THE OVERLAND UNIVERSITY LIKE NO OTHER

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EXPLORING THE PILGRIM ROAD TO MECCA - BIRQATS - WELLS - LAVA - GRANITE - SANDSTORMS

More than a thousand years ago, Queen Zubaidah from Iraq built an eighteen meter wide pilgrim road from Baghdad to Mecca. The road was called the Darb Zubaidah, and millions of pilgrims walked this road on their journey to perform Hajj in the holy city of Mecca.

The trip to Mecca was arduous and fraught with danger. Pilgrims died of thirst and encountered hostile tribes during their overland trek. They paid tribute to tribes along the way in return for safe passage and fodder for their animals. It wasn't a journey for the faint of heart. Lucky pilgrims traveled in the company of military escorts, but for most it was a solitary adventure. You were on your own. There weren't any tour companies to guarantee a safe trip. We decided to follow the Darb Zubaidah from the Iraqi border to Mecca. We calculated the distance and felt we could complete the trip in a week in our Land Rover Defender 110 expeditionary vehicles. We carried enough fuel and water for the entire trip. Our Defender carried 430 liters of fuel in long range fuel tanks and thirteen jerry cans. We had two hundred liters of water and enough food to last for weeks.

A trip of this nature requires at least two capable off-road vehicles to provide back up in the event of mechanical failure. I carried spare parts worth several thousand dollars - starter, water pump, belts, electronic spares, and lots of little bits and pieces.

Land Rover Defender

After leaving Riyadh, we spent a day driving up to the Iraqi border close to the town of Rafha. We headed off-road just north of Rafha being careful to not cross over the border into Iraq.

Driving the Darb Zubaidah presents significant challenges, not the least of which is the fact that there are no maps that show the exact route. We had a general idea of the location of the Darb, and we had some waypoints of dubious accuracy for a few stops along the way. A publication from the Antiquities museum revealed important details about the Darb. We read about the pilgrim stations and birqats along the way. What we did not know was their exact location.

Part of the adventure was using our navigational skills and common sense to follow the Darb. This was a make it up as you go exploration of the pilgrim route. It was an expedition worthy of the name. We didn't know exactly where we were going, and we didn't know what we were going to find, but we knew it would be a great adventure.

Even though we didn't know the route, we had one major factor in our favor. Pilgrims on the Darb Zubaidah could only survive by following the water trail. Most of them traveled on foot, and they had to reach a source of water every couple of days, or they would die. That meant that if we followed the wadis (dried up river beds), and found the low lying area along the route, we would also discover the shallow wells and birqats that supplied water to the pilgrims.

The Saudi department of antiquities placed blue signs intermittently along the route, and we often stood on our roof rack searching for blue signs with our binoculars. When we lost our way, the blue signs got us back on track. On lucky days, we actually drove down the eighteen meter wide Darb. It was awesome to actually drive on the same track that millions of pilgrims used for more than a thousand years.

Part of the fun of this type of expedition is solving the navigational problems associated with the journey. Most of the time, we followed desert tracks or navigated cross country going from birqat to birqat. Just because you don't know the location of the next pilgrim station or birqat doesn't mean you are lost. It simply means you must use your common sense and look at the lay of the land to figure out how to proceed in order to discover the next birqat.

Land Rover Defender

Our first campsite north of Rafha was close to the Iraqi border. The windblown plain didn't offer much cover, and we tucked in behind a bush to get shelter. Finding a place to camp in flat terrain is always a challenge. When there aren't any hills or dunes behind which you can pitch your tent, the best you can do is tuck in behind a large bush. Usually we drive cross country for a couple of miles to get away from major highways and heavily traveled Bedouin tracks. Bedouins are not particularly interested in who we are or what we are doing, and they would never visit our camp after dark. City folks are an entirely different matter. We move far away from major highways so city folks with bad manners don't pay a visit during the night.

In ten years of camping in the Saudi desert, I have never had an intrusive visit by anyone to our campsites. I always felt safe in the desert, and I have been treated with courtesy and respect in all of my encounter with Bedouins.

Land Rover Defender

Every so often, the call of nature compels a rest stop when driving off road. We navigate away from the desert track and find a bush or small hill to take care of necessities. When nothing else is available, we position our vehicle so we can take of business in a way that maintains privacy and public decorum.

On this particular trip, the call of nature dictated a stop near a large convenient mound of dirt. Donna got out of the Defender 110, and headed for the far side of the mound in search of privacy. I glanced toward her making sure that everything was in order, and I noticed a cobra about four feet from where she was walking. Using the loo in the presence of a cobra places you in a disadvantaged position and is generally a bad idea. The call of nature was temporarily suspended as I chased the cobra across the rough desert terrain. The cobra didn't want to engage us in an aggressive manner, and it quickly slithered away as I chased it with my camera. Within fifty feet, it disappeared down a hole into a cobra condominium. The only thing visible in the hole was the cobra's dark eyes peering cautiously at me. I showed the pictures of the cobra to a colleague familiar with Arabian snakes, and he said it was a back-fanged Arabian cobra.

