This is part of the twelfth section of our around the
Complete Trip Overview & Map
Coming from Qatar
14/1/06 Entering Saudi Arabia, riding the motorcycle, and with Kay as a pillion, we had been advised could be difficult, but apart from one officious officer things went smoothly. The bike again, with its covering of stickers and list of countries drew interest to our trip and turned around potential border problems to a smooth crossing. Very few, non Gulf registered vehicles cross into Saudi Arabia and it took 40 minutes, no special paperwork, just bike insurance, one month $US 37.00, all details entered into the border's computer system. Saudi Arabia and it's peoples are considered poorer than it's neighbours of the region. The wealth is concentrated with a few. Back along the four lanes to Dhahran with many herds of camels grazing roadside, often herded by Bedouin in 4x4's. The camels, with calves at foot, had their udders "bagged" to prevent the calves from drinking the milk intended for their owner's consumption or sale. The wind picked up later in the day, sand blowing across the road, churned up by trucks and sprayed out like water, particles getting inside my clothes and eyes making riding difficult. The locals cover the chrome and paint work on the front of their vehicles with liquid detergent, the sand sticks to it preventing sandblasting in sandstorms. John covered the front of his motorcycle and within minutes it was yellowy grey with dust and sand. We stopped a few times, Indian tea at a small restaurant, egg sandwich or falafel, cheap and healthy, great after being entertained at western outlets the last week or two. Plenty of petrol stations, plenty of small shops and eateries along the road including a couple of small trucks operating as roadhouses at rest stops. A short stop in Dhahran to leave the motorcycle, into a car across the causeway to Bahrain, where we hope to pick up an Eritrean visa tomorrow, a long day.
15/1/06 Arriving at the embassy at 9 am we were offered a one month visa, valid for entry within 30 days to be collected today at 12.00 noon for $US 70.00. Something we have noticed in our years of travel is how much the cost of visas has increased, more than doubled in US dollar terms. H-D Bahrain arranged a lift back across the causeway to Saudi Arabia mid afternoon, again an easy crossing, just a couple more stamps in our passports. We are staying in the compound behind the H-D shop of Dhahran, the same house as before, offered by Lisa and Monther and dined in the compound's restaurant.
16/1/06 The rules governing Saudi Arabia are different from almost all other countries. It doesn't mean that the laws enforce these rules but the "religious police" do, or at least make people feel uncomfortable if they don't comply. Like many countries it has become more liberal, western, over the last few years, however a spate of bombing attacks and beheadings of westerners a couple of years ago by the more conservative nationals seems to have slowed that process. Nine westerners were killed in their housing compound in this region, not an isolated incident. News of these attacks rarely makes it to the media, so most news is spread word of mouth by those affected by the incident. It has resulted in most families, wives and children, leaving and many companies here not employing target nationalities of the U.S.A. and British or western looking people. A recent sharp crackdown and high security has prevented further attacks. Women are not allowed to drive vehicles in the country and are rarely seen alone without other women, children or their husbands. Groups of single men can not eat in the family section of restaurants and if accompanied by women can not sit in the single section. There are often separate lines for men and families in shops. So tonight our group of 19 men and one woman, Kay, rode along the corniche of Khobar and later ate at Chillies restaurant, in the family section, a rarity for the Harley riders as women aren't generally involved with motorcycle. The day was spent at the H-D workshop, a magnificent set up, modern and with all the specialized tools that we don't carry. We took advantage of the offer of a workbench and we worked together with Mohammad and Makram, the two mechanics, to replace wheel bearings, the inner primary bearing and many jack shaft parts. This area of the motorcycle had caused me problems in Russia and now with a bit of trained knowledge, the mechanics identified the main problem as the starter to jack shaft connector as the reason the starter would not retract. A steady group of spectators rolled past as we worked on the bike, photos, polite conversation, amid some tense repairs, food and coffee rolling through as frequently.
