Saudi Arabia - Al Ula and beyond

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Middle East » Saudi Arabia
August 5th 2021
Published: October 11th 2021
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I have spent most of 2021 working Northwest Saudi Arabia on various projects. It's been exhausting, but the scenery is completely gorgeous. Without going into detail, here are some highlights:

Al Ula - Take 1

We previously worked here back in 2019 for a mapping campaign. It was impressive and amazing to see the progress they had done since we were here. We were staying in Tabuk, but while waiting between projects, we decided to take a trip to the prettiest place in Saudi Arabia, and friendliest, to get some Moussaka. We had this every night when we mapped and missed it.

First, we stopped at the Winter Park in the main part of town, hoping to get tickets to see Mada'in Saleh, since it was closed when we were working here before. Unfortunately, since it was a weekend, the time slots were completely full. They recommended booking on their website (super easy) or coming during the week when it was less crowded. We asked if there was other stuff to see, and said that we could go to Elephant Rock for 15 SAR, which we said we would consider. But first, we needed our fix: moussaka!

It took us a little while to find the right restaurant (Heritage Garden), hitting a couple of others. But once we turned a corner, we both exclaimed "That's it!" Oh, it did not disappoint. However, I think the guy thought we were nuts. We came in, saying, we want moussaka, all that you have left! And i kept pointing to the pan where I could clearly see four heaping servings. Then another guy came and took two. I almost freaked out and the guy then gave me one. I was like, why cannot I not have both of them!? I think he was trying to tell me those were the end pieces, and clearly not understanding I wanted all of it, all that was left. Finally, another guy came out and said (I'm guessing) "just give it to her". So yay! Then we took the moussaka to Elephant Rock to see if we could find a spot to eat. We did not need the 15SAR, that's only if you actually want to enter the actual rock area and walk around it. Otherwise, there was a lovely hill overlooking it and that's where we put down the tailgate and had a great lunch with an amazing view! And the moussaka was all we ever dreamed of!

We then visited a few other nearby rock formations which were interesting. And we then also saw some of the camping areas which were so well done and hidden in the canyons right up near the shear sandstone walls. When we got back, I sent a message to some of my former contacts to congratulate them for a job well done and seen through. Seriously, impressive.

On the way back, we also stopped at the ruins of Moazam Castle about halfway to Tabuk. It was also near one of the old Hejaz Railway Stations, which I love. I don't think we were supposed to go into the castle, but there was an open gate and we saw other locals there. There was a big reservoir which one of the guys told us was 8 meters deep! Then the inside of the castle itself was big and interesting. A nice little side trip.

Al Ula - Take 2

Our second time down here was for a site visit. This time, a weekday, we booked our Mada'in Saleh trip for mid-morning. We parked at Winter Park where we boarded a bus, which I think we were like the only two on. Then we drove about 15 minutes to Mada'in Saleh (or, Hegra) for our tour. Once there, we were let off the bus onto the old Hejaz Railway platform where we saw an old train and what the station looked like. In the background was just the beautiful sandstone outcrops making for an amazing setting. We then went into the museum, waiting just a few minutes while the previous group cleared out, due to Covid restrictions. The local guides and workers were so friendly and helpful, we did not feel put out at all that we waited - plenty of great photos to take anyway! The inside was just one large room which gave a brief visual overview of the history of the site.

Then we got a very friendly local tour guide and joined about 10 other people on a bus to take us into the ruins. We made our first stop at an area similar to the Siq in Petra, with close rock formations and indications of how they carved into the rock and gathered water and such. The next spot was an area with many small tombs cut into the large outcrop. The guide explained what some of the carvings outside meant, including the steps above which lead to heaven. Our third and final stop was at the main tomb on its own and made for a king who died fairly early, but spent much of his short life and money on this majestic piece.

After returning to the park, we went to get our moussaka, of course, but they were sold out. 😞 We tried another place, who were super friendly and helpful, and took it to have lunch at our site visit location. What a great view for lunch! However the moussaka just was not the same - a little salty.