On two separate occasions, I have discovered snakes when answering the call of nature. In the second instance, the snake was a pit viper.

The moral of the story is clear. When mother nature calls, keep an eye out for snakes. Although they may not be aggressive by nature and present little threat if left undisturbed, stepping on them could be a fatal mistake.

Land Rover Defender

Locating the Darb wasn't that hard, but it wasn't easy either.

Most of the time, we weren't one-hundred percent sure that we were actually on the Baghdad-Mecca road. Blue signs from the antiquities department, reconstructed birqats, and eighteen meter wide roads lined by rocks, confirmed we were on the right track. When none of those things were present, we knew we were in the vicinity of the Darb, but we might a few miles to one side or the other of the actual track.

The cardinal navigational rule on this type of a trip is that if you are lost, you always navigate to a line. In this case, the Darb Zubaidah was primarily a north/south line. If you lost the Darb, it could be either to the east or to the west of your location. The most sensible action to take is to travel on an east/west line until you cross the Darb. Keep your eyes peeled for blue signs, birqats, and wells, and soon you will be back on the path of expeditionary glory.

Our first stop on the Darb was a low lying plain pock-marked by wells. It looked like a moonscape with dozens of small craters. This would be paradise for a thirsty pilgrim. They could set up camp among the wells, and drink water to their heart's content. That many wells should cheer the heart of any pilgrim.

In this field of wells, the water table comes close to the surface as evidenced by the patches of green grass scattered near the wells. Most wells had visible water six to eight feet below the lip of the well.

Land Rover Defender

Red and Green Defenders stopped in the lowlands to examine the size of the wells. They were quite small, not more than six feet across, and shallow. They were the size of a wishing well that you might have in your backyard. Some of the wells were covered with sheet metal to keep animals from falling inside, and to keep the wells from filling up with blowing sand. Wells require maintenance in this section of the world. If you don't clean them out periodically, they will fill up with sand and go dry when the sand level rises higher than the water table.

Land Rover Defender

Wells along the Darb Zubaidah vary greatly in size and depth.

When engineers construct a well, the first task is to dig straight down in the soil until they hit solid rock.

Next, they line the top section of the well with stone to stabilize the earth on the top part of the well. This prevents the soil in the walls from collapsing into the wells and minimizes erosion of the sides.

Once they reach solid rock, they get out their metal tools, and hew their way through rock until they reach the water table. I don't know the types of tools used in the excavation, but they had to have been metal. Some of these wells went fifty feet straight down into solid rock.

Nearly all wells display masonry around the top extending down for a variable distance. Sometimes the masonry goes down for only a few feet, and in other large wells, the masonry may go down more than fifty feet. Once a well hits solid rock, masonry no longer is necessary to stabilize the walls.

LAND ROVER DEFENDER

The dhub is an ubiquitous creature in Saudi Arabia. These flat-bellied lizards live in holes in the ground, and they know how take care of themselves. This dhub on the Darb seems to be living long and prospering. But that is not the case everywhere. The dhub is endangered in certain sections of Arabia. I once saw a truck carrying three dead dhub lizards that they proudly held up for us to see. They had bullet holes in them, and I was disappointed to see them taken for sport.

I asked how they were able to capture/kill the drubs. They said there was two main methods. One was to take a large volume of water and pour it down the dhub's hole to force him out, and then shoot him. The other was to attach a hose to the exhaust of your vehicle, and run the hose into the dhub's hole, and force him out with exhaust fumes. When he comes out, you shoot him. It doesn't seem like a very sportsman-like thing to do. I could maybe understand doing it to feed your children if your family was starving. But killing drubs for sport doesn't fly for me. I believe in the sacredness of life. You never kill living things unless you have an extremely compelling reason to do so. Drubs don't bother anyone, and they don't carry disease. They don't cause pollution or create greenhouse gasses. I don't see any reason for dhubicide.

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Queen Zubaidah constructed water reservoirs all along the road to Mecca. The Arabic word for these reservoirs is birqat, and there are dozens of them along the route. Some are in a state of disrepair from 1000 years of use and neglect. Others have been modernized with concrete and variable amounts of masonry.

Birqats fill up with water during the rainy season, and hold water for many months. Most birqats have steps that lead down to the water so that pilgrims can easily draw enough water to supply their daily needs. In unrestored birqats, the remnants of rock walls suffer the ravages to time. Turrets at the corner are unique to this birqat. Perhaps they are watch towers used in the defense of the people using the water. Maybe they put lifeguards in the turrets to make sure nobody drowned in the water.

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Completely restored birqats are still in use today. Bedouins converge on them to fill their water trucks. When the birqats dry up, the Bedouins get their water from other sources, usually government wells in nearby towns. Water level in the birqats fluctuate with the seasons and the state of the water table.

