26-Feb-2010 -- A trip to this confluence point from Jidda should not be undertaken lightly, after all, as it's a 'bone shaking' round trip of approximately 880 km. You have to be really committed to get up at 6:30 a.m. and be prepared to be out until 8 in the evening.
Grant and I were the only takers for this long voyage and set off early, leaving Jidda on the Makka road, skirting the 'holy' city on the southern non-Muslim ring road. Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world that has religious prejudice for drivers, preventing non-Muslims from directly transiting the city.
After Makka, the climb up to the city of al-Ṭā'if is one of the most spectacular road drives in the world, as the switch-back dual carriage road rises over 1,000 metres from the plain below to the top of the al-Hadā escarpment. The views back towards Jidda are truly breathtaking.
al-Ṭā'if is a beautiful city over 1,850 metres above sea-level and a favourite with the Saudi Royal Family in the summer when it is considerably cooler than Riyāḍ or Jidda. Just on this trip we noticed that the temperature at the foot of the escarpment was 5 degrees C higher, than at the top; in terms of horizontal distance we probably travelled less than one kilometre. One thing al-Ṭā'if does not have are road signs in English, so be sure you have a good GPS or a detailed map with you as you drive through.
We headed out of al-Ṭā'if on route 205 before turning left on route 273 towards Turaba, the site of an important battle in May 1919 between the forces of `Abdu l-`Azīz bin Sa`ūd and Ḥusayn bin `Aliy, Sharīf of Makka. At a petrol station on the route we stumbled on a bakery which was selling flat bread right out of the oven. At 5 pieces for US-$ 0.25 we did not feel it right to bargain. They were to die for. They also provided the bread for our sandwiches (celery for Mark on his diet and banana for Grant). From Turaba we headed out roughly ESE towards the confluence point, rapidly passing from metalled roads to bleak, barren desert tracks through volcanic ḥarra, rocky outcrops and sandy patches.
We had spent considerable time on Google Earth planning the best route to the confluence point, but the latest satellite imagery was not sufficiently detailed for us to be confident of the route. We had both been on a trip some months ago in another ḥarra where what looked to be passable road turned out to be a loosely graded track which even our 4x4s could not handle and we had to turn back. We only admitted to each other once we got to the confluence point that each of us had considered our chances of success to be less than 50%. It was just as well we had taken waypoints about every kilometre and taken decent notes about junctions. We saw many tracks branching off and it would have been easy to take a wrong turn and end up way off the intended route.
After about an hour off-road and having been thoroughly shaken up by the (exceptionally) rocky track, we approached the point from the north-west closing to within 100 metres by car. Particularly on a difficult trip like this it really feels good to arrive and know that you have done it; the elation lasts for quite some time afterwards. The specific location was in the middle of a flat rocky lava plain with a view towards a lava outcrop the form of which would not have been out of place in a US cowboy film. Leaving our vehicles in the middle of the rugged, barely discernable track we hiked over the rocks to the Confluence, and, taking care not to twist our ankles on the sharp, angular rocks, we quickly found the ‘six zeros’ on the GPS, took the panoramic pictures we needed, and headed back to the cars. A brisk afternoon breeze had started, kicking up the sand and creating dust devils that whirled through the desert.
Even in Saudi terms this location was absolutely desolate; there was not a human, sheep, or camel in the vicinity for miles. We could not work out why the tracks were there, for there was no one and nowhere to go - except to a confluence point. On our return we would have just loved to have been able to discuss with the first person we saw 'how is it to be the person living furthest out into the wilderness' and 'how does one survive on land which has to be the very edge of where it is humanly possible to exist'. But neither of us speaks much Arabic so that chance was missed. We chose to follow an alternative route back to Turaba; whilst being adequate desert travellers, we probably would make lousy poker players; we did not know that we should quit whilst being ahead. On the return journey, part of the track had been washed by the rain into a deep gully, so there was no option but to go down it. Grant's car took a big hit from one of the basalt boulders, the good sport put it down to 'part of the risk one takes'. Having collected a few of these now he has started to refer to them as 'war wounds'.