|Hot, baking deserts, nomadic bedouin with camel caravans and sporadic oases dotted
with date palms are typical stereotypes that characterize our awareness of Saudi Arabia.
These desert scenes from the past still occasionally permeate contemporary Saudi Arabia.
for the palm enthusiast, exotic palm trees occupy certain geographical pockets of Saudi
Arabia with greater frequency than the apparently ubiquitous date palm. Recently, I
travelled to the Red Sea town of Shuqayq and documented Hyphaene there (Fig. 1). Even
among this unusual genus of multi-trunked palms, the variety that is found along the Red
Sea and in neighboring "wadis," i.e., valleys, is a particularly alluring
species (Fig. 2).
The excursion to the Red Sea is as much an adventure as documenting the Hyphaene. The
point of embarkation to the Red Sea was Khamis Mushayt, once reputed as a trading terminal
along the Frankincense Road. The distance from Khamis Mushayt to Shuqayq is only 90 miles.
The diversity of landscape and vegetation en route, however, is astonishing. Khamis
Mushayt is located at 7,000 feet and Shuqayq is at sea level. In contrast to coastal Saudi
Arabia, Khamis Mushayt resembles the American Southwest. Weathered granite buttes and
plateaus abound in the area with nearby mountain peaks soaring to 9,500 feet.
A dramatic change in scenery occurs not far outside Khamis. After a brief placid drive
through the countryside, the road suddenly dives serpentine-fashion from the precipice of
an escarpment. The journey continues to be a breathtaking experience until the road
reaches sea level. Along the way, sheer canyon walls give way to wide valleys. Road and
bridge construction crews wage an ongoing attempt to repair the damage caused by rogue
flash floods. Towards the bottom of the escarpment, meadows appear. Occasional banana
plantations offer passersby unexpected tropical viewing pleasures in this climatic
anomaly. The geographical and climatic variety provide enough diversity to sustain one for
the remaining barren drive to Shuqayq.
The typically hum-drum drive from Shuqayq to the remote beach area is now punctuated by
sand drifts that present themselves as respectable road barriers. This is the season for
the "Kama-seen" winds which originate in eastern Africa. These formidable winds
wreak havoc from the western Saudi coast to Yemen. It is common to see brown skies and
then have a downpour of mud-rain which results from airborne dust mixing with humid
coastal air. The early morning hours, however, provide excellent opportunities to view the
Hyphaene (Figs. 3-5)...