There are times when you are acutely aware that you are “not in Kansas anymore.” And there are times when you when you feel mentally, physically, spiritually, and achingly, oh-so-far from home. I had both of those moments when I arrived in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia to spent a long but adventurous day.
My trip to Saudi Arabia started with an invitation from the General Sport Authority of Saudi Arabia as an invited guest to attend the season opener of the Formula E-Prix race in Addiriyah, Saudi Arabia. Since I often write about cars, it seemed like a natural yet unexpected invitation. After consulting with my husband, who has traveled to Saudi Arabia and other parts of the middle east, we both took a why not? approach and I responded that I would be delighted to attend.
The delight truly came once the trip planning had begun. Prior to race day, we were invited to select a one day fam (familiarization) trip to other regions of Saudi Arabia. Options included a visit to the Red Sea, to the oil fields, to a local village, or to the northwest part of Saudi Arabia to visit Al-Ula, the home of Mada’in Saleh.
Since watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (true story), I’ve been drawn to the ancient site of Petra, Jordan. Al-Ula was once at the southern part of the same ancient civilization and boasted many of the same remnants of a necropolis (a city of ancient tombs). This was my chance to see Petra, only a little further south and a lot less crowded.
Welcome to Al-Ula
Our trip began with an early morning chartered flight from Riyadh to the airport in Alu-Ula, Prince Abdul Majeed bin Abdulaziz Domestic Airport. It was a lesson in patience and the loosely defined construct of Saudi Arabian time. We did eventually arrive but it was two hours later than expected so after a wonderful folk welcome, we were bussed to a lunch site in the middle of the desert.
Lunch in the Desert
Stepping off the charter bus into the sand, surrounded by mountains and tents and hearing the chants of local dancers, this was the moment when I could feel that I was literally on the other side of the world.
It was overwhelming and make me feel giddy at the same time. “I’m in Saudi Arabia!” I said to no one in particular and despite my jet lag, I vowed to take in every moment of the adventure. I walked into the tent to take my first sip of Arabic coffee – I drink I never thought I’d like since I’m not a coffee drinker. I soon learned to love every tiny cup that was handed to me everywhere I went.
Pitstop at a Bedoiun camp
After lunch, we were treated a stop at a Bedouin camp where I remembered the close Arabian connection to horses. And camels. And goats. My connection was apparently a little too close. I found a nice lady camel, gave her some pita bread, and she promptly kicked me.
If you’re trying to picture it, here’s how it went down. I fed her pita. I could tell she was getting agitated so I moved away. I went to take an obligatory selfie with a camel in the background (thinking I was far enough away) when she suddenly came around the tree she was tied to, raised her rear leg, and delivered a swift kick to my side. I fell over backwards, took stock of all my bones and internal organs, and decided that I had survived. And that I was ready to go visit the baby goats instead.
Driving to Mada’in Saleh
After eating lamb and getting kicked by a camel, I was ready to interact with some landmarks. Mada-in Saleh is a well known archaeological site in the region and is the reason most of us chose this particular fam trip.
Mada’in Saleh is an archaeological site located in the Sector of Al-`Ula within Al Madinah Region, the Hejaz, Saudi Arabia. A majority of the remains date from the Nabatean kingdom (1st century CE). The site constitutes the kingdom’s southernmost and largest settlement after Petra, its capital.Wikipedia
Our final stop in Mada’in Saleh was an area called the Diwan, a place reserved for religious gatherings, that was a frequent stop for those on the Syrian Pilgrimage Route. In fact, you could still see ancient carved inscriptions from some of the travelers.
Four-Wheeling in the Sand Dunes
After seeing sites that few Westerners have seen, we weren’t done yet. We traveled to nearby sand dunes to take full advantage of the Toyota Land Cruisers we were tooling around it. It soon became pretty clear that this is a hotspot for locals to have a little fun.
As was typical for the day, no one really explained where we were going or why. We just entered the sand dunes and, literally, held on for dear life. Luckily, our driver had clearly been there before and when the other drivers were going too slow or getting stuck in the sand, we took the high road/dune and really went joyriding.
It turns out there was an actual destination. As the dunes leveled out, we found ourselves settling into a temporary campsite in a high-walled canyon. Our hosts had provided seating, fires, music (I still don’t know where exactly they plugged in the amplifier), and, of course, coffee and tea. It was a lovely way to watch the sunset and get to know my fellow travelers.
After the canyon air turned chilly and the sun had set (and I had to get creative with my bathroom options in the middle of a canyon), we headed back to our lunch tent for a seafood extravaganza before heading to the airport for our 90 minute flight back.
It was an exhausting day. I was running on little sleep and plenty of jet lag and still felt wired when I made it back to our hotel. But this is an experience I won’t ever forget. I made sure to savor every moment of the day and treat it like the once-in-a-lifetime experience that it probably was.
A Video Tour of Al-Ula
Want to get a better feel for my first day in Saudi Arabia? There’s no better way than through my video. Hope you enjoy a taste of the middle east!