Eastern Province, off the beaten track

Extending from the rippling waters of the Arabian Gulf, to the untamed depths of the Rub’ Al Khali desert, Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province is bursting with off-map allure. Exploring here turns up a wealth of under-the-radar adventures, ranging from fossil-dusted caves, to mountaintop desert discoveries. Read on for a sampling of the region’s natural wonders.

Dig for roses

Known colloquially as desert roses, these beautiful crystal clusters form, when minerals in the sand weld together in hot and arid climates. Their intricate petal-like form has made them a prized find since early Bedouin times. Dig up your own by joining a guided expedition into the desert dunes around 40km west of Al Khobar, where these rosette formations flourish in the sands. They appear in a variety of hues, from reddish-tinged sand to a darker brown, and are a gorgeous natural souvenir of Saudi Arabia’s expansive deserts.

The Yellow Lake

You’ll be glad to know that the Yellow Lake isn’t in fact yellow. Instead, its azure waters, located on the outskirts of Al Ahsa city, are formed of the runoff from the 22,000 farms that populate the lush Al Ahsa region, home to one of the world’s largest oases. There are no roads leading to the lake, so a guide with an SUV offers the best way to navigate your path through the dunes to its idyllic and fern-fringed waters. Take a picnic, explore the overlooking hills, and don’t forget your binoculars: During winter, several species of birds come here to breed among the vegetation, including the greater spotted eagle and moustached warbler.

Judah’s Thumb

Approximately a 10-minute drive northeast of the town of Judah – or around two and half hours’ drive from Jubail – you’ll find the Judah’s Thumb, a towering rock formation that rears out of the desert, like, as its name suggests, a looming thumb.  Head out in convoy for an off-road day trip and explore the nearby escarpments, which are full of surprises in the form of hidden caves and rugged rock formations and watch for camels winding their way across the sands. You can even camp for the night. Just don’t expect to get much sleep: the star-lidded skies here are out of this world.

The Mastodon Cave

A distant relative of the elephant, mastodons trudged the earth in prehistoric times and a geological echo of these herds can still be seen in Saudi Arabia today. An impressive selection of what locals claim to be their fossilized bones can be seen peppering the ceiling of the Mastodon Cave, which is an almost two hours’ drive north of Jubail. The sandstone chamber is home to an array of animals, including bats, rock doves, owls, wolves, foxes and more, making it a paradise for wildlife watching. You’ll need a guide to help you find it, as signposts are scant, but it’s well worth the trip and there are plenty of beautiful camping spots along the way.

Flamingos in Jubail

During winter great flocks of flamingos, among other birds, can be found clustering all along Saudi Arabia’s eastern coast. The best place to see them is at Sabkhat al-Fasl reserve, near Jubail, where thousands of these pink-hued birds congregate in the cooler months, representing a readymade photo opportunity. The drive to the reserve is an easy one, for which you don’t need a guide.

Afterwards, visit the nearby Al Nakheel Beach and take a stroll along the breezy waterfront or barbecue at the beach.