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The Mercedes Benz water truck is the modern camel of the Arabian Desert. Tens of thousands of them are scattered in all regions of Saudi Arabia, and the advanced age of the truck is monumental proof of the toughness of these vehicles. They are the Timex watches of the desert. They take a licking and keep on ticking. Fully loaded water trucks drive hundreds of miles into the desert, and frequently traverse fields of sand dunes.

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If a Bedouin is wealthy enough, he may actually hire a Sudanese laborer to transport water to his camp in the desert. Small gasoline engines drive water pumps that move water from the birqat into the truck. Moving water isn't all work and no play, because when you prime the water pump, you get sprayed with water which gives you an excellent opportunity to cool off in the hot desert. That's about the closest thing to a shower that many people ever get.

It's not uncommon to encounter shepherds from Sudan and Pakistan in the desert. Bedouins bring them to Arabia on a two year contract, and the expatriate shepherds are responsible for caring for the sheep and camels in the desert. Whenever we spot a lonely shepherd in a remote location, we drive up to him and give him an ice cold soft drink and some apples and oranges to brighten his otherwise solitary existence.

Land Rover Defender

Blue signs are a great help as you drive down the Darb. They warn you to stay away from protected antiquities which keeps you out of trouble, and at the same time, they confirm that you are actually following the Darb south to Mecca.

Pilgrims 1200 years ago didn't have the option of following blue signs that popped up every couple of days. Instead, they followed the eighteen meter road from well to well and birqat to birqat. Today, the sands of time have covered most of the road, and it's hard to tell if you actually are on the darb.

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Shortly after setting out on the second day, we discovered an Arabian style apiary hidden in an area of bushy scrub. Beehives were lined up on a rail that elevated them off the ground. Lots of bees buzzed around us in search of nectar. Unfortunately, the nectar was in short supply.

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The bedouin solution to the nectar deficiency is to make a "nectar bucket." They filled a large plastic bucket with sugar water as a substitute for nectar. Then they placed broken pieces of styrofoam in the bucket. The floating styrofoam became a platform on which the bees could land, and from which they could suck up the sugar nectar and take it back to the hive. A nice piece of improvisation in austere conditions.

I suspect that the bee keeper did not read English. The writing on the side of the bucket reveals that it had formerly been used to hold toxic chemicals that were poisonous. The skull and cross bones bear testament to the former toxic contents. It makes you wonder if you really want to eat bedouin honey. I wonder what flavor might have leached out of the bucket into the sugar water. I guess if it did not kill bees, it would not kill humans.

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Pilgrims did not have a GPS, compass or map to guide them down the Darb Zubaidah. They relied on God, guts, and eyeball navigation to arrive at their destination. But that doesn't mean they were without navigational aids. At critical places along the desert track they piled rocks to create cairns that could be seen from a great distance off. When you are tired, scared, and lost, a pile of rocks sends a powerful positive message of hope and assures the pilgrims that they are heading in the right direction.

The daily navigation exercise started with the rising sun. The would start the day walking to the south with the sun rising to the left, By noontime, the sun would likely be to the south, and you walked toward the sun. In the afternoon. you walked to the south keeping the sun to your right. All day long, you looked for cairns to pop up on the horizon to confirm that you are on the straight and narrow road to Mecca.

Even today when we navigate in the desert, we record the locations of any cairns that we encounter as they make excellent points of reference for future journeys. Cairns are cheap to construct and when placed in a prominent location, they serve their purpose well.

It doesn't take long when driving in the desert to discover that bedouins mark locations and boundaries with stacked stones and cairns. I remember the first time I encountered a bedouin stop/caution sign while driving off-road in Arabia. Right in the middle of the trace where rows of stones and rocks warning me to slow down, because beyond those rocks was a cliff, and if I was driving to fast, I might drive right off into thin air.

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Birqats eventually run out of water during the summer heat. The Mercedes truck picks up a few gallons of water and not much more. Dry season is setting in, there won't be water in the birqat until rains come again. That is one long hose reaching far out into the birqat.

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Bedouins like Toyota pickup trucks and Mercedes Benz water trucks. The pickup trucks do a great job of transporting family and an occasional camel or sheep. Pickup trucks are for the light lifting.

Mercedes water trucks serve a dual purpose. They are both for water and for serious trekking. When it's time to move camp to a new location, the Bedouins load their tents and personal belongings onto top of the truck. They can move an entire camp in single trip if they pile their stuff high enough.

As the seasons change, Bedouins move to new areas where there is better grazing for their sheep and camels. In ancient times, they loaded everything on the backs of camels to transport it to their new location. Now they load their possessions on the back of their water truck, and the camels follow along.

Camels know their water trucks well, and they will follow their water truck anywhere.

On many occasions in deep desert, we had a herd of camels chase after our Land Rover Defenders, because they thought we might be bringing them water. Sometimes they followed us for miles before they gave up and waited for their own water truck.

