Alluring Al-Ula


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Middle East » Saudi Arabia » Al-'Ula
March 3rd 2022
Published: March 14th 2022
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Approaching Elephant RockApproaching Elephant RockApproaching Elephant Rock

Al-Ula.... we could post a 100 photos.
Saudi Arabia is known for the largest sand desert in the world. Not to get too technical, but don't get hung up on the word "desert" here as many locations in the world have deserts. But....Saudi Arabia has both a desert and the requisite sand. And that is what most people think of when they think of a desert. For contrast, Antarctica is technically a desert....but most do not think of it that way. Meanwhile.....

Our trip continued to take us deeper into the desert. We are traveling by bus and our time driving down the highways give us time to have deeper discussions and ask questions we may not want to ask in a public area. As we are a small group, this better facilitates such discussions. Our local guide Saad continues to give us historical, religious, and geographical information which allows us to better understand all of the things we encounter along the way. Our Wild Frontiers guide Daniele keeps the conversation moving with adding information he has learned on previous trips. Daniele is very knowledgeable, has studied the region and is an asset to this trip. He is a master of keeping us on schedule, but I
Tomb at HegraTomb at HegraTomb at Hegra

Amazing architecture
will say we do not feel at all rushed like we did on a previous group tour that we took with another company a few years back.

When you take this trip with Wild Frontiers we recommend sitting on the right side of the bus. There are fewer telephone lines and it seemed you could see camels more often on the right side. You will also want to sit in the jump seat of the bus for a short period of time as it is an entirely different experience. Riding shotgun on a bus traveling at over 130 kph (80 mph) provides a unique perspective as you travel along mostly deserted four lane highways, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.

As we travel these lonely roads, we occasionally pass another vehicle, at times we experience great excitement as we see wild camels grazing along the landscape and we ask questions about the rare house or building we zip past. It kind of boggles the mind that someone tried to give it a go out here in the hinterlands.

Next on our itinerary was a stop at the Khaybar Dam. Evidence suggests this dam has pre-Islamic Nabataean origins.
Balloon GlowBalloon GlowBalloon Glow

Evidentially it broke a world record of some sort.
We are learning a great deal about the Arab tribe the Nabateans who inhabited this land in the sixth century B.C. Their architectural style has left a legacy in this country and other nearby countries. We wandered to the base of the dam and Daniele discussed the historic importance and architecture. We’d been at the site for some time when we noticed a couple walking on the top of the dam. What they could not see from the top was on the right side of the dam there was a substantial crack in the stone. We don’t think it was in any immediate danger of breaking off and crumbling but if they could see the size of the crack they may not decide to stand on that area of the dam.

It is worthy of note that Saudi does not have any permanent lakes or rivers. Think about that for a minute. When they get a rare rain a river will spring up but it is temporary. Saudi Arabia is surrounded by Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen. The Persian Gulf is on the northeast, the Red Sea to the west. Bahrain is nearby on
We love the lonely roadsWe love the lonely roadsWe love the lonely roads

They seem to go on.....forever....
an island off the east coast. Water is a very valuable resource. They get their water from underground or from desalination of the sea. This is a costly process. But that does not prevent area from being settled....far from it.

Saudi Arabia is a large country, and we had a few long bus rides. Fortunately, they stopped along the way so we could stretch and take photos. The good thing about the rides in the desert is it gives you the sense of enormity of this country. We welcomed the opportunity to get out and do some walking at the Daden Oasis Trail following a lovely buffet lunch under the palm trees. Most of the meals we’ve had are similar with rice being the main offering accompanied by chicken or other meat, we usually get pita bread, hummus, cucumber salad and soft drink. This nature walk took us through several acres of palm trees and then on a dirt path through the old town Al-Ula to the new town. I believe they told us they moved 6,000 people to the new town. Along our walk we met a few Egyptian and Afghan workers who enjoyed having their photos taken. Old Town is crumbling but some restoration work is being done in the area. The New Town is full of upscale open-air shops for the tourists. Clothes, carpets, Arabian coffee pots, artwork, fruits and more is available. The setting is at the foot of a large rock formation and is lovely. This area was important along the trade routes of the past.

