Each expedition into the Arabian desert is special for different reasons. Some trips are simply to get away from it all to experience the solitude and stark beauty of the Arabian shield. Other trips have a specific destination in mind, and the destination defines the adventure.
The U.S. Geological Survey worked with the Saudi government to create a set of maps of the geology of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
My favorite survey map is the Southern Nejd Quadrangle. A smorgasbord of sand dunes, wadis, granite fields, metamorphic mountain ranges, and archeological mysteries abound in this quadrangle. When I think of this area, the word "awesome" comes to mind.
In the southern part of this Quadrangle is a mysterious area - the Tombs of Bir Zeen. Bir is the Arabic word for well, and zeen is the word for good. Bir Zeen must have been an area with good wells for the Bedouins to give it such a name.
The tombs of Bir Zeen are pre-Islamic and shrouded in mystery. Who designed the tombs? Why did they construct them in such an unusual manner? Why did they choose that location? Who was buried there?
If there ever were tombs with a view, it would be at Bir Zeen. Their remote location and other worldly appearance makes an expedition to Bir Zeen an unforgettable experience.
Overlanding to Bir Zeen is an adventure in itself. You can make it into a ten day expedition with sand dunes, wadis, mountains, and granite fields along the way. If you are in hurry and want to rush through paradise, you can miss all the good stuff and do it in a few days. In the southern Nejd Quadrangle, the journey is every bit as good as the destination, and I never rush when I explore this region.
My first trip to Bir Zeen followed the red track south until I reached Bir Zeen proper. I then turned north and went on the blue track for a total of approximately 700 to 800 kilometers off-road with lots of zigzagging and side trips. On the red track you travel in sand on the western side of the giant Tuwayq escarpment before turning east to Bir Zeen. If you love driving in sand, and if you have plenty of time, this is a great way to go.
My second trip to Bir Zeen followed the blue line coming up from the south after spending a week camping in the Empty Quarter. To get onto the blue line, you drive past the town of Khamsin until you get beyond the vast fields of green irrigated pivots that block your path to the north. Once you escape the farms, you cross a sandy plain with Barchan dunes for 100 kilometers to arrive at Bir Zeen. From Bir Zeen you drive off-road north through mountains and granite fields for 300 to 400 kilometers depending on how much exploring you do along the way.
The expedition can easily be run in reverse as long as you have plenty of fuel. Bedouin fuel tanks are scattered here and there in this region, but you can't be sure that fuel will be available in deep desert. I carry up to 13 jerry cans for long trips in my Defender 110, and I don't usually need to stop for fuel.
The high metamorphic mountains of Bir Zeen provide an excellent view of the sandy plains to the south. One hundred kilometers of soft sand punctuated with low Barchan Dunes add a touch of challenge and excellent sand driving after leaving Khamsin and heading north to Bir Zeen.
Our Land Rover Defenders look like two small dots in the foreground at the base of the high mountains.
Wadis radiate out from the mountains into the surround desert. Those same wadis create flash floods that recharge the aquifers supplying water to the wells in the area.
The wells of Bir Zeen are a mixture of old and new.
Older wells lined by rocks and mortar are vulnerable to collapse, while newer ones have concrete sides that guarantee the well will endure for many generations with minimal maintenance.
A typical modern well uses the chassis of a truck for drawing water from the depths.
They embed one end of the chassis in concrete so that it points skyward at a 45 degree angle.
A pulley attached to the end of the elevated chassis makes it easy to draw water. Your bucket definitely will not bang against the side of the well as you get water for your camels and sheep.
You don't need to be a member of the genius club to realize that Bir Zeen is a special place. A quick glance up the mountains reveals long rock walls extending up and down the mountainside like the legs of a spider or arms of an octopus.
Little bumps on the top of each mountain are not an accident. Humans made those bumps thousands of years ago, and they are the tombs of Bir Zeen.
Walls of stacked rocks converge on structures at the top. The hillside adjacent to each wall has been picked clean of large rocks. When they built a wall, they picked up the rocks on either side of the wall and used them for its construction. At least they didn't have to transport rocks from miles away to create these mysterious structures.
Six tombs reside on the top of this particular mountain with peculiar stone walls running on top of the mountain and down its sides as well.
