National Geographic : 1966 Jan
Saudi Arabia: Beyond the Sands of Mecca A long day's drive brought us safely into Dhahran. There I left Lynn back in the 20th century and flew across the country for a camel ride along one of Saudi Arabia's last regular caravan routes. Despite the hazards of sand, dust, and chassis-shattering roads, most of the kingdom's colorful caravans have given way to jeeps, buses, and giant trucks. Two Days' Journey to Abha Market In the village of Ad Darb, on the sultry Red Sea coast, I caught up with tall, raw boned Fahd ibn Muhassan, the boss of the camel drivers. "Ah-lan wa-sahlan! Welcome!" he said, with a smile as wide as his beard. "You are just in time; we leave before sunset. We will be in Abha for the Tuesday market, Allah willing, but it is two days' journey and two nights. And the road is steep." We filed out of the village on foot, leading a string of 48 camels bawling under heavy loads. How different was this coastal desert from the rest of Arabia! The village of Ad Darb was typical-a cluster of tall, pointed huts, framed with poles and thatched with palm rope (pages 38-9). The dark-skinned people dressed for the sweltering climate. Men wore only striped loincloths and broad brimmed hats; women walked about in bright calico, seldom veiled. The scene struck me as more African than Arabian. Not until the first stars appeared did we mount. Fahd coached me in the art of climb ing aboard a moving camel. "We can't stop the whole caravan to get on and off," Fahd explained. "It would take an hour with the stick to get them moving again." I tied my rifle and cameras opposite the clay water jug and coffeepots and pulled down slightly on my camel's head as I walked. Silent shadows on the sand, Murrah Bed ouin and their camels plod the Empty Quar ter in search of grass. Wind-created "dunes" only a few inches high show as light streaks in the lee of scattered bushes. Smashing in from space, this 4,800-pound meteorite dug a sandy grave near Al Hadi dah in the Empty Quarter. The author found the iron-nickel nugget, largest ever discovered in Arabia, after Murrah Bedouin guided him across 400 miles of desert. "Gurrrrah! Gurrrrrrah!" I trilled, quickly putting my knee in the crook of her powerful neck. Instantly I was airborne, swinging safely into the saddle. Her good balance had earned my camel the name of Midwam, which means "spinning top." Now, loaded with 400 pounds of coffee and sorghum stalks, she moved with an es pecially smooth gait. I sprawled among the mixed baggage and tried to sleep. Far ahead in the dark, Fahd moaned a love ballad: "The quickening wind unveiled a glimpse; A slender neck, dark lovely eyes...." Never had I seen such a show of stars. The night wore on. I dozed fitfully. The Big Dip per turned slowly round Polaris and finally poured out the red dawn. We stopped to rest. Before noon we were loaded again and moving painfully across the hot, breathless desert, impatient for the cool mountains rising in the haze ahead. We flushed larks and coveys of sand grouse and, once, a red-headed Arabian woodpecker. KODACHROMESBY THOMAS J. ABERCROMBIE© N.G.S .