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The department of antiquities did not restore all the birqats along the Darb. Restoration is expensive and takes time. When restoration is complete, you have to periodically clean them out so they don't fill up with sand once again.

This birqat is in a poor state of repair. Nevertheless, it still holds water, and there is a bedouin camp to the north in close proximity to the water. This real estate may not be Miami beach, and the water isn't turquoise, but any water is beautiful when you are in the desert. For a Bedouin with large herds, this is a great place to put up your tent and drive in your rebar tent stakes. This is truly a bedouin camp with a view.

The rich green grass around the birqat will feed many sheep and camels. The low lying land surrounding the birqat is close to the water table, and the grass remains green far longer here than it does in the desert a few miles away. The livestock will have many months to enjoy the grass in this prime Bedouin real estate.

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Birqats get their water in different ways. Some are fed by wadis during flash floods, and others receive the run off from the adjacent countryside. The circular birqat itself sits at the lowest point in the surrounding terrain. In the foreground you can see the arms of a collecting structure that funnels water into the birqat proper. Sand fills the birqat so that it appears rather shallow, but if you removed the sand, you would discover that the birqat is quite deep. Some of the birqats are more than fifteen to twenty feet deep.

Lots of engineering and surveying went in to the construction of the Darb Zubaidah. It wouldn't make sense to build a pilgrim highway if there was no water for the pilgrims to drink. The Darb had to have drinking water spaced at intervals that made it possible for pilgrims to survive on foot. The builders had to survey thousands of kilometers of land to identify low points where it made sense to construct a birqat. They had to identify areas with significant water run off, zones subject to flooding, and depressions capable of creating long term water storage. They also needed rock to construct birqats and pilgrim stations.

Lives were at stake, and a pilgrim road without water meant that many people would needlessly die. You don't want to construct birqats that don't fill up with water in wet season.

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The antiquities department reconstructed and protect many of the birqats along the Darb Zubaidah. Because of their efforts, future generations will be able to appreciate the craftsmanship of the builders of the Darb. They will understand what it meant for a pilgrim to walk thousands of kilometers through the harsh desert to perform Hajj in Mecca.

The government placed iron railings around the perimeter of the birqats to prevent livestock from wandering into the water holes and to keep people from damaging the birqats by driving their off-road vehicles inside the dried up birqats when rainy season was over. Damaged birqats are far off the beaten track, and sending repair crews to fix vandalism and thoughtless damage is a major undertaking. People who damage and misuse the birqats are destroying important Middle Eastern history.

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Every now and then, you discover something in deep desert that simply does not belong there. It looks like something was dropped out of a space ship in the middle of the desert, This structure qualifies as one of those mysteries right out of X-files.

Hundreds of kilometers off-road in the desert along the Darb Zubaidah is the body of a beer truck sporting blue tarps on its sides. The inscriptions on the body show that at one time this structure transported and dispensed Wickuler Pilsener beer from Germany. It is highly unlikely that any pilgrims ever drank a drop of Pilsener. It is equally unlikely that Pilsener beer has ever been in this area, since alcohol is forbidden inside the borders of Saudi Arabia.

How this structure arrived in the desert, and why it is there remains a mystery. From the looks of it, I suspect that at sometime in the past, it served as a temporary shelter or a less than permanent home. In the background to the left is a chassis and cab completely stripped down to the frame. I suspect that someone drove this truck to it's final resting place in the desert and abandoned it there. Eventually, people stripped the truck frame and body of all useful parts, and all that is left is the "bones". Nothing is wasted in the desert.

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When a birqat is left to it's own devices, it gradually fills with sand. If you don't clean out the sand and maintain the walls, it's not long before it disappears below the sandy desert floor, to perhaps be rediscovered a thousand years in the future. Sand storms can dump lots of sand in a birqat in a very short time.

We searched for this birqat for a long time before we found it. The Birqat was difficult to locate because there was no track leading to it, and it was filled with sand. We simply drove around the countryside in a low lying area until we found it.

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The mother of all birqats is in the sand dunes on the edge of the Great Nafud. It was a major source of water for pilgrims preparing to hike across the dunes. The structure was easily 20 feet deep and the size of a small stadium. If the pilgrims didn't find water in this birqat, they could at least go down inside and use it for a soccer field.

You can get an idea of the immensity of this structure by comparing it to our size as we sit on it's edge. This picture has been cropped to show only one end of the birqat.

When this birqat was full, it would have made an unforgettable swimming hole smack dab in the middle of the dunes. How awesome is that!

Land Rover Defender

This is your first clear view of the eighteen meter wide Darb Zubaidah. The Red Defender is driving on the Darb heading to the south. On the right side of the picture, piled up rocks demarcate the western edge of the Darb. Eighteen meters to the east, the piled rocks delineate the eastern edge of the Darb.

