Our initial plans for an action packed weekend were side tracked slightly as we went exploring Al Barrah Fort, an old Turkish fort on the outskirts of Riyadh. It’s not that we hadn’t intended to visit the fort, it’s that we hadn’t thought we would stay so long. Our other potential plans included finding a forest and visiting a beauty festival, Saudi style. (To read about my trip as part of the first group of expat tourists to this festival a few years back, click over to my post Camel Beauty Festival in Saudi Arabia). For various reasons, the main one being we were enjoying ourselves, we decided to shelve the other activities and make the most of this one.
Al Barrah Fort came on to my radar via a photo accompanying an internet entry on an online walking map. The entry, thankfully, included an outline of his trek on Google Maps. A bit of zooming in and out meant I found the nearest town and that’s all I needed to map a track to the fort.
I figured there would be a spot of four wheel driving, as there often is with a trip to the Saudi desert, so an older (2016) Toyota Prado was hired for this weekend. Most car rental places do not rent out 4WD’s in Saudi because people tend to take them dune bashing and wreck them. But we have been very good customers over the years and Mahmoud (our go to man) knows we return the SUV in good condition and also usually with petrol in it – which is not a contract requirement with Saudi car rentals by the way.
It pays not to be in a hurry when renting a car in Saudi. Many is the time we have hopped in a rented car to find it empty of gas. Sitting at the nearest gas station during salah waiting for it to open so we can fill up is not uncommon after picking up a car. We do try and arrive at the car rental place between salah times, but that doesn’t always pan out. Even after all this time living here, life in Saudi can still be looked at as a test in patience if we get our timings wrong or excellent time management if we get it right.
On Friday morning we left the city a little late, around 10.30, after loading up with, among other things, sleeping swags, firewood, a water cooler bottle full of water, a chilly bin loaded with food and a thermos of hot water for tea stops on the way. Our destination was not that far away, about an hour and a half according to Google, so we could afford to be a bit leisurely. Plus being winter there was no risk of being out in the desert in scorching heat so any exploring we would do could be undertaken at any time of the day.
Exploring Al Barrah Fort
It didn’t take us that long to reach Al Barrah, the nearest town. Hubster was navigating from the passenger seat for the latter half of this drive. I trusted he knew how to reach the red marker on the map. It turns out his hands aren’t good at zooming in on my Blackberry. Actually he’s not much of a digital tech guy at all, but I work with what I’ve got. Anyway, we had driven some way past the turn off and hadn’t realised it till I asked, sounding like one of the grandkids, ‘Are we near there yet?’ Instead of going back the way we had come the vehicle was turned into the desert. After all, there is no point renting an excellent desert vehicle for the weekend if you aren’t going to go into the sand at some point is there? This way we took the more direct and interesting route to our map point. One day I think we might invest in a Garmin GPS but not today.
Al Barrah Fort is right next to what looks to be a very new road. The fort looks quite impressive when it first comes into view with the bright blue Saudi sky behind it. It sits defensively upon a rocky promontory with a view over an abandoned homestead and dry wadi. Here are a few photo’s as we poked about inside the fort.
It was quite an interesting site. The floor was totally rock strewn and one of us, (yes that would be me), had to be careful not to trip up and knock the remaining walls down as I plied headfirst into them. Inside were three or four rooms and a tower. A couple of door lentils were still in place though the rest were lying on the ground. There was a small rock column and date storage in one room, stairs to what must have been a roof platform in one area and in one corner of the structure a tower with what I presume to be a fireplace and a bed within.
Outside we came across what looked to be a bath or bathing receptacle of some description and another dig out, possibly a well, that we thought a more recent addition to the rest of the structure. Beneath all the rock piled outside it was possible to see a flat area, almost like a patio and stairs to the wadi below. And off in to the distance was another structure that we decided to visit after leaving this one.
