It has been quite some time since we have taken to the desert in Saudi. Largely because a good portion of this year has seen us travelling outside of the country. A couple of weeks after returning from our most recent trip (to the UK) I was hankering for a spot of desert travel. On my computer is a bucket list of places I'd like to visit in Saudi before we leave (Yes, believe it or not you can bucket list places in Saudi Arabia!). So, last weekend Hubster was encouraged to hire the 4WD - encouragement being wifey with her hands on hips, bored of sitting around compounds while he has his head stuck in a computer working, declaring she might leave for good if he didn't pull finger.
With finger pulled, he was directed to head west-ish.
"Where are we going?" Hubster asks as we head out of the compound a little later in the day than initially planned. What he means by this question is: 'Do you have a map to get us where we need to go?' Well, after a bit of Googling I have found directions to get us most of the way. Although Google can not tell us how far into the desert we have to go because Google just can't do that in Saudi at this point. But he doesn't want to know all that nonsense. So I simply say "To find an arch"
"How far is it?" is the next question. Naturally he presumes any directions I have in my possession will cover this little question with precise mileage and approximate hours of travel, give or take a few minutes for buying coffee, photo stops and general traffic conditions. Given that I never actually checked any of this on a map before leaving I say, "Not sure. Maybe a 200km round trip. Not far".
Two hundred and forty kilometers later, we arrive at the arch. (We found out later that we'd come the long way, a discovery made while going home the short way via an early sign saying 'Riyadh' and a gas station man who said 'Go that way').
Despite its unexpected length, it was a nice drive out. With the iPhone playing our favorite 80's hits we sang our way down the escarpment, past Muzaymiyah and then turned off toward Ar Rayn. Beautiful red orange sands rippled in waves beside the highway and wiggled their way off into the horizon. If we had stopped to take photo's there would be one here ______ , but we didn't as I presumed our return journey would give us ample time for sand dune photography. Tip to self - never miss a photo op!
Eventually the silky looking red sands gave way to a hard, flat as a pan dusty plain and the Hubster started wondering where we might find a gas station as it had become quite obvious by this point that I'd misjudged our travel distance and, apart from grumbling that we would have to be paying extra mileage on the vehicle, gassing up was starting to sound prudent. We also noted that there weren't many cars on the road although obviously that isn't going to be the case for long. Construction is busy widening the road and, after turning off towards Al Hariq, the single concrete blocks used in Saudi Arabia to indicate real estate plots can be seen set out and waiting for the expectant housing developments.
Just as Hubster was despairing that I had any idea where we were actually headed the dust pan turned back into red sands and the shapes of hills could be made out in the blurred haze that a desert seems to throw up as one looks into its distance. As we drew nearer and the haze began to clear and the hills slowly solidified, their color shifting from murky grey brown to layered stripes of cafe au lait and wine, their ridges sharp and clear against the vibrant blue sky, not a hint of haze around them. We slowed to crawl and I wound down the window searching for something arch like atop a hill.
It wasn't long before the arch was spotted, a tangerine outcropping standing clear against the rest, and we turned the vehicle off road. This is what I love about jaunts into the Saudi desert - you can go anywhere. The easiest track seemed to be down in a wadi as the rocks littering the embankments were sharp and large enough to do damage to the vehicle if one wasn't careful. As we had failed, yet again, to tell anyone exactly where we were going, having a breakdown was a situation we would rather avoid.
Keeping the arch in our sights we stuck to the wadi until the sand started looking a little damp. Damp sand in wadi's make me nervous, so it was time to exit the wadi. A track was visible among sharp rocks on the wadi edge making it's way toward higher ground. The well worn trail it joined led us straight to the base of the The Arch. Hubster was impressed.
The afternoon was ticking on so we grabbed our gear and walked in search of a route that would take us to the top of the hill. Part way up we came across a track of sorts that someone has taken the time to construct, pouring sand and rubble between the hillside rocks, making the ascent easier than I initially thought it would be for someone whose fitness is, ummmm, waning.
The arch is not really an arch. It's more of a circle. (Hubster thought is was shaped like a Kiwi. I thought Australia). It's also a circle that won't last forever as it is slowly but surely crumbling. Its promontory position is exposed to butting desert winds, extremes of temperature and seasonal rains. The activity more likely to expedite the collapse of this arch, however, is people attempting to break it down. Hubster pointed out the evidence of chipping and hacking on the structure by previous two handed brain defunct animals who have been visiting.
After posing for a couple of selfies out front, Hubster decided to head back down to the vehicle. He wanted to get the campsite set up and fire started so he would be cooking dinner while there was still some daylight. On many of our jaunts he ends up cooking in the dark with only the firelight to assist. That might sound romantic but the reality, according to him, is less so.
I took a few more photo's and sat on the ledge looking out over the valley surveying, on this day, our car lone among the scrabbly rocky terrain below while the sun was going through its range of end of day color changes. As the desert was claiming the last vestiges of heat from the orb, wrapping its hazy clutches around the waning fireball and threatening to drag it behind a distant hill, it was time to leave my perch.
My preference was for descending in as lady like a fashion as possible from this spot while there was still some light, else I could imagine a misplaced step creating a rockfall, chinking and scraping its slide downward with me screeching unbalanced atop it, followed by a pitiful cry for assistance. Knowing the Hubster as I do, assistance would less likely be a knight on white horse with shining armour extending roses and more likely be him calling out, 'Watch what your doin? Told 'ya to come down earlier!'
At base camp the fire was crackling and dinner was well under way with steaks and chicken breasts on the bar-b. After dinner when the dark had descended, we drank coffee and talked about how nice this place was. How quiet. How perfect. We rearranged the cushions and lay back on our Arabic carpet, wrapped up in blankets against the chill, and watched the night sky, talking about this and that, pointing at the plane routes made clear by flashing tail lights and simply enjoying the peace that came with being there. It seemed a shame to have to pack up and leave the Arch much later that night when the cold became too much for our thin coverings. To tick it off the bucket list.