Heart of Arabia explorers complete mammoth 1,300km trek across Saudi Arabia

The expedition arrived in Jeddah after battling extreme temperature and illness

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A team of explorers finished their four-week, 1,300km trek across Saudi Arabia on Monday.

The Heart of Arabia expedition set off from Al Uqair on the east coast in November and travelled by foot and camel with vehicles in support to Jeddah on the Red Sea, including a break in Riyadh in December.

The route took them across the vast deserts of Saudi Arabia, with hot days and bitterly cold nights, and across lava fields, muddy valleys and steep rock faces.

“It's been just brilliant, an utterly wonderful experience. We feel so grateful to have had such amazing support,” said the expedition’s leader, Oman-based British explorer Mark Evans.

The expedition is named after the book by British explorer Harry St John Philby, who made the same journey in 1917.

His granddaughter Reem Philby is a member of this expedition, which brought together members of the British and Saudi lines of Philby’s family for the first time.

“During leg two I felt connected to my grandfather through the challenges I now know he faced at a much greater scale, which gave me a greater admiration for him,” Ms Philby said.

“The harsh cold of the desert, long distances in a variety of terrains and physical exhaustion were more felt in this leg but he had the additional burden of fear of the unknown.”

Deserts, mountains and palaces

The route took the team across a variety of terrain, from the 600-metre-tall limestone ridge of Jabal Tuwaiq down to the vast desert sands of Uruq Sabai and back up to the Hejazi mountain range.

They also crossed the Harrat lava field, which serves as a sanctuary for wildlife as neither camels nor cars can easily navigate its ridges.

The team faced cold nights as they ascended the Hejazi mountains, and even a brief spell of rain that threatened to escalate into dangerous floods.

Several members of the team also became ill, but they all eventually recovered.

By Thursday they had made it to Taif, a city of about 700,000 people that is the eastern gateway to the Hejaz region, home to Islam’s two holiest cities, Makkah and Madinah, and the port city of Jeddah.

In Taif they visited the Shubra Palace, at which Philby also marvelled on his original trip.

From there they crossed the Hejazi mountains and descended to the port of Jeddah on the Red Sea.

They were welcomed in the city’s old town on Monday at the historic Nassif House Museum by officials from the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who gave them an exclusive tour of the house and the area.

‘Journey with purpose’

Despite the challenges, the team told The National that the trip had been a success.

“It’s been like a dream come true. I don’t want it to end,” said logistics leader Alan Morrissey.

One highlight was the discovery of a large quantity of axe heads, thought to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old.

The team have passed the details on to the Saudi Ministry of Culture and the Green Arabia project, who will investigate further.

They also kept track of wildlife along the way, monitoring the distribution of fruit bats and other animals including desert foxes.

The expedition was also raising funds to launch the Philby Arabia Fund in collaboration with the Saudi British Society, which aims to support further exploration in the kingdom.

Mr Evans, who runs the outdoor education NGO Outward Bound in Oman, aimed to encourage young people to “journey with purpose.”

The expedition spent one night with pupils from the British International School Riyadh on the first leg of its trip, and visited the Jeddah Prep and Grammar School on Tuesday.

Pupils from the school have used the expedition as inspiration for creative writing, history and geography projects. They showcased their work to the team in a “curriculum souq” at the school, where pupils have also painted a mural in honour of the expedition.

“The expedition is about the heart of what we do as a school — we teach. Opportunities like this are so fantastic for us because they have taught us so much about the world we live in, particularly here in Saudi Arabia,” headmistress Zoe Woolley told a special assembly of pupils.

While the expedition is now officially over, the team will continue to work together with plans to develop thousands of images taken by team photographer Ana-Maria Pavalache, and present the findings of the trip in London.

“There's still so much to do. The end of the journey here is just the beginning of another journey,” said Mr Evans.

Disappointment for Philby - but a lasting legacy

While today’s expedition has ended in success, Philby’s original 1917 trek ended in disappointment.

He did manage to cross Arabia as he set out to do, arriving in Jeddah on the last day of the year after six weeks in the desert.

The trek was a successful feat of exploration, and Philby was later awarded the Royal Geographical Society’s prestigious Founders Medal for it.

But he was unable to achieve the political goal of his mission — to improve relations between two of Britain’s main Arab allies on the peninsula, King Hussein of the Hejaz, and Abdulaziz Al Saud, who was then the Sultan of Nejd and is known commonly as Ibn Saud.

Britain wanted both leaders to focus on the fight against its enemy the Ottoman Empire, but King Hussein considered himself “King of all the Arabs” and refused to recognise Ibn Saud in a series of terse discussions with Philby.

Philby’s arrival irritated Hussein, as it undermined his claim that the disputed lands administered by Ibn Saud were unsafe for foreign travellers.

Discussions between the two men became heated and led to nothing, much to the dismay of Philby’s British colleagues who had arrived from Cairo and took a more diplomatic approach.

“In the face of the King’s attitude, the negotiations … broke down completely and left me with no alternative but to ask the royal permission to return whence I had come,” Philby wrote in The Heart of Arabia.

The king also refused this request to return to Riyadh by land, so Philby was forced to leave Jeddah by sea.

The tension between the two Arab leaders would eventually break out into conflict, with Ibn Saud’s Ikhwan warriors routing Hussein’s forces near Khurma, a site visited by the expedition this year.

An uneasy truce was eventually imposed until 1924, when Ibn Saud’s forces captured the Hejaz from Hussein.

This was a key step in uniting the territories of central Arabia under Saudi rule, and in 1932 Ibn Saud was proclaimed king of the unified kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Philby returned to Arabia as soon as he could, visiting Ibn Saud again in 1918 and forming a lifelong friendship.

He converted to Islam, taking the name Abdullah, and spent most of the rest of his life in Saudi Arabia as a close confidant of the king, playing a key role in the history of the kingdom.

He also secured his legacy as an explorer through several ambitious expeditions, including crossing the Empty Quarter.

Philby died in 1960 in Beirut, where he was on his way to Saudi Arabia for another adventure.

Heart of Arabia expedition leg two - in pictures

Updated: January 31, 2023, 9:55 AM