Boats during sunrise at a port in Umluj

Exploring Saudi's West Coast

In Travel by Kareem Alahdab Photography0 Comments

Exploring Saudi’s West Coast was something that I was determined to do since summer of 2018. I remember watching a few videos of Umluj on Youtube, and then a live feed of a sea turtle laying eggs there and I knew that I had to visit. I was shocked that I was oblivious to the fact that such a beautiful place existed in Saudi, with pristine waters and endangered sea life. With Google Earth opened up, I looked at a few interesting spots along Saudi’s west coast, pinned them and a year later I actually set off on a solo road trip to explore them. This trip had me passing through many locations such as Al Madina, Yanbu, Umluj, Al Wajh, Tabuk City and Hail!

The plan (this trip’s details were actually very unplanned) was to leave on a Monday at 4AM in the beginning of June, but after rolling around sleepless in bed for a couple of hours, I decided to just leave Riyadh early at 2AM. The road took me through Al Majmaah, Uneizah and eventually to Al Madina. The highway was very smooth, wide, fenced and not too busy at this hour. There are some salt flats as you go down from Al Majmaah that are interesting especially if you happen to be there around sunrise. The topography also gets more dynamic the closer you get to Al Madina with some dark mountains and rock formations appearing around 350KM from Al Madinah and then again around 100KM before it. This was my second time visiting Al Madina, so I made a stop to visit Al Masjid Al Nabawi, and was off again to Yanbu.

The road from Al Madina to Yanbu is a lot more interesting as it has you driving between mountains. There are plenty of curves on this road (Route 60) to keep you excited, and as you’re about to descend to the coast there’s a striking background of large sand dunes behind the dark rocky mountains.

Striking contrast between sand dunes and rocky hills
From Madina to Yanbu (Route 60)

Drained and out of energy, I made my way to the Radisson Blu Yanbu to check-in. It wasn’t fancy, the furniture didn’t look the best and the breakfast was mediocre in my opinion. However, it had a clean bed and right now that was all I cared about. Now with eyes closed, I was ready to sleep until the next morning, no alarms, no plans. Well that didn’t work out the way I had planned, I was up by 10 PM and my abnormal sleeping pattern continued. I grabbed a quick dinner at Hardee’s and went to visit the Yanbu corniche as I had pinned n interesting site nearby that I wanted to visit in the morning. To my surprise the beach wasn’t empty, nor crowded. It had people enjoying the moon and starry night, it was my kind of crowd! Determined to capture an image of the moon as it sets behind the sea, I made small talk with a gentleman from Yanbu while I waited for the moon to drop lower in the horizon. It was now 1 AM, and it hit me that I needed to change my spot slightly to avoid some obstacles. A quick 2 minute drive by the corniche put me where I wanted to be and with about an hour to spare. This was the perfect time (it actually wasn’t) to look for shark teeth, shells and fossilized coral. Now that the moon was lower in the horizon and I had collected a few interesting pieces, I captured a few images of the moon set and the milkyway and went back to the hotel to sleep. After all, I had some shipwrecks and other spots that I wanted to see along my drive to Umluj.

Day two started with a quick breakfast at the hotel and a drive to see the shipwrecks at Sharm Yanbu. If you set your GPS to (24°10’30.2″N 37°56’17.7″E) you’ll find a path that will take you to the beach with the 2 shipwrecks visible on the other side. You may continue to follow the path leading you around the sea water and to the shipwrecks *Disclaimer: I strongly recommend having a capable 4×4 vehicle as getting close to the sea water means you might be driving on very soft mud*. Alternatively, you can settle by the coast and enjoy the the shipwrecks from afar, the water is all shades of blue here and the area is almost empty.

Shipwreck of the boat “Yanbu #22”
Loosely translated this ship is known as the Sea Sandal
Sea Sandal 1
Sea Sandal 2
Sharm Yanbu

A couple of hours were spent at the shipwrecks and now it was time to move on to Umluj. The road was very straightforward and without much traffic, however it was not fenced so I would caution you to drive carefully especially if you go at night. The drive should take approximately 2 hours, the mountains to your right and the sea to your left should keep you entertained during the drive. I stopped for a while to photograph the mangroves by the beach just outside of Umluj (I didn’t know they existed, but I had the area pinned because it looked interesting on Google Earth). It is actually mind boggling that mangroves exist in Saudi Arabia! They play a significant role in dealing with carbon dioxide and protecting the soil, I never thought I’d see them inside Saudi Arabia.

Mangroves 1
Mangroves 2

The entry to Umluj was remarkable! Throughout this trip the mountains and sea never really got a long, always making a point by being on opposite ends, that is until you are at the entrance of Umluj where you can witness the mountain range and sea almost meeting.

The hotel I was staying at (Shada) was easily reachable, my check-in went smoothly and the furniture of the room was much nicer than that of Radisson Blu Yanbu, and the staff were very friendly. On the negative side, the bathroom and services could definitely be drastically improved but for a bachelor traveling to explore and do photography for a couple of days it was acceptable. After all, adventures sometimes require some kind of compromise.

