Saturday, May 06, 2017

Al Ula Desert Safari

Rough Draft: Our second day in Al Ula opened with a canyon safari to see the sun rise and closed with a journey back in time as we walked through the long abandoned old town. As you might expect, we took a lot of pictures:



Canyon Safari
We woke up a little after 4 am for breakfast at 4:30. Why so early? Our convoy of four-wheel drive SUVs was scheduled to depart at 5:30. The early morning air on our walk to the breakfast tent was almost chilly. We finished our buffet breakfast and grabbed a couple of extra bottles of water before climbing into our modern day caravan. We drove out of the camp site and made our way to just north of the Hejaz Railway Station in Mada'in Saleh before going off road and heading into the wilderness.
At just after 6 am, I noticed that the radio was crackling and I could just make out the tune: "It's 5 o'clock somewhere." The irony is that this song is about drinking, and we're in a dry country.

Our caravan stopped at 6:12 am to let some air out of the tires before we began our drive over the sand.


This turned out to be insufficient, as our vehicle couldn't climb one of the dunes and we rolled back down in reverse before taking an alternate route. As you can see by this satellite photo, the place is kind of like a maze. We generally traveled from the lower left of the photo to the middle, then wove our way back to the lower right.
Satellite view of the canyons
There were a few moments while we were sliding down the dune sideways or nosing over a steep drop off that we questioned the stability of our SUV and the skill of our driver. We made it down to the low road and rejoined the group a bit later to take in a majestic view of the sunrise.
Some folks in one of the other cars went above and beyond in their posing with the sun, but we preferred to keep it simple.


We also passed a place that our guide called the dancing mountains, because he said that moonlight creating the effect of figures dancing.



We drove down the sunrise dune and continued to explore the canyons.  (video)

Shortly after that, we found ourselves stuck on a sand dune. Our confidence in our driver continues to fall. But at least we didn't flip over.


(Note to self: Try to use a before/after of me pointing; add star wars as the after? me with lightsaber /empire logo on truck / license plate to "THX 1138"/ bottom of a star destroyer over my head? / tuskan raider on cliff over car / jawa/bb8 in right foreground? )
As long as our ride's stuck in the sand, this looked like as good of a place as any to take a break. Our guides built a fire, since it was cool and breezy in the shade of the canyon walls.
They also set out rugs and cushions for us, then served Arabic coffee, tea, sukkari dates, cookies, and juices. The French group with us was also celebrating someone's 4th birthday.
We followed our break with little hike farther up the canyon. Our girls loved hearing their voices echo off the rocks.

By the time we finished our hike, the guides had freed our car from dune. We departed the rest site at 9:00 am. Yeah, we still have a full day ahead of us and we've already done all this!

 We stopped at the top of another dune for another great panorama site. And we got stuck a second time. I should point out that our driver is the only one getting stuck. The other drivers are having no issues.


The last stop on the safari was to see some Bedouin camel graffiti. Apparently, when the camel is drawn "tail up," it's to indicate that it's pregnant.


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Old Town Al-Ula
We made a stop for refreshments at the cafe inside the ARAC hotel. It's the only hotel in town, so getting a room is sometimes difficult. But we agreed that the Sahari Resort where we're staying is a better fit for us this trip.
 After the hotel, we wound our way up to an observation point overlooking the city.
 The sense of scale is rather hard to capture, and reminded us of our experiences at the Grand Canyon.



We returned to camp before noon for lunch. We finished lunch and returned to the cabin for a two hour rest. Checked out of resort at 2:30pm, and headed to the old town on our way to the airport.

<<The Al Ula Heritage Village is the abandoned ghost town in the old part of town. We even saw remnants of the wall that used to run across the canyon back in the day.

Our guide led us thru the abandoned town, and then we climbed a set of 2,600 year old stairs in the blazing sun to see the view from the fort overlooking the area. Greg had to make two trips, first with our elder daughter while the younger one waited in the shade with Kacey...but shortly after deciding not to go, she felt she was missing out so Greg quickly took her back up (the rest of the group was already coming down from the tower). It was quite a work out sprinting up the stairs while carrying a child through 91 degree (33 C) heat under the mid-day sun.








After the ghost town, we made a short jaunt up to the airport, arriving around 4 pm.
We were at the gate by 4:15 with our boarding passes in hand. Cute story: Our second-grader asked "Which gate are we at?" There are only two gates, and the doors are literally four window panes apart. But she was earnest in her reason for asking: "Well, I want to know which one. There are two." We boarded the half-empty plane at 1650 and were headed back to Jeddah at 1735. The fun has to stop at some point, right?

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