After seeing the width of the Darb Zubaidah, you can begin to understand the importance of this road. You don't need an eighteen meter wide road to Mecca if there are just ten or twenty people passing by at a time. For that you would need a Darb that was three meters wide. But such is not the case.

They built the road eighteen meters wide to accommodate the thousands of people that traveled in company on the way to Mecca. There is greater security in numbers, and historical records indicate that some bands of pilgrims with their camels traveled in groups exceeding 100,000 individuals. You need a big road to move that many people.

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Today, the Darb Zubaidah passes near several small villages. These remote villages are a mixture of the old and new. In the background, on the far side of the wall, houses constructed of concrete blocks. In the middle ground, a water tank is constructed of concrete blocks and plastered on the inside to hold water. In the foreground is an old fashioned tank and storage structure constructed of mud, straw, and stones.

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Old forts with large wooden doors testify to a rough and tumble existence in this ancient world. When invaders came to attack this village, people gathered inside the fort and closed the giant door. Close inspection reveals the presence of a tiny door within the larger door. This tiny door is just large enough to pass one adult person at a time. If hostile tribes attacked your village, they could only get through the door one person at a time, which was a bad idea. On the other side of the tiny door stand individuals armed with spears, arrows, swords, and knives ready to dispatch you to paradise. It's a good idea to stay away from small doors when there are lots of well-armed angry young men inside.

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The desert is not kind to traditional dwellings constructed of mud, straw and stone. Without proper maintenance, these structures gradually is erode and dissolve into the countryside. The simple construction of this house is the same as that used a thousand years ago. Mud, straw, and stone create walls, and tree limbs create the roof beams that they cover with palm fronds and plaster with mud.

Such a structure requires continual maintenance to endure. Although it doesn't rain often, when it does rain, the mud mortar washes away and the roof and walls begin to dissolve and disintegrate. If you don't patch things up after heavy rains, it won't be long before you will be living in the great outdoors. The walls become a pile of rubble and the roofs collapse to the ground.

The pilgrim stations along the Darb Zubaidah are now a pile of rubble. All that remains is their foundations after the mud mortar washed away and the straw blew away in the wind.

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Bedouins don't like to spend time digging sand out of wells. The simplest way to prevent a well from filling up is to cover it over with anything at hand that is free. Parts of wrecked trucks serve this purpose well. Simply drag the bed of the wrecked pick up truck over the opening of the well.

Covers serve other purposes. It prevents people from falling into wells at night, and it prevents you from driving your car into the well when you navigate across the desert in the darkness. Covers also prevent thirsty animals from falling into wells. Most people shy away from drinking well water when there is a dead sheep floating in the bottom of the well.

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Did you ever wonder where MacDonald's restaurants got their idea for their golden arches?

Wonder no more. In the sand dunes of the Darb Zubaidah, the golden arches have been attracting pilgrims for more than a thousand years. Off in the distance, the pilgrims saw the arches, and they knew that before long, there would be plenty of water to quench their thirst, and sheep burgers would soon be on the grill. Life is good.

This huge birqat is filled with sand, but you can imagine how a thousand years ago hungry travelers rejoiced when they saw the golden arches of the Darb Zubaidah.

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The golden arches have withstood the test of time. I wonder how much longer they will last.

The southern arch frames our Defenders before we resume our expedition south on the Darb Zubaidah.

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Restoring birqats to their former glory is expensive and labor intensive. First you remove all the accumulated sand down to the underlying stone. Next, you restore the sides using flat rocks and mortar. Finally, you plaster the interior with concrete so that it will hold water.

Sand is the perpetual enemy of birqats. Pilgrims must have spent thousands of hours removing sand from birqats during dry the season.

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A level plain is potentially dangerous when there are wells and sink holes around.. Drivers who don't pay attention to their driving sometimes drive their trucks into a well. Whole cars are sometimes swallowed up by a well or sinkhole.

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Land Rover Defender

This is what happens when you drive a Toyota Land Cruiser down a well.

You can see how easy it would be to drive your vehicle into a well in the dark of night. Sleep walking is hazardous when camped around wells like these.

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Digging a well is easy until you reach bedrock. After you reach bedrock, you must chisel your way down until you reach the water table.

The upper part of the well is lined with rocks and mortar to maintain the integrity of the walls. If you don't line the upper part of the wells with rocks, it won't be long before the dirt walls collapse and fill up the well. Instead of digging a well, you create a sink hole without any water.

The lower half of the well does not require reinforcement because it passes through solid rock.

A properly constructed well should function for hundreds of years with minimal maintenance. If you keep it covered so sand does not fill it up, you won't have to spend lots of time cleaning it out. As long as the water table doesn't drop, you will have water for many generations.

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Some wells are embellished with a trough for watering animals. Draw water from the well and pour it into the plastered water trough so your sheep and camels can have a drink.

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In this same field of small wells, we discovered a giant well. You could put twenty Land Cruisers in this well, and still it would not be full.

