Jabal Sawda is a perfect campsite. The best way to enjoy your stay in this natural park is by pitching a tent in the woods and grilling barbecue alongside. Though aside from that, there are still a lot of ways one can enjoy this tropical paradise in Saudi Arabia such as nature walks, chasing baboons, paragliding, and a whole lot more.
Aside from the street sweeper who took my first photo of that day, the first group of people I saw atop Jabal Sawda was slaughtering a lamb in the woods. It was the first day of the Hajj holidays and slaughtering of lambs is part of this tradition.
Saudi Arabia is known for its vast Red Sea coastline, the desert, rock formations, beautiful mosques and compelling Islamic architecture. But anyone who has visited Jabal Sawda (Mount Souda) can easily debunk this misconception. There is more to Saudi Arabia than sand dunes and seaports. Who would have thought a vast greenery and verdant foliage lies along this mountainous southwestern region of the country.
To reach the summit of Jabal Sawda is the only reason why I went to the City of Abha. But I knew so well that there are no taxis or Uber operating in that region. The only public transportation I was told existing in the region was Careem, a ridesharing company similar to Uber. When I tried to book a ride on the app on my first day of my trip, there was no car available.
I knew from that moment that I would have to walk the slopey road to the summit. Jabal Sawda is 25 kilometers from the hotel I was staying. From Google Maps’ estimate, the distance would take 31 minutes by car or 5 hours and 16 minutes by foot. Without stops. If I had to reach the summer after sunrise, I had to start walking after midnight. Which is why I spent my first day navigating the city to gauge my stamina. I need to know how far I can go, and how long should I stop and rest to recover.
I was walking two to three kilometers at a time with very long breaks at the parks and wherever there were great spots to take photos. I was out on the streets from 5:30 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon. Which means reaching the summit was possible if I would take enough breaks to recover.
Fortunately, I did not have the need to take those rigorous walking. When I booked a ride at 7:18 AM, my Careem Captain was just a minute away. The roads connecting the downtown to Jabal Sawda were paved solid but everything else was covered with thick juniper forest. Our designated destination was Souda National Park, as pointed on the app and the Google Map. That point turned out to be a large parking lot in front of what seemed like a theme park. It was still closed and I had no idea what time it will open but according to a friend, most public facilities in Saudi Arabia usually opens after the noontime prayer, Zhuhr.
I stayed in that area to get a glimpse of the sights from that elevation. I was checking several yellow-flowering shrubs scattered everywhere when a street sweeper came out from nowhere. I asked to have my photo taken which the man gladly obliged.
A few meters from me stood an interestingly black camel. From what I’ve seen around Saudi Arabia, by the way, camels only have a single hump on their backs. As I approached it to take a photo, I noticed a makeshift barrack, a few other camels, and a horse behind the trees. Apparently, someone was herding camels in that area.
I took out my phone to check Google map to find out which direction I was supposed to go to see the Sarawat mountain range. Technically, I was already on it but I’d like to see the rest of the mountains in the region. Google Map was suggesting a long route following the paved road but as I estimated, I could just go west into the woods.
Google could be your only friend when traveling alone. However, you have to use some common sense. A typical 30-minute route Google suggests you can take in less than ten minutes. And we’re not talking about driving and walking routes here, it’s all about walking.
I needed to cross an island between the opposing roads and when I did, I found a patch of flowering grass which I took as an opportunity to photograph my two Stormtrooper companions.
There were signs of campfires from the previous nights in the woods (and unfortunately, a few non-biodegradable trash too) which made me a bit disappointed that I was not able to convince my travel buddies to join me. They all thought Abha is too far. Which is also true. It took me more than eight hours traveling by bus from Jeddah to Abha, but I must say the lengthy travel time was all worth it. Abha is a welcome change from the 40-degree Centigrade heat of Jeddah, and the vast greenery is just as magnificent.
On the brighter side, I suppose I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy all the long walks I did downtown had I had companions with me. I was walking two to three kilometers at a time exploring the downtown.
Moving on, I finally reached a good spot among the boulders on the mountain ridge. From that spot, I could clearly see several other inter-lapping mountains as well as the village down below. I wasn’t sure though whether it was the Habala village often mentioned on several other internet pages. I didn’t find the urge to go down there, and I’m fine, thank you!
On the other hand, I found the urge to call my kids in the Philippines. A bit weird but we had a blast laughing at our newly discovered facial mask features on Facebook Messenger. It was a few minutes before 9:00 AM and while I failed to notice the changing environment around me, a thick fog started gushing to my direction at around 10:30 AM.
Clouds completely covered the mountain tops and I realized I needed to move and find cover. There was a tree with wide branches and thick leaves to my right, a good candidate for a shelter in case of a rain. There had been, in fact, several forecasts of rain the whole weekend.
At that moment, several iguanas started coming out from everywhere. Perhaps they were sensing an impending rain, too.
