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Driving in Saudi
Day Trips from KAUST
Day and Weekend Trips from KAUST
On of the things that will strike expats is that to find out about anything in Saudi Arabia means not turning to our favorite source: google. There just isn't much out there in the English Langauge web about tourism and places to go. Tourism also just isn't a big industry here. So the best way to find out where to go on your weekends is to ask around. If that doesn't work, just drive! The roads around here are in excellent condition, and as you drive east, the terrain becomes more beautiful. Traffic is minimal as soon as you get off the main north-south highway that runs from Jeddah to Yanbu and beyond. For a refreshing weekend trip, just hop on the highway toward Madinah (drive south to Thuwal exit, U-turn, then take next exit. It's beautiful and a great way to let the car get some exercise and see some beautiful scenery. When travelling, it's good to always bring:
Plenty of water and food. Enough for everyone to last a full day.
A cell phone and car cable to charge it.
GPS or offline maps on your phone.
A full tank of gas.
It's always a good idea for your first few times out to travel in a group. After that, use your common sense. I've been surprised by how many small villages are scattered throughout the mountains and every one has it's own handful of repair shops should you get a flat. Your arabic you've been working on since you arrived will serve you well as your take day trips out of KAUST.
Please see info below for fun places to visit. You may also want to check out the separate pages on:
Visiting the King Abdullah Economic City
Make the long trip 2.5 hours NW of Taif to get to the Wahba Crater. Sights along the way include Saharan terrain with camel and goat farms nearby, little twisters (tornados) always on the horizon, and wild dogs! There is a trail going down to the crater starting roughly at 22.906302 degrees north, 41.130866 degrees east, next to the small white concrete hut on the northwestern side of the crater. There are other routes up and down having varioous difficulty, for the more adventurous souls, hike up the trail takes upwards from twenty minutes and can be a sweaty experience during the mid-day heat. The Wahba Crater, largest of its kind in the Middle East, is a spectacular and impressive site. (Photo Courtesy Red Sea News. The above text is also based on a story on the
Red Sea News
Jan 30, 2012)
"The Al Wahbha crater is of volcanic origin and was formed when rising hot magma came in contact with groundwater, leading to a massive steam explosion. The crater is about 2 km in diameter and 250 m deep and the deposits from the explosion can be seen all around the crater. The age of the crater is somewhat uncertain, it may be as young as 5000 years old, but could be a few 10s of thousands of years old. There are several explosion craters in Saudi Arabia, of which the Al Wahbha crater is best known. I doubt it is the largest one, although it may be the deepest.” - Dr. Sigurjon Jonsson, Associate Professor of Geophysics at KAUST
"Some friends and I discovered a good route to the crater that avoids the traditional long and traffic-filled roads around Jeddah, Makkah, and Taif. It goes northeast on Hwy 15 and a second road to the town of Al Mahd, then straight south to the crater. The roads are all in good shape and well marked. It takes only 3.5-4 hours to get to the crater. Bing Maps includes the required roads that Google Maps lacks. Go to bing.com/maps and have it find directions to 22.897 N, 41.131 E (Wahba Crater rim).
Here's an annotated PDF map.
" - Luke Thompson, Postdoc
>> More information about Whaba Crater
Mada'in Saleh is a 6 to 9 hour drive from KAUST and is well worth a visit to see ancient Nabatean tombs and old traditional Saudi mud-brick houses.
This report is from a February 2013 Trip to Mada'in Saleh. Our experiences may not be the same as yours, but I hope they can guide you.
Get your permits through GASC. They even have a form for this, but it is not always easy to find. Email
for best results.
The route from Yanbu to Highway 328 was easy, fast, and without hassle on the way up. It is about 600km, and took us about 6 hours. You can plan on driving nice and fast on those roads if you are comfortable that way. There was little car traffic.
A 4 AM Thursday Departure worked very well. You drive in the dark on the main highway 5 to Yanbu, and by the time you are getting onto 2 lane roads, it is light out.
As far as reserving rooms at the Al Ula ARAC hotel, do it by phone, and get confirmation from a person whose name and mobile phone you have with you. Bring your printed confirmation with you when you arrive. The hotel was overbooked the weekend we went and 2 families ended up sharing one suite. It was very difficult to get rooms. It helped that our party checked in at 10:30. The group that was bumped arrived late in the afternoon.
We did not use a guide. If you would like a guide, contact Saeed at 0554555419. He comes recommended from other KAUST travelers.