Our shadows on the side of the well give a good perspective on the true size of this well. I estimate the well to be at least thirty feet across and fifty feet deep. Getting water from this well involves a lot of work. Pulling water up such a long distance is a great work out. By the time you filled up your water skins, and watered your flocks and camels, you would be ready for a big drink.

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Near the bottom of the giant well, there is a door with an arch and steps suggesting there used to be a tunnel that allowed you to get down close to the water's edge to draw water. Even if there was a tunnel, it would still be a long walk to the top with a pottery jar full of water. Anyway you look at it, getting water from this well is lots of work.

On the other hand, thirsty pilgrims would do almost anything for a drink of cool clear water.

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When Darb engineers searched for possible locations in which to construct birqats, they probably looked for green patches like these. A green patch in a sea of brown sand meant that water collected there. How much water collected would depend on the geology of surrounding terrain. Deciding where to construct a birqat probably isn't rocket science. If you find a green patch in a brown desert, you have discovered a good candidate.

Most of the birqats consist of only one reservoir. This structure is unique in that there are two reservoirs at a single location. A substantial wall separates the two pools. I suspect that at certain times of year, two pools are better than one. The larger pool serves as an overflow after the smaller one fills up. There would be much less evaporation from a small deep pool than a large shallow pool.

In a very wet year, both pools would fill up. In a drier year, only the small pool might be in use.

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A closer view of the smaller pool reveals where water flows into the far end of the pool on the left.

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Water enters the birqat flowing down these steps into the smaller pool.

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Two walls fanning out from the steps direct surface water into the smaller pool.

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Although this birqat his been restored, sand quickly fills in the reservoir transforming it into a sand storage facility rather than a water storage structure.

People who live in areas with heavy snowfall in the winter time often purchase snow blowers to clean their driveways and sidewalks. It would be a good idea for someone to develop a sand blower to blow the sand out of the birqats. Anything would be easier than removing it one shovel full at a time.

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Two masonry structures create arms that direct the watershed directly into the birqat.

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When you don't periodically clean the sand out of a well, soon you don't have a well any longer. All that remains is the stones at the top showing the well's location. The green grass suggests that water isn't far beneath the surface. If I was in the desert dying of thirst, it wouldn't take long for me to get out my shovel and start digging.

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When rain falls in the desert, grass springs up in just a few days. When the rain stops, the grass turns brown nearly as fast.

Traveling in the desert after the rains is a special treat. Large expanses of desert sport a greenish mantle as grass emerges from the sandy soil. Although the desert appears parched and dead, the seeds of flowers and grass all hide below the surface ready to spring to life. You would never believe the seeds are there until you see the desert bloom with your own eyes.

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The Department of Antiquities has done an excellent job of restoring and protecting the birqats and archeological sites along the Darb. I congratulate them on their outstanding efforts on a job well done. It's easy to enjoy a trip down the Darb Zubaidah while remaining clear of archeological sites.

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In spite of the signs, not every respects the archeological sites along the Darb. Some people actually drive their vehicles down into the birqats. I can't imagine why anyone would want to drive in a birqat or damage it by driving on its fragile restored surface.

I was disappointed to see the tire tracks in this birqat. During our week long expedition, we never observed anyone showing disrespect toward the birqats or areas in which there were antiquities.

In our entire trip along the Darb, the only other people we met were Bedouins who lived in close proximity to the birqats. Not many people travel on the Darb. There are no services, and if you break down without any back up, you may die of thirst.

Land Rover Defender

The best places to see the eighteen meter wide Darb is on sandy plains and in lava fields. In those types of terrain, rocks that are piled on either side of the Darb are proof positive that you are traveling on the pilgrim road. As you walk inside those piled up rocks, you are on the royal road to Mecca.

LAND ROVER DEFENDER

This blue sign identifies the location of an old mound that probably contains antiquities. We took a picture of the sign, and quickly departed the area. Traveling the Darb is a privilege granted to few, and those who travel must abide by the rules. When you travel on the Darb, you tread lightly and do not disturb antiquities.

Land Rover Defender

Rocks and mortar line the bottom of this birqat. Rain water comes down the collecting channel to the right and runs into the birqat. Most birqats are covered with sand, and so you rarely see its bottom.

Land Rover Defender

The magnitude of this birqat and collecting channels are apparent when you compare them to the size of the two Defender Land Rover 110s parked on the eastern edge of the birqat.

Land Rover Defender

A pile of rubble is all that remains of a pilgrim station on the edge of the sand dunes. Rocks formed the foundations of buildings more than 1000 years old. Since nobody was present to maintain the integrity of the mud, straw, and rock structures, the buildings eventually melted away during rainy season until nothing was left.

LAND ROVER DEFENDER

This is not a pilgrim station, and it's not a Bedouin's tent. Structures such as these usually house camel and sheep herders from Sudan, Pakistan, Eritrea, and Bangladesh. I have never seen Saudis live in cobbled together shelters like this.

