Following a successful overland journey to North Yemen in 1982, we decided to try the easier but no less interesting drive to Jordan and on 14th April we left Abu Dhabi in strong winds and rising sand, just two enthusiastic travelers in an overloaded and definitely unenthusiastic Nissan Patrol.
As last year, the road to Tarif was bordered by huge 'lakes' following the early rains and where the water had evaporated vast tracts of snow-white salt flats remained. The trees recently planted in the central reservation appeared to be in for a very tedious existence.
Also as last year, the sandy areas from the border post at Sila to Hofuf were covered by a carpet of small plants and grasses. Even where crude oil had been sprayed to stabilize the sand, one or two hardy individuals were showing through. Large numbers of the strange parasitic plants Cistanche phelypaea dominated certain areas with specimens up to three feet high.
Once again navigation through Hofuf proved to be a lost cause and after being directed to follow the "new" road (which was so "new" as to be non-existent) we eventually found the correct route to Abqaiq and Dhahran.
This area of Saudi Arabia is an unattractive wasteland. With endless petro-chemical installations over every horizon and together with the attendant pipelines, power cables and industries, it is not the place for the naturalist. The area around Dhahran is also a prime example of careless industrialization and is not recommended, although its hotels do provide a pleasant oasis for the weary traveler.
Out of Dhahran and onto the road to Nuayriyah, the scenery becomes more interesting with small sand dunes, date palms and cereal plantations. Before reaching Abu Hadriyah, the 'Tapline' road was taken and for the next 1100km the pipeline was our constant companion; sometimes buried but mostly above ground, it proved a fitting memorial to the early efforts of developing Arabia attempting to quench the thirst of an oil dependent western society.
The flat plains were alive with vegetation, butterflies and birds. The Bedouin, taking full advantage of the prolific growth, were camping out in an endless procession of large black tents. Camels, donkeys and goats dominated the skyline.
Three hundred kilometers along the Tapline and the lush vegetation gradually melted away and we were driving through barren gravel plains. The isolated settlements were constructed of corrugated iron sheeting or plywood but nevertheless each dwelling proudly displayed its own TV aerial.
After an overnight stop, the morning chore of demolishing the tent was temporarily halted as a large millipede rushed from under the canvas in panic. The subsequent monotony of the journey through gravel plains was only relieved by intermittent areas of habitation. Rising sand and strong winds restricted vision to a few hundred yards for most of the morning. The weather was obviously to become even more unsettled for on the return journey there were large pools of water at the roadside bearing witness to substantial rainfall.
Ar'ar was the major goal of this leg of the journey as it heralded the first significant decision of choice of route -- whether to go straight to Amman or left to Aqaba. We eventually decided to follow the main road to Amman hoping there would be fully operational border posts along the way.
Past Ar'ar isolated areas of granite hills with red sand supporting sparse vegetation briefly appeared until the barren gravel plains once again became dominant.
The weather at this point resembled the 'roaring forties' with an extremely cold and strong northeast wind. One look at the petrol pump attendant at Turayf told the whole story. With woolen balaclava helmet, goggles and khaki great-coat, he appeared like an Asiatic Biggles from the mist of a long-forgotten outpost.
We said farewell to the Tapline at Turayf. A further hundred kilometers and we had an inviting glimpse of what lay in store in Jordan -- rugged hills, sandy plains, and date palms providing spectacular relief from the vast plains which had gone before.
Exactly 2336km from Abu Dhabi clock tower we effortlessly left Saudi Arabia and, after a lengthy clearance through the friendly if not totally efficient Jordanian customs post, we entered Jordan. Following lunch at the springs of Azraq, we bounced up the extremely rough and busy highway to Amman.
What comments can be made of Jordan that cannot be found in the abundance of guide books and tourist literature? Obviously a paradise for the historian, archaeologist and theologian from Mt. Nebo, the hill from which Moses is reputed to have first seen the promised land, to the ancient Nabeaean city of Petra, the Roman ruins at Jerash and Amman and the Crusader castles of Kerak and Rabadh.
Jordan is also an extremely varied region scenically. From the extreme heat of the Dead Sea basin approximately 1200ft below mean sea level and the wastes of the eastern desert to the cool rugged mountains and plateaus carpeted in wild flowers, farms and pastureland.
In contrast to the pine forests of Ajlun in the north and the truly magnificent scenery along the King's Highway there is the cool Red Sea and Aqaba in the south with its profusion of coral and fish life surrounded by barren hills and desert.
In the Wadi Rum, one can camp side by side with the Bedouin and relive the adventures of T.E. Lawrence and the nomadic people of bygone ages whilst admiring ancient graffiti etched on virtually every convenient boulder.
Wherever we went we were greeted with friendliness and hospitality, even by the ever-present police and army around the most sensitive areas near the Dead Sea and Aqaba. The common, almost school-like phrase of "Welcome to Jordan" was on everyone's lips, although it often succeeded some minor catastrophe such as learning that the road we had been following for several kilometers was either closed or wrongly signposted.
In the mountains, the flora was phenomenal and for every common species we could haltingly identify (wild black Iris, poppies and thistles) there was a thousand we could not. A small number of bees and wasps were taken but lack of time has so far prevented further analysis. A great variety of birds was seen including Great Tits, Indian Rollers, Kingfishers, Buzzards, Wheatears and Shrikes. A cuckoo was heard one lunch time and high in the mountains we witnessed a buzzard being chased away by a flock of angry crows or ravens.
All too soon it was time to leave and after having the vehicle almost torn apart at the Saudi Customs south of Aqaba we were back in Saudi Arabia and not relishing the prospect of a 2300km drive with a maximum transit time of 72 hours.
The road heading east to Tabuk passed through dramatic pink hills with sheer vertical faces extending effortlessly upwards like large monolithic skyscrapers. This stone jungle eventually flattened into humble gravel plains as Tabruk was reached.
The hilly countryside just out of Tabruk turned menacingly into the open gravel plains at the edge of the Great Nafud desert. The absence of vegetation, except in the few areas of rolling sand dunes, and the vast emptiness focussed our attention on the smallest signs of life -- a small bird, a camel or perhaps a wandering donkey. The sparse human settlements and the distinct lack of other road users made the thoughts of breaking down a dismal prospect. It was with great relief that we reached the towns of Al Jauf and Sakakah without mishap.
The Tapline road was taken to Ar'ar and our outward path retraced back to Abu Dhabi. Even on the return journey, Saudi still had one or two surprises left in store. A fox lair, large and well used, was recorded near Al Qaysumah with many signs of current occupation including a dried hedgehog skin. The last memory of Saudi was of a portly, cream-colored, black-headed dhub at least 18 inches long scuttling across the road just before the Customs at Saudi Natheel. A fitting finale for a round trip of exactly 6846km in just 22 days.Logistics