I sensed the need to do number two so I was planning to head out to the cable car station. It’s one of the few attraction at the national park so it’s safe to assume that all the other facilities would be present there –
restaurants, toilets, everything else. I checked Google Maps again and noted that it would take another 30 minutes to reach the area. The need for number two was not that urgent anyway. Only if I would have to have lunch, I need to heed nature’s call first, else, disaster was imminent.
As I was heading out, there was loud cheering coming from behind. When I looked back, a paraglider jumped out from a distant elevation into the direction of the village down below. It happened too fast that I only managed to take a short video with my phone before the man finally disappeared into the fog.
I saw a better spot to view the landscape and went ahead, completely forgetting my previous non-emergency. The paraglider made we want to see more action in the area.
Along the way, I noticed a pitched tent in the woods. As I went past it, I was surprised to see a couple enjoying the view so I quickly turned back. In Saudi Arabia, mingling with a couple is strongly discouraged. Good or bad, the man already noticed me and hollered for me to come back as they were about to leave anyway. The man probably realized my intent to be on that spot but had to leave because I saw them. Which is what really happened.
As they were heading back to their tent, I gathered all my courage and asked the man to take my photos. I wasn’t really surprised when he agreed. It was a good man I was dealing with, probably in his late twenties and just recently got married. He took a few shots, tilting my phone to get different angles. When I told him that was enough, he asked me to change locations and continued to take more photos. I sported my Stormtrooper helmet and, voila!
Should you be reading this, thank you for taking the photos. It definitely looked better than all the selfies I took on top of the mountain that day. Shukran! Jazak Allahu Khayran!
A few minutes more and I really needed to leave. Not because there were further signs of impending rain, but I really needed a toilet break. The call for number two is getting stronger. Not that urgent, but should I later need to have lunch, number two should be prioritized. I think I should aptly title this post, “Jabal Sawda and the eternal search for a clean toilet.”
As I ventured out of the woods, I met with a group of men gathered on a picnic mat. I introduced myself and did all the introductory essentials (except the cheeking) and asked if they knew where I could find the baboons. None of them knew what a baboon is so I invoked the help of Google Translate. They told me they’re just on a road trip from Riyadh and apologized for they, too, didn’t know any better about the place. One of the chattier guys asked if I could have their photos taken. To which I gladly obliged. In return, I asked to take a selfie with them. I could have worn my helmet for the photo opp but a part of me was saying I shouldn’t. I didn’t.
We exchanged Instagram accounts so I could send the photos to them later.
I went back to tracking the direction of the cable car. I wasn’t sure if there’ll be one, but being the attraction that requires both labor work and machinery, having all the facilities every tourist needs (restaurants, toilets, et. al.) is just necessary.
About ten minutes into my walking, I noticed men making noises and throwing stones into the woods. They were driving away the baboons. As I’m preparing my camera, three more baboons came running to the spot carrying flatbreads which they could have managed to steal from one of the tents nearby. I got excited and started taking photos of the baboons but my camera could not take cleared photos from that distance. As I was about to follow the baboons, one of the men told me it would be dangerous. I wouldn’t care but as I looked back at the spot, the baboons were gone. I went further to the spot but I could no longer find a trace so I gave up.
Fun Fact about Hamadryas Baboons:
The hamadryas baboon is a species of baboon from the Old World monkey family. It is the northernmost of all the baboons, being native to the Horn of Africa and the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. These regions provide habitats with the advantage for this species of fewer natural predators than central or southern Africa where other baboons reside. The hamadryas baboon was a sacred animal to the ancient Egyptians and appears in various roles in ancient Egyptian religion, hence its alternative name of ‘sacred baboon’.
Apart from the striking sexual dimorphism (males are often twice as large as females, which is common to all baboons) this species also shows sexual dichromatism. The fur of males is silver-white in color and they have a pronounced cape (mane and mantle) which they develop around the age of ten, while the females are capeless and brown. Their faces range in color from red to tan to a dark brown.Wikipedia
I went back to following the paved road which intersected with the highway. One of the main roads leads toward the cable car station, the other back to the downtown. Near the intersection was a mosque and a building housing a traditional market. I went inside to have a look but didn’t find anything I would want to buy. Also, there wasn’t a toilet. A guy I asked pointed me to a mosque but I was afraid the facility was only intended for those who need to clean themselves for ablution.
I went ahead to the direction of the cable car station. There were several makeshift food stalls along the road but I didn’t find anything I wanted to eat. I wanted to eat a complete rice meal.
A few minutes towards that direction and I finally found my refuge. Surrounded by a few scattered trees was a cemented structure, a public toilet. As I was heading towards the male entrance, I was greeted by three men who warned me that the toilet was flooded. Indeed it was but there were two loose bricks at the entrance. Someone may have used and left them there to go to one of the cubicles. I used the same and, to my surprise, the toilet was clean and there was running water. I was finally able to heed the call of nature.
If you’re venturing on a trip in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere, always have with you your toiletries, hand soap included. No further explanations required.
September 2, 2017. This is day 2 of my three-day trip to Abha, Asir Province, Saudi Arabia. To be continued…