Unfettered Saudi Arabia: SA travel photographer shares his adventure to this formerly closed-off country

2019-01-17 12:54 - Words: Selene Brophy | Video: Gabi Zietsman
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Homegrown travel photographer Kyle Mijlof, one of the first official tourists to Saudi Arabia, cannot get over how extraordinary this Middle Eastern country is.

Not exactly your bucket list destination, the Kingdom of Saudi only recently began processing tourist visas, in place for special events, since April 2018.

And after a whirlwind month of exploring and stringing us along with his mesmerizing Instagram and twitter feed, Traveller24 caught up with Kyle to find out what this yet to be explored destination is about.

SEE: Fancy a holiday in the desert? Saudi Arabia to officially launch tourist visas in April

Sipping flat whites on the sidewalk of one of Cape Town’s most famous beaches, Camps Bay - also Kyle’s SA home base - he is frank when he says, “As a man and women, sitting together like this in public was illegal in Saudi. Previously we would have all been arrested, because we are not married or related.

“But things are changing and my aim in visiting the country was to showcase that.”

Seen as a deeply conservative and orthodox Islamic country, the removal of the religious police that would have frowned on our midday, coffee gathering is just one of a few progressive moves attributed to the country’s influential Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud.

Saudi’s transition to issue official tourist visas is part of its journey to modernisation as outlined in its Vision 2030 – essentially, a pivot from a finite, oil-dependent economy - something that Dubai is all too familiar with - to industries that offer broader appeal and longevity. It’s a vision that has MBS’ blessing as women enjoy more freedoms in the staunchly patriarchal society than ever before, including being allowed to drive.

PICS: Saudi woman diver explores Red Sea ahead of tourist influx 

So how did Kyle end up in the visa queue so to speak?

“Yousef and I met in Durban about three years ago, during a trip to South African. He is the second biggest travel influencer in the whole country. I was selected based on this regular relationship I had with him.”

Yousef Al Sudais' popularity in the Middle East is largely due to living a life that sees his travel dreams becoming a reality. And thanks to this, he took Kyle adventuring across this untapped kingdom.  

And to clarify there was no queue.

In fact, it was Kyle’s video of his online application, which he says took all of two minutes to process, that went viral throughout the Middle East.

Previously the invite and approval process would have taken about two months, he says.

As a result, South Africa is now part of 16 countries that have access to the online application process for the event visas, which is what Kyle was granted in order to attend a special formula E event.

Thereafter, with Yousef as his host, they road tripped the northern desert regions of Saudi.

As an AFDA film school graduate with sound engineering under his belt, the idea of a mainstream just did not appeal to Kyle. In 2010, while most people were taking a gap year in the United Kingdom, he says he opted to road trip the West Coast of Africa across 48 000kms and some 32 countries. It took 11 months and served him some real, hard experiences - including getting malaria four times.

It was then that one of his photos got picked up by National Geographic, he says, kick-starting his travel photography career. This in itself shaped the travel photographer’s penchant for the more unique and unusual during his travel adventures. Obviously, the appeal across 400kms of Saudi was right up his alley.

 “It’s not just all sand dunes either,” says Kyle.

"I feel everybody, especially on social, is mostly focused on Jordon, with Petra. And you always see the same thing, with camels in the desert.

"We got to explore this region dating back thousands of generations of the Nabataeans. It’s a very beautiful, spiritual place, that many people don’t know about. There are so many places that are incredible, only being discovered as recently as four months ago,” says Kyle.

He also got to drone Madain Saleh, Al Hijir Saudi Arabia's first World Heritage Site, chosen for it well-preserved 131 rock-cut monumental tombs, with their elaborately ornamented façades of the Nabataean Kingdom.

READ: Saudi Arabia links holy cities Mecca and Medina with new high-speed rail system

While Kyle’s love for Namibia’s rugged and surreal landscapes has always been number 1 as his favourite destination, he says it took all of two days for Saudi to near top that. 

He also describes it as one of the safest countries he has been to.

“I could leave all my stuff right here, go take a walk on the beach and come back and all my stuff would still be there. Untouched. My car could be running there and I would have no worries. It was incredible that this weight lifts from your consciousness and you can just be.”

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