Off-roading in Saudi Arabia

Text: Danie Botha
Photographs: Leilani and Frik Basson

“Tackling the late afternoon traffic in a sea blue 1980s Ford Taurus with mafi aircon was not exactly what I had in mind after a deadening day at the office.” – Leilani Basson, Jolly in Jeddah column, the Saudi Gazette.

Leilani Basson grew up in Alberton, on Gauteng’s East Rand. After school she wanted to study journalism, but due to factors beyond her control, the striking brunette ended up working as a model for a year.

“After that I worked as a receptionist for a doctor, I worked at a sun-tanning boutique, became a representative for a catering company, was a Clinique girl and I worked at an investment firm, to name a few,” says Leilani.

But journalism remained a passion and desire. So not being one to wait for the mountain to come to her, she phoned “the mountain”, in this case Caxton newspapers.

“I think they realised how badly I wanted to be in journalism, and in the end, a special position was created for me at the Alberton Record, as a sales assistant.

“It was the bottom rung of the ladder, but I was over the moon! I was finally in, and soon started to write editorial and advertorial content for clients. And over weekends I attended all the sport and social function everyone else found too boring!” she laughs.

Her editors soon realised her potential, and she was sent to the former Pretoria Technikon to attend journalism courses – and duly scored top marks.

“Finally, after eventually working my way through the ranks at the Record, I landed my dream position: I was appointed as a sales assistant at Beeld newspaper. Okay, so I had to start at the bottom of the ladder again, but I was on my way. Just two weeks later my husband-to-be Frik Basson arrived home with big news: he was recruited to go and streamline a medical aid scheme in Saudi Arabia.”

The slender brunette’s life was comprehensively turned on its head, right there. She couldn’t join Frik in the city of Jeddah at all, except if they were married, due to the strict laws of the country.

A month after him breaking the news, Frik was in Saudi, while Leilani stayed in South Africa for nine months, packing, renting out the house, and doing research on her new home. Frik came back for a short visit during this time – and the couple got married without much ado.

And so, in November 2002, the newly wed Leilani and Frik arrived together in the city of Jeddah, on a clear summer’s evening. Says Leilani of her first day in this foreign world:

“Frik had to be back at work the very next day, so when I woke up by myself on my first day in Jeddah, and peered out of the window of the house in the compound we temporarily stayed in, I was met by a scene I will never forget. It was like a deserted movie set!

“Buildings, sand, but not a living being in sight. Nothing stirred, or moved. That was my first introduction to a land where the man is king, where road rules are determined by the size of the vehicle you drive, and where women gladly accept to wear their abayas, and veils.”

“Darth Vader descending upon earth or a Batman impersonation gone wrong? I can’t really say what I looked like, but I felt as free as a woman blinded by a black beach sarong, shackled by ankle weights, and restrained by an ankle length abaya possibly could.” Leilani Basson, Jolly in Jeddah column, the Saudi Gazette.

After settling into a more comfortable and agreeable abode, and with husband Frik hard at work, Leilani started exploring Jeddah. But there was one major catch: women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. So, donning the traditional Muslim abaya and veil, she had to rely on taxis – driven by men who rarely spoke English – to get her around town.

“It certainly wasn’t easy. At first everything seemed to look the same. The same, drab colours, and the same writing. I got lost more than a few times! But after two weeks of trying to find my feet, I secured a position as a pre-school teacher. And that opened up a new world, with the children’s more simple approach allowing me to pick up Arabic quicker. But the customs were still something to get used to,” says Leilani.

For instance, women are not allowed to touch a man. Leilani, brought up with Western manners, initially battled with that.

“The parents’ evenings were especially memorable,” laughs Leilani. “I would stick out my hand to greet the parents, and the fathers would look at this silly women who obviously did not understand that this was simply not allowed! But I got used to that too,” she says.

Meanwhile Frik had acquired a brand new Jeep Sahara – for the princely sum of R70 000. So the couple went exploring whenever Frik had a break. The fact that Saudi is the world’s leading petroleum exporter also helped.