Tombs with a view are found on most of the mountains in this area. The height of the mountain is irrelevant. Even the high ones have rock walls with at least one tomb on the top.
The long walls going up and down the mountainside aren't smooth. The silhouette reveals the walls are actually stepped. They look like a razorback in the distance.
Three tombs sit in close proximity on the top of this ridge.
David lifts a stone from the top of one wall to demonstrate the large size of the rocks used in the construction. Building stepped walls up a hillside with such large rocks was hard work. I suspect that these structures must have been built over hundreds, or even thousands of years.
Every time someone rich and famous died, it was necessary to claim another hill and build more rock walls. I think I would head out into the desert to tend my flocks if it looked like a powerful wealthy person was getting ready to die. That way I wouldn't be around to stack rocks for a couple of weeks. Tending sheep beneath the shade of a tree is better than stacking rocks on the side of a mountain.
Walls travel along the mountain ridge and link up with other tombs found along the same ridge.
It's easy to appreciate the stepped nature of these walls when you look to the north in a side view.
The tombs of Bir Zeen are enormous and most of them are in a good state of repair. The rocks are so large that nothing short of an earthquake could damage these structures. The only exception is human activity. Humans build these tombs, and humans can destroy them. From the beginning of time, grave robbers wreak their havoc on antiquities such as these.
Grave robbers entered this tomb from the top and side leaving a path of destruction in their wake. It's sad to see indiscriminate damage to such antiquities. There is no clue as to who entered these tombs in ancient time. The tombs are pre-Islamic, and I feel sure that raiders did their dirty work long before the advent of Islam on the Arabian peninsula.
While standing on top of the mountains at Bir Zeen, I survey the countryside looking at tombs in the distance. The longer I look, the more of them I discover. Dozens of them dot the mountains in the surrounding area.
A razorback wall runs on the ridge to an isolated tomb with a view.
Symmetrical walls run down the hillside to the sandy desert floor.
Tombs lie on the highest point of each hill and at many spots in-between. Ridge running walls head off in the distance.
A stepped razor back wall comes up the hillside to arrive at a tomb, and then continues along the ridge.
The majority of the walls are in a good state of repair. Fortunately, most rocks are high up on the mountainsides or along ridges, and it would be too much work to quarry the rocks and use them to constructs houses down on the plains. That is one of the reasons the rock walls and tombs still endure.
In Egypt, many ancient temples disappeared because they were used as quarries to build mosques and churches. Rather than go to a mountain to quarry stone for new buildings, they simply went to ancient temples and used that stone for their new projects.
From the top of one mountain at Bir Zeen, I can see the route to the north that will lead me out of the metamorphic mountains and into the middle and upper granite fields of the southern Nejd Quadrangle. I will follow the tracks north for about 300 kilometers until I reach the asphalt that leads back to Riyadh.
As we head north in our Defenders, we pass a baby camel nursing from its mother. These are not wild camels. All camels have a brand somewhere on their body, and everyone knows their owners. Although they roam freely on open range, their owners know their location.
As I traveled north on the sandy plain, a Bedouin stopped and chatted with me asking what I was doing out here in deep desert. I told him I was on vacation exploring the remote corners of Arabia. I speak a modest amount of Arabic, and when I tell them that I am an eye surgeon at the eye hospital in Riyadh, he grins and is happy to meet me. Many Bedouins have had family members operated on at the eye hospital, and they are grateful that their relatives can see again.
As I head north, I say good-bye to the metamorphic rocks of Bir Zeen, and I say hello to the granite outcrops of the middle and upper granite fields. Sheet sand becomes my highway as I travel among the massive granite boulders. Camping in the granite fields is like setting up your tent in a cathedral. At night I look up at the stars, and I feel like I am on holy ground. Light pollution does not exist this far from civilization, and the brilliant milky way lights up the night sky.
I carry an aeronautical bubble sextant in my Defender, and in the evening when the stars come out, I take three star sights and compute my position. But I don't need a sextant to know where I am, because I am in a granite paradise. I also don't need to know my precise location, because I know that if I travel north 300 kilometers, I will eventually reach the asphalt that leads to Riyadh. It doesn't really matter where I reach the asphalt. Twenty miles one way or the other is irrelevant as long as I have plenty of fuel.
