Desert Camping Saudi Style, Al-Ahsa region March 2021

I had heard stories about going out into the desert around cities and towns to go camping. Driving around, especially at evening, you will see a very popular Saudi custom. The lights strung out far off the road belong to someone’s tent, and light the way for guests or family to gather. Often you will see a car or truck, maybe a fire, and family gathered on the ground near their vehicle. Going outdoors at night with family, spreading out a blanket or carpet, and having a picnic is essentially what sets Saudi’s apart from other people. You can imagine desert ancestors having this way of life, and it is still very much alive in Saudi culture tradition. But it doesn’t take a desert to have a night picnic. It can also be a parking lot, abandoned land area, or anywhere where some earth can hold your party.

The experience of camping in the desert seems like a romantic idea. Getting back to nature and sleeping under the stars with your loved ones. We as a family, had been wanting to try this activity, but we needed a guide or group, as we didn’t know where to go. Well it just so happened that another family we knew was joining a group camping adventure. The price was a bit steep, however we really wanted to have a good time from a known place.

As we drove out onto local roads from the highway, we noticed that the roads were not as well kept. In fact our guide took us down the wrong side of the road, but as the place was small and only locals, no one seemed to care. The we left the pavement and drove upon white stones crushed into the sand. And then we turned off, completely onto sand.

Our first real Saudi camping experience began, as all of our 4×4 vehicles got stuck right in the deeper sand that began the desert drive. We had the lowest car to the ground and were the first to get stuck, all 4 tires right in the sand. We needed to let some air out of the tires, our guide explained. Our guide showed us how to let air out of all the tires with a key, so that we could get traction to drive on sand. We thought perhaps it was only us that this would happen to, however It needed to be done on everyone’s vehicle! My husband said the air coming out the tires was burning hot. All the the men got behind our vehicle and pushed us out while my husband steered. We returned the favor for the next car, and the next. It happened like this until we were all ok to drive again.

The best analogy I have for this experience, is when you get your car stuck in snow. The tires kind of spin in place, or don’t move at all. It’s the white powdery kind of snow that is just under the car. But we aren’t cold and salt won’t help… back to the sand.

The video below shows us finding our way through unmarked sand, driving to our camp in the desert. The guide vehicle belonged to the farms’ owner, and this was something they do on the weekends for friends, family and tourists like us.

We arrived around 3:30pm, and found 3 camels waiting, along with refreshments. There was tea, coffee, water, coke soda, and bananas/apples and something like Twinkies. It was hot, but the more heated part of the day was already over.

Camel rides! All the kids were of course eager to see the camels up close, so our guide and camp helper got the camels to sit down so that the riders could get on. Two of the camels had their front legs tied or bound, so that they couldn’t run. If you’ve not been on a camel before, you need to know that in the process of getting up, and sitting down, you may feel like you will first pitch forward and then back. Do not be alarmed, just hold on tight. Once you are up with the camel and start moving, camels are very steady. That is why they are known as the “ships of the desert”. Their heads stay parallel with the ground and do not toss around like a horse.

The camels were led in a line, and the ride went way out in the sand, and looped back to camp. It was a real treat for adults and kids! The whole time we were at this camp, there was a breeze blowing, which helped to cool the afternoon heat.

Here is an interesting fact: “Camels have three eyelids.  Two of the eyelids have eye lashes which help protect their eyes from sand.  The third is a very thin lid which works as a sort of “windshield wiper” to clean off their eyes.  It closes/opens from side to side rather than up and down.  It is also thin enough that the Camels can see through it somewhat.  So in a sandstorm or otherwise windy day where sand is being stirred up, they can close that lid to protect their eyes from the sand, but still see where they are going.”

Camels sitting so the riders could get on
Really beautiful set up!

Have you ever sled down a sand dune? Well here is where our snow sleds came in handy. We had the disk-shape sleds that perhaps aren’t the fastest sliding down, as the rim can scoop the sand rather than glide over it, however it was fun. Other campers brought a better version of a sand sled that is more sleek. We all shared with each other. But what seemed the most fun, was just simply running and jumping out as far as one could over the sand dune, and then dropping down. That was the most thrilling, especially for the kids! They went on doing this into the night, after the sun set.

