About now, in Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Agriculture and Water is opening the kingdom's first national park: a $14-million, 1,000-square-mile natural preserve sweeping down from 'Asir's 9,000-foot peaks and the cool green amphitheater of Abha to the sun-baked plains of the Red Sea littoral with its incomparable coral reefs (See page 6) and splendid sand beaches.
When finished, U.S. park people say, the 'Asir National Park may rival the great national parks of the world in size and beauty—as well as in ecological importance and archeological interest. The deserts of the Empty Quarter aside, it is one of the last unspoiled wilderness areas in the kingdom.
In the uplands, for example, after the winter and spring rains, you can see wild flowers carpeting the valley floor and apricot orchards filled with blossoms; higher still the park is a place where red foxes, hyraxes, wolves and baboons roam among the rocky hillsides — and where, it is thought, a few leopards still dwell It is a place of hawks and kestrels, crows and ravens; the abode of over 300 species of birds: the gray hornbill, the Abyssinian masked weaver, the pygmy sunbird, the bee-eater, and a variety of Arabian songbirds. It is also one of the last refuges of the endangered vulture called the lammergeier.
There are forests here too — juniper forests stretching across the black flanks of Jabal al-Sudah like a monarch's cloak, rippling and sighing in the perpetual wind that blows up here, their sharp aromatic smell scenting the air, their dark green foliage shading the sun-dazzled land.
Under these trees, some of them 120 years old, men once raised their tents, gathered firewood, grazed their animals and hunted game. But then, with the introduction of trucks and modern firearms and with overgrazing by ever-larger herds, this changed. In a few short years, they began, unwittingly, to destroy their awn environment. The wildlife declined, the trees were decimated, the grassy slopes were denuded and the soil eroded.
The park, fortunately, will reverse this trend. Though most of the park will remain a wilderness, park authorities have already created 225 family camping sites—withtablesand grills and piped water — parking and toilet facilities, nature trails and lookouts, concession stands and information booths, play areas and hiking paths. One example is al-Dalaghan, an oasis of green surrounded by rocky outcroppings. It has ponds and running water and though blacktop roads wind throughout they take maximum advantage of the terrain; rocks and trees, for example, provide natural privacy for overnight camp sites.
Indeed, all the campsites, buildings and trails make the most of natural features. Parking areas and buildings use existing slopes and grades, nature paths use old trails, trees are preserved, boulders left in place, and all signs and maps, while clearly visible, are unobtrusive. The administration and visitors' center, for example, halfway between al-Qura'ah in the south and al-Sudah in the north, is perched like an eagle's eyrie on the edge of the escarpment. Part showcase and part museum, it has seven exhibit rooms which begin at the entrance lobby and ascend a ramp to the top level, unfolding enroute a $1.5-million visual presentation of the park's habitats, and climaxing in an outlook over a vast panorama of majestic peaks marching away in ranks to the Red Sea, 45 miles away, and Wadi Dila, some 3,000 feet below.
From this eyrie, visitors can see, snaking down the side of the escarpment in a series of hair-raising switchbacks, the new road to the coast and, on a clear day, the sparkling waters of the Red Sea, where two other centers will be built: one at al-Shuqayq on the beach nearfizan, the other amid the date palms, fields of corn and thatched huts of the Tihama.
The park, essentially, was the idea of King Khalid, who ordered close supervision of hunting and the preservation of flora and fauna throughout the kingdom. Assisting were Prince Sultan ibn Abd al-'Aziz, who set up a commission to carry out the plan, Prince Khalid ibn Faisal ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz, Prince Faisal ibn Bandar ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz, the amir and deputy amir of Asir province, and 'Abd al-Karim al-Kuwaiti from the Ministry of Agriculture and Water.
The design of the park, part of a project set up by the U.S.—Saudi Arabian Joint Economic Commission, was provided by the Colorado-based firm of Wirth-Berger, whose on-site landscape architect Ken Magdziuk spent all of 1979 overseeing construction of facilities. The park is being managed, moreover, by eight U.S. National Park Service rangers and administrators, all dedicated to the motto of U. S. parks — "Take only pictures, leave only footprints"— and the park superintendent is Mohammad Khan, an amiable Pakistani-American and long-time National Park Service administrator. These men, having launched and guided the project, were still, on the eve of its completion, keeping a close eye on its progress. Prince Khalid, for example, who heads the only provincial government with its own development department, intends to see that wise planning directs all future development. To this end, he has backed a committee formed to draw up a national parks policy.
Such a policy will be vital, because tourism from within the kingdom is definitely coming to 'Asir Province. Even now Saudis and expatriates are flocking to the cool highlands to escape the city heat, and Saudia, the national airline, is running four flights a day from Riyadh to Abha, and four from Jiddah. Some Saudi Arabs are building homes on Abha Lake; Prince Khalid is planning a holiday village adjacent to the park site on Jabal al-Sudah with tennis courts, swimming pools, a golf course and villas for rent; and two more hotels are scheduled. Without protection, the beauty of Asir could easily be spoiled, particularly when the park is officially open and visitors begin to arrive in large numbers.
That's not far off. Visitors have already begun to come. One family, for example, recently drove seven hours from Najran to camp for three days in the shade of some gnarled cedar trees, and another drove down from Abhajust to spend the day. A portent of the future, they spread their rugs in the shade and made tea as the children, wide-eyed, stared entranced at the scene around them: a sea of mountain pinnacles, valleys blue with distance, a hawk plummeting down in pursuit of a crow and, in the clear air, kestrels hovering in the wind...
Aileen Vincent-Barwood, who now lives in Saudi Arabia, is a former editor of the St. Lawrence Plaindealer, and a free-lance correspondent for the CBC. She has also contributed articles and fiction to U.S. magazines.