Wabha Crater

Our final trip is nowhere near Riyadh. In fact it’s a crater over 700kms away yet I feel it is worth a mention since not only is it a trip well worth making, but it is also extremely popular amongst the expat community living in the capital.

You can manage the trip easily in one weekend, and now that there is tarmac road all the way to the very edge of the crater, it is not necessary to take a 4-wheel drive – except perhaps for the very last couple of kilometres if you intend to camp round its sides.

A GPS unit is very useful for this trip as there are precious few signs to the crater, and it’s easy to get lost when you’re only a few kilometres from your destination! The Wabha Crater should not be confused with the Wabar craters of the Rub’ al-Khali which were discovered in 1932.

In terms of shear spectacle it sure takes a lot of beating with its 11km circumference standing out against the black lava flows. At the bottom some 400m below you is a white salt bed made up of sodium phosphate crystals. Some liken it to a cross between the Grand Canyon and Death Valley, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale.

There are two theories as to how the crater was formed. Some believe it came about from volcanic activity in the form of an underground explosion. The rising volcano hit a body of water and the result was a massive explosion which ended up with this big hole in the ground. On one side of the crater lies an ash cone which is all that is left of the volcano. Others would have it that a meteorite struck the region and formed the 3km-wide hole.

Nearly a kilometre away lies a field of black lava, textured with swirls as if it had been made of molten fudge and it’s here that the best camping sites are to be found.

If you set off from Riyadh at 7am, you should be at Wabha in the early afternoon – just enough time to walk around the crater (about 90 minutes to two hours) and get some spectacular views before getting back to set up camp before night fall. But do make sure you leave enough time for a mini exploration of the lava fields before it gets dark.

It’s best to leave an exploration of the crater until the next morning. It can get very hot down there in the afternoons, but even in the morning you should make sure to take plenty of water with you. (The less energetic in the party might prefer instead to hunt around the crater’s edge for ‘desert diamonds’ – obsidian and peridot which sparkle in the angled rays of the sun.)

From the crater’s edge you should head towards an oasis that you can see some 30 metres below the rim. You can reach it by an easy path that is liberally strewn with cola cans and blue plastic bags. Here you will pass pools of water surrounded by a wealth of palm trees, and this is as far as some people go, since the journey down is a lot tougher after this.

Another 100 metres further down you come to a near vertical rock face. But if you backtrack for a few metres and move across to the right for another 20 metres, there is a gentle – but well hidden – slope that takes you all the way down to the bottom.

Once again, the sight that meets you is spectacular. Enjoy it for a while and let your camera snap away freely before the long trek back up to the top.

You should plan to start off around 7am and drive down the escarpment on the Makkah road. The road leads you past the red sands, which soon turn to yellow around junction 11 and to brown near Jelah.

120kms from Riyadh there’s a great stretch of nothingness ahead of you, except for a double row of pylons stretching into the distance.

But a giant Saudi logo (which, incidentally, looks splendid at night) proclaims the start of the hills once again at Quwayiyah – a pleasant little town close to what look like red slag hills, rich in copper, lead, zinc, iron and manganese.

The next main town is Ruwaydah, proclaimed to all visitors by a giant rifle flanking the northern side of the highway. (Ruwaydah, by the way, is a popular girl’s name in Arabic which means Walking Gently.)

You keep on driving past the tasteful row of plastic palm trees – green, yellow, orange and red – and on past the pegmatite rocks (microline and quartz) stacked haphazardly one on top of another, and thence into a large stretch of grey-green rocks that then flatten out once again around Barzah.

Soon you reach Dhalim (strangely the westbound signs read Dhalim whilst eastbound they are spelt Zalim!) which is one of those places that mothers use to hush the errant behaviour of their offspring. Apparently in ‘the old days’ it was a centre for the camel train raiders and even to this day, there are many who hurry quickly past. (Dhalim means ‘revolt’, injustice, or oppressor.)

Almost exactly 600kms from Riyadh, you turn northwards off the Makkah highway at junction 325 (22 20.99’ N, 41 33.19’ E) and on for a good half hour until you see a left-hand turn near Maran at 22 38.11’ N; 41 22.55’ E.

Drive to a cross roads at 22 36.49’N; 41 20.74’E, then head for a right hand turn at 22 51.86’N; 41 06.47’E and hence on to the crater’s edge at 22 53.73’N; 41 07.90’E.

The road nowadays goes all the way to the very edge of the crater; only a set of painted poles and some road bumps warn you not to drive over into the abyss!

The best camp site areas can be found on the west side by going clockwise round the crater for about 2-3kms.

The following day, if you leave Wabha around midday, you should be back in Riyadh around 7pm in plenty of time for the Friday evening rush hour.

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