It may not be much, but it protects you from the cold and wind at night, and gives you privacy as well. The satellite dish adjacent to the tent seems out of place, and the only way for it to function is to have a portable generator stashed away inside the tent. If you passed by at night, you might see a camel herder watching movies on satellite television.

LAND ROVER DEFENDER

I suspect that these rocks form the foundation of a building rather than the walls of a birqat. The foundation is on higher ground than the surrounding countryside, and I see no easy way to fill the structure with water if it was a birqat.

In most instances, buildings reside on high ground for good visibility and security, and birqats are found in shallow depressions on flat, low-lying plains to make it easy to collect water.

Just a few meters away from this structure, several wells served the needs of generations of pilgrims. Close examination of the wells reveals the thousand year old finger prints of those who traveled the Darb.

LAND ROVER DEFENDER

Engineers worked overtime in constructing this well. It must have been an exceedingly important well to the pilgrims in this section of the Darb. A large elevated rim constructed of flat rocks and masonry creates a stable platform on which you can stand as you draw water from the well.

Land Rover Defender

As you look down into the well, you see grooves worn in the rock where a millennium of ropes chafed against the stone walls.

Land Rover Defender

Pilgrims drew water from these wells for more than a thousand years. The grooves in the rocks testify to the age of the wells on the Darb. It takes hundreds of years for ropes to create the grooves in the rocks that line the mouth of the well. This was the most definitive fingerprint of the pilgrims that I encounter on the Darb.

Land Rover Defender

The Darb passes through sand dunes on the edge of the Great Nafud. Sand dunes are my favorite place to camp on planet earth, and the Great Nafud offers sand camping at its best.

After setting up camp in the late afternoon, a curious white owl paid a visit. The owl was rather large. We estimate that it was at least two feet high, and possible taller. Although he maintained his distance, he intently stared at us and our camp. I don't know what he was looking at, but he strutted and hopped around the dunes for nearly an hour checking us out. Perhaps he thought the we might flush out some desert mice or kangaroo rats that he could eat.

LAND ROVER DEFENDER

If I had to give this owl a name, I would call him "Intense". He intensely and relentlessly stared at us. Sometimes he stood out in the open, and at other times he peeked around bushes as if he was playing a game of hide and seek. He did not seem interested in flying. Instead he wandered around our campsite always staring directly at us. If there was ever a contest to see who could stare for the longest time, the white owl would be the hands down winner.

Land Rover Defender

After breaking up camp in the sand dunes, we headed south to the ancient town of Fayad. This small town is exactly half way between Baghdad and Mecca. Once a pilgrim made it to Fayad, half of his trip to Mecca was complete.

All that remains of ancient Fayad are the foundations of buildings constructed from black lava stone. A fence with a locked gate protects Fayad from visitors who might be tempted to violate the integrity of this special place. Definitive excavations of this ancient city have not been completed, and it's important to protect the integrity of this site.

Fayad was the only location on the Darb Zubaidah where a fence and locked gate protected the site. We drove up to the gate, and within a short time, the caretaker came with a key and showed us the foundations of ancient Fayad.

Fayad was more than a town. It was also a fortress, and many fierce battles happened in this location. Tribes made money selling fodder and food to the pilgrims in the area around Fayad. When the pilgrims refused to pay tribute to the tribes living in northern Arabia, Fayad became a battlefield. Many lives were lost in the struggle to control the pilgrim route to Mecca, and Fayad was one of the most important battlegrounds.

Land Rover Defender

Volcanic mountains come into view as you head south out of Fayad. Quarries in those black mountains supplied the stone to build the town of Fayad. We wandered through the black volcanic region for nearly half a day before emerging again on a sandy plain.

Land Rover Defender

Further south we discovered the granite fields of the Darb Zubaidah. Mountainous granite outcroppings rise straight out of the desert sands. How the granite got there is another Arabian Mystery that I am yet to solve.

Granite batholiths make an excellent place to camp. Red sand blows up against the granite outcroppings, and you can set up your camp in any convenient private patch of sand. The granite fields of central Arabia extend for hundreds of miles, and they pop up from the desert floor in many different locations.

If I had to choose between camping in sand dunes, or camping in the enchanted granite fields, I would have a hard time making up my mind.

When I saw the granite fields, I instantly knew that I would be spending at least one night among the granite boulders. We headed off the Darb, and within an hour we arrived at our camp in the granite fields.

LAND ROVER DEFENDER

Bird droppings stain the side of this granite mountain. Egyptian vultures call this mountain home, and they also call it their out house as well. If these birds kept their poo to themselves, they would have a lot more privacy. Painting the side of a mountain with their excrement is a giant billboard advertising their presence.

Land Rover Defender

We drove our Defenders right up to the granite vulture out house, and gave the Egyptian Vultures a close look. At least a dozen vultures soared above our heads, but they never showed more than a passing interest in our presence.