Now settled in the hotel, a kind local tour guide named Mansor met with me and took me to the sea turtle nesting grounds. We were perched on top of a small hill overlooking the vast crystal clear coastal waters with white sandy beaches below us, it was a breathtaking view! With the area now marked on my phone, we left as Mansor had somewhere he needed to be. This put us on the highway, with the sun setting to our left behind a mountain in the middle of the sea. Extremely taken away by the sunset, I decided to spend another day in Umluj to capture that same scene. After an early dinner at Herfy (there are a lot of sea food restaurants in Umluj but I do not eat seafood) it was time to sleep, I had a 2 hour boat ride scheduled at 5:30AM the next day to explore Umluj’s pristine waters and nearby islands.

Awake at 4 AM, I quickly got dressed, packed my photography equipment and drove to Umluj’s Al Herrah Port where I was to meet Mohammad the boat operator. As I waited, the sun started to rise behind the mountains to the east, gently reflecting its soft warm glow to the calm waters at the ports, accentuating the edges of all the small boats that were docked there. It was official, Umluj gave me some of the best sunrises, and sunsets that I had ever seen! Now that Mohammad was here, we did the necessary paper work and were off on our boat trip. The boat zipped through the water making its way closer to some of the beautiful small islands situated outside of Umluj. They had white sands and some vegetation on them but I was told photographing them wasn’t allowed without a permit. We also slowed down over patches of shallow water where the water was crystal clear and you could see the corals below you. Finally we did some line fishing and I was able to catch one fish, I think Mohammad was catching them at a rate of about one fish per three minutes (I think he started to feel sorry for me and began to hide his catch! In my defense, the last time I went fishing was around eighteen years ago). With our boat ride done, I enthusiastically returned to the port with strong feelings of hope and promise for what Umluj could be like in the future with more care and development.

Al Herrah Port at Sunrirse 2
Beautiful colors
Scattered corals
Sometimes you get the perfect shot, other times you’re clumsy and take a screenshot of your camera app instead!

After a shower and a pizza, it was time to return to the sea turtle nesting ground to document them, collect some shells and coral skeleton from there, and capture that sunset that blew me away the day before. Besides getting lost for about 15 minutes and having the daunting feeling that I might miss the sunset, everything went smoothly and luckily I was able to capture everything I aimed for. With all my photography for the day complete, and with over 5 hours of driving scheduled the next day to reach the city of Tabuk, it was time to sleep.

Near the Sea Turtle Nesting Area
Hills outside of Umluj
Cliff overlooking the sea
Sunset behind a mountain in the middle of the sea
Zoomed out for scale

The route to Tabuk city had me cross Al Wajh and Dhuba, both located on Saudi’s west coast. I had heard the Al Wajh has some well maintained old traditional houses, but with five hours of driving and my energy depleted from repeated lack of sleep, I chose to drive by without making any stops at Al Wajh. I also didn’t plan to stop at Dhuba, but I couldn’t resist the color of the water I was seeing while driving through, so I made a one hour stop to take a few photos of the low tide and drove away. It was also interesting to see that there was some construction and new houses being built in Dhuba, I suppose it is larger than Al Wajh and Umluj. Driving from Dhuba to Tabuk was very exciting, large mountains were all around me and the road was rarely straight. A particular mountain named “Jabal Shar” stood out, I took a few photos from the car and made my way to Tabuk. I checked in to the Hilton Garden Inn, ordered some in-room dining (it felt good to be at a bigger hotel) and was asleep by 3 PM. The drive from Tabuk to Riyadh would require twelve hours and I would need as much sleep as possible.

One more sunset near Umluj
Dhuba
Low tide at Dhuba
Brittle Starfish
Jabal Shar

If you’ve read this far then you’d know by now my journey had a couple of common themes throughout: Stunning sunrises/sunsets and the weirdest sleep pattern ever. Wide awake at 10 PM, I chose to check out early, get a bite to eat and start the drive back to Riyadh. The most important thing was to stay alert as I crossed remote towns in the middle of the night. A cool temperature of 22 degrees meant I could open the windows, and get more of my senses involved. I recall crossing Tayma while it was dark outside. When I was about 200 KM away from Hail the firsts signs of light lit up the sky and I could see that there were beautiful mountains around me and that the ground had a coat of green on it. Low clouds made the scene even more epic with some dark and light tones. Many of them also had sharp tails pointing downwards. I’d told myself that I wouldn’t make any stops on the way back. I’m glad that I broke my word.

Morning light on a hill near Hail
Morning Light on a Hill Near Hail
Rocky hill near Hail city
Rocky hill near Hail city 1
Rocky hill near Hail city
Rocky Hill Near Hail City 2
Large hill photographed at sunrise
A large Hill and Some Construction for a Sense of Scale

After about an hour of photography, I was back in the car and heading to Riyadh. The path after Hail had me revisit many of the areas that I had previously seen. Entering Riyadh, I was greeted with large buildings and towers. It’s strange how a few days away from Riyadh can remind you of what a feat it is.

For those who are considering exploring Saudi’s West Coast I’ll close with these recommendations:

1- Fly, and rent a car. While I really enjoyed the drive, it was long and exhausting. If you only have a few days to enjoy, you want to be energized and not tired. Consider flying to Tabuk or Yanbu and renting a car from there as you explore.

2- If you do photography, give yourself plenty of time. There is plenty to photograph between Yanbu and Dhuba. Spend a day exploring points of interest while noting down the best time to photograph them. Then, return during that time to capture your images.

3- Go further north! There’s a large Greek shipwreck at Haql and a few spiritual sites nearby.

s a large Greek shipwreck at Haql and a few spiritual sites nearby.

4- Be mindful of the local culture and any rules you should follow.

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