17/1/06 One of the best ways to get a grip on a culture is simply to people watch. At the western style Dhahran Mall we sat in the food court over a cup of coffee, watching, as locals went about what they do. It was mid-day yet most of the shops were closed, their trading hours 9-12, then 4-9 pm. They also shut for a short period during prayer times, 20 to 30 minutes at sunset and again later in the evening. Restaurants stop serving or taking orders during this time, however patrons are generally allowed to continue eating their meals. All the women at the food court were in groups, many children, families, enjoying western fast foods, McDonalds, KFC and local generic equivalents. Dressed conservatively in black, with hair covered, many with just eye slits to see through but also many open faces. Men dressed in the white robe with traditional head dress. Children, until puberty, in western clothes. It is difficult for the women to eat, their mouth covered with the veil, it has to be lifted, a spoon or straw inserted underneath. We had replaced the bikes hand grips at the H-D dealer in the morning and were back there again in the evening heading out for the regular Tuesday night coffee ride. Eight bikes, heading west, then returned to an outside, street side, coffee shop. Night time riding is almost the same as daytime. The streets, highways, all roads are lit up brightly. The wealthier Saudi's get to enjoy a western style of living. Restaurants, supermarkets, comfortable vehicles and good roads.
18/1/06 Saudi Arabia has 25% of the world's known deposits of oil and Saudi Aramco administers its production. Oil, first discovered in the 1930's was a co-operation between US oil companies and Saudi Arabia but by the late 1970's the Saudi government was in full ownership. The Saudi Aramco compound, the largest in the whole country, was originally built to house American workers but their number has slowly reduced with Saudi ownership of the company and now more than half its occupants are Saudi Nationals. It was, and still is to a large extent, a country within a country. Rules within its large perimeter are vastly different from outside. Women can drive, swim in the pools, ride horses from the stables and play golf on the 18 hole grass golf course, They are even seen in shorts jogging. Things are however slowly changing as the percentage of Saudi Nationals increases, the rules and crackdowns are tightened. Jeff, invited us to his home within the compound, gave us a tour and we had lunch together. The layout and housing could have been from mid-western USA. Later in the day we visited the Aramco Exhibit with great hands on displays, and information on itself and the oil industry in general.
19/1/06 Five bikes were at the Dhahran dealership at 7.00 am for the departure to Riyadh. Kay and I had been escorted places for the past few days but this was to be our ride, to stop and sight see along the way. First stop a large petrol station on the edge of town for breakfast. Most of the truck drivers here are Pakistani or Indian nationals, women don't eat at these restaurants so there was no family section, however after a little first confusion we were welcomed to eat at the bedouin style raised platform, eating area. Flat bread and omelette eaten with the hand. A side road had us heading along the Aramco service road past small camel and goat herders farms. Drifting sand, controlled by mesh fences or sprayed with oil to slow its movement south, is also bulldozed off the roads here. At the sand's final destination, the empty quarter, near the Yemeni border, sand dunes up to 800 metres high, the world's largest, slowly grow bigger. With the concept of riding motorcycles for pleasure, a newish phenomenon in the country, the authorities are unsure what to do. Two nights ago we were stopped, a group of eight bikes, and were told not to ride in a group, being sent off in different directions. Today at a police check point we were asked to ride together with a police escort that continued all the way into Riyadh, every 20 or so km's we would be handed over to the next waiting police vehicle in a smooth flowing escort. The Riyadh H-D shop has been open for less than two years but is already the largest in the region being fed by its over 6 million population. We were welcomed by about twenty motorcycles, 50 km out of town, who escorted us to the H-D shop for an incredible welcoming of media, lunch and motorcyclists. The next two hours was photo shoot, interviews, introductions and eating before an early evening rest and a later supper at one of the cities western compounds. Amer, the activities officer for the Riyadh H.O.G. (Harley Owners Group) club, had organized today's activities along with a comfortably busy schedule for the next two days. Our accommodation and all expenses being taken care off by the Riyadh chapter. A pinch me day. One you need to step back from to see if you are dreaming, pinch yourself to see if you woke up.