We eventually made our way down to the wadi and the old homestead. There were numerous garden furrows all around the house. This was obviously a productive area at one point. There were a number of wells near the house and around the garden, all still with water in them. One even had a plastic bottle on a rope so people were still collecting from here.
A rock wall had been built along the old wadi river course, possibly in an attempt to retain the earth and keep the water during flood times from washing the base sand away. Having seen the amount of water that can pour through a wadi when it rains in Saudi, I am surprised that wall is still standing! The Turks must have been good wall builders.
Beside the track that ran along the wadi and around the hill the fort sat atop of, there was another wall. This one was constructed with mud and stones and looked like another part of the fortifications. Possibly it used to run the entire circumference of the hill as a line of defense before an enemy could make it to the fort. It had a small turret at one end and along its length were small ‘windows’, I guess for weapons to poke through. It also had a larger opening which caused a bit of ‘debate’ between the husband and I whether this was an original defensive wall to Al Barrah Fort or not.
We spent quite a bit of time having a look around Al Barrah Fort and then, because the day was getting on, decided at that point to flag our other ideas for the day and find somewhere to set up camp. The sun sets very quickly in Saudi Arabia and my husband always finds himself cooking in the dark, or by the light of the lamp, because on our camping trips he is Master Chef.
Camping Near Al Barrah Fort
I wanted to take a look at the structure across the way before settling in for the evening. So, we moseyed along the road searching for an entry into the desert that might take us where we wanted to go. The desert in Saudi is slowly becoming less and less accessible. A few years ago you could turn off the road at almost any point in Saudi and start your desert adventure. These days the desert is becoming fenced off or ‘Saudi Walled’ off. A Saudi desert wall is basically when a digger is used to pile the desert earth into a continuous, very long, quite tall and effective vehicular barrier. This day we were faced with a combination of both Saudi walls and metal fences.
It didn’t take long to find a way through and soon I was taking photo’s of the new structure with the escarpment gleaming behind it as the sun was beginning to set. We weren’t sure exactly what this structure was. On Google it is referred to as a fort, although I think it looked more like a bird tower, for collecting bird manure. Part of it looked relatively new – as in, someone had recently renovated the tower although the recent renovation had left the roof closed, not open, so there was no bird poop to be found at the base, so that possibly blows my theory. Though sticking with that theory for debating with the husband, I figured the other broken, almost disintegrated mud and stone walls nearby could have been animal enclosures. And there was a well, still with water. Looking and sounding confident I almost had him convinced!
Whatever it was we were looking at, someone else had recently had a picnic beneath the tower as remnants of a fire were evident. We figured this would make a perfect place for us to set up camp. So we did.
The walls protruding from the tower provided ample protection from the light, but chilly, evening wind that was blowing. The camp fire helped to take even more chill from the air. We love campfires. We love desert sleepouts in Saudi. There is just something about being outdoors, barbecuing steak over hot coals. Drinking hot tea while wrapped up against the cold and looking at the stars or staring into the flames. Having an open, ground level well nearby is a little bit of a hazard if you have children or are sleepwalkers. We had neither.
Of course, there is also the issue of having to find somewhere private to go to the loo – quite hard usually in an open desert. Fortunately at this site there were numerous large rocks to serve for privacy – provided no-one walked over the hill the from the other side. And in the middle of the night for number ones we don’t usually make it to the rocks. Simply walking out of the circle of light is far enough for that. Number two’s is a different story although putting that off till there is more light is a much better option than scrabbling around rocks in the dark. That is asking to lose your balance and step in your doo-doo. And yep. Done that.
The nights are cold through a Saudi winter. As my father in law used to say of his experiences in the war, it is not the desert heat that will kill you, it is the cold at night. (I actually think either one of those environments would be difficult to endure if unprepared). We have a couple of very good Saudi swags that we can tuck ourselves into at night. Plus with ample wood packed into the vehicle we can also top up the fire part way through the night to keep the chill at bay.
