I feel very privileged to have access to the country, that save for pilgrims travelling to Mecca for the Hajj, is currently very difficult for visitors to access.
What this means for the adventurer, is that many places in the country are untouched by the influence of tourism and well established trails do not exist. This presents an opportunity to observe the landscape and culture through an excitingly different lens. It also means that any impact on the environment and biodiversity is largely down to the local populace and global effects such as climate change, rather than an influx of international investment and tourists.
So it was, the Jeep crammed to bursting with adventurers and climbing enthusiasts from Spain (Erica), Portugal (Ivan), Russia (Timo) and the UK (Myself) along with tents, food for two days and crash matts strapped to the roof – we rolled out into the desert dunes.
Our first pit-stop was the city of Jeddah where we met more friends with a passion for the outdoors who live locally, Anna and Kenny (USA), Roua (KSA), Ahmad (KSA), Fawaz (KSA), Faisal (KSA) and Osama (KSA). Our convoy was now up to five 4×4’s, three of which completely by chance were matching red Jeep’s, making us appear at a glance, much more organised than the reality!
We headed East from Jeddah into Saudi Arabia’s rocky sun scorched interior. The roads, most of the time, are of a good quality and we made rapid progress. We passed herds of mangey looking wild camels, dunes, rocky outcrops, dust and scrub. There is barely any vegetation in the harsh desert landscape that is coloured yellow, brown and orange.
After just under four hours driving, despite one over-heated engine from the scorching midday sun, we arrived at our destination, Al Shafa on the outskirts of the small settlement, Ash Shafa, near the city of Taif.
We pulled off the road and scouted the area, a short walk from the road lay a boulder field that led up into a flat clearing marked by a tall rocky outcrop. It was perfect and offered a few shady spots for the tents.
Taif is located at a higher altitude to much of the surrounding landscape at above 2000m and is home to the Daka mountain park. As a result the scenery is much greener and the climate slightly cooler than the surrounding area, the area is known for its rose gardens. From our campsite, I could see Jabal Daka, the mountain I had read about before setting off and the summit was calling to me.
We quickly unloaded our jeeps and split into two groups, the ‘boulder’ team and the ‘hiking’ team – we then dispersed to indulge in our passions. The hiking team had Jabal Dakah firmly in their sights and after a short drive to the base of the mountain, we set up a rug in the shade and enjoyed lunch in the desert, peanut butter sandwiches, rice, protein bars, fruit, mint tea and anything else we had managed to bring.
Fortified, we began our hike. This hike was delightfully different to many I have done in Europe, the Americas and Asia by virtue of the fact that, there was no path. Because of the intense outdoor conditions, current barriers to tourism and relatively little infrastructure for outdoor pursuits, when it comes to outdoor activities you must be very self sufficient and in many cases pioneer them!
This can include, finding and marking the first paths or trails, setting the first climbing routes into rock as well as the logistics of getting there and even identifying the best places to go for your chosen activity.
The route became quickly steeper as we ascended the mountain, through in some places, quite dense evergreen vegetation. At some stages we had to crawl on our hands and knees to pass under trees and tangled roots. This was sharply contrasted with having to scramble using both hand and and foot holds up and over large boulders and exposed giant slabs of steep rock.
After an hour of hiking we reached a plateau about three quarters of the way to the summit, offering an incredible view over the rolling hills of the region. Beyond this point the ascent was extremely steep and required some ‘chimneying’ – a technique where a rock fracture is large enough for a climber to fit their entire body into, yet small enough that opposing pressure can be applied to both walls to prevent falling. As a result Ahmad and I were the only two members of the group left with the summit in our sights.
The ascent soon became impossible without additional climbing gear for safety and we were forced to traverse around the edge of the mountain to find a route to the top. Ahmad spotted a route that involved using a large crack in the rock as a handhold, by applying pressure in opposite directions with both hands we were able to use the crack to pull ourselves up and over the lip to the next plateau and into the light form the sunset.
We sat on the plateau, at the highest accessible point of Jabal Daka and watched the sun begin to sink on the horizon, bathing the valleys of Taif in a warm orange glow.
The descent took just under an hour, despite a short stop for Ahmad to pick up a scorpion half the size of a hand, by it’s tail, in order to show me the desert fauna! We caught up with the rest of the group as they reached the Jeeps and headed back to the boulder field to make camp under the stars.
As a member of the Explorers Club I wonder what the future may have in store for the Kingdom, home to such unspoiled natural beauty when it comes to desert dunes, remote mountain regions and the azure Red Sea. Observing the fragility of this environment, even before it is fully developed to make it more accessible, really hammers home the importance of doing so in a sustainable way, with minimum disruption to our planets fragile environment.