20/1/06 Over 20 motorcycles headed out on the regular Friday morning ride in light traffic. Riyadh's roads are extensive. Freeways criss cross the city, modern buildings dot its skyline. The roads are worn glassy, many vehicles tyres in the heat bringing up the natural asphalt's oils and without rain, dust settles to make the roads slippery. We headed west, across a dry wadi (river bed) carved out of the mountain desert, then down into another wadi where ground water provides greenery. A morning brunch at the local golf course. Beautiful greens, modern facilities. A ride back to Riyadh for a rest then off into the desert for a bit of fun on 4x4's and quad bikes. All along the highway out of town are bike rental places. A winter's past-time the sand is too hot in summer. Five 4x4's and 6 quad bikes tore up the desert dunes. Led by Kamal up and over the rolling, windswept region to the largest dune where over 100 4x4's were located. People picnicked on the sand, families, to watch as purpose modified 4x4's and quad bikes attempted an assault on the dune. Only a few made it, most getting only part way to return and try again. Approaching from the side the summit was easily reached but a frontal assault at full speed we were bogged down short of the top. Dinner at Omair's Farm, a traditional meeting room where coffee and tea with dates was served before we moved into the main eating area. Here the meal is a quick event, eaten then the guests depart shortly after, unlike the west where we would linger for hours over a meal.
21/1/06 AJ and Wael collected us in their large American SUV early this morning for a tour of the older part of Riyadh. Al-Musmak Museum, inside the fort, where in 1902 King Abdulaziz captured Riyadh and started creating Saudi Arabia by expanding into neighbouring regions. He ruled till 1952 when a series of five of his sons have progressively ruled till today. The King Abdulaziz Historical Centre, normally closed today, was especially opened for us and a guided tour received. The H-D dealer put on a luncheon in the HOG club room and ten motorcycles led by Amer escorted us to the Australian Embassy in the Diplomatic Quarter where the Australian Ambassador, his secretary and staff, welcomed us and the motorcycle in the compounds forecourt. Abdulaziz Al-Shebl invited everyone to his extensive home for dinner where a whole young fat tailed sheep had been prepared on a bed of saffron rice with accompaniments. Again, tea and coffee served with dates in a bedouin style tent preceded dinner.
22/1/06 The H.O.G. club here and the dealer, as far as I can tell, have paid the bill for all activities, meals and hotel costs during our four day stay. Amer, the activities officer, arranged and co-ordinated activities and along with many members, too many to mention, ensured that we were collected from our hotel, ferried or guided to each activity and entertained. There is no where else in the world that we have been so well looked after. The club here takes the best intentions of the HOG charter and could be a model for all other clubs and dealers. A rest day to catch up on chores. Abdulah, the clubs photographer had presented us last night with 3 CD's of photos he had taken during our visit, which we spent part of the day looking through. The manager of the shop took us to his compound, for westerners only, again behind a concrete wall and razor wire, guarded by military and private security, well armed. Another country within a country, with swimming pool, gymnasium, restaurant and other westernized facilities.
23/1/06 Having a few spare days before we need to be in Jeddah, we decided to head the long way via Al Qassim and through Medina, thinking we would be travelling just with John to see the local Saudi Arabia. Little did we know that this is supposed to be a hot spot of conservative people. The culture here won't allow people to directly say not to go somewhere or that your decision might be wrong. Instead we were accommodated within our plan to be escorted by a club member from that region and a security escort before we had realized the inconvenience we may have put the club to. Only last year, the first woman, a westerner, crossed Saudi Arabia on the back of a motorcycle. Taking a direct route from Jeddah to Dammam she and her rider were held at one check point for five hours before high officials managed to clear their way. Three motorcycles left at 9.00 am along the 6 lane highway to Oneizah, near Buraydah. A police escort to a large bedouin tent where we were welcomed by the towns dignitaries and the regions Emir or Governor. More interviews by media, lunch, coffee and tea, formalities around a log fire. The evening saw us in the desert, at one of the many winter camps, where men effectively get to relive their heritage, in a little more comfort than in the past, electricity from generators and cars and of course the mobile phone. Sitting around a log fire we were entertained with traditional music from a rababah, a one stringed instrument and camel skinned drums. About 30 people had been invited and turned up, all locals, other than us, to enjoy a lamb and camel dinner, again eaten from a large tray on the floor. A long but incredibly interesting day.
