The pressure cooker was hissing on the pull-out stove at the back of the Toyota pick-up truck. In front, carpets and plush pillows were arranged in a square around a small flickering fire, forming an outdoor living room of sorts. Saudis, it turned out, take car camping very seriously.
We had spent the afternoon rock climbing near Tanomah with our new friend Ali. The region is spectacular. Picture yourself craggy peaks, conifer trees and ancient grassy terraces. Coming from the desert, it felt like paradise, if it wasn’t for the hordes of angry baboons patrolling the cliffs. And stealing my underwear left to dry on a tree.
A long weekend had just finished when we first arrived, and most local climbers were heading back home. We had a quick chat with the straddlers. Ali, from nearby Abha, decided to stay a bit longer. He was more than keen to show us his favorite playground. Over the next week, he would come back repeatedly to join us in the mountains.
This is one of the major perks of climbing, and by extension any activity built around a common passion. It effortlessly transcends borders and cultures. The sport is still in its infancy in the kingdom, but the small local community is already thriving. All thanks to a prince who, himself a keen mountaineer, decided in recent years to provide patronage and funding by the royal house. As you do in Saudi Arabia.
One evening, two of Ali’s friends, Ahmad and Faisal, came to spend the night. Now that agriculture has been almost abandoned throughout the Hejaz mountains, the flat green terraces make inviting campsites. Men drive around aimlessly in their SUVs until they hit a rock, providing much entertainment. Families come for picnic, especially on weekends.
An invitation quickly followed that evening. “Just for a tea”. We walked over to the two pick-up trucks parked under the trees. The fire was already lit. Tea turned out to be an excuse. Traditional Arabic coffee was brewing by the glowing embers instead. Made out of freshly ground green coffee beans and cardamon pods, served without sugar, but accompanied by the mandatory juicy dates.
Ahmad works as an official photographer for a government official, and Marie and him happily talked about their art. Both him and Faisal dream of finding a wife that won’t mind traveling with them in their truck. Roaming the mountains and deserts is their take on freedom. The camel might have been traded for an off-road vehicle, but the nomadic spirit still lives on.
Leave No Trace
Speaking of camel. “You must eat with us” said our hosts. After the evening prayer, the three men jumped into action. Dinner time. Veggies were diced and spices added. Kabsa, a traditional slow-cooked mixed rice dish, was on the menu. Of course with camel meat, carefully rinsed with a garden hose.
While I was smugly congratulating myself for being flexitarian, the enormous plate was placed in the middle of a carpet. Everyone dug in keenly with their right hand. Tender and delicious. I couldn’t imagine a better setting to try the Saudi national dish.
Our friends left the next day, but not before assiduously cleaning their campsite. Most families simply leave all their trash behind for the Bangladeshi municipal workers to pick up the next morning. But not for Ali, Ahmad and Faisal. They even had a pop-up trash bin to keep the camp tidy. It was inspiring to see that here too young people manage to bridge the gap between modernity and tradition, between smartphone and kabsa, between freedom and respect. And to do so with a smile.