“Petrol costs less than water! Cars are ridiculously cheap, and most Saudis don’t even bother with selling their older vehicles when they buy a new one. Instead they just leave the ‘old’ one wherever they stopped it the last time, with the key in the ignition. And no-one touches it either,” Leilani explains.

After learning the Saudi ropes, Leilani landed a job at The Saudi Gazette newspaper as assistant national editor, the first woman to do so. As a result of her position, she was the only woman allowed on the same floor as the men (except for meetings), and the men treated her with, well, due care.

“My weekly columns and articles sometimes created much controversy, but I loved working there. I also worked as image consultant, and was even contracted by a local princess for this purpose. A few modelling opportunities also came along. Every day was an adventure and I enjoyed every moment.

“But there were more winds of change blowing for Frik, and it had all to do with the Jeep. After a promotion, company policy dictated that he drive a vehicle that befits his more senior position. The Jeep just didn’t cut it. So he bought a brand new Nissan Patrol 4.8GRX for around R130 000… and a new chapter started in our lives: off-road driving, and the ability to take a more prime position on the roads!” she beams.

You see, in Saudi traffic laws are not dictated by traffic laws. Instead it is the size of the vehicle that allows one to either enter or exit traffic circles, or proceed at stop streets.

“If you drove a small hatch there, you will get nowhere! It works like this: the smaller your vehicle, the more attention you pay to other traffic. So you actually stop, brake and get out of the way when necessary. But if you drive a big 4×4 like the Patrol, you don’t look left or right… you just drive, and everyone else have to fall in. Even if women were allowed to drive there, I don’t think I actually would have wanted too… it’s a nerve-racking experience, even in a Nissan Patrol!” says Leilani.

But the off-road adventures that followed were so worth it.

“We befriended a British family who’d been living in Saudi for about 30 years, so they knew of places no one else did, due to their close relationship with the Saudis.

“So when we got invited on a nine-day trip across the An Nafud Al Kabir (the great Nafud desert) up north to Iraq, there was no stopping us. Although we’ve done a few day trips to ancient wells, wadis (dry river beds) and mountain cities, we hadn’t tried camping yet.

“First though, we had to kit the Patrol to make sure we had all the bases covered to be completely self-sufficient in the middle of nowhere,” she says.

So they took the Nissan to Jeddah’s industrial area, where numerous shops exist that do vehicle modifications for very little money. The couple improvised a shower system, which was fitted to the custom roofrack.

A weekend trip, not far into the desert sands, followed next, to see if their modifications and contraptions worked as planned.

“The shower worked okay-ish, but we soon discarded the cover at the top. It was much better to shower under the stars. On that short trip we visited a few interesting places too, but the cultural differences were agai
n so obvious.

“For instance, we wanted to climb a koppie behind a small village. After we received permission, I had to tuck my abaya into my shorts to clamber up the rocks. That caused quite a stir among the men of the village, who’s eyes nearly fell out of their heads as they tried to get a peek at my exposed legs and ankles! To put this into perspective: to attract the same attention in South Africa, I would have had to clamber up that koppie completely naked… but the sight of a piece of leg and an ankle left the Saudi men all sweaty!” she laughs.

After their weekend away, the couple was ready for the Big Trip. All 3500km of it. So Leilani and Frik, along with five other touring parties, tackled the desert. The party relied mostly on GPS co-ordinates, following these to the next overnight stop. The group would drive until the sun was about to dip over the horizon, then duck into the dunes, and set up camp. But it certainly wasn’t plain sailing.

“It was a real adventure driving through that thick sand. Some days we covered only 8km! And I even got to drive the Patrol too, when we weren’t close to any local people. Talking about that: there was one three-day stretch when we didn’t see any people, any plants, or any form of wildlife! But the sunsets, the dune driving and the desert and its people were amazing.

“A peculiar thing happened one night, while we were camping,” says Leilani. The group had set up camp in the dunes, and a big campfire was already well underway. Then the group saw vehicle lights approach.

“We switched off all our head torches, like that would have helped with the big fire burning! We were not that far from the Iraqi border, and the desolate northern parts of Saudi are renowned as being an Al Qaeda recruiting ground.