24/1/06 The morning started early, breakfast at Al Bassam House, a 50 yr old mud brick dwelling now restored to a museum. Guests, meaning men, are entertained in an outside room, where a small fire heats water for Arabic coffee served first with dates and followed up with black sweet tea, the start to any discussion, meeting or meal. The welcoming group of about 20 then moved to another room for breakfast of sweet flat breads, foul (beans), hummus (chick peas), and laban (yoghurt), again served on the floor, before a guided tour of the building. A short tour through town with police escort including a stop at a pharmacy as both Kay and I have developed a cold which was draining our strength in the more than usually hectic schedule planned for us. By 11 am we were at the Governor's office to say farewell to the town and Abdulaziz with a plan to stop just 100 km's along the road towards Medina and rest up. But with a police escort, four cars, shepherding the two bikes on the 6 lane highway it seemed their agenda was to get us to Medina, over 500 km's away, and the nearest comfortable hotel. After 140 km, tired and sick with our colds we just headed off the highway looking for a small hotel. Our escorts did not seem to understand our needs initially but were polite and found us a basic small hotel, at Uqdat As Suqur. The type of hotel we would normally stay in. Most small businesses here are run or staffed by imported labour, Indian or Pakistani, and the hotel was friendly as we rested the day away.
25/1/05 Our police shepherds had left us to the hotel yesterday afternoon, occasionally dropping by, and this morning we walked around an old ruined part of town alone which indicated they are not particularly concerned with safety issues in this area but have likely been instructed to ensure our steady progress through the region. We consider it is often more dangerous travelling as a high profile, media articles, police escort, than to travel anonymously and independent. The importance of the target as much a reason for an assault. An unimportant target has no value. John has continually been asked for our departure time by police, acting as our minder he has been doing a great job fielding questions. The sandy desert scenery of the east has given way to stony desert, and more mountains. Still under the influences of our colds we travelled just 200 km's to Hanakiyah, staying on the edge of town, another basic hotel, petrol station complex. Kay has been wearing the abeyya and head scarf through this region and has been receiving favourable comments. She is dressed conservatively enough to be showing respect but not enough to be imitating locals and looking Muslim. The police escort, up to four cars for our two motorcycles, continued however by the end we had just one car following us. A large part of the freedom of just cruising down the highway is lost with an escort.
26/1/06 We headed towards Medina, the town from where Muhammad conquered all of Arabia, and is now a Holy City. As such non Muslims are not permitted to enter, as with Mecca, and they must avoid the town by driving around the town along the signposted, "Road for Non Muslims". Muhammad permitted all creeds to live in peace within the two cities and practised tolerance of other religions. Badr for the night. 330 km's, interesting road through the mountains, desert scenery. Wadi's with stone and mud brick ruins of previous cultures, now moved to more modern accommodation, dotted the landscape. Once our escort had gone we were allowed to wander the town alone and experience local people who would not normally approach us in the presence of police. A wealthy businessman invited us to his house for coffee, dates and tea. Kay entering the inner house with the women, John and I remained in the outer guest area. Dinner at a local restaurant where the proprietor refused payment from us, and gave us some fresh dates to take on our journey. We stayed in an old Sasco petrol station motel that had been closed due to the opening of a bypass highway nearby. They opened a couple of rooms for us for the night, the only accommodation in the area.
27/1/06 We have been staying on smaller roads where possible and when the police escort didn't arrive this morning we stayed on the old coastal road travelling freely, stopping in small towns. Large factories, desalination and petrochemical plants can be seen along the coast. Hotter here than inland the wind again swept sand across the road as we leaned into it. We were met by the new HOG director, Sulaiman, and Arshad from the H-D shop, at the police check post and were escorted along the beautifully blue waters of the Red Sea and new Corniche to the H-D shop where other HOG members and media interviews awaited us. A rest in late afternoon and evening dinner at a fabulous restaurant serving vast variety of local and traditional foods.
28/1/06 After a couple of hundred thousand km's of use the rear engine/swing arm supports had collapsed. The H-D distributor had the parts needed air freighted from Europe and today we fitted them in the H-D workshop, again at no cost to us, such is the generosity we are receiving here. Another newspaper interview, this time by an English journalist, also a motorcyclist, surprised at our being issued with a visa allowing travel, relatively freely, through the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The number of TV and newspaper articles, generating locals to welcome us as celebrities, has also been a little daunting as most countries we travel through almost anonymously. Most Saudi's are used to seeing only Expat Westerners and not people who have come effectively as tourists to their country, interested in its culture and peoples.