Sunset over the sand
Camp at dusk

Dinner: We ate dinner provided by our host. It was the traditional Kabsa dish of rice and chicken, along with water and more coke soda and juice boxes for the kids. We thought perhaps the camp would cook it over an open fire, but with the wind, maybe the smoke would go all over. Our host did light us up an outdoor fire of some kind of coals where the outdoor sofas were, and we roasted marshmallows provided by one of the other campers. (Note to self; when camping bring marshmallows to share).

The main tent where we ate dinner and two families could stay, one at each end

Bathroom: It was a windy evening and I was bushed, so I helped get the kids to the toilet and outdoor sink area. The toilet was inside a corrugated metal room, along with a simple shower. It was a regular standard toilet with toilet paper, yay! Brushing our teeth at the outdoor sink was fine, as we had brought a battery operated camping lantern. There was only a small light at the toilet, so if you wanted to wash up and see what you were doing, you’d need your own light. Our lantern came in handy for walking around the camp at night, as they use bricks to line areas of the camp, but they were easily trip hazards.

The toilet, shower and sink were plumbed

We kind of ran out of water bottles right before going to bed and the camp didn’t have any more. However in the morning we had one more bottle in our car, which was a real thirst saver! Always bring more water than you think you’ll need.

The video below is the traditional Saudi Bedouin tent you can see anywhere there is some land away from the cities. I thought you may enjoy an inside view of the interior of the construction, and so you can get a feel of how it would be to gather in this type of tent. Notice the striped black and white design that shows on the outside, in contrast to the brightly colored rugs, pillows and wall hangings inside the tent.

Sleep: We all slept a bit differently. Some families had nylon tents just like you’d use if you went out camping by a lake. They put these inside the big Saudi tents. Some had cots that folded out off the ground, on which you can put a sleeping bag. Our friends had air mattresses. We just brought our pillows and comforters and lined them up along one side of the back wall. The sand is softer than bare ground, but still hard, so if you need some comfort, go for one of the other options.

We heard at evening that strong winds were predicted for the next day, with coming sandstorms. The camp helper put up the fabric walls across the tent fronts that protected us from the wind and sand, leaving a “doorway”. All night long the winds changed direction and the tent walls and ceiling pieces swayed with the wind. At times there was just calm and nothing moved. I awoke all night, perhaps because we were sleeping on comforters on the rugs on the sand. It could also have been because of the change in sounds. The wind at times made the sand brush across the fabric of the tent, and then it stopped and was deep silence. But no matter what I can say that I did enjoy the experience. The temperature dropped at night, but not badly. I just rolled up in the comforter and was fine. Another family that had been to the same camp before in January, said it was so cold at night, they thought they were going to freeze!

View of our doorway that can be closed

Waking: Early morning a bird sang around 4:30am. I arose at 5am to soft pink and beige sky. The sun had not yet risen but it was getting light out. Around 5:30 the orangey sun was pushing up from the sand dunes in the east. I wrapped myself up as it was a bit cold and windy, and sat on the outdoor seating area to watch the sun come up. By 6:30 the wind had started to pick up more earnestly and some of the other campers were wanting to eat breakfast outdoors. They tried to sit down and get out their food, however the wind was getting strong and it just wasn’t possible to have an enjoyable morning breakfast.

My husband asked the camp’s helper if breakfast was coming, but he said in Arabic, “No, because of the wind”. We all then worked quickly to pack up our cars for the return journey home. The wind whipped the sand all around and so I tied my scarf around my head, and another around my face so that just my eyes were showing, much like the camp’s helper. And now, the second Saudi camping experience: sandstorm. Not so fun when everything is blowing sand in your face, and when you are trying to drive.

We needed to wait once again so that our guide’s car could lead us out of the sand area. Always good to pair up if you need assistance. Without him we would definitely be stuck in the middle of nowhere. Here is the exciting video of us driving out of our camping area and back onto the crushed stone road. It seems appropriate now that the band Queen was playing “We Will Rock You” on the radio at that time. The key was to keep going and not slow down. Glad we were also with friends on this trip!

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