Granite batholiths emerge like breaching whales from the desert floor. A mind-boggling granite panorama provides hundreds of locations where I can set up camp.
Tombs constructed from small granite rocks create shallow graves on the top of outcrops. Granite stones had to be transported up the mountain to create these graves. It would be interesting to know why pre-Islamic people thought burial on top of a mountain was so important.
Batholiths can be as tall as a twenty story building and a big challenge to climb. Smaller batholiths are just right for a couple of hours of adventure. If you are so inclined, you can drive your Defender up the back of these outcrops.
Driving on hard surfaces like granite is easy to do, but is potentially hard on your transfer case and differentials. If you are in diff lock and drive on granite, something has got to give, and it may be a half-shaft, transfer case, or differential. As far as I am concerned, granite is for hiking and not driving. When you are in deep desert, you cannot afford to break your Defender.
In the golden hour, Wendy, Donna, and David enjoy sunset in the granite fields.
Granite may be hard, but it cannot stand up to the force of water. Over millions of years, streams of water from rainfall slowly erode grooves into the granite batholiths. David straddles one of the water channels, and Wendy takes the opposite approach sliding down in the groove.
It takes a long time for water to erode granite. It reminds me of one definition of eternity. According to the definition, eternity is the length of time it would take for a bird with a feather in it's beak to fly along the Great Wall of China, and have that feather wear down the Great Wall until it is completely gone. The time it takes for water to erode granite is probably right up there with the feather on the Great Wall of China.
Were standing on the top of a batholith celebrating life. It's awesome to explore the granite fields in your Defenders with family and friends.
Sunset means the end of another day, and the opportunity to spend the night in the granite fields of the southern Nejd. We descend the granite outcrop enjoying the spectacular sunset.
The tent is set up, and food is cooking on the grill. It won't be long before we light the campfire and gaze up into the night sky.
Next morning, we climb a batholith and survey our domain. It's hard to believe our good fortune, because today we have the privilege of trekking through the granite fields of the sedimentary Nejd.
Life is good.
Awesome music video that captures the essence of what it's like to sail offshore in a catamaran around the world when conditions are less than perfect. David Abbott from Too Many Drummers sings the vocals, and he also edited the footage from our Red Sea adventures. This is the theme song from the Red Sea Chronicles.
Sailing up the Red Sea is not for the faint of heart. From the Bab al Mandeb to the Suez Canal, adventures and adversity are in abundance. If you take things too seriously, you just might get the Red Sea Blues.
If you like drum beats, and you like adventure, then have a listen to the Red Sea Chronicles Trailer.
Flying fish assault Exit Only in the middle of the night as we sail through the Arabian Gulf from the Maldives to Oman. And so begins our Red Sea adventures.
Sailing through Pirate Alley between Yemen and Somalia involves calculated risk. It may not be Russian Roulette, but it is a bit of a worry. Follow Team Maxing Out as they navigate through Pirate Alley.
Stopping in Yemen was just what the doctor ordered. We refueled, repaired our alternator, and we made friends with our gracious Yemeni hosts. We also went to Baskins Robbins as a reward for surviving Pirate Alley.
After you survive Pirate Alley, you must sail through the Gate of Sorrows (Bab Al Mandab) at the southern entrance to the Red Sea. The Gate of Sorrows lived up to its name with fifty knots of wind and a sandstorm that pummeled Exit Only for two days. Life is good.
Join Team Maxingout as they sail through Pirate Alley and up the Red Sea
See what it's like to cruise on a catamaran before you spend a bazillion dollars purchasing one
After watching the Red Sea Chronicles you will be able to see yourself sailing on the ocean of your dreams
Although I like the feel of a paper book in my hand, I love trees even more. When people purchase an eBook, they actually save trees and save money as well. Ebooks are less expensive and have no negative impact on the environment. All of Dr. Dave's books are available at Save A Tree Bookstore. Visit the bookstore today and start putting good things into your mind. It's easy to fill your mind with positive things using eBooks. No matter where you are or what you are doing, you can pull out your smart phone or tablet and start reading. You can even use electronic highlighters and make annotations in your eBooks just like paper books.