29/1/06 For the first time in a month we are up to date with everything, bike, internet, planning, and needed today to look for sightseeing activities, something that has pretty much been done for us in recent weeks. Working hours are still a small mystery. With at least a 3 hour siesta for lunch and closure for sunset and evening prayer, times that change with the season, we often find we are standing outside closed shops or left locked inside, as at the seaside McDonalds where after our coffee we were the only ones in the locked shop. Most shopping activity occurs in the evening 7-9 pm, when the streets are busy. The three societies of Saudi's, Western Expats and Asian Expats seem only to merge at the fringes if at all. Jeddah, one of the more liberal areas of Saudi Arabia, is today quite green, well treed, and has a beautiful waterside location. A relaxed day of looking around.
30/1/06 Ahmed, who has been assisting us here in Jeddah, organized our onward tickets for the boat to Sudan, sailing on the 6th of February. Our preferred choice, a boat to Eritrea is not running at the moment. Tickets, one way, $US 86.00 second class or $US 113.00 first class in a double cabin (our choice). It takes 13 hours for the crossing to Port Sudan, leaving at 6 pm Monday, Wednesday and Saturdays. The motorcycle costs were $US 108.00. Ahmed also assisted helping obtain an Ethiopian, three month, multi entry visa available the same day, just $US 30.00 each. The duration and a multiple entry a bonus as the timing of our movements through this region is very uncertain. Saeed, a HOG member, invited us and about 30 of his special friends to a magnificent fish dinner just north of Jeddah on the coast. The large reef fish, with prawns and crabs were selected from ice racks, processed by the staff, cooked and served in the large eating area. The dinner was for couples only, mostly Harley riders, long time friends, many who had been educated or lived in western countries. Such a function of mixing families as couples is not usual here, most men never mixing with women outside their immediate family. The women still dressed conservatively in an Abeyya but often open, revealing some beautiful loose flowing coloured garments. Despite initial mixed conversation, dinner was served at single sexed low tables and the two groups remained separate afterwards. The meal and company was magnificent. As is the culture here there was an abundance of food, leftovers are normally donated to the needy.
31/1/06 John, our escort and friend, was recalled to Bahrain, needed elsewhere in his varied roles, and flew out this morning. The local HOG chapter had been invited, expenses paid, to ride south to help open the Asir Festival, tonight we attended the ride briefing at the H-D shop.
1/2/06 About 25 bikes, and riders, including five female pillions and a couple of cars with backup trailers and family members were ready to ride at 6 am. The estimated 450 km journey realized 560 km, the longest ride most members had done in one day. With a police escort of half a dozen cars shepherding and keeping private vehicles bunched up behind, the convoy moved at 130 km/hr, south. A little fast for our old motorcycle we opted to hang back away from the group and catch up at one of the many rest and fuel stops. The governor of the Asir region, Prince Khalid Al-Faisal, son of King Faisal, provided lunch and our condominium style accommodation, as well as opening the festival in the evening. The Harleys were his escort to the event, followed by speeches, a stage show and a dinner for hundreds. Plaques were given to the activity entrants and I had the brief opportunity to meet the Prince, care of our sponsor to Saudi, Khalid. It was a quiet group of bikers in the evening after a long day and the evening ended early. Moonshine (whisky) can be made distilled and soaked in Jack Daniel (wood chips normally used to smoke meat) for flavour. The lack of alcohol here creates a quieter evening at the end of a ride than where alcohol is available.
2/2/06 The original plan was to stay here for two nights but with little planned for the days activities most Saudi riders left early for their direct return to Jeddah. The westerners decided to take two days to get back via the mountain road and Kay and I chose to hang out here for another day, to see the festival, and are hoping to ride back through the mountains, over the following two days alone, our only chance left in Saudi Arabia. Two people, uninvited, entered our apartment early afternoon, informing us that our booking was only for one night and we must leave. This action of someone entering, uninvited, the home, apartment, or a residence, where women may be present, in a country like Saudi Arabia is unheard of. Its consequences can not be overstated, and we raised the matter with the management. An apology was received, but it was the first time here that I have felt a lesser respect given to foreigners than for nationals. Later in the day we headed back to the festival, a seaside development area, people, whole families, had constructed tents and were enjoying themselves swimming in the ocean. A camel herder was selling fresh camel milk, so fresh you had to wait for him to milk a camel after ordering. We bought a litre, a smooth frothy milk, not as rich as I had expected. We did not have a police escort on this outing but noticed one of the Toyota King Cab pickups, of which there are many in the country, following us at a distance, stopping while we got the milk, then petrol and then groceries. Its a "coincidence" that we only just published that it was difficult to mingle with locals whilst we had a police escort, now we seem to have a plain clothes escort. We fronted him, but there was no English, now he followed closer and parked outside the hotel for the night.
