The highlight is an ice cream at a street café which serves the most enormous sundaes I have ever seen - for sharing obviously. I order a smaller tub version with two flavours. Or I think I have. Two huge tubs turn up – fortunately, they take pity on me and refund one of them.
Maurizio has sent a message to say that the ground staff from LATAM (the airline amalgamation of Chilean LAN and Brazilian TAM) are on strike today and I have to leave early for the airport, at noon. Last time I was in South America the Argentinians were on general strike and this time it’s been both Bolivia and Chile. It’s hardly the way to encourage tourism. The message is delivered while I’m in the bar on my second pisco sour. I’m still tired, so I go to bed at nine. I’m woken up at 10.30 by the phone. Maurizio wants to make sure I’ve got the message.
It’s not been a great night again. My stomach has been playing up and I feel fluey. Perhaps the pisco sours weren’t a great move. Maurizio phones at 11.30 to say that he is downstairs waiting for me. It takes twenty minutes to get to the airport, check in is quick and it seems that all the planes are on time. So, I’ve three hours to wait listening to those Christmas carols again. Déjà vu. Maurizio has wanted to wait with me, but I’ve declined his offer. he even tells me how much to tip him. Apparently, I tried to give the driver too much.
Not quite all the planes are on time. The Puerto Montt flight, scheduled an hour before mine, has been indefinitely delayed. They’ve announced over the PA that the pilot hasn’t turned up for work. What’s more, they add, no-one can track him down and he won’t answer his phone. The plane is still sitting at the gate as mine taxis out.
Puerto Montt is the gateway to the Lake District of Chile. It’s set on a large sea inlet that looks like a lake, but isn’t. Charles Darwin proved that when he landed there with the Beagle. It’s very English countryside, green rolling hills and pasture, where the llamas, for the most part, have given way to Jersey and Guernsey cattle. The first settlers here were German though, so the villages are wooden chalets and pastel timber churches and the roads are lined with signs advertising Kuchen and Zimmern. The waterside resorts, with red canopied cafes and restaurants, are more Little Switzerland; it’s like being on Lake Neuchâtel.
However, it’s not really Switzerland, Germany or England, as there are also volcanoes. I’ve come here because last time I was in Chile I flew over the area and the view of the cones from the air, all venting, was entrancing. I decided I would come and see them from the ground. My hotel is in the resort town of Puerto Varas, on the edge of a very large lake, Lianaquihue. I've chosen German founded Puerto Varas as everyone says it's prettier and more welcoming than its uglier big brother Puerto Montt, to the south.
Lianaquihue is the most well known lake in Chile, and is 22 miles long and 25 miles wide. I’m told that there are three very large volcanoes just across the water from my room. Osorno, Calbuco (still active - it threw out ash last recently) and Tronador. But I will have to take everyone’s word for it. The climate is the same as that of the English Lake District and there are dark clouds; it’s threatening to rain.
Today, I still can’t see the volcanoes of Chile, as it’s still cloudy and now drizzling, but I believe I’m going to visit one, Osorno. My tour sets off, anti-clockwise, round the lake, passing the turn off to the volcano. Much to my surprise and consternation the minibus instead stops further on, first to admire a few llamas and alpacas, in a pen, on a farm and then at the entrance to Petrohue Waterfalls.
We stop there for an hour or so, and then at another, smaller lake, (Lake for All Saints), where all the other occupants depart on a boat trip for another hour; they’ve had to pay directly for both of these. I’ve forgotten my purse, but the guide informs me that in any case there’s no point in me paying and participating, as both these options are included free on my tour tomorrow. So I go for a wander past some pretty yellow gorse and yet another cloud topped volcano.
According to the brochure photos Osorno has a classic snow capped cone. ( I had a much better view from the plane last time I was here). It is one of the most active volcanoes of southern Chile. It hasn't erupted since 1869, but there has been recent activity measured and locals say it’s not long until it would erupt again The upper slopes of the volcano are almost entirely covered in glaciers despite its comparatively modest altitude and latitude.
My actual trip to the Osorno volcano lasts just an hour. The drizzle has become driving rain and a howling wind, and the chairlift is closed. But there are good views from the top and the lava fields are interesting.
I complain to the tour company. Apparently, no-one else was booked on the volcano only trip, so they put me on another one. Just nobody told me. Perhaps they thought I wouldn’t notice. The company rep points out that I got the extras free…...
So, today I bounce off the bus when we stop and set off for the Petrohue Falls again, ticket in my pocket. But the entrance gate is padlocked, and a gloomy little man explains that they’ve been closed by the police. Some robbers are hanging out down there.
Next, a return visit to the small lake, where I embark on a boat for an (almost two-hour) voyage to a very small village called Peuilla. It’s probably a very scenic ride, with beautiful volcano views - it’s in a narrow valley - but it’s raining steadily today, and I can see very little. I spend most of the time talking about travel, with an English lady called Tricia. There’s four hours to spend at our destination. Canopy walks, more boats, 4 WD trips and llama farms are on offer, but it’s still bucketing down. And besides I’ve had enough of boat rides with elusive views. There are some comfy sofas in the local hotel. And I still have my Kindle.
Back across the lake, still chattering to Tricia. The Petrohue Falls are now open. It’s third time lucky, so I brave both the lashing rain, slippery paths and a party of students, (but no robbers) to get my pictures. The excursion blurb says they're world renowned. I'd be surprised. But they're pretty.
Today, another group excursion (never again) to a village, Frutillar, on a clockwise circuit of Lake Lianaquihue. The rain is interspersed with sun and the meadowland is pretty. The guide ekes out the short journey by telling us all about the few factories we pass. However, the main industry here, unsurprisingly, is dairy, producing almost enough to supply the whole of Chile. The lake is a prettily turquoise and there are plenty more wooden buildings, old and new. Frutillar has a modern timber theatre, built over the water (it’s not quite Sydney Opera House) and a little museum, with reconstructed colonial buildings. One affluent hamlet has a clutch of houses that cost over a million dollars each. The guide says they boast a view of six volcanoes in all. Naturally, we can’t see them.
A plane south to Punta Arenas. LATAM sold my booked seat to someone else, as they do, so I’m in my least favourite middle of the row seat. At least they didn’t bump me altogether. The upside is that I’m entertained by Californian Mike, who got the windowseat. He is leading a team of ten to film pumas in Torres del Paine.
My hotel is a tall town house at the top of a hill with glassed in restaurant. Here’s a first - my bag is winched up onto the balcony, which has a great view over the most southerly city (on the mainland) in the world. Punta Arenas is much as I remember. It’s an orderly little town, blue, green and red roofs, sweeping down to the sea. There are some stately civic buildings around the central Plaza des Armas.
The air is fresh but not too windy. I’m having a catch-up day. Hairdresser, nails, eyebrows, massage with Cecilia, who performs each operation in a different room of her house. It’s a pleasant way to relax. An uber back to the hotel, the driver gets lost, but instead of charging me extra for the additional time, he deducts money from the charge and refuses to take any more. Amazing.
In the evening an information meeting, flights and arrangements for my trip to Antarctica tomorrow.
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