Al Wahba Crater, Saudi Arabia's "Lake of Salt"
How was it formed?
Once upon a time, there lived two mountains who loved each other passionately that one was willing to have itself uprooted to unite with the other. The intense love affair left a deep circular chasm in its place that has come to be known as Maqla Tamia or Al Wahba Crater.
That is according to Saudi folklore. Interesting, isn’t it?
Long believed to have been caused by a meteorite as it resembles the Barringer Crater in the United States, geologists acknowledge that the massive caldera is actually a maar crater. According to Wikipedia, maar crater is formed by a volcanic activity in the form of an underground phreatic eruption – a massive steam explosion generated by molten basaltic magma coming into contact with subterranean water.
Where it is located?
Al-Wahba Caldera is located at the Western edge of Harrat Kishb basalt plateau, 250 kilometers away from the city of Taif. It is about a 4-hour drive from the port city of Jeddah, in Makkah Province.
Facts about the crater
The spectacular crater, the largest of its kind in the Arabian Peninsula, is 250 meters (820 ft) deep and 2 kilometers (1.2mi) in diameter.
The colossal walls of the Al Wahba Caldera is lava-filled and is very steep around its entire circumference. It is heaven for rock climbers but definitely not for unprepared hikers.
The bottom of the beautiful crater is wonderfully overlaid with white crystals of sodium phosphate, a feature that is uniquely different from the known craters in the world. At first glance, one would think it is a skating rink in the middle of a gigantic open-air stadium, or a lake, miraculously frozen in the vast, parched land. I actually call it a “Lake of Salt.” Mineral-rich, perennial but substantial rain water from the vast basaltic plateau finds its way down the crater and evaporates during the long summer months leaving a salt residue. Its pearly white hue visibly shimmers even under a starry, starry night, like a glistening jewel in the dark, as we have seen upon arrival. The magnificent abyss glowed even more at daytime. It felt like we were in another planet.
We arrived shortly before midnight and camped beside a newly-constructed gazebo, one of the six gazebos that were recently erected in the promising tourist spot. It is a priority project of the government in an attempt to improve tourist facilities, attract more visitors and, consequently, generate income.
The night was cold and crisp and what better way to keep warm then to lit a bonfire! Strumming his guitar, one of my friends led a medley of songs thanking and worshiping the Creator. I lied on a mat and enjoyed star-gazing - a moment I have been longing for in many years. Like a child that I was, I would shout every time I see a shooting star. Funny at my age of 47 but definitely one of the most unforgettable travel experiences I’ve had. The tranquility of the cold, starry night was disrupted by the occasional rhythmic barking of the wild dogs that is not uncommon in the area. (Do not be afraid, though. They are harmless, so long as you won’t provoke them.)
The toilet facilities were closed so we had to be “innovative” during the so-called “call of nature.” It added to the thrill, though. Hahaha. In the early morning, we had a chat with the facility care-taker and generously allowed us to use his toilet. A great relief!
The joyful descent
We descended to the bottom of the crater late in the morning, which was not a good idea. Early morning must be better. We followed the trail but it wasn’t easy. At some point the trail was slippery due to tiny crushed rocks on the trail itself. Decent shoes is recommended. Everyone was in high spirits, enthusiastic on the goal ahead – to stand in the middle of the beautiful, one-of-a kind crater and, of course, taking instagrammable photos! I was the second to the last to reach the bottom of the crater as I immersed myself with the wonderful flora growing on the basaltic rock. It was springtime, a timely visit to see the wild flowers in bloom. As a biologist, it is always a joy to see different species of plants. It took us about 30 to 45 minutes to reach the bottom, as most bloggers and vloggers testify.
We wondered and wandered in the immense Lake of Salt. I, myself, touched it and tasted it as I desired to do, long before the visit. Like everyone else, I took photos and recorded videos of this dazzling natural masterpiece. It was awesome.
The sorrowful ascent
After all the narcissistic selfies, wacky groufies and exhilarating jump-shots, we needed to leave. It was already a quarter past 11am. It was hot but the breeze was cool. Like those who have hiked before us, climbing up was truly challenging. I strongly advise to never attempt to go down the crater if you did not pre-condition your body. You must have enough stamina and endurance, especially for not-so-young folks like me. I nearly passed out during our ascent due to sudden feebleness and blurry vision. Worst, my legs cramped halfway through the trek. I was blessed to have my buddies, Rix and Rodel, assisting me. Likewise, Bernard, a Kenyan colleague of mine, who quickly climbed up way ahead of everybody in an incredible speed and agility, descended again to where I was, bringing a banana, a chocolate bar and a canned juice for me to recharge.
The awful scaling took us more than two hours to reach the top of the plateau.
I thank God, I survived.
What to bring
Water, even plenty of water, is not enough. You must bring sugared beverages and foods like biscuits and chocolates to keep you going and to combat hypoglycemia, just in case. I also recommend to bring first-aid kit. Also, wear a suitable clothing, a head gear and a backpack to free your hands while trekking the crater.
All's well that ends well
Seeing this wondrous, “other-worldly” creation was fulfilling, in spite of my not-so-good experience hiking up. We returned to Jeddah enriched with priceless memories, including munching on a hot, luscious Kabsa, Saudi Arabia’s national food, in a remote restaurant along the way, to boost our much-need energy.
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