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Posted 14/05/2024 in Middle East by Cath Graham

Saudi Arabia - a Wonderful Surprise!

Saudi Arabia - a Wonderful Surprise!

I recently farewelled my private group tour of Egypt and Jordan and took the opportunity to visit the North of Saudi Arabia from Petra in Jordan. 

My tour guide and friend from Petra, Talat, asked if he could travel with me, touring in his 4WD. After checking the laws relating to travelling in Saudi with a male (other than a family member) and finding that it was now okay to do so, we headed off for 4 days of exploration. 

I wanted it to be longer, but distances are so far between the sites in Saudi, so we kept it to 4 days in the North-Western corner. 

Getting into Saudi from Jordan

We drove 161 km from Petra to enter via the Al Mudawarah border point, where we paid departure taxes and got through departure immigration in Jordan in just 20 minutes. 

We then spent 55 minutes getting into Saudi. This entailed a young man putting me through the usual immigration checks, me going to the "ladies' area" to be patted down (she barely touched me), and checking that the young man had correctly stamped my passport. The 4WD was emptied of EVERYTHING, our bags, spare tyres, etc (they put the floor mats on the seats so their sniffer dogs don't damage the seats when they jump in!) The luggage was scanned (like at an airport), the car also went through an automatic laser scanner, similar to a conveyor belt that takes it through while we wait outside, then a final, manual check of the car where they wanted to remove the seats (other cars were undergoing the same treatment) but Talat said, "Forget it, we'll go back to Jordan!" He explained we were coming to Saudi to check it out to bring tourists there and the immigration and customs men suddenly decided we were free to go! 

Saudi is very keen to welcome tourists and is hoping to eventually rival Dubai as an international tourist destination.


We drove 96 km to Tabuk, the closest major town to the border and home of Saudi's largest air force base, to overnight and break the journey. We are now also allowed to share accommodation with unrelated members of the opposite sex, so we checked into a two-bedroom apartment in a 3-star property called Four Seasons Serviced Apartments. The room was huge but very sparsely decorated, and the bathroom, particularly the shower, was not the best. It was sufficient to lay our heads down for the night, though. The staff were all male and were clearly used to dealing with other males, especially as I spoke no Arabic, but they were very polite and respectful towards me. 

We lunched at a restaurant called Hashy Tweeq. Hashy is a local dish of roasted camel meat on a bed of rice with yogurt - delicious! The portion was half of what they usually serve, at our request, and we still had no hope of finishing it! We ate in a small room, curtained off from other small rooms. This is how the ladies can eat without their face coverings. Although coverings became optional in 2018, many ladies still prefer to wear them, with younger ladies opting out. 

Al Ula

Getting lost on our Saudi Arabia 4WD adventure.A stop on our offroad 4WD Adventure to Al Ula. The next morning, we headed towards Al Ula, a drive of about 300 km. We came upon some amazing rock formations and decided to go off-road to investigate them.

Three hours later, after some seriously fabulous adventures in the desert and getting directions from numerous camel-and-goat shepherds as to how to get back to the highway, we stopped for a cuppa by the rocks on the roadside and stretched our legs. 

From here, it was on to Al Ula. This place is geographically very like Wadi Rum in Jordan, with mountains of rock on all sides. The roads are undergoing many reconstructions and enlargements, so there were many detours that were not well sign-posted! Patience is required!

We inspected a few hotels and decided to check into the Shaden Resort Al Ula. The rooms are comparable to any 5-star property, but the views are 10-star! After dinner, we visited Al Ula Old Town, where stores and booths sell local produce and souvenirs. A dry lightning storm lit up the sky as we wandered through the streets, adding to the atmosphere. 

