Desert Reflections

When we were booking tours for our trip to Saudi Arabia, we purposely left ourselves one free day in Al-‘Ula so that we could get a sense of what we might want to do once we’d spent some time there. This had led us to contact Pangaea Club, to see if we could go on a tour they had listed on their website. The experience included a camel ride, falconry demonstration, and dinner at a Bedouin camp, but it was scheduled to start operating on November 1st, and the only day we could fit it into our itinerary was October 31st. Lucky for us Pangaea messaged back right away to tell us we could do the tour a day early, much to my delight. They sent us a registration form, and directions on where to meet them in the early evening.

Right away, we all noticed that we were supposed to meet at Wadi Ashar. This posed a bit of a problem because it was located very near the Maraya Concert Hall, which regular readers of this blog will remember was impossible to visit. We had unwittingly stumbled into yet another installment in our saga of trying to see the Maraya. Would this new opportunity meet us with success? Or would we again be rejected, this time also missing out on our Bedouin experience just to rub salt in the wound? These pressing questions wouldn’t have answers until that evening. Presently, there were several hours to fill before we had to leave the comfort of the Sahary Resort.

Rachel and Jared took the free morning as on opportunity to catch up on some work (when you own a travel agency, your work doesn’t stop just because you’re on vacation), so Vince and I decided to wander off into the desert (naturally). The four of us ate a late breakfast together, and then took a stroll over to the resort’s mini zoo that housed an ostrich and a few oryxes. After seeing the animals, Rachel and Jared went back to their chalet, and Vince and I pressed onward towards the cliffs that surrounded the resort.

It was already far too hot out to be hiking, but we’d stuffed a backpack full of water bottles in preparation for wandering into the unknown. Over the past couple days, Vince had been asking all of our tour guides if there was anywhere in Al-‘Ula to hike without a guide. Experience Al-‘Ula offers several guided hiking tours, which look fun, but are also somewhat pricey given hiking is something that we’re accustomed to just doing on our own. Time and again we were given the same answer. The trails were only accessible with a guide. Fortunately for us, Al-‘Ula has no shortage of beautiful mountains and valleys to explore, so there was hiking to be had right at our doorstep.

We went past the oryx enclosure, and followed a sandy path through a wadi floor, sticking in the shade of the surrounding cliffs as much as possible. Along the way we encountered a vine of desert gourds, small watermelon-like fruits with a bitter taste that can cause intestinal damage if you eat their meat (although apparently the seeds are ok).

A little ways farther, we found exactly what we were looking for. Two cliffs tapered away from each other forming a low saddle that acted like a doorway to the mountains beyond it. We scampered up into the saddle, where we noticed signs that we were not the first people to venture into this canyon. A set of clear footprints suggested someone else had walked through fairly recently, and we found a short length of rope that looked like it had probably been used to help someone up some of the more climby areas along the path.

The word “path” probably implies something more official than what we were dealing with. It was really just a wash that created an obvious route to take. Vince stowed the rope in his backpack, thinking it might prove useful, and we scrambled up a steep step, and rounded a bend where we discovered a more tangible destination to call our “goal.”

In front of us, the wash led into the sloping side of a mountain with a clear apex that would be our turn around point. It wouldn’t be a long hike, but we weren’t planning to stay out long anyway due to the intense desert heat.

We made quick time crossing through the valley, and encountered a couple of fun obstacles on our way up the mountain, one being a short section of off-width climbing. I stopped for frequent water breaks, but the higher we climbed, the cooler the air became. By the time we crested the mountain’s ridge, we were high enough that the breeze made for a downright pleasant temperature. From there it was a short push to the summit where we found a picturesque view of of mountains and sand sprawling below us, looking like a scene straight out of Dune.

This was exactly the kind of hike we’d been looking for. It was stunningly beautiful, but was short and easy enough to do on such a hot day. We hung out at the summit, drinking more water and enjoying the breeze for a bit before we hiked back down the the resort, returning the rope (unused) to where we’d found it.

Rachel and Jared weren’t quite ready yet when we arrived back at the chalets, so we went into our room and soaked up the air conditioning until they knocked on our door. It was time to go try our luck getting passed the gate at Ashar Park.

Pangaea had told us that our names would be on a list with the guards at the gate, and we had our ticket for the tour ready on our phones. None of this seemed to matter to the guards though, and they stubbornly refused to let us pass through. A lengthy back-and-forth ensued, much of it having to be put through Google Translate to overcome the language barrier. Still, the guards wouldn’t budge, and it was beginning to look like we really would miss the tour. Eventually, Jared texted our contact at Pangaea, who drove down to the gate to tell the guards that we did have a tour scheduled.

They finally relented, and our guide led us into the valley we thought we’d never see. Maraya came into view almost immediately, and Vince pulled our car into a nearby parking lot. The guide stopped too and told us we could get out and take some pictures of the concert hall and meet back up with him at the tour location. By now, Vince had a borderline maniacal determination to see the Maraya, an activity that he previously could not have cared less about before being turned away at the gate so many times. Now he was even more excited than I was as we approached the giant mirror that reflected the desert around it.