Al Bad'a and Moses Springs

We stayed in the small city of Al Bad'a (or Al 'Bad) near the Gulf of Aqaba for about a month for work. The town is full of mosquitoes - I've never seen so many! But it had some amazing views. Additionally, there were some historic areas of interest. One of these was the caves in Al Bad'a itself. Tradition holds that it is the caves of Jethro, but most likely Nabatean tombs. In the town of Maqna, on the coast, there is what is known as Moses Springs, which is where Moses supposedly pushed aside a rock for Jethro's daughters. It was a very lovely, peaceful site to visit. After that, we drove a bit up the beautiful, stunning coastline and walked a bit on the beach. So, it was a good friday of leisure time.

Al Wadj

We had a site visit down the coast from Duba, which was also new to us. Coming from Tabuk to Duba was a beautiful drive through the mountains. With a sandstorm thrown in for fun! (no, really!). After our site visit, we decided to try to drive inland and see more of the country while we could. First, we got lunch in the surprisingly lovely town of Al Wadj. We were both pleasantly surprised by this place. It was nothing too special, just a small town along a main road. But the people were friendly! There were various food options. Families including many women we saw were out on the beach having picnics and enjoying life. It just seemed to be the liveliest town we had seen in some time. It had a great vibe to it. We went to a local restaurant, kind of looking at the menu outside - we were unable to go inside for Covid restrictions. It was a turkish place (Istanbul delights?) and the guy stood there and watched us, then made some recommendations. Then he threw in what he thought we might like and charged us less than what it was supposed to be. All with a giant smile! We took the food and found a little beach area at the same time a local family arrived. There was only one functioning table, which we deferred to them, while we took the structure of a picnic table which was missing the table top. Using the cardboard box our food came in, we improvised and had a lovely lunch.

After this, we drove inland, including up a giant slope cut with great views of the countryside below from the top. Then we drove a few hours through the mountains, expecting to see some incredible volcanics. They were there, but just not as imposing as they appear on google earth.


So, we have been mapping in the mountains for most of the year for various places in NW Saudi Arabia. I have basically been here for 17 weeks! The work is hard and exhausting. The lifestyle is an adjustment. But I tell you what - the scenery is breathtaking. Most people think only of desert for the Middle East, but there are mountains, coast, oases, rivers, and historical ruins. While here, I do try to see what I can because there are many hidden gems. I get hot or cold on the hospitality - some people are unfriendly and cannot be bothered, while others fall over themselves to talk with you or help you. I found myself often seeming to be a person for someone who wanted to practice their English. One very nice lady at the Covid testing center commented in broken English about how pretty my name is. We got stuck in sand one time and four local boys stopped to help dig us out. In another instance, two local guys from Riyadh who were on their own vacation north pulled over to help us change a tire. While I miss being at my home and sleeping in my own bed, it has been a very memorable adventure and I got to experience a lot while I have been here!

We stayed for a month in Al Bad'a in separate apartments with questionable cleanliness. Then moved to Tabuk where we were able to get a 3 bedroom place that was nice and clean. Our routine typically went like this: 4:30, drive to site, work by 6, be back to car by 12, have lunch, drive back, take a break have lunch, do some work, either make or order dinner, and prep food for the week. Our lunches typically consisted of some kind of cold pasta, usually with either tuna or chicken. Breakfast? He had oats and hard boiled eggs. I would have a whole avocado and a granola bar. It was a good routine, but then it got exhausting, so we had a couple of breaks thrown in for returning to some normalcy. Now I am finishing my last campaign I intend to do this year. So, hopefully, things have gone well.

Additional photos below
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12th October 2021

Al Ula and beyond
Having followed the Dakar Rally in Bolivia with our driver being the guy that surveyed the course, I have followed the Dakar Rally on TV with great interest. The Dakar Rally has taken place in Saudi Arabia for the last two years. The scenery is sensational. We love remote. How lucky are you to map these extraordinary locations, Alexis. Wow wow wow!!!
14th October 2021

Dakar Rally
Yes, I believe it was in the end stages when we were there earlier this year. My co-worker kind of wanted me to go... but I know nothing about it! :) Saudi definitely has some hidden gems!

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