At the peak of the Al Hada road, near the city of Taif, impish baboons scurry about as local families lay out carpets, cups and pots on the stony ground. Once settled they will drink coffee and spiced tea, while looking out across layers of mountains, which the evening glow casts in different shades of blue-grey. Below, a smooth serpentine road — surely one of the most beautiful anywhere in the world — bends and curves down the mountainside towards the flat plain where Makkah lies. Old camel caravan paths, marked by little dry-stone walls, also zig-zag down the mountain, marking the hairpin route that traders once took down to Makkah and beyond to the Jeddah coast.
Coming up here, 2,000-meters above sea level, feels like a pilgrimage in itself. Many of the faithful who visit Makkah will also make the journey up the famed Al Hada road, stopping at the fruit market near the summit, where fruit sellers — often descendants of local tribes — sell the seasonal produce that this area is renowned for. While most of Saudi Arabia swelters in the summer, the mountainous Taif region remains relatively cool, the soil fertile enough to produce some of the country’s best apricots, figs, peaches, pomegranates and more. The fruit sellers welcome visitors with gentle smiles, and are usually happy to let people try before they buy. From the fruit market, the road flattens towards Taif, passing a handful of amusement parks with Ferris wheels, toboggan tracks and fairground rides.
The road isn’t the only way to get to and from Al Hada. Saudi Arabia’s longest cable car runs 4.2km from the peak down the mountain – a beautiful ride over camel caravans, curving roads and shadowy peaks. It ends at the Al Kar Tourist Village at the bottom, home to a water park built into the hillside, and a toboggan ride that whooshes down a metal track. This area, with its arcade of shops, was designed more elegantly than most amusement areas, with buildings whose arches and columns echo the Hijaz region’s Islamic-meets-Roman architecture.
As with much of the area, the call to prayer is a sound almost as regular as the splash of the wave machine, coming from the mosque by the toboggan track. During summer the park, like many places in Saudi, stays open until late. The last cable car gently sways up to the summit at midnight, when car lights on the switchback roads create a snaking light installation up the mountainside. It’s the end to another peaceful day in Taif’s beautiful mountain region.
Al Hada’s cable car is open from 1.30pm to midnight, Wednesday to Saturday, though times may vary seasonally. A return ticket costs SAR60 (about US$16) for adults, and SAR30 ($8) for children.
Al Kar Tourist Village is open from 1.30pm to midnight, Wednesday to Saturday, though times may vary seasonally.