28-May-2010 -- From Jidda, our home in Saudi Arabia, to the confluence point is around 550 km, too long for a day trip and stretching it even for a day-and-a-half weekend trip with camping.
A carefully selected team of five set off after the end of work on Thursday, with the sole intent of getting as far south as we could before the light faded and we had to set up our camp.
The route we had chosen started in Jidda, skirted around Makka to the South (where the sand dunes are still remarkably green), then headed for al-Ṭā'if up the newly re-opened escarpment highway. From al-Ṭā'if we headed south towards al-Bāḥa, a small city about 400 km from home, leaving the balance of around 150 km to the point to be tackled in the morning and the whole of the drive back to Jidda.
Driving south from al-Ṭā'if along the escarpment on Highway 15, overlooking the plain towards the Red Sea was indeed spectacular, although the air was hazy and the view wasn't as good as it could have been. Villages dotted the road as we drove south and the vegetation became more lush and plentiful in stark contrast to dry, arid Jidda.
Further south near the village of Baniy Sa`d we found an abandoned village, with two look-out towers guarding a beautiful valley, with signs of recent cultivation and inhabitation and marvelled at the unspoiled nature of Saudi Arabia's landscape; no tourists, no souvenirs and no litter. It made for an interesting stop, walk around, and photo opportunity. Our best guess was that this settlement was originally built by the Ottomans and that the towers were some form of control or security feature. Along much of the route lookout towers were a plentiful feature of the landscape and gave the journey an additional feel that there was a good deal of history right in front of our eyes; but none of us knows much of it.
As the sun sank lower in the sky we set up camp on the summit of a hillside close to al-Qā`, just outside of al-Bāḥa province at a site with a beautiful 360-degree view of the escarpment to the West and tiny villages and cultivation to the East. We were very fortunate to stumble over this quiet location completely away from civilisation and a most pleasant evening was had by all. Our nearest neighbour was a Bedu in his encampment about 1 km away.
Leaving early in the morning we ran immediately into the al-Bāḥa border checkpoint, where the kind Saudi policeman asked us to wait while he organised a (compulsory) police escort from there onwards. For those who have tried explaining confluence hunting in their own language to sceptical friends and family, try doing it in a language you know only 10 words of and to someone who can not read a map. We managed to understand one question which was continuously repeated us: "Which town are you going to?" Our best attempt to convince him that our objective was not a town but an obscure piece of desert countryside in the middle of nowhere did not result in any understanding whatsoever on the part of the policemen. We tried to use several interpreters, a petrol pump attendant, a shop owner and even a work colleague via the telephone, but all to no avail. To be fair, we were on the way again, with a friendly smile and an armed police escort, within 30 minutes, flying through red lights and ignoring speed limits for the rest of the day.
After al-Bāḥa city, the road towards the confluence point became hillier and passed through tunnels and cuttings, over bridges and viaducts until we reached a village about 30 km from the confluence point and turned left onto a track heading into the hills. Our Google Earth maps showed this to be a wide dirty track following a broad wādiy, but it was soon apparent that we were lucky and the road had been tarmaced since the satellite images had been taken. The attendant policeman was most confused, certainly the expression on his face gave us the feeling he was not happy. We managed to explain that we only had another 20 minutes to our destination and we continued on.
The tarmac disappeared after 20 km and we were left with another 10 km on the dirty before parking in scrub land about 300 metres from the confluence point, which lay on a gentle upward slope reached by climbing over some loose stone and shale. Our bewildered policeman remained with the cars and looked on completely mystified as the five of us set off across the desert to find it, armed only with our cameras and GPS device.
Having obtained the "six zeros" pictures (or nearly. It seemed we could never find the last zero – see picture), we returned to the cars and knew we could give the policeman a statement which would make sense to him: "We are now going directly to Jidda". The look of incredulity on his face was total. It was exactly noon and we were comforted by the fact that through using the more direct route home along Highway 205 we should get home before dark, which we just achieved by arriving back in the compound seven hours later.