Desert Camping

Saudi weather during the winter months affords the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and natural beauty of the Arabian Peninsula. With daytime temperatures in the low 70s (°F or 21-22°C) and nighttime temperatures in the mid 50s°F (12-13°C), and no prospect of rain, a group of us made a late-week decision to head out to the desert for a weekend of camping in the impressive dunes. In all, we were nine 4×4 vehicles, somewhere around 15-20 adults, and big ol’ mess of kids. Pretty certain it was all Aramcons except for me (I’ve been “adopted” by a great group of expats at Aramco with whom I visit and hang out with frequently).

This was my first Saudi “wilderness” camping experience, not at all like camping in the mountains of Colorado, or even the sandy Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Fortunately, you don’t have to venture far from Dhahran to get the full desert experience. We ended up choosing an erg (giant dune field) near Abqaiq, only about an hour drive from town. Well, it would have been only an hour had we not repeatedly gotten stuck in the sand on the way in. One rule of driving on desert sand is to reduce your tire pressure to substantially flatten the tire, and thereby increasing the footprint (surface area) of tire contact.

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The fleet stopping just off the road to reduce tire pressure for effective sand driving.

Driving on the sand is not unlike driving in the snow. Momentum is critical for stretches of soft sand and uphill climbs. Having traction control turned off is also important – 4-low can also be crucial but isn’t always necessary. I drove Clay’s silver ’91 Land Cruiser (perhaps because I can drive a stick) and that beast never got stuck. Others did, but it was great fun for the kids to push the vehicles, and it sometimes required engineering ingenuity to yank stuck vehicles out of soft sand up to their axles.

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Not the only time David got stuck. Just sayin’.

Clay’s magnificent beast. More detail if you click on the photos.

We camped in a flat “playa” (water table controlled) at the base of a 30-meter dune. You can see our shanty town in the lead photograph up above. I ended up not bothering to set up a tent and just slept on a borrowed cot under the stars (and near the campfire). The kids spent most of their time climbing up the slip face of the dune, and either sandboarding or sledding back down. The adults didn’t have that kind of energy and we passed the time by eating and drinking and “dune bashing.”

Dune bashing is a term that covers yahoo driving in 4x4s all over the dunes, including making plummets down the slip face of the large dunes. For the most part, this sport is safe, as long as you’re in the vehicle… Hanging perched on the rear bumper and clinging to the roof rack may not always be the best choice, as young Thomas can attest.

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John’s H2 about to descend the slip face at camp.

These activities went on well into the night, both before and after makeshift dinners that included grilling meats on the campfire. Some portion of every meal consisted of eating sand. In a bow to technology, we set up an outdoor movie theater for the kids, using a generator, projector, and large screen. I didn’t get a great picture of that, but you get the idea.

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Fire. Useful for cooking and warmth. Note the hubbly bubbly in the left rear.

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Yeah, kind of like an old timey drive-in movie. But in the desert. And not in cars.

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Late-night shenanigans high atop the dunes.

Needless to say, I had a blast. Well, we all had a blast. This crew made my first Saudi desert camping experience a ton of fun. And I think I brought back a ton of sand with me. Not on purpose, it’s just that sand is everwhar.

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