Elephant Rock was one of our favorite stops. It is quickly becoming a tourist destination in the country. We pulled into the large parking lot nearing sunset. As we walked toward the rock the views were lovely. We ran side to side attempting to catch the best view. Music was playing in the background, and we were surprised to find some amazing in ground seating. This allows everyone to enjoy the view and not block the view for others. As the sunsets the lights come on and the rock changed looks. We sat in awe and enjoyed coffee and black ice cream. The black ice cream is vanilla flavored, so it messes with your head as it does not taste the way you would expect. Again, the locals smiled and waved at us. Several came to take
Egyptian WorkerEgyptian WorkerEgyptian Worker

Old Town Al-Ula
photos of us and allowed us to take their photos. We continue to be a novelty. Everyone asks if we are enjoying Saudi Arabia and asks that we tell people they want everyone to come visit.

Each time we think back on all the experiences we had on this trip we say, oh yes, that was one of my favorites. That is when one knows they’ve had a good trip. Our drive to Madahiki Mountain was fun. We divided up and loaded into three four-wheel drive vehicles and went off roading. We were in search of amazing pictographs from 2,000 to 10,000 years ago. These were unbelievably well preserved… more than likely due to the lack of rain. On the same rock you could see pictographs from different time periods. We discuss the images and attempt to decipher the stories being told. These were some of the best we’ve seen in all of our travels. The drive back was a circuitous route through some fairly deep sand. At one point the middle car went to deep into the sand as they weren’t driving fast enough so our driver got out to assist. Moving fast is an assest when driving
Afghan WorkerAfghan WorkerAfghan Worker

Old Town Al-Ula
in the sand. The solution is to let some of the air out of the tires so the vehicle can maneuver better.

Saudi has an annual arts festival that lasts several weeks and different things are highlighted week. We continue to compliment our guide Daniele as he was always looking for that next thing we could see or experience in our time in the Kingdom. Daniele realized the hot air balloon festival was occurring and asked us if we wanted to join in. It was unanimous and so this was added to our itinerary. We've never heard of a guide having the flexibility to change a group itinerary and all of us were extremely pleased. After checking into our hotel, we headed out to the festival. We were offered free coffee and tea in the main tent. We then found seats and waited for the festivities to begin. It looked like any festival that you would encounter in the states with a few stands selling various food and drink. The balloons were not scheduled to go up as the sun was setting. Excitement fluttered through all of us as we watched each balloon inflate and come to life. A
Visiting Old Town Al-UlaVisiting Old Town Al-UlaVisiting Old Town Al-Ula

Laborer doing restoration.
very fine musician was center stage and playing music while the balloon inflated in their glory. This was a great location to people watch. Many wore traditional clothing but at this event many were dressed in jeans and shirts. This gave us a real glimpse that the dress code is loosening up in Saudi. A few minutes before lift-off a DJ took center stage and began performed electronic techno music. It was very fitting for the balloon glow show. We understand the event broke a world record. Please see the article below. We think the record was broken by the length of time the balloons glowed together.

What a great evening! Thank you Daniele.

Hot Air Balloon

The next morning, we were up at dawn and headed back to the balloon festival. The balloon launch was at 7am and we wanted to be there well in advance. As we arrived balloons were filling. One of the people on our tour had made arrangements to ride in a balloon. We’ve done this in Virginia and in Egypt, so we passed this time. Anyway, Werner officially signed out of the tour before his lift-off and back into our tour once he returned. Our friend Werner had texted Daniele so we’d know which of the many balloons he was in. With great excitement we waved and cheered our new friend as he lifted into the sky over the desert. It was lovely watching all the balloons rise to the sky.

Our next afternoon included a visit to The Hegra Unesco World Heritage Site. The quickest description is that it is the Petra of Saudi Arabia. Both were built by the Nabataeans, who were desert-dwelling nomads, between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD. Hegra is called the lesser-known sister city of Petra, it is lovely, and you can’t help but admire the region’s wonders. You need to purchase a ticket to get in and they allow you to stay at the site for 2 hours. This beautiful and complex area has over 100 tombs. We visited four or five of the major tombs and were allowed to enter one of them.

We’ve taken an interest in the Nabataeans and plan to study them a bit more. We read that they controlled the camel-drawn caravans of incense and spice routes through Arabia and Jordan to the Mediterranean, Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia. As at Petra, you stand in awe in front of these intricate and detailed tombs.

