14. Saudi in 10 days

Back to our first night in Saudi (or read our previous blog first). If we are not quite sure where we can camp, we normally check the app “iOverlander”, where fellow overlanders drop wildcamp- spots. But not in Saudi. Since the boarder is only open for tourists for 3 months now, there are not many spots yet noted. Nor are there any clear descriptions in travel guides.  So when it get’s dark, we know we have to hurry because finding a spot in the dark is not so convenient- you just never know where you actually are. 

We search for parks in a small town, but it’s too crowded. We search for open area’s near the town, but it doesn’t feel safe enough. Around 20:30- it’s already very dark- we see some dunes near the road and decide to camp there, hidden from the road. We quickly make dinner and – tired from a long driving day- go to bed early. Right when we fall asleep, we hear men voices and knocking on our ‘door’.  We’re awake immediately. Men knocking on the car, the first night in a new country; it doesn’t feel too comfortable. Especially because it’s difficult to estimate their tone of voice; it sounds angry but it could also be curiosity; it’s difficult to tell. Max get’s out of the car and with hands and feet we understand that they are farmers and that we camp on their property- oops. They first seem to think we’re locals who want to sleep secretly together without being married. When they hear the word ‘tourist’ they cool down and immediately welcome us. Pfieuw. We can continue our sleep..

In total we only stay in Saudi for 10 days- way to short to explore this immens country. We first drive to the Edge of the World- a stunning canyon landscape. We arrive on a Tuesday and learn that sights are only open in the weekend; on Friday and Saturday (hello new country). So we are sent away. We decide to camp nearby and try again on Wednesday morning. They let us in, yes! We enjoy 1 night wild camping at this beautiful landscape (though very cold! Where is the hot Saudi desert?! 🙂

Saudi feels interesting. Obviously, the Islamic rituals are a main part of the experience. We’re already used to the prayers 5 times a day, but where in other countries you just heard the prayer, in Saudi normal life stops for a moment. Shops close, when eating in a restaurant the curtains go down and on television the broadcast is paused with images of Mekka. The islamic religion is way more tangible than in the previous Islamic countries we’ve visited. But being non-muslim we have some exceptions; i.e. Merle does not have to wear a headscarf and we can stay in hotel rooms together- even not being married (hardly even a question). What we cannot do, is driving to Mekka. On our way from Riyadh to Jeddah we cross Mekka and we are curious at what point we – as non muslim- are headed to a different direction. Then, around 30KM before Mekka, the road spits with a sign “Left Muslims, Right Non- Muslims”. This is how close we will every be to this holy city. 

Like in Oman and the Emirartes, we see many Indian and Pakistani people working in the restaurants, gas stations, laundry shops, etcetera. We notice again that these are such friendly and hard working people, no matter where we stop, we always have fun with them. The Saudi’s are definitely kind and welcoming as well, but with a little more distance. Furthermore Saudi also feels like little America. American brands are everywhere, the same as huge malls and drive-through- services (you can even get cash from the ATM without leaving your car). 

An important part of our Saudi stay is trying to get a Sudan visa. It’s a complicated and time consuming process. We were rejected in Oman, then went to Dubai, to Riyadh and finally to Jeddah, the city where the ferry to Sudan leaves. At the moment where we almost give up hope, we receive an sms that our visa is ready! The next day we drive to the Sudan Consulate and after many paper work, waiting and more paper work, we receive our Sudan visa. We can’t be more happy!

We decide that we do not want to wait to go to Sudan, so we reserve a spot on the Wednesday ferry, 2 days later. On Tuesday- our last Saudi day- there is a second nice surprise: we can join a Swedish film maker on his day trip finding the best coral spots for his new movie. Wow! With only him, a few crew members and ourselves we enjoy a full day of snorkeling and diving far far away from the coast. We have both never seen such beautiful coral; colors all over and beautiful fish swimming by. As a last treat, some dolphins swim with our boat as we head back to the coast.

At the moment of writing we are on the ferry from Jeddah to Port Sudan, a 12 hour trip, where we are the only non- Sudani. But they immediately give us a welcoming feeling. Our Africa adventure is about to start!

13. Overlanding vs Uber chopper

Our first night in Saudi Arabia. We are already driving for 8 hours and hope to find a nice wild camp spot somewhere along the way. In the morning we crossed the Emirates – Saudi boarder. A huge area with enormous lanes and offices to host many people. Is this huge area a preparation for Saudi’s 2030 vision, in which they aim to become a tourist-heaven? We’re not sure, but at the moment we’re the only one there. The Customs’ manager assistant is appointed as our chaperone, and guides us through the process. At the passport check, there is a friendly man who seems to be very proud on all the tooling he has; a copy machine, a fingerprint scanner and a camera. With lot’s of concentration and love, he first cleans the tools with the wipes he carries with him and then invites us for the check. We are ‘documented’ and welcomed to Saudi.

With the start of our Saudi adventure, we close our Oman and Emirates travel. Especially Oman was a welcoming relaxing month, a very easy to travel country with lovely locals. Our final week in Oman we spend desert driving with 2 new German friends: Claudia and Simon. When we met them we immediately felt a good connection, camped for 2 nights together and then decided to cross the Rub’ al Khali desert with our cars, which became another highlight of our travel. We prepped the route by putting some GPS coordinates in our devices and then hit the dunes. The week had it all: dune driving, sand storms, beautiful easy desert mornings with yoga, even more sand storms, running away for desert- snakes, Max’ bday with a campfire, music, lots of meat and even more drinks, a proper hangover day (where we drove max 30 KM and then set up camp again), again sand storms and a wild camp lunch where a group of 12 camels joined us and we could even cuddle with them. Oman is definitely a country to come back to; it honestly feels as a hidden gem in the Arabian peninsula. 

