You read of the miserable failure of that last Friday's outing when we had to ignormusly turn back in dire fear of the falling petrol guage.
So last friday, 25 Aug 2006, the three of us were determined to try again. This would be the last trip that the three of us be making together. My contract is ending and I will be leaving SA on 9 Sept. JR will be going on leave to France by the end Aug and be back after I am gone.
At 10 am we set off, a concession to my desire to sleep late and wake up late. We had our check list. I brought along plenty of water. Notwithstanding my Jordanian Bedouin friend Osama and my French friend with their tiny bottles of water that they insist will be sufficient for them, I felt it better to have more than less.
This time, we made sure the petrol tank of that Panjero was filled to the top. No big deal in Saudi Arabia where the petrol was cheaper than water. I brought my CDs which I regretted not taking with me last weekend especially after I seen that SUV had a CD player and a radio with all channels set to the various ways you can pray on holy Fridays. I was volunteered as the navigator and CD changer. The SUV came along with barometer and altitude sensors, and a compass which kept telling us it wanted caliberation. Osama then said that as he was a Bedouin, he would know which direction is East and so do the caliberation. He took out a ciggie box and placed that on the dashboard while I watched on with fascination. He then said the shadow pointed to the West.
Somehow I was not so convinced. But then you do know my miserable record which got me looking to the West to see a sunrise one early morning in Alishan mountains.
I was sure that Osama Bedouin ancestors knew where the East was, but they would not be using cigarette boxes and shadows. So in addition to being navigator and CD changer, the role of figuring out how to set the caliberation for the compass fell to me as well. By virtue of pressing buttons on dashboard, a message appeared asking the SUV to be driven in a circle. Since we were on the freeway to Mecca, with very fast traffic, that was not a good time to drive the SUV in circles.
So I asked Osama to drive on while I feed CDs into the SUV.
To my pleasant surprise, Osama who never heard of Chinese songs before fell in love with Teresa Teng,or Teng LiJing in Chinese. He liked her music even more than my Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Lobo. Yes folks! those are my kind of music as one of those talked about Baby Boomers. JR of course, love those Chinese music having been inducted by me in that episode of 'getting stuck in the sand' outing to the first rock paintings a couple months ago.
This trip was to go where few sane people would go, to another collection of ancient carvings and paintings depicting fighting men, and animals of ancient age. I suggested that we should also try to go to a site located before that with this collection of standing stones used in ancient ceremonies like the Stone Henge around the Red Sands desert.
We headed West on that road to Mecca which would take us down that Riyadh plateau to the plains. I borrowed JR camera as this might be the last time I head out this way and this was a more spectacular ride than the photos might make you believe.
I mentioned before in my entries that I had this sensation of being in very ancient landscape whenever I drove down and in the vast deserts. A few days back, I saw this map indicating the geological outlay of the land. That map showed the Riyadh plateau to be rock formation from the Cretaceous period. If you see the striations of rocks in the cutting that the road passes through, those were the layers that T Rexs and dinosaurs were striding on. Which meant the plains and desert below were already very ancient when the dinosaurs were young. Getting down to the plain from that Tuwayq Escarpment was always exciting for me, as much a long gentle ride down as well as a time machine.
We turned off that freeway onto the old Mecca road R505 towards Jabal Hafafah area. It was time to see if I could get the compass caliberated. I told Osama to get off the slip road onto the plain and continue to drive in a circle. He thought I was crazy but he obliged me while I kept pressing a button on the dashboard. I felt to be crazy when he completed the circle and nothing happened so I told him to drive another circle. To my relief, the screen clicked and declared the compass was caliberated. So we would never be totally lost in the SUV. Even if we had no clue as to where we were, at least we would know the direction we were heading. Osama also figured out how to set the tripmeter. He found out by just pressing another button and keeping it pressed, the tripmeter would be set to zero. I spend half an hour pressing and twisting and pulling and given up.
Since the ‘guide book’ gave directions by badly drawned sketch maps and distance such as ‘3.4 km turn right’, the zero setting was useful. But as the guide book mileage fluctuate so wildly, it really did not matter. We headed on to Hafirat Nisah direction.
We were going to this site of a row of standing stones apparently used for ancient ceremonial rites. Following the instruction of 18.5 km to make a right turn, we eventually found ourselves in a wadi blocked by other wadis. None of those “ you passing a track which crosses at right-angles at 1.3 km and a water stand-pipe at 1.7 km blah blah blah”.
I was well versed in the gross inaccuracies in this “Desert Treks from Riyadh”. In general, the information seemed to be true. You do need to ‘interpolate’ and ‘extrapolate’ the directions given while wondering what were they smoking when ‘writing’ it up.
By bumbling and stumbling around and about, we came to this track which lead us to this road (not mentioned at all in book) that lead back to the Red Sands. It was such a beautiful part of the desert that we went along. The road was being half buried in the drifting sand. If you look at the photographs , you can see why this was called Red Sands.
Then we passed by farms after farms, all nicely walled up or barbed wired up. I always thought that the United Arab Emirates were where all the Emirs. Then Osama told me that there were about 10,000 Emirs here in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In the last trip, you learnt one Emir taken over the Hidden Valley where yours truly being a member of the Great Unwashed was kept out of with his two friends. After driving to and fro and doubling back and asking, we figured out that those standing stones were safely kept from us by one of those fences erected by either another Emir or a son of an Emir.