Where we stayed:

Shaden Desert Resort (our favorite place that we stayed)


Additional photos below
Photos: 63, Displayed: 29


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Our three drivers while off roadingOur three drivers while off roading
Our three drivers while off roading

They are good in the sand dunes.
Colorful BalloonsColorful Balloons
Colorful Balloons

Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia
In Ground SeatingIn Ground Seating
In Ground Seating

Elephant Rock
Deflating the AirDeflating the Air
Deflating the Air

Stuck in the Sand
Our friend WernerOur friend Werner
Our friend Werner

He's from Belgium and we are waving at him!
Techno DJ CenterstageTechno DJ Centerstage
Techno DJ Centerstage

During the balloon glow
Morning Balloon InflationMorning Balloon Inflation
Morning Balloon Inflation

Right before take off
Cute local girl at Elephant RockCute local girl at Elephant Rock
Cute local girl at Elephant Rock

She asked me to take her photo. I was happy to do so.
Off Roading into the DesertOff Roading into the Desert
Off Roading into the Desert

The sand got deeper later.


15th March 2022

Al-Ulsan
Fantastic scenery!
15th March 2022

Al-Ula
Thank you Marsha for commenting. Saudi Arabia has a stark beauty.
15th March 2022

Extraordinary
I think I want to go. Elephant Rock and Hegra in particular look amazing. I think I remember Petra being built by the Nabataeans and Hegra sure looks very Petra like. …and I don’t think I ever would have associated hot air ballooning with Saudi Arabia. Keep the posts coming please!
15th March 2022

Extraordinary
Dave and Issy, you must add this to your travel plans. Elephant Rock and Hegra are well worth the trip. Our guide is concerned that the Kingdom will do too much marketing for this area and not advertise the wonders of the rest of the country. I'm sure in time they will work it out. Saudi had many surprises for us.
20th March 2022

Alluring!
Wow! Indeed, alluring! What beauty out there in the desert! The landscapes, the rock formations, the hot air balloons, and the friendly people! And I never knew Petra had a smaller sibling! You really were discovering some amazing and stunning places! 😁
20th March 2022

Alluring!
The desert can be very beautiful. The geology in this country has much to offer. Yes, the same people built Petra and Hegra. This country is rich in history.
20th March 2022

Fascinating
I've got to revisit this blog...oases, petroglyphs, Nabataean tombs, hot air balloons, portraits, water issues, black ice cream and then there was the music. Fascinating.
20th March 2022

Fascinating
Saudi Arabia has so much to offer. Rich in history. Thanks for commenting.
21st March 2022
The landscape is filled with balloons

Is that some kind of festival?
That many baloons in one place seem odd. Is it a festival or is it perhaps a ballooning competition or race going on? /Ake
21st March 2022
The landscape is filled with balloons

Is that some kind of festival?
Yes, it was a balloon festival. There were about 150 in the sky.
21st March 2022
Sandstone Beauty

So many interesting places
That remins me about photos I've seen that were taken in Utah. We have for years been having those canyons on our wish-list. The ones you saw in SA seems to be just as good actually. And yes, reading the blog a bit more carefully I noticed that it indeed was a balloon festival. So you can ignore or even delete my previous comment. /Ake
21st March 2022
Sandstone Beauty

So many interesting places
Saudi has some interesting geology. Some of the rocks did look similar to Utah. The balloon festival was lovely.
21st March 2022

Hegra
What an interesting trip you are having! As soon as I saw the photos I was reminded of Petra - Hegra looks and sounds fascinating. I would love to see it and compare it to Petra. I imagine there are far fewer tourists in Hegra. You mentioned that the dress code is loosening up - does that include for women or are they mostly quite covered up?
21st March 2022

Hegra
It was an interesting trip and we enjoyed it. Thank you for following along. Being built by the same people Hegra and Petra are very similar. Yes, the dress code for women is loosening. Many women are still covered up. Change comes slowly even when you have choices. Often people stay with the familiar. We did see a number of women wearing more modern clothing. MJ
5th April 2022
The landscape is filled with balloons

Balloon festival
How amazing watching those balloons all together in the sky
5th April 2022
The landscape is filled with balloons

Balloon Festival
It was cool. I love balloon festivals.
5th April 2022
Black Ice Cream

Black ice cream
How comes the ice cream is black?
5th April 2022
Black Ice Cream

Black Ice Cream
It was vanilla ice cream and I have no idea how that got it so black.

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