Updated: May 10, 2020
Massive amount of books and papers have been published about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But yet, tourism still has an embryonic stage here, and it will not change, insofar the foreigners and the locals, will not start to discover this country complexly. Saudi Arabia has profusion of an iconic places, and should be proud of it indeed, nay – natural and cultural diversity of this state astonishes its visitors, and often even its inhabitants. Tourism as latest phenomena still is considered as something new. On the other hand – we could observe its dynamic development in business sector.
Those who visit KSA at their first time, mostly possess ready packages of a sightseeing list and elaborated itineraries. The most popular amid them are : The capital city – Riyadh with Najd Region hinterlands, Jeddah with its old town, Medain Saleh with the ancient kingdoms and civilizations – and many more.
Hitherto, I have seen many different, although, unsimilar heritage and cultural sites in Saudi Arabia. Without any doubts, the most popular betwixt visitors until these days remain respectively – Medain Saleh and few deserts; notably with legendary, mysterious and magnitude one - Rub Al Chali. Some visitors bravely go to watch sea shores, sometimes in the Eastern Province or near Jeddah – the western bank of the state.
Apart from those mentioned above, I wonder, who ever heard about green, vivid, wild and mysterious Saudi Mountains? Who ever heard about mountains located deeply in backwoods in southern parts of Saudi’s Kingdom or about hiking in Saudi Arabia? I briefly assume that you did not hear about them. Therefore that’s the very purpose for herein article. Throughout the paragraphs, we will take you along, to the forgotten among locals, and, widely unknown among foreigners – world of the Saudi’s Mountaineers Heritage.
This article aims to present the essentials related to mountains in Saudi Arabia, hiking in Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, its habits, parts of history, and many more. Article portraits likewise, some kind of activities, which are being popular there.
TIME’S VEHICLE – TRAVEL ONTO THE BACKWOODS OF THE FORGOTTEN WORLD OF THE SAUDI HIGHLANDERS
I was told many years ago that life in Saudi Arabia is boring, monothematic and without any specific colours. Such an image has been codified and remembered by me. It derived mediately by many Saudi inhabitants unfortunately.
Few years later, when I flew at the first time to KSA, I kept in my mind the same images with some lucrative, and romantic ornaments though. They merely decorated my imagination, and have inspired vividly, by some Western explorers from the beginning of the 20th century.
Staying more than a half year in the desert area, I really started to be bored with its climate, habits and landscapes. It was a typical routine lifestyle. Maybe not directly, but I have decided to change it. I was so motivated to discover something, what was totally not recommended by Najd’s locals; I mean hiking in Saudi Arabia, South of the country wild its mountains.
Few weeks later – I have been in Buljerashi town, in Al-Baha province –sleeping in tents with my Saudi comrades in the campsite.
The term Al-Baha has many meanings. The most representative are such like: water in the maximum amount or courtyard of the house. Another tales say about extremally deep bottomless well, open space or midline of the road. As the region, Al-Baha is situated in the south-west of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
It is worthy to evoke here that, this particular region in Saudi Arabia has only inhabitants of two tribes – respectively Al-Ghamdi and Al-Zahrani. Those two tribes descend from Al-Azad. Their lineage is: Kaab bin Al-Harith bin Abdallah bin Malek bin Nasser bin Al- Azad bin Al-Ghoth. The great grandfather of both Ghamdi and Zahrani tribes is Kaab. Meanings of those two tribes are rooted in word “ghumd” for Al-Ghamdi, and it means the sheath of the sword, meanwhile word “zahara” means to gleam or to shine.
In the southern mountains of Saudi Arabia weather is mostly very cool, and sometimes is even freezing by night. Typical climate in the mountains gives Saudis people the opportunity to escape from hot weather in other provinces. Al-Baha and respectively its climate is divided into two sectors; lower – Tihama and upper Al-Sarat. Upper sector is exposed to humid air fronts coming from lower Tihama plain. It widely leads to the formation of clouds and fog. Temperature falls and rain is copious here. During summer time the climate is pleasant and lovely. The Tihama site is totally different from Al-Sarat. It is more tropical and temperatures are very similar to those regions like Najd or Mecca.
The history of Al-Baha goes back even before Islamic era. Usually, it is dated since local community has embraced islam by the end of the 50’s Anno Hijri. Soon, at the end of the 10 th year Hijri, sparks of Islamic message have illuminated most of the region. Al-Baha witnessed also episodes of defeating apostasy, reforms movement of Mohammad b. Abdul Wahab, Turkish expeditions, etc. Al-Baha Region was during all across history an arena for a life full events, Jihad, perseverance and struggle. This region has vital past and it could be observed during hiking in the mountains. There are many paths, roads, villages which have until now some inscriptions, wells, mines, some graves with epitaphs or demolished houses. The Region is also famous from the Elephant Road which crosses here.