The Emirates was more like a must-go- stop for us to arrange a Sudan visa and to do some car maintenance. We started in Dubai at a nice beach camp among locals. It’s a basic low key camp spot, but with a good view on all the Dubai craziness with its lights, luxurious hotels, fireworks and even Uber choppers flying over constantly. An overland safe place between all the (in our eyes) overdone entertainment and money spending. By pure coincidence, 2 friends of us stayed in Dubai as well. We visited Annelouk and Patriek in their resort and Annemarie and Joep visited us for a bbq at our camping. It was very nice to see some familiar Dutch faces and to be able to hug close friends. We still enjoy the travel very much but at the same time we obviously miss our family & friends, so this ‘intermezzo’ was a pleasant surprise!

We finished the Emirates with a visit to the Louvre in Abi Dhabi- a dependance from the Paris’ museum. Because of the high entertainment level in the Emirates (Ferrari world, 4D movies, etcetera), we were quite skeptic upfront; is this some kind of fake-tourist-remake of the Paris version? But our skepticism disappeared quickly when we saw the magical architecture of the building and the enormous galleries which lead you through art from all over the world while teaching you the development of art trough the years. It’s absolutely worth visiting- we’ve spend there almost 6 hours. 

And then Saudi! Curious for our adventures there? Click here

12. Omani holiday

“Do you want some lobster? Ehm, yes sure why not!” We arrived in paradise; the most Southern part of Oman, Salalah. White sandy beaches, palm trees, rocky mountains, camels wandering by, green/blue sea with amazing cliffs, and hardly any other camper, for some nights we even have our own private bay. To make paradise complete, a fisherman stops by to give us some lobsters.  

We are in our 3rd Oman week. When we arrived in Oman, we had to get used to the serene atmosphere. In Iran there was always something going on, always people around, always new situations. Oman feels more calm.

The Omani’s we meet are super welcoming. We’ve experienced this in several ways; when camping at the beach a big car stops and a chique looking Omani steps out of the car. He introduces himself, tells us how much his car is worth (it’s clearly a status object) and tells us he is the CEO of a Salt factory close by. “Can I help you, do you perhaps want a shower”? is his first question. Ehhh, well, if that’s his first question he might be hinting to the fact that we either smell or that the dread-look in our hair shows that we used only the sea as our shower for the last 10 days. A proper shower sounds pretty good so we kindly accept his invitation. The next day we drive to the Salt factory where we are welcomed by the manager. And the assistent manager. And the assistant from the assistant manager. The first asks us if we want tea, and the second yells to the third that he needs to bring us tea. Hello Omani hierarchy. The assistent manager – we named him Ferry Important- takes us to the cabin of the CEO. He shows us the bathroom and tells his assistant to bring some lunch. A few hours later we leave the plant. Completely clean and with a full stomach. Happy with this moment of luxury!

Another example of the Omani friendliness is when we visit one of the Wadi’s in the North East, Wadi Tiwi. When we arrive, a local, Sahid, approaches us and asks if we want to see the waterval. Sure why not, so we follow him downhill. He shows us the wonderful Wadi and invites us to climb down with ropes and swim in the beautiful pools. At that moment we guess he might be some kind of guide, and he probably will ask for some money afterwards. But hey, let’s enjoy it;  he does show us this nice surroundings which we wouldn’t have found ourselves. We swim for a while and climb uphill back to the town where he takes us to his house where lunch is ready to be served. Ok, this is definately a paid tour we think. After lunch he brings us back to the car where we offer him some money. But he doesn’t accept, he explains he enjoys showing his country to guests. This kind of hospitality keeps on surprising us.

Besides the people, also the landscape surprises us. It’s funny how you form a picture of a country in your head, and when you arrive you realize this picture is based just on a few stories. The same goes for Oman, where we mainly expected desert and beaches. But already in our first Omani days we are treated on some beautiful mountains and wadi’s. We can test the power of our car again with steep mountain tracks and enjoy some walks in wadi’s with beautiful green. Besides the differences in landscapes, nature ‘treats’ us on wind, a lot of wind. So when we arrive at camp spots -mainly at beaches- we make a quick dinner outside and get into the car pretty early to watch a movie or read a book. On one Friday night we camp at a beautiful white beach. But the sea  (West side) is wild and the wind (East side) is heavy so at night in the tent it feels like sleeping in a centrifuge. At 6AM we see Omani’s around us packing their stuff. We see a family who’s camp is almost completely blown into the sea. We help them out, pack our own camp and at 07:30 we arrive at the first Wadi, obviously way before opening hour..

A nice aspect about our time in Oman, is that we often encounter travelers we met earlier in Iran. Almost everyone we met decided to enjoy a ‘holiday’ in Oman. Where holiday might sound strange because you could see this whole travel as one big holiday. But while traveling every day there are things to arrange; filling the water tanks, arranging food (hence, searching for a super market, that most of the time sells only a few things so you need at least 3 shops), searching for a camp spot, finding a shop for spare care parts, finding a print shop for visa, arranging internet, packing and unpacking the camp, dishes, finding a laundry, etcetera. And of course all in new surroundings (so getting lost quite often) and with a language barrière. There is rarely is day where we just relax. But hey, we’re definately not complaining: it’s a luxury that we can travel this long and we’re enjoying the ride!

Yesterday we met some German travelers here in the South of Oman. They invited us for a coffee via instagram, so we drove to their camp spot on the beach. We actually planned to go North that day, but the coffee ended up in wine, which ended up in a bbq, which ended up in staying at their camp spot 2 nights and this morning we decided to drive into the desert together for a few days. Nice how plans can change. From the desert, we will drive North towards Dubai where we hope to get our Sudan visa!