Ancient tombs, canyons, unbelievable mountains and amazing sand dunes. I can list several amazing attractions of the desert in Saudi Arabia, but what makes them even more special is the fact that they are almost unexplored by tourists. This means that the archaeological sites are well preserved and most importantly: you don’t have to deal with all the crowds you usually see in touristic sites around the world. Perfect scenario for photographers!
*Este post foi escrito originalmente em português.
The beginning of the adventure: our flight to Al-‘Ula
The first step to explore the desert is to fly to Al-‘Ula, that has two flights per week from the capital Riyadh. Traveling in a local airline – in our case Saudia – is already an interesting experience. Before departing (and after that annoying exchange of places so that women did not sit with unknown men), is time to pray. “The text that you are about to hear is a supplication that the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, used to pray before travelling” explains the little screen in front of my seat. And then the whole prayer was done in Arabic, in a deep and ponderous voice. Chills!
The flight itself was good, 1h40 long with free snacks. It seems that the idea of charging for food on flights has not yet arrived in Saudi Arabia. But the best part was the view of the window, a mesmerizing sequence of mountains and dunes. As it was my first time in the desert, I was super excited about what I was already able to see!
From Al-‘Ula airport we drove another 30 minutes to Sahary Al Ula, our desert camp. It was not super luxurious, but it was undoubtedly the most comfortable (and beautiful!) way to sleep among the beauties of the desert. What an unforgettable experience! And it was the only hotel on the trip that put us in a double bed – after all, Paulo and I are not married. But in the desert the rules of conduct are a little more relaxed, and I even took off my abaya in places where we did not have much contact with Arabs. In that heat, I was glad!
Speaking of heat: now in February (practically winter, you see), we got temperatures around 30°C. Quite OK to Brazilians, right? Now imagine during the summer, when thermometers hit 65°C in the middle of the day! It is so unsustainable that they don’t even have outdoor activities during this period, and Gateway KSA – the program that invited us – pauses the travel schedules for a few months.
Desert in Saudi Arabia: the archaeological site of Madain Saleh
The greatest attraction of the desert is truly grand: the region of Madain Saleh, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains no less than 130 tombs embedded in the stones. From the civilization of the Nabataeans (the same ones from Petra, Jordan), they were built over 2,000 years ago! It’s one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen. Currently the region is closed for tourists, including Saudis, for some improvements. There is not much infrastructure yet to receive people, such as informational signs and trained guides. We had a special permission to access the site before it reopens, which will happen in two years – when the country should be more open and adapted to receive foreigners.
The most famous of the tombs is called Qsar Al-Farid and she differs from the others not only by the majestic size, but by a particularity. While other tombs were excavated in large mountain clusters, Al-Farid reigns alone on an isolated stone, occupying almost all its size. The image below speaks more than any attempt to describe the beauty of this monument in the desert.
Desert in Saudi Arabia: Elephant Rock and Camels
Another very famous desert attraction in Saudi Arabia is the rock known as Elephant Rock. Several places in the world have their “elephant-shaped-rock”, which depending on the angle looks a lot with the animal. This was the location chosen for our camel ride, which was actually a quick tour just for photos. But it was fun!
Whenever I see these attractions with animals I get a little concerned about their well-being. But at least the camels we saw had no signs of mistreatment. As it’s not common to have tourists there, I believe they are more used for transport by the Bedouin than to pose for the photos. This more primordial function (it’s a matter of survival!) makes the relations between families and animals more natural.
It was also in this surreal scenery that we stopped for tea, with beautiful rugs and everything! It’s amazing how in a few minutes they can set up a super cozy little room in the middle of nowhere! It made me want to fill my house with rugs too hahaha!
The end the trip: a desert safari
The last tour of our passage through the desert was also one of the most fun: we made an expedition in jeeps through the dunes and canyons of the desert. It was super exciting! And one more chance to see (and photograph!) the rock formations that look like something from another planet!
Certainly this will be one of the most popular tours when the region is open for tourism. But there is still a lot to be done before that happens. Archaeological sites need more signage, the roads need to be cleaned (we saw a lot of rubbish!) and a great deal of public awareness should be done to take better care of this incredible heritage. I am very grateful for the opportunity I had to get to know the desert in Saudi Arabia, one of the richest and most unexplored in the world. I hope soon more people will have that chance – always with the care and respect that such special places deserve.
Check out the post about Jeddah, the city that best represents the other great touristic potential of Saudi Arabia: the Red Sea.
*All the photos of this post are all from my beloved Paulo del Valle .