“It turned out to be the police from a nearby town, who were concerned for our safety. They forced us to pack up camp, and escorted us into town, and insisted that we book into a local hotel. There they guarded our vehicles through the night, and the next morning escorted us until we crossed into another region, and out of their jurisdiction. It was quite an experience!” tells Leilani.

Another major highlight included the “discovery” of Ad Disa, a green oasis in the middle of the desert, surrounded by the breathtaking rock formations guarding this paradise.

“The place felt ancient. Bedouin boys played in the streams, watching us with due diligence. Very, very few Westerners have set foot there. Later, when we showed some of our Saudi friends the photos we took at Ad Disa, they could not believe they were taken in their own country. That’s how spectacular it was!” says Leilani.

While the 4×4 bug had nibbled on Leilani and Frik before their trip into the desert, after their return to Jeddah they were hooked.

“We went on a few shorter outings again, including some fabulous day trips, enjoying every minute of it. But change was again on the horizon. After I had just settled into Saudi life, adjusted to the culture differences, and was finding my way around Jeddah without too many hassles, Frik accepted a new position in South Africa, and we returned here after many years in the Middle East.”

“Now I’m working as a freelance journalist again, shaking men’s hands, and not wearing the abaya. Saudi was a great experience and a less than ideal experience in some ways – especially for a newly married couple on their supposed honeymoon. But I wouldn’t change it for anything! And, I got a taste of overlanding adventures. Now we regularly take our Landy on overlanding trips and hit the road to rough terrain over weekends. Dressed in my short pants and T-shirt, and hair hanging freely over my shoulders!” laughs the bubbly Leilani.

“Although I couldn’t feel the wind in my hair, I could feel the blood in my veins, the beating of my heart, the release of feel-good hormones. Where there is a will, there is a way.” – Leilani Basson, Jolly in Jeddah column, the Saudi Gazette.

Did you know?
* Marriages in Saudi Arabia are arranged, and maintained according to contracts. Leilani once photographed a wedding, but before she could deliver the photos, the couple had divorced. Apparently the husband wanted to start up a new business in a different city. His new wife reminded him that their contract did not include this clause.
* You may think Saudi women are not very keen on the “arranged marriage by contract”. Not so, says Leilani. All the women she spoke to prefer this method. The majority said that this ensured that they are spared the heartache of a real love relationship gone bad. Simply put, contracts keep the emotions at bay, and them at peace.
* Leilani and Frik sold the almost-new Jeep Wrangler they had bought for R30 000 when they left Saudi Arabia. The second-hand market in Saudi is almost non-existent, mainly because brand new vehicles cost next to nothing.
* Magazines such as YOU and Huisgenoot, which are sent to Saudi Arabia via post, are subjected to strict censorship. A man actually opens the post, and covers all exposed women body areas (like shoulders and ankles, not to mention cleavage and such matters!) with a black felt-tip pen. It must be a highly sought-after position!
* Heading north into the desert from Jeddah, there is a junction where the road splits with an overhead sign directing Muslims and non-Muslims in different directions. Non-Muslims are not allowed near Makah or Medina, holy cities in the Muslim religion.
* In Saudi Arabia, capital punishment is still very much in use. For serious crimes, offenders are beheaded in a public area. For less serious or petty crimes, hands are chopped of. No wonder crime is virtually non-existent in Saudi Arabia!
* Saudi Arabia is said to possess 24% of the world’s petroleum reserves, and 90% of the country’s export earnings come from the oil industry. Not surprisingly, petrol is very cheap there, with an average price of around 87 cents per litre.
* There is no existing sewerage system in place in Jeddah, says Leilani. Not even at the modern new shopping complexes. Instead beautifully decorated sewerage trucks do daily rounds, and suck out the “holding tanks” across the city. The waste is then deposited at a place dubbed “Smelly Lakes”. After years of depositing, the desert at Smelly Lakes has been turned into a green oasis, and vegetables and fruit are farmed there. Leilani says that, no matter what the imported fruit and vegetables cost, she always insisted on imported goods!
* Drainage systems are also non-existent in Jeddah. When it rains, at most twice a year, the streets are literally turned into rivers. Cars are swept away, buildings are flooded, and sedan drivers have a very tough time negotiating the masses of water. Leilani says it is utter chaos.