The next morning, we headed for "Elephant Rock" to see this huge elephant-like rock formation. The road was very corrugated and not well sign-posted - a common issue in Saudi! When we arrived at the gate, we were told that the site was closed until 5pm, and we were unable to talk our way in, so back we went on the corrugations. We were advised to book tickets at "Winter Park" for entry to Maraya (the world's largest mirrored building) and Hegra, so we headed off to find Winter Park. Again, nothing is sign-posted and nowhere does it say what relationship Winter Park has to the sites we want to visit. At Winter Park, we were told that all sites were either fully booked for today or closed for private viewing by dignitaries. This is also a common issue in Saudi, where sites are closed at whim! We decided to try our luck at the Hegra site, where we found the reception Manager, Abed, to be an absolute asset! He took pity on me as I was from his favourite country - Australia - and he made some calls, pulled some strings and got us on the 7:30 tour of Hegra the next morning and free entry to Maraya (usually you have to purchase lunch there for a minimum of AUD $41 per person). 


Off we went to Maraya, the world's largest mirrored building (my picture above), which is amazing! It's set amongst huge rock formations, so the reflections are hard to pick from reality. It's used as a live-production theatre and meeting venue and was on my list of must-sees in Saudi. It did not disappoint!

Cath Graham at Elephant Rock, Saudi Arabia. Visiting Saudi's Elephant Rock at night.  

From here, we drove around Al Ula for the afternoon, taking in the scenery, before dinner at a local restaurant and re-visiting the corrugations to Elephant Rock. It was beautiful, all lit up at night. There are fire pits that you can sit in to dine from the on-site restaurants or smoke a shisha pipe on lounge seats with coffee tables and blankets provided so you can relax and take in the view of Elephant Rock.


The next day we were at Hegra by 7:30am, ready to get the 8:00am bus around the site. It's much like Petra in Jordan, as it's home to 110 tombs built by the Nabateans, whose capital was Petra. 

Unlike Petra, where you are free to walk throughout the site, access is only via a 45-seat tour bus (complete with air-con, free bottled water, and USB ports in every seat) or private, open-air 4WD. Our tour was on the bus and cost SAR 96 per person for the 2-hour tour (approx AUD $39 each), which must be booked online on their app. There are still a lot of bumps to smooth out with tourism operators! 

Cath Graham, Middle East travel expert, visting Hegra, in Saudi Arabia. Hegra, the second Nabataean Kingdom city. We visited 4 sites, getting off the bus at each and learning more about them. I loved it! The most interesting tomb for me was the smallest one we saw, as it was home to Hinat, a Nabatean woman whose skull was discovered in the tomb in 2018. The Saudi government decided to try to reconstruct her face and employed a group of craniofacial specialists and artists to complete the project. The results are amazing and you can see an exhibition about it at the Hegra Visitors Centre, including an animated movie of her head and face.

After the tour at Hegra we headed back to Shaden Resort for a late brekkie and to check out. The drive back to Petra took 9 hours, with an extended 2-hour break in Tubak on the way to enjoy lunch and do some shopping at a local supermarket. 

The entry back into Jordan only took half as long as the entry to Saudi, but we were slowed by biblical weather in Jordan - lightning, sandstorms, and flooding…such an adventure!

My thoughts on visiting Saudi? 

Do it! Tourism is still in its infancy, but they are accommodating and happy to encourage visitors. Be prepared for the sudden closure of sites without warning and try to be flexible. I honestly wouldn't recommend travelling there unless you are on tour. There is no public transport, such as buses or trains, so you can only get from A to B by taxi, which is unreliable and expensive. A tour will also assist with unexpected closures of sites, overbooked tours, and the navigation of poorly sign-posted roads.

Ladies - you don't have to keep your head covered! I wore loose-fitted dresses which left my forearms and calves exposed. It is recommended that you dress in loose-fitted clothing and keep your upper arms, thighs, and chest covered. You can see what I wore in my photos. I did meet other Westerners who were dressed similarly or wore pants and a loose t-shirt or shirt. I only saw one Western lady in a singlet top, and she covered herself in public with a shawl but removed that when we were on the tour bus.

Every male I met was kind, respectful, and polite. They welcomed me to their country and were all genuinely interested in where I came from. Of course, I was lucky to have Talat with me to translate at times and make it all run more smoothly, but I didn't feel at all uncomfortable at any time, whether with Talat or by myself.

If you are interested in this newly opened wonder, please contact me so I can book your next adventure!

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