Sky is Not the Limit
With hot air balloons and helicopter rides, history beckons travellers to explore an ancient region deep in the heart of Saudi Arabia
There’s no gentle whoosh in the tummy as the hot air balloon basket rises in the air. In fact, one barely notices the flight taking place until the people on the ground start appearing smaller. As you shift your gaze from below to what lies in the distance, the sand-swept dunes start showing themselves in all their sunkissed glory.
Welcome to AlUla—the ancient oasis city located in north-western Saudi Arabia, some 1,100 km from Riyadh. With its awe-inspiring sandstone mountains and verdant valleys filled with lush palm groves, the landscape is like nothing you have seen before.
Take a deep-dive into history with the Old Town and its labyrinth of tightly packed 12th-century mud houses. The heritage sites here date back thousands of years to when the Lihyan and Nabataean kingdoms reigned. The present serenades you with its luxury villas and new-age structures, including Maraya which, with its 9,740 mirrored panels, is known to be the largest mirrored building in the world.
The second edition of the AlUla Skies Festival celebrated the glory of the magnificent city between April 26 and May 13 this year. The first edition in 2020 had bagged the Guinness World Records title for the largest hot air balloon glow show for a display spanning over three kilometres with 100 hot air balloons. Says Phillip Jones, Chief Tourism Officer at Royal Commission for AlUla: “Since ancient times, the sky has been a map for those who visited AlUla, as they were guided by the stars and the constellations to travel on the ancient incense trading route, and today we celebrate the history of the skies with unique events.”
At the crack of dawn, hot air balloons take passengers high above what can only be described as an open-air museum of natural wonders. “The balloons go in the same direction as the wind,” explains Hatim, one of the pilots from Turkey. Gently drifting towards the tombs of Hegra, the balloons hover above the 110 well-preserved tombs carved inside enormous sandstone mountains. From the top, the UNESCO World Heritage Site appears to be celestial almost. The carved columns and doorways of the tombs inspired by Greek and Roman architecture play peek-a-boo as you try and catch their glimpse from above.
There’s a certain old-world charm about drifting lazily in a basket miles above the ground, but the thrill of being inside a helicopter as it flies speedily over desert terrains and valleys is unparalleled. The view below might be the same, but both the experiences are unique in their own way.
Once strapped in, the helicopter takes off almost as gently as balloons, but speeds up once it is a few feet in the air. The noise of the rotating blades is deafening, but headsets help minimise it to let the pilot’s voice guide you into looking at the ancient city that spreads below like a gigantic map. Once again, you fly above the tombs of Hegra, admiring the richly coloured carved sandstone structures, which have been quietly guarding many secrets for years. The most iconic of them all, the Tomb of Lihyan, son of Kuza, stands out in all its red sandstone glory.
From that height, you are also able to fully grasp the beauty of the remarkable Elephant Rock. Millions of years of erosion have formed a sandstone outcrop that resembles a mighty elephant looming large against the desert landscape, making it one of the most Gram-worthy backdrops for visitors.
The expanse of the desert soon gives way to a red rock mountain face overlooking the lush oasis valley. This, as the pilot informs, is the city of Dadan, the capital of the Dadan and Lihyan kingdoms, which date back to the late 9th or early 8th century BCE (Kingdom of Dadan) and 5th-2nd century BCE (Kingdom of Lihyan). It is a majestic visual to see the towering mountain with its well-preserved tombs on one side and a verdant valley spreading like a river of green next to it. If you look closely enough, you might even be able to spot seated lion sculptures guarding the famed Lion Tombs on one of the mountains.
AlUla by day, is when you look downwards, soaking in the majestic sights the ancient city has to offer, but once the light fades, it is time to marvel at the dark sky illuminated by a blanket of stars. The remote desert of Gharameel in AlUla is an idyllic spot to lay down on carpets and gaze at the darkest of skies with its twinkling canopy as an expert takes you through the constellations, peppering their talk with myths and tales from the past.
With its sand-swept dunes, awe-inspiring rock formations and natural wonders, AlUla is where you go to unlock the mysteries of the past to understand how the present has been shaped.