The next morning after a campfire breakfast and clambering over rocks for a few photos of the sunrise on the escarpment…
…we headed back toward the fort because I wanted to take a look at the flat area across the wadi. I thought I had spotted some structures there. We drove down the road looking for a direct route and found the way blocked by Saudi “do not enter” signs – basically piles of rock deliberately placed to prevent entry by vehicles. Which meant we would have to walk. No problem. We parked once more beneath the fort, made sure to grab some decent water bottles, and headed off.
There were no structures. Only flat, barren rock. Signs of recent excavation by very large machinery hauling large amounts of the rock back down the aforementioned blocked desert road were evident. We decided to head back to the car and, as the it was still early in the day, head off to see if we could find an old forest.
Meeting Abu Sami
While walking back we saw a car had parked next to ours. We could see two people clambering over the rocks near the entrance to the fort. One was in traditional Saudi garments. Hubster went into slight panic mode. There is no telling who these people might be nor how they might react to two strangers wondering the desert, especially when one of those is a female in shorts (decent shorts – not those shorty short kind) and without an abaya. I had taken mine off as per usual on our desert trips because there are usually no other people about and today was a warm day. An older gentleman with a younger acquaintance were looking through the fort. They came down when they saw us approaching.
It turns out the old man was born at Al Barrah Fort and lived there until he was 17 years old. He is currently 77. He and his acquaintance spoke Arabic with only a few words of English so I was sorely tested to keep up with the history lesson he was giving about the fort and immediate area. Obviously I’m going to have to study some more.
The fort was indeed old, about 400 years. It had been a Turkish Fort and a stopping off point for travellers heading to Mecca or down to Najran. There was also mention of Arab Jews and Christians living about the area before Islam took control of the place. The existence of Arab Jews in Saudi is not new information to anyone who has studied Arabian history. What was surprising was that a Saudi man was happy to talk about that fact while recounting historical events of his local area. An unfortunate by-product of ‘modern Islam’ in this country is the idea that before Islam there was no history in Arabia. At least, none that younger folks know about or older folks are prepared to talk about – except possibly to random Saudi expat tourists.
Abu Sami invited us back to his farm. And it was at this point that we knew saying ‘Yes’ would mean putting aside any thought of other activities for the day. Saudi hospitality is fabulous…and lengthy. If you get invited to a Saudi home do not think for one minute you will be having a quick cuppa and leaving again. Factor in a minimum of two hours. Minimum. Hubster and I looked at each other and both said ‘Yes. We would like that’. So into our vehicle we hopped for a short drive down the road to a small farmlet.
We were shown the accommodations with an invitation for us to bring our friends to utilise the place any time we wanted. A tour of the farmlet passed through the newly planted date palms and over to the animal pens. The goats were put away while the chickens were called out for feeding and checking for eggs. A white pigeon was bought over so Hubster could get a hold. He loves birds. He’d have an aviary on our rooftop if he could. Our tour included a look at the edible plants growing around the house. I got a lesson in how to cook a tree vegetable whose name I tried to remember. Truly I did. Then we went into the majlis for qahwa, tea, dates and more chit chat.
An hour or so later we excused ourselves leaving with a bag full of eggs, some tree vegetables to try and a promise to contact Abu Sami on our return from an upcoming trip home to New Zealand.
Location of Al Barrah Fort
How to describe our trip to Al Barrah Fort? Great. Fabulous. Wonderful. If we had only visited the fort, the trip would have been great. It’s an interesting piece of Saudi history just sitting there – no guards, no fences, no fanfare. Here’s hoping any other people that go there will treat it with respect. You know like the saying – ‘Leave only footprints. Take only photo’s’. Finding such a good spot to camp for the night was just fabulous. We love Saudi camping anyway, but it was nice to be set up in such a picturesque little spot. But the icing on the cake was meeting Abu Sami and spending time with him. What a wonderful man he is.