6 hours in the park was plenty. A guide may be able to extend the tour of the park and use more time. We enjoyed our six hours immensely but would not have wanted more. We did, however, have small children. That changes your timeline.
The more you can prepare to be self-sufficient on your trip, the happier you will be. Have plenty of drinking water (ie, ALL of your drinking water: 4 liters a day per adult - Tamimi has large 20 liter containers you can fill from your sink above the frozen foods) We brought lots of food and snacks and were thankful we did.
Al Ula is a regional city, with many services, from a grocery store, a bustling market, shops of all sorts and sizes, and a few food options we found. I did not see ANY food options other than the hotel that would cater to mixed groups. MEN only in the restaurants. There is a good take out place that offers a variety of food at good prices in the center of town. We got our dinner there thursday and brought it back to the hotel. Remember that you will not be able to access any of these services on Friday morning.
The old city of Al Ula is amazing to wander through. Be sure you save an hour or so to wander around.
There is a vista point above the town of Al Ula. Drive East from the hotel at the bridge intersection. (Exit hotel with a right turn, immediatly bear right onto ramp, head straight through the roundabout, follow road. Take switchback road all the way up to the top of the plateau and keep following road for 4-6 km. The road terminates at the antenna towers with a vista of the valley. Worth the drive.
We had police attention within the park from friendly and well meaning police. We also had police attention on Friday as we were leaving the hotel. I think this attention is the result of well-meaning people who want to keep you safe. They may, however, make it difficult to have a leisurly Friday. Feel confidant that as a lawful resident of Saudi Arabia, that as long as your are respecting the laws and customs of this country, you can be where you are. We insisted that before we left we would make several shopping stops, and at one point ended up leading the police officer around the town of Al Ula because it was difficult to communicate what we wanted. Shway Shway. We also had to be firm that we had no desire for a police escort out of Al Ula, and that we were taking the Yanbu route (Highway 328) home. He did not like that as it is an unpatrolled road. We insisted, and eventually called the GASC on-call number and asked him to tell the police officer, essentially, "we are adults, we know what we are doing, we take responsibility for our selves, we are legally allowed to be here and drive on these roads, so please leave us alone." He left us at the outskirts of town and we proceeded to take a few wrong turns as we drove back to KAUST (see note 12)
Highway 328 is being re-routed and the new roads are NOT an any maps. Driving To Al Ula, the roads shunt you in the correct path. Driving back to KAUST, the route is more difficult to find. I HIGHLY recommend using a GPS that will record your route. My Garmin unit will do this, as will Google My Tracks for Android phones. Plug your phone in to your car charger and keep it running the entire way. Then just retrace your path all the way home.
I was unable to find ANY digital map that would correctly route this trip over Highway 328. It's not a hard route, but for those of us who like some extra help in the car and you want to take this scenic route, be warned that no GPS I've found has the updated roads.
(sorry it’s upside down!)
Madain Saleh Hotel
You must have a visit permit to enter Mada'in Saleh. You can get these from the hotel.
Image courtesy American Bedu
Annual event based outside of Riyadh. According to the
American Bedu blog
, "The Janadriyal festival is one of the best means for anyone – whether an expatriate or a Saudi – to experience the traditions and customs of each province within Saudi Arabia. The event showcases the National Unity within the Kingdom and its unique regions. The event will have something for everyone such as demonstrations of dances from the differing regions of Saudi Arabia, appetizing foods typical of throughout Saudi Arabia, arts, crafts, camel rides, poetry readings and much more!"
American Bedu Blog post about Janadriyah
Festival homepage in Arabic
News article about 2012 festival
Ottoman Castle Near Rabigh
The ruins of an old Ottoman building lay about
an hour north of KAUST
. It is an easy day or half-day trip for anyone interested in getting off-compound and exploring in the desert. Once there, you can visit the ruins, meet some camels, do a bit of dune bashing and have a picnic.
Read about Claire's Ottoman Castle experience here
, including directions
Cheeta is a tour company specifically designed for expats. They run excursions, camping trips, Jeddah city tours, and more...
Here's Cheeta Tours spring 2012 Tour Guide
. Will be out of date soon, but gives you all a good idea of what they do. Lots of great weekend trips to places that you won't find mentioned on any english-language sites.
External Day Trip Links
Have you been on a trip? What are your tips, resources and lessons learned? Share your suggestions above (
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