Photographer

Tabuk to Yanbu

I decided to explore Tabuk on the run, getting some exercise and covering lots of ground. It’s quite a nice place, in the bland way that word suggests. Maybe I didn’t find the best bits. I certainly caused a stir running down the streets and avoiding traffic. There is generally no way you can run on the pavement in Saudi cities; the idea of a sidewalk, to use an Americanism has been lost in translation. The space is generally used for trees, square concrete containers designed to hold trees, but actually full of garbage, or parking slots. Occasionally, when a shop is closed down, the pavement is a store for garbage, builders rubble and old furniture. As I ran I was on the lookout for batteries. I needed two, a CR2032 to make my motorcycle key work, and some lithium AAAs to operate the SPOT GEN3 tracker I’m using. Shouldn’t be too hard to find, I thought. I was wrong. Even Extra didn’t have them. Keyless ride is OK, but … when the battery goes flat …

Back at the hotel, I was starving and not best pleased when I found out that the restaurant didn’t open until 7:00. It was 5:30. “No problem sir, we have a le carte”. Three quarters of an hour later, I was served a mildy aired Arabic mixed grill that looked a little like it had been involved in a car crash. I was hangry by this stage, sent it back, declined the kind offer to reheat it and marche out of the hotel. I would have been well advised to put on some more clothes first, but I was only mild.y hypothermic by the time I arrived at the shawarma restaurant down the road. Running acrosss ten lanes of traffic helped.

I need to learn Arabic. A combination of a few Arabic and English words, together with extravagant gestures got me two huge shwarmas and a fruit salad large enough to overfeed a family of four. It was an interesting concoction; fresh orange, apple, banana, mango, kiwi, pineapple, pomegramite seeds, topped off with three scoops of vanilla ice cream, liquidised fresh strawberries mixed with a little cream, pistachio and crushed almond flakes. Oh, and a few chocolate chips and a stick of KitKat, albeit a Chinese copy.  

Leaving Tabuk early in the morning was a good thing. The roads were still quiet, making it easier to cope with the navigation. They are currently restructuring the road system to allow for the huge increase in traffic since the original town was planned. The effect may be interesting. At the moment I am not sure. Huge flyovers are being built through the centre of town. They might get the traffic moving, but somehow I suspect that they will just damage the many local businesses and somebody will build a new mall out of town. At the moment they are just causing general chaos and traffic accidents, especially near the roundabouts.  

Appropriate roundabout behaviour obviously needs to be taught; you can’t just drop them in a town centre and hope for the best. I’ve noticed several behaviours in this part of Saudi. The confident way is to charge across the roundabout, taking the centre at a tangent and making use of all lanes with confidence. At the other extreme is the cautious driver who gives way to people wanting to enter the roundabout, coming to a stop each time a car approaches. Neither are particularly effective or safe. 

Once I was out of town I joined a busy highway heading south. As the temperature dropped from 5° to 1°C, the ice warning displayed on the GPS, I cranked the heat up on my jacket and thought to buy a wind proof scarf. The sun rose and mountains appeared, the landscape reminding me of the Western Hajar in Oman. Between the rocky jebels, fine sand dunes burned orange, or frosted white. I’ve seen ice so rarely in Saudi that I had to stop and check. There had been a heavy dew in the night and ice crystals etched each wind blown ripple or track in the sands. I drove on, especially careful, but fascinated with the way the light and shadows played on the landscape.

Entering one particularly bleak valley, I stopped and watched the sun rise over the horizon, its rays casting long shadows. As the sun warmed the landscape a sudden wind appeared with tremendous strength. My bike, propped on its centre stand wobbled and the alarm went off. I turned it off and walked away to take a photograph. Another gust of wind, then another. Then the bike went over. I raised my eyebrows, thought bugger and should have taken a photograph, but I didn’t. I put my camera down and wondered about how to pick the bike up. Without luggage I can do it, with luggage, not a hope. Within a minute though a Toyota pickup screeched to a halt, reversed back up the hill. Struggling to stand on their feet in the wind, a Saudi man and his son came to check I was OK. It did look as though I had crashed, especially as my knuckle was bleeding – I’d caught it on something trying to pick up the bike. I explained, feeling rather stupid. Together we picked up the bike. I thanked them, we took photos and I got ready to go. With the bike off the side stand it was quite a struggle to keep it upright against the wind. Bloody cold now, I waved to the men as they got in their car and adjusted the heating level of my jacket before starting the bike. Everything sorted, the wind suddenly dropped. As I had been leaning against the wind to keep the bike upright this was unfortunate. I spent a desperate three seconds trying to stop downward progress and then fell over, laughing. The men saw it happen in their rear view mirror and jumped back out to pick me up again. Most embarrassing. I’m sure they thought I was just incompetent for once on the move they followed me for ten miles before deciding I was safe enough to leave to my own devices. 

About half an hour after that incident, I spotted an isolated sandstorm issuing from a side valley. The road ahead completely disappeared. Riding into it was strange. The particle were larger than usual and high off the ground. They sparkled like the finest quartz crystals. It was only once I had driven though it that I realised they were ice crystals, released from the sand by the morning sun and blown down the valley by the same gales that had knocked my bike over. Twice.  

Before heading off towards Wadi Deesa I stopped at a small village petrol station for fuel. They had run out, but did ask me to share their breakfast of foul and bread. Thankfully, the GSA has a thirty litre tank, or I would have to carry extra fuel.

Wadi Deesa is a hidden valley of quite spectacular proportions, a magical landscape that were it in Europe would be famous. I followed the road until a sign said “Road End” and then sat on the bike looking at the track that I knew continued up though the valley to connect with the road about 45 km away. I need to do some off road training and bring someone with me next time. Reluctantly, I turned around and began the journey south towards Yanbu. It was already heading towards noon, so I had to change my plans a little, rerouting to the coast so that I could make Yanbu before dark. Still, I managed to get a good three hundred miles of twisty mountain roads before joining the inevitably straight, if very fast, coastal highway.  

I soppped for lunch at an Afghan restaurant at Al Wagh – Badaa, a small village in a farming area. I love places like this. Your travel though the harshest, bleakest of deserts and then, almost out of nowhere appears a village, all thanks to a natural spring, or the presence of a wadi feeding water and bringing life. We sat and ate together, laughing and exchanging a few words, without a common language. They didn’t want me to pay, bought me plasters for my still bleeding finger and wanted to know why I hadn’t ridden in Afghanistan if I was riding in Saudi. Al Wagh is like so many of the small villages I’ve been to, truly multicultural. In the hour I spent there I met Afghans, Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Yemeni, Bangladeshi. Oh, and one Saudi youth.

The municipal sculpture changed once I hit the coast road. A ship, made out of concrete of course, graced the first intersection. 

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