3/2/06 There was another plain clothed unmarked car, Toyota King Cab, following us this morning. It was replaced by a grey sedan near Muhayil and a large blue grey sedan that followed till Al Majardah when we seemed to be left alone for the ride to Al Bahah, where we stayed the night, 350 km's of semi mountain riding. We chose not to inform our escort that we knew of their presence and watched as they attempted anonymity, as we stopped many times along the way. Baboons, large troops, sit roadside, to be fed leftovers by passing vehicles. Blind folded camels walk endlessly in a circle around a millstone grinding sesame seed into oil. The area has the influence of Yemen, some of the house designs are similar as are the weapons carried by men. The old slate stone houses still remain though now mostly empty, replaced by concrete structures. The last 20 km's into Al Bahah climbs up into the mountains over a magnificent road through more than 20 tunnels and more bridges. A cold dust storm blew through in the evening and after watching a family movie, pretty much all that is shown on TV's here, with cinemas totally banned in the country, choice of evening entertainment is limited, we were in bed early. Of the four nights we have spent in small regional hotels, the police have woken us up late in the evening at three of them. Tonight it was 11 pm, first a phone call, then a knock at the door, requesting our passports. We refused to open the door, considering it an inappropriate time for them to be calling, and eventually they left.
4/2/06 A police escort pretty much all day but we managed to have them drive behind at a distance so we could have our own ride, stopping at many of the sites along the way. The excellent mountain road, cold, with fog blown up from the plains, and strong winds, was a delight to ride along. Stone towers, and stone villages dot most of the hills. The road after At Taif drops abruptly off the mountains and back to the hot coastal plains. Most of the roads in Saudi have been excellent and many single lane roads are currently being upgraded to dual highways. As non Muslims we could not enter Mecca and had to use the designated road for non Muslims around the city and onto Jeddah, and the H-D shop. Apparently there had been a strong desert storm the last two days. The airports had been closed, visibility down to 100 metres, the bikes taking the coastal route back had been sand blasted by the strong winds. We had missed the storm being inland, in the mountains.
5/2/06 At the H-D dealer we said goodbye, after an oil change to be set up ready for Africa. Many riders that had taken the coast road back through the storm reported extensive damage to the bikes from sandblasting to paint work, chrome, windscreens and glass headlights. In the evening, Richard and Bizzie, two Kenyan H-D riders, working in Saudi, invited us to a lovely dinner at their home at the compound, Saudi City.
6/2/06 Ahmed collected us from the hotel at 10 am to assist clearing paperwork for the motorcycle. Customs was incredibly efficient but the problem was getting approval to ride the motorcycle into the port area as opposed to allowing the ship handlers to ride the bike. Women are not allowed in the port area so Kay was immediately excluded. By lunch time permission was given and we went to an enjoyable lunch with Ahmed and Fahad before returning to the now busy port at 5 pm. Almost everyone in the packed immigration hall was Sudanese, workers returning home at the end of a contract or on holidays taking as many presents as they could trolley or carry, TV's, sound systems, rugs, clothes, etc. We were bustled through the area to buses with loaded trailers, and onto the ship. Our small but comfortable cabin of two bunks, air-conditioned, fan, was at the rear of the ship. Most people lay about the deck, between chairs and in hallways, on mats they had brought. The reported 7 pm departure didn't happen till after midnight, by which time we were well asleep. Saudi Arabia has indeed been an incredible country to be allowed to visit. We will always remember it. Different entirely from any other country we have visited with its strict adherence to its Muslim faith. We had the great pleasure to be guided throughout the country by helpful Saudi's and ex-pats alike, both interested in showing us the best of the country. The H-D distributor, dealers and HOG clubs welcomed us most generously, both financially and with their time and friendship. We have made many friends in the area that we hope to see again.
Move with us to Sudan
Story and photos copyright ©