The accurate season time when I have decided to make a trip was winter. After a long 9 hours journey from Riyadh suddenly, I had chance to relax myself in Buljerashi’s campsite. Together with my comrades, we prepared our tents. Sitting around a bonfire, were eating and discussing intensively about tomorrow’s hiking agenda in Saudi mountains. Whole night long, I was fully conscious that, suddenly my dreams come true. Personally I must confess that, I adore mountains a lot, and since my childhood, I was hiking together with my family or with friends in European mountains, when only there was opportunity. Mostly in Slovakia and Poland, but also in Scotland, Austria and Italy. I could not wait until tomorrow, to see how it could be like our hiking in Saudi Arabia.
Starting from an upper site – more than 2000 metres high, somewhere on the edge of Buljerashi’s suburban, at dawn time, we started our hiking trip to the mountains in Saudi Arabia in Sarawat lesser chain. Quite well arranged rocky path leads us toward one of the abandoned villages in the valley. Weather is brilliant therefore we can easily observe commonly known Sheda mountain with its three separated peaks. A sun just commenced its sunrises and therefore, after a while, we could perceive and distinguish few villages, who currently lost their inhabitants, agricultural terraces, and very popular the watch towers which is a huge amount in this region.
Our friend and guide Mr. Ahmed says that the last villager died there 30 years ago. He lived there alone, the same as his ancestors have done. Unfortunately his family could not adapt it any longer, and they left him and lived in town, while he has chosen to stay, and dwell continuously alone. Usually all those small villages, had cultivated its rural and traditional lifestyle until early 50’s. People were self-sufficient completely. They cultivated grain, fruits and vegetables. Also possessed in their farms cattle (donkey, cows, ewes, goats), and fowl like gooses, turkeys and chickens. Life there was definitely not that much romantic, but rather has been connected with serious toil and strong character life. Inhabitants who dwelled in this valley, were facing upper mountain’s passes with donkey to collect bigger amount of products, as well as daily life demand staff.
Al-Baha’s architecture is quite specific and easy distinguishable from other Regions. Is rather more close to those in Yemen or Oman (highlands and mountains). It is characterized by simplicity, elegance, moderation and spaciousness.
For someone who is really interested in folk architecture in this region, must visit those old and abandoned villages. The features manifest themselves specially there, and with prompt glimpse, you may notice those traditional buildings of thick walls, made with stones and rocks, which are placed on the top of each other together with plastering material in between consisting of mud, and small stones to fill the gaps. Inside of each houses are lumber pillars to support the roof, characterized here by strength, and the beauty of their capitals adorned with engraved decorations. Doors are made of thick wood and are decorated with beautiful geometric designs and drawings well engraved and carefully chosen.
Typical constructions for Al-Baha region are undoubtedly watch towers. Their major role was to defend the areas by sending alarm signs (fire or sounds of the drums). When sings of danger are felt, fire is lit on the mountain top and drums are beaten with known rythms and cadence to warn the other people. Also it was done to announce the beginning of Ramadan and the Eids.
Slowly, step by step, we continue our hike, admiring from time to time crags from the right site, and rural fields with theirs farming ruins from the left. Our friends sing local lilits, and speak about legends and stories who are related to these places. The time passes totally in lovely atmosphere with extraordinary mood. Once we notice a solid rocky sun’s cover, promptly we pause the hike and make some tea for everyone. Whole day long path allows and delivers us, an amazing spots for photos or just spiritual contemplation. After couple quarters break, we continue our hike. Still aim stays very long away. We can reach it more or less by eyes, but all of us are aware that there are many hours left to reach night campsite in a village.
The path leads us up and down, and sometimes via bushed serpentines. Mostly we keep direction by azimuth and also our sensual orientation. Apart from existing trail, there are also to many spots, which have been demolished by rain, storms and time through decades. That’s why we often go back and return to some spots, to stay in the most proper line toward the bottom of the valley. Being tired from a long distance marching, we declared lunch time.
During extended lunch break, I have realised that two unknown persons with rifles suddenly have moved near the opposite crag on the edge. Being scared a little bit, I strongly yield to Mr. Ahmed and others. His reaction was rather so calm: My friend, those guys are mine good colleagues! Do not be afraid, they just hunt some birds in this are daily. His response ensured me psychological comfort for next hours. Later, they saluted to each other, and have left to continue their hunting mission.
These mountains however similar by their altitude with Carpathian Tatras, are different from some reasons. Sector of Al-Sarat consists of volcanic rock hills and of valleys forming profusion of water basins, agricultural terraces (Yemeni style), sudden steeps and gradual one. There are many granite rocks and few hundred metres high walls (Jabal Sheda). You will not find any alimentation bases here, neither shops or information points. This mountains are wild, and demand really well arrangement and packages with all essentials to make the trip. Many spots do not have GSM signal. Also, what is very difficult during each trip here – lack of water. You must carry a lot of water with you, because rarely you may find water basins or some water eyes. But there are not streams or mountain rivers.
THE SALTY VILLAGE
When lunch was done our group had been pointed toward salty village on the horizon. Mr. Ahmed said briefly: There we must go! It is our proper way to descend in the bottom of the valley, and to reach the campsite before sunset, so hurry up!.
