With the country opening up to tourism there is a growing list of adventures to have in the dunes, discoveries to be made of the ancient and the old, from long-hidden archaeological troves to epic 20th-century structures, forgotten but not gone.
In the early 1900s the Hejaz railway transported pilgrims from Damascus to Medina cutting journey times from two months to four days. The 1,500km railway powered through unforgiving terrain of deserts and mountains, its utility providing an important military asset for the Ottomans until the Arab Revolt. In the first world war, helped by British officers like TE Lawrence, Arab raiders blew up the Hejaz’s bridges and tracks forcing out the occupiers and paving the way for the formation of modern Saudi Arabia.
While the Hejaz railway fell into disrepair, it has left a magnificent legacy for intrepid 4x4 drivers. With a bit of GPS navigation, drivers can find and follow the old tracks to examine century-old toppled-over locomotives stranded in desert drifts, bullet holes in the boiler still evident. Abandoned railway stations, long bridges and unexplored tunnels have all remained dormant and largely unseen for a century.
The awesome mountain scenery along with old Ottoman station and the abandoned rolling stock makes the Hejaz an unbeatable off-road destination. But it is just a small slice of the fascination that can be found travelling Saudi Arabia’s unexplored depths.
Before setting out, much of what can be discovered can be viewed in fantastic black and white panoramas of the Roads of Arabia exhibition that has been displayed across Europe including at the Louvre in Paris and the Hermitage in St Petersburg, Russia.
It reveals the network of oases that linked the caravan trails that traversed the Arabian peninsula, connecting it to the empires of Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia. Arabia was the conduit for the spices and incense transported from its southern coast and the Horn of Africa to supply the temples and royal courts of both the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
An archaeological cosmopolitan surprise awaits those who drive to oasis towns such as Qaryat Al-Faw. Standing at the very edge of the Empty Quarter, the great desert that occupies so much of southern Arabia, it has a treasure trove of artefacts that range from Hellenistic sculptures to Egyptian carvings.
Back on tarmac, visitors can be treated with breathtaking views of the Red Sea, palm trees and undulating desert dunes travelling from the city of Jizan to Al Lith. A small off-road diversion from the highway will lead you to pristine beaches, cool sea winds and delightful sunsets on lapping tides.
A trip to beguile any traveller leaving Mecca is the drive to the mountainous city of Taif, experiencing an engineering marvel of impossibly tight bends over steep drops. The mountain cool also offers a welcome rest from the cloying city heat.
For those willing to pack their camping kit and sleep out for a few unforgettable nights under a searing roof of stars, there’s a wealth of artefacts and archaeology to be found off the beaten track. Much of it is again the legacy of the spice route that saw Arabian frankincense and myrrh travel with Indian spices and gems and African rare woods, gold and animal skins.
For thousands of years travellers and merchants with their camel trains and guards have used the oasis of Al Eiyyenah, near modern Al Bida in Tabuk province. Here you can find tombs carved into the mountains and a Roman temple nearby in an area of red sands and fresh springs.
In another oasis on the spice trial at Al Ukhdoud, with a bit of careful navigation and local knowledge astonishing Nabatean-Arabic writings dating from 469-470CE can be found. Discovered by archaeologists in 2014, they have been described as the “oldest form of Arabic writing known to date” and as the “missing link” between Nabatean and Arabic writing.