It comes as a surprise to many – considering the modernity of present day Riyadh – that the main road to Makkah, which cuts its way down the Tuwaiq escarpment to the plains 300 metres below, is only some 30 years old.
The travellers of yesteryear made their way south towards Al Kharj before being able to turn westwards – unless they took short cuts following natural water courses down the steep rocky face of the Tuwaiq.
The town of Durma at the foot of the escarpment is known to have had a flourishing souq in the ninth century, and from there to the settlements in the Wadi Hannifah travellers would have had to ascend the escarpment at some point.
The trails – which all have retaining walls beside the path and slabs of rock to form steps – were probably built many centuries ago. It is quite possible that Ibrahim Pasha, who advanced via Durma to attack and destroy Dir’iyyah in 1819, may have improved the trails to facilitate the movement of his cannon. At least three survive to this day, of which ‘Camel Trail No 1’, as it is known, is the favourite with both Saudis and expatriates alike.
In March 2005, after heavy rains, a few large slabs of the rock face above the trail broke away, but although there are now slabs littering the middle to lower sections of the trail, you can still make your way down. In fact, although it may look daunting, it’s quite an easy hike to the bottom and not too onerous to climb back up again. Take plenty of water, though, as the steep sides of the rock face tend to concentrate the heat of the day onto the trail itself.
From the Kingdom Tower, take the Orouba road westbound past the Eye Hospital and join Highway 40 westbound – signposted to Makkah. After travelling 30km, you drive through the Check Point at the top of the escarpment and start your descent.
Unfortunately you need to drive all the way to the bottom before turning back towards Riyadh in order to reach the turn off to the trail.
At the bottom of the hill look for the double junction – the first turn signposted to Durma, which you ignore; the second turnoff to Dirab at which you exit and make the double loop back on to the road to Riyadh.
From the bottom of the escarpment itself you need to drive 1.6km, looking out for the start of the crash barrier on your right. Here you turn off and immediately bear left in a “10 o’clock” direction along a metalled track that is full of pot holes. Take care, as there are a few places where you will need to drive round large, deep holes in the middle of the road.
Eventually this metalled road stops (there is a large collection of abandoned cars here), to be replaced by a stoney track. Keep on going; apart from a not-very- difficult section 200 metres on, which a 2-wheel drive car can navigate with care, you should have no difficulty reaching a large flat area at the top of Camel 1 where you can park. You will see the camel trail zig-zagging down the escarpment to the right.
You don’t need a four wheel drive car to reach Camel 1 – unlike the other camel trails. It’s an easy and pleasant drive; but don’t think about attempting the track after dark as there are many pot holes and places where parts of the road have disintegrated and fallen away, forcing you to drive off the actual road itself..
Check Point: 24 31.34’ N; 46 26.43’ E
Dirab Turn: 24 30.20’ N ; 46 20.97’ E
Crash barrier turn: 24 31.51’ N; 46 24.76’ E.
Camel 1 Top: 24 30.12’ N; 46 24.85’ E