Visiting that village was seriously an extraordinary experience. Honestly, I have seen many abandoned places in my life, but this one, which is surrounded by landscapes and magical natural atmosphere was completely new to me. The village itself stayed in quite good condition though. Buildings are totally fine, maybe with theirs roof exceptions. Hand made from completely. Decorated doors, window frames, interior’s pillars. Some of them even did not lose its colours. Separated kitchen room, bedroom, magazine, upper level for family gathering, rocky hand- made stairs; that’s a real miracle and fantastic part of local’s heritage.
Separately nearby house farm’s side, few meters lower we could observe widely arranged rural fields. They were still untouched – even by nature nor men. I spoke with my colleagues and told them to stay for a night here; it’s spectacular place I thought so. However, we already had arranged plan, and our guide could not change it. I promised myself, that once day, I will back here and obligatory must stay for a night camp.
Continuously, we have been descending into the bottom of the valley. We had passed many deserted gorges and ravine, where are too many bushes. We had noticed even an endemic plant in Saudi’s flora environment – tihama bottle tree, almond three, arar tree and many other. Unfortunately, we did not have chance to see some representatives of this fauna. We noticed only few rabbits, lizards, monkeys. But in this mountains you may observe Arabian leopard, wolves, hyenas, chameleons, snakes and scorpions.
In the very bottom on the valley, we met local mountaineer. He grazed his ewes somewhere in the left bank fields of valley. From here, there was around two hours left to our campsite in abandoned village, in the land which has been frozen in time.
THE LAND FROZEN IN TIME
Being on our way, we passed through another abandoned village. Ruins and watchtowers which stayed unchangeably on their places, today are the real testimony of the past. We look to the left, where still are many fields and magnitude trees. There are also gardens with some fruits and vegetables. Today that village stays lonely among mountains and no one lives there.
After a long time walk and hike, ultimately our eyes may perceive the abandoned settlement of AlGhamdi’s tribe. We reached it just few minutes after sunset. Therefore still we had light and without any problems, we have had found the proper lieu for a night. The weather during that night was very warm. We decided to sleep just on the ground without tents but only with sleeping bags. The guide has prepared a bonfire and fresh lamb meal from the meat which he got from a lower village’s allotments.
Environmental conditions and historical have played major role in food. Al-Baha as Region is known for its local popular meals. The most famous amid them are for instance Daghabis, Kouskousiyah, Kebsa, Lebza, Muthriya, Malbana, Al-Khebza, Al-Assida. Often there is a regional indigenous bread – bread al balad served together with meals. Apart from the main courses mentioned above, the host offers to his guest Arabic coffee, tea with mint, dates, honey, fruits and almonds from local farms.
We ate a dinner and been staying together near the fire. During that humble feast, they told us many stories about this place. Especially by one man, who grew up in that village since his childhood. He told us about his family’s daily life, problems, habits and tradition. Also he spoke about his ancestors, who have had lived here since ages. Betweenwhiles during his brave and inspiring speech, we heard sounds of baboons, which have been somewhere in bushes nearby. These sounds and voices made us afraid a little. But we have been together with our comrades, and very quickly it was forgotten finally. Arab’s hospitality – as well as Saudi’s one – are almost legendary today. However, also here, there are differences among tribes and regions. Al-Baha is not exception at all.
We gathered like that until late midnight. Occasionally, to make conversations more vivid, there were traditional lilits and dances performed by our Saudi friends. Rejoices and laughs were countless. Like in a fairy tale, fire illuminated our corps and sparks stimulated those, who already started to feel sleepy. That was an astonishing night, somewhere in the wilderness, amid pure nature, which has been frozen in time verily.
THE DAWN AND MARCHING UP
Morning wake up was super easy to all of us. Fresh air, birds songs, smell of herbs and flowers around and peaceful silence. At dawn our guide has decided to make simple breakfast near water fountain. He said that since many decades that water fountain allowed local’s to survive here.
Firstly, we must take many rocky steps down to the deeper bottom entering the jar. Scenery like from National Geographic. There are many spectacular and huge trees and bushes deep in the ravine. We keep hiking but that place astonished all of us I believe, and we stopped time to time, to take some photos.
It was approximately 20 minutes when we have reached that fountain. Water is very cold and has smooth and sweet taste. Our companions prepare bonfire and planned breakfast. We have eaten, danced and sung. Subsequently we refilled quickly all our bottles with water, because there are no other water fountain until up villages, and our way takes almost 5 hours to the top.
Mr. Ahmed has chosen the old pathway, which has been made ages ago by inhabitants of that village. Still it keeps its condition and is easy to navigate to the top. The group hikes up to the top, stopping infrequently to take breath, and look around at those breath-taking and outstanding views, which as much higher they are, present themselves even more attractive.
Before we ultimately would go behind the mountain edge, we must take the final glimpse on the valley. We can see also the trace from yesterday, and two villages, which we have passed. This very last glance makes us aware and confirms that, nature has frozen this amazing land in time.
Author: Sebastian Kawka