As we neared the concert hall, a man approached us and said, “Hey! You’re not supposed to be over here!” After everything we’d been through I thought he was serious so I started to apologize, but he quickly said he was kidding and struck up a conversation with us. He asked how we were able to get in and we told him we had a tour at Ashar. He said he could get in because locals are allowed past the gate. We helped him film a short video to celebrate the birth of an Arabian Leopard cub. There are only around 200 of the species left in the wild, so the birth of a new cub in the country’s captive breeding program is a huge deal for the conservation of the species. He also showed us the best angles around the back of the building, and gave us an impromptu lesson on how to look cool in pictures.

Once we had all the shots we wanted, we continued on to the nearby Bedouin camp where we met back up with our Pangaea guide, who led us into the camp and over to a large tent where a falconer and two of his birds were waiting. I was ecstatic enough just to be inches away from falcons, so I could hardly believe it when the falconer asked if I wanted to hold one.

Handling a raptor has been a long-time dream for me, and faced with the opportunity to actually do it, all I could eek out was a wide-eyed “Really?” He smiled and nodded, then supplied me with a thick leather glove and helped me pick up the beautiful bird. Once it was settled on my hand, he removed its hood. I was grinning uncontrollably as the falcon perched on my hand, and I gladly petted its belly when the falconer told me I could. Handling the falcon was so exciting for me that the tour could have ended right there and I still would have been satisfied with it.

Rachel, Vince, and Jared all took turns handling the falcon too, and the falconer showed us how we could even give the bird a kiss on the head because he was so well-trained. The entire time, I could tell how much pride and affection he had for his birds, and it was absolutely heartwarming.

One of the best things about this experience was that nothing was timed out for us. We got to hang out with the falconer and his birds for as long as we wanted, and then when we were ready, our guide led us over to caravan of camels that were all saddled up with brightly colored tassels hanging from their sides. The camel driver also took an obvious pride in his animals, and it showed by how well-behaved they were and how healthy they looked. He spoke no English, so our guide translated as he demonstrated different commands the camels could follow. He made a sweeping motion with his hand and the nearest camel laid its head down on the sand. Simple vocal cues could tell the camels to stand up or sit back down. He showed us how to mount the camels, and then helped us all climb up into our saddles.

The camels heaved to their feet, letting out the typical guttural bellowing sounds that I’ve grown accustomed to whenever I go on a camel ride. Soon we were plodding through the picturesque desert, surrounded by sand and steep cliffs that added to the quintessential feeling of the evening. A caravan of wild camels sauntered across the sand in the distance, standing in contrast to the colorfully clad, domestic animals we were riding.

Even the camel ride went as long as we wanted it to, and when we were ready to turn back, the camel driver led us in a gallop. Riding a camel is bumpy at a walk, so moving at a run felt even more turbulent, but it was also exhilarating.

When we arrived back at the camp, we dismounted and went back to the main tent were a trio of women were preparing traditional food. They chatted with us as we tried everything they’d prepared from fresh bread to delicious sweets, to a dish of pumpkin mixed with flatbread called marquq (my personal favorite). There was also delicious coffee and saffron tea that had been cooked over a fire.

After dinner, all of the official segments of the tour were complete, but we still hung around, making conversation and drinking more tea. One of the guides had me and Rachel try on some beautiful formal wear over our tunics, and soon Vince and Jared joined to try on men’s formal wear too. Once they were dressed up, the guide asked if they were ready to accept the responsibilities of being a Sheikh, which sent all of us (the guide included) into a fit of giggles as we imagined the guys holding positions of nobility.

We went back over to hang out with the camel’s and the camel driver some more and he let us lead them around by their reins. As Vince was leading a camel, the driver suddenly jumped underneath it and began weaving between its legs to demonstrate what a well-behaved camel it was. Meanwhile, I was patting one on the head when it made a rattling sound that reverberated through its skull so strongly that I could feel it vibrating. The falconer came out from the tent with one of his birds and posed on a camel that was wearing a traditional saddle as I held the reins.

By the time we’d made our rounds of talking with people and revisiting every spot in the camp, it was already dark. We thanked everyone profusely and said goodbye. It had been a flat out amazing experience from start to finish, and we were so grateful that they’d let us come a day early.

Back in Al-‘Ula, it was our last chance to enjoy the local night life, so we went back to Elephant Rock to actually sit down and enjoy the cafe we’d discovered there on our first day. The rocks were lit up from below, giving them a mysterious aura, and jazzy music played over speakers. Jared and Vince ordered some shisha for us all to share, and we picked one of the dug out lounges right in front of Elephant Rock were we relaxed and chattered incessantly about the amazing day we’d had. None of us were ready to leave Al-‘Ula the next day, but we had to if we were going to continue our adventure.

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