Working and exploring throughout Saudi Arabia has exposed my ignorance like no other place before. It has mountains! Coral reefs?! Tropical beaches!!! Extinct volcanos??? Wait, What!
A simple Google search would have opened my eyes to a land blessed with natural gems, sadly I was still caught up in thinking that the “natural gems” were that of fossil fuels and various gems to take from the ground. Honestly, the global stereotype of Saudi does hold water: it is dusty, arid, camels are everywhere, and petrol is cheaper than water (I’m not joking, with all the desalination plants, the energy/cost required to produce potable water makes it more expensive than petrol- WTF). While the land is ravaged by extreme temperature and weather systems, it still offers an experience like no other.
We had been working in an area called Jabal Shada. 4-hours south of Jeddah, Shada is a reserve that is quite popular for local tourists. Named after a granite monolith (Jabal/Mount Shada), the region is populated by a large quantity of baboons but we did come across caracal, foxes, Arabian wolf, and other small mammals on our cameras. The altitude difference between camera trap sites ranged radically and thus so did the temperature and terrain. Where one team had long flat wadi walks they were also ravaged by temperatures in excess of 40-degrees. However, just 10km away another team would be scrambling steep slopes hopping over boulders in temperatures in the mid-20s. It was silly. The fieldwork went well but with the stress of the dizzying 4×4 routes we had to do in the least suitable of vehicles (I will touch on this in the following blog) and general fatigue from our bodies still trying to acclimate to the radical temperatures and workload, we were able to take 4 days off near our next field site.
We left for Yanbu in convoy confidently, alas, in our attempt to drive on the other side of the road, accommodate Saudi Arabia’s creative drivers, read Arabic road signs, translate the Arabic number system on the go and our general uselessness, we lost each other soon afterwards! This was not the first time but it would be the longest drive. We would be going north past Jeddah, Mecca (something we needed to avoid!) and onwards to the coast where we would find an industrial and rather ugly city that was the port to some of the most exquisite coral reefs on earth. The fact that my little blog will probably become a reference for future travellers to the area is stark proof that so few people get to experience the beauty of Yanbu and Umlujj.
The reefs of Yanbu are saturated in bright colours. While the reef has been damaged by an unregulated tourism and fishing industry, the areas that we saw were full of life and Marine and I spent hours taking in the dazzling hues of the coral and creatures that live their busy little lives within the billions of little nooks and crannies. I’m unable to scuba dive because I’m epileptic, but I love to snorkel. Our team was able to rent a boat and guide (PADI certified) for the day. Along with that we easily rented snorkelling and scuba equipment and took the 30-minute boat ride out to the reef (yes, it’s far!). That being said, an hour was spent at the coast guard post for some reason while the police reviewed and then re-reviewed our permits and Visas. That’s one area that Saudi will have to streamline if they want tourism to grow! We arrived at one of the most popular sites, an ancient WWI shipwreck, and Marine and I launch ourselves into the crystal clear water. The first thing I noticed was the bath-like temperature of the sea. Coming from Cape Town where it takes courage and a 4mm wetsuit to go for a dip, the water was almost too warm! After adjusting to the water, we turned our attention to the coral. The hues were off the charts and life bloomed and boomed. While some of us dived deep and others stayed close to the surface we were able, for the first time, to take a full day off, returning sunburnt and happily exhausted after a truly superb day out at sea.
Observing the reefs made me realise how ALIVE our oceans can be! I have spent a lot of time at sea. Back in 2014, I sailed to South America from Cape Town during my KAPE 2 ATACAMA Expedition. That long voyage gave me, like climbing big mountains an “inferiority complex” of sorts, however while snorkelling around these delicate reefs it was quite the opposite. The fact that so many small creatures rely so heavily on this sensitive ecosystem is humbling in quite another way. Boating, overfishing, unthinking swimmers and the acidification of the oceans has very quickly brought on the collapse of the global coral reefs and while I floated amongst this unique band of life I felt how I, personally, have the ability to cause so much damage to something so vulnerable and unique. In short, it’s quite a realisation understanding your capasity to protect OR destroy.
For so many the ocean is abstract and that’s been a big problem for NGO’s trying to drum up support of the conservation of fish and the ocean environment. This detachment has lead to it simply being a place to exploit and where we mindlessly throw away our shit. But, it’s teeming with dynamism and beauty that needs to be protected.