Land Rover Defender

While wandering through the granite fields looking for a place to camp, we found this stone shelter tucked under a granite overhang. Although the masonry was a bit crude, and it appeared to be in a state of disrepair. it still was an impressive shelter. I would not particularly want to sleep in this cavernous space, but in a sand storm it would make a perfect refuge.

Land Rover Defender

During the first three days of the trip, the skies were painted with a pastel pallet. Hardly a cloud could be found in the sky. Our night in the granite fields was completely different. Clouds were everywhere, and the sunset was brilliant gold. The sunset and clouds warned us that a weather change was about to occur. Tomorrow the weather would be different in a major way. A weather shift in the desert usually means one of two things. Either it was going to rain, or there would be massive sandstorm to make our trip down the Darb into an even greater challenge.

LAND ROVER DEFENDER

There is a saying, "Red sky at night, sailor's delight." Although that may be true when you are at sea, it is far from true when you are operating off road in the Saudi desert.

During desert expeditionary travel, you modify the saying to, "Red sky at night, Defenders take flight." A meteorological challenge is heading your way, and you need to make preparations so that you don't get into trouble. Navigating in a sandstorm off road is a hazardous challenge.

LAND ROVER DEFENDER

We camped in a granite canyon tucking comfortably into our private and pristine granite world. Dried up wadis in the bottom of the canyon show that flash floods rampage through canyonland during heavy rains. The next morning, I climbed the granite boulders to photograph the sun coming up in our campsite.

We were about to discover what mother nature had in store for us in the next twenty-four hours. But before that happened, we had time to visit one more birqat.

LAND ROVER DEFENDER

The final birqat is a marvel of common sense. The green oval in the middle of the photo displays a birqat that receives its water from flash floods.

Trees grow in the wadi, and you can tell the course of the wadi by following the trees. Water flows from left to right in this picture, and then the wadi splits - one wadi going to the right, and one heading to the left. When flash flooding happens, the water runs down the dried up river bed until the wadi splits into two arms. Engineers placed the birqat at the place where the wadis split. When water flows in these dried up rivers, the water naturally spills over into the birqat filling it up.

Land Rover Defender

This is the partially sand filled birqat located where the wadis split.

Land Rover Defender

The weather quickly changes by mid-morning. The wind is starting to blow hard, and Mark sits on top of his Defender scouting out the terrain and searching for the Darb. Off in the distance, a wall of sand is heading our way, and it won't be long before we disappear into a sandstorm. Being swallowed up by a sandstorm is not a big deal as long as you are off the road where nobody will run into you in the reduced visibility.

Land Rover Defender

The wind kicks up to twenty knots with higher gusts. Mark decides to refuel before we move further into the sandstorm. We park the Defenders in close proximity. so that the green Defender shields him from the wind and sand while he pours fuel. Sand in your fuel is a good way to plug up your fuel filter and immoblize the vehicle. Pouring fuel in strong wind does not work. You don't want your precious fuel to blow onto the ground as you pour.

LAND ROVER DEFENDER

The sandstorm increases in intensity, and it becomes clear that the trip down the Darb Zubaidah is over for now. It would require x-ray vision to find the Darb and to locate additional birqats farther south.

All in all, exploring the Darb Zubaidah has been an awesome adventure. Two Defender 110s exploring the Darb for more than 500 kilometers is a once in a lifetime expedition. Cobras, owls, dhubs, and Egyptian vultures are an added bonus. Camping in sand dunes and in granite fields are the stuff from which dreams are made. Finally, a sandstorm tops off our adventure.

There's no doubt about it. We are living our sand dreams.

Life is good.

Meet Team Maxing Out

Captain Dave - David J. Abbott M.D.

Donna

Wendy

Dito

Sarah

Exit Only


See what it's like for a family to sail around the world on a small catamaran

Captain Save Our Souls

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.


Red Sea Blues

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.


Red Sea Chronicles Trailer

If you like drum beats, and you like adventure, then have a listen to the Red Sea Chronicles Trailer.


Red Sea Chronicles Episode 1 - When Flying Fish Attack

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.


Red Sea Chronicles Episode 2 - Pirate Alley

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.


Red Sea Chronicles Episode 3 - Aden, Yemen

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.


Red Sea Chronicles Episode 4- Gate of Sorrows and Sandstorms

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.


  • RED SEA CHRONICLES

    Team Maxing Out Sails Around The World On Their 39 Foot Catamaran

    Join Team Maxingout as they sail through Pirate Alley and up the Red Sea

  • RED SEA CHRONICLES

    Give your dream machine a shot in the arm

    See what it's like to cruise on a catamaran before you spend a bazillion dollars purchasing one

  • LEARN HOW TO HANDLE A CATAMARAN IN STORMY SEAS

    View the storm management video to learn how Captain Dave dealt with storms at sea

    After watching the Red Sea Chronicles you will be able to see yourself sailing on the ocean of your dreams

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