Luckily we all had this philosophy that the journey was as much as the destination itself and we been through some very enchanting desert scenery. We drove on and to our surprise, found ourself back on the Damman-Riyadh-Mecca freeway and near the town of Al Muzahimiya. We gone about on a huge circle and were kind of near where we turned off the freeway. Having that SUV compass set and caliberated did not prevent us from doing a full circle.
It was a delightful little town, with people streaming out of the mosques after the noon prayers. Which meant we could have our lunch.
Guided by me and my recollection of how this town was like from one of my early solo excursions, we drove around.
Then Osama saw a restaurant that he told me was a very traditional Saudi restaurant instead of the normal Lebanese or Indian restaurants. He recalled my desire to try a traditional Saudi meal and I asked him before if he could find me the traditional Saudi feast of sheep’s head before I left. I grandly invited Osama and JR to be my guest. We entered the restaurant and were led to this carpeted room to sit or loll about on the floor.
The feast was prepared. It was a bed of saffron rice cooked on a bed of pastry and savoury and right in the center was the sheep’s head. Little pieces of meat and unidentified bits surround the centerpiece.
I thought as the host I offered the choice of eyeballs to JR. JR face was turning greenish and he told me firmly that he would leave the delicacies for me and take only the meat and rice. Osama informed me that eyeballs were not considered the prime choice in Jordan as the tongue was the prime choice and counter my generous offer of the tongue to him with the insistence I should take it. He guided me into how I should rip out the tongue from the head. I must admit I had this strange feeling as I slowly pulled that tongue out, that’s definitely an acquired style of serving. Those two looked at me with great fascination as I remade my offer to share it with them. The tongue was rather nice.
Osama then pointed out this little bit and that little bit as delicacies. I decided not to ask him what those bits were. When in doubt, never ever ask what that was.
We had our fill of food. Sadly, or luckily, I was so full that I decided I had no more space in my stomach for the eyeballs. I thought of my friend , J Chia in Singapore, when one day long long time ago, decided to have goats eyes with me just to try how it was like. I assure all that is an acquired taste that unfortunately I did not quite acquire then or now.
That feast of sheep’s head on rice cost me 120 SR. So if any of you folks pass by this way, do drag your friends with you for this gastronomic delicacy.
We continued on our way back to that freeway towards Riyadh and then turned off to R505 once more.
We got onto the road towards Hafirat Nisah and passed by that turnoff to those standing stones that we did not get to and we passed by that other turnoff to that Hidden Valley which remained hidden from the likes of us. We were heading to the ancient rock paintings of human figures with shields on one hand and throwing sticks in other hand, and fighting scenes with bows and arrows with paintings of ibexes, oryxes.
There were specks circling in the sky as we neared the chicken farms. On getting closer, they turned out to be hundreds of vultures circling and riding thermals and soaring about. We pulled off the road and onto a track into the farm and beyond. There were vultures everywhere, on the ground, on the cliffs and circling above us. We did not see them before. It was just serendipity that we were there at that time of about 2:15pm. While they seemed to be rummaging in the garbage dump at that time, that dump was just too small to have supported so many vultures. Perhaps they were on a migration and happened to be there at that time when we passed by.
We continued on our quest. We turned off towards Huwayra. I observed with satisfaction the fuel was still full. About 3 km after Huwayra, we turned off the road to the track where we might have 44.5 km of track driving to those paintings.
After a while, as the road resembled the sketch map less and less, we expected that we would be muddling as best as we could. Perhaps we should have brought with us an ouija board to give us better instructions. We made ‘best guess’ which turned out not to be that best. We were all in good spirits, having lots of water, lots of gas, lots of madness and lots of laughter. Until I found my cigarettes were getting low. I asked Osama, and to our horror, he was low on ciggies too. JR smoked pipe, cheerfully offering us his pipe as he knew well ciggie smokers would not smoke pipe. Osama gave the gloomy news that we were in Wahabi fundamentalist homeland and we would not expect ciggies to be sold.
The only bit of good news was that the ash tray was full and some butts might be recycled.
We drove about 60 km and we knew for sure that we were in the area of the paintings after descending down a series of small escarpments as described in the guide book. But fences after fences blocked us. We saw a herd of camels beyond the last fence and thought perhaps the herders might be able to guide us. We got to an opening and drove to them. They were Bedouins from Sudan. They did not know of those paintings .
Now that Osama satisfied my yearning for a sheep’s head, he recalled I wanted to try camels milk and camel meat. He asked the herders if I could have camel milk. They were so delighted with my request that I was dragged by them to a female camel. The poor little camel suckling away was pushed unceremoniously away. They then milked that camel straight into my drink container. I wanted just a bit. But they refused my ‘Enough! Enough!’ to fill the container full with frothy camel milk with great delight.
They even took a basin and filled that as well for me, very disappointed that I declined that basin. That baby camel came back and drank from that basin. I took a sip. The milk was very rich, but with an after taste of beef soup to it. I cannot say the milk was not pleasant, just very strange. JR declined any camel milk despite Osama telling us that camel milk would be as good as Viagra.
What was touching was the hospitality of those simple folks who saw us as visitors and treated us like honored guests. I bit my tongue and I dared not talk about the other thing I was curious about, the taste of camel meat. For all I knew, if I asked, they might whip out a knife and slit the throat of that little camel so they could give me some camel meat.
We said our goodbyes to them and promised to send them photos we took of them. That was about 5 pm and time to be heading back.
Photo folder here