RIYADH: Anyone who has spent some time in Riyadh will likely be familiar with Wadi Hanifah — the dry riverbed that was transformed by the Royal Commission for Riyadh City from an unsightly and dangerous dumping ground into the meandering oasis that it is today, with landscaped gardens, lush wetlands and thousands of trees.
But while you might have visited this beauty spot for an evening stroll or picnic, you might not be aware of all the other activities it has to offer.
Many people probably do not know, for example, that Wadi Hanifah is listed as a global destination for runners. The website Great Runs — “the ultimate guide to the best places to run” — cites the “groomed network of trails” in the vicinity of the Diplomatic Quarter, “winding through the desert for a ‘lollipop’ loop of 8 kilometers by the waterway, with its great desert scenery.” Twenty kilometers south is the Stone Dam Park where runners can push themselves to the limit, up and down the 210-step staircase.
Wadi Hanifah is also a safe, quiet and peaceful place for a bike ride — in contrast to the unforgiving highway ‘supergrid’ of Riyadh — whether you’re looking for a relaxed cycle through attractive landscape or something more challenging. Cyclists can traverse the entire western side of the city, a 25-kilometer stretch from the historical village of Diriyah in the north to the neighborhood of Badr in the south.
“You can ride everything from gravel roads to sandy valleys and historic backstreets,” says long-distance cyclist Omar Al-Omair. “There are enough options to provide a different adventure every day of the week. It is mostly free of traffic during early mornings and at night and is full of green scenery. A lot of cycling groups use it to ride on an almost daily basis.”
The many flat, sandy areas of Wadi Hanifah offer a perfect spot to pitch a tent for the night too, as nomadic Bedouins have done for thousands of years. The whole Wadi is patrolled 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so camping out here is generally very safe.
One may still be a little unnerved by the packs of wild dogs, but they usually keep their distance, and their bark is invariably worse than their bite. And they do — eventually — settle down to sleep.
Lounging by your campfire under the stars, with the illuminated stone banks on either side and a cool breeze blowing through the trees, it is easy to forget that you are only minutes away from the teeming streets of the Saudi capital.
Ornithologists praise Wadi Hanifah for its abundance of bird life: grebes, cormorants, herons and egrets are among the 300-plus bird species attracted by the wetlands, the lush greenery and the adjacent farms and palm groves.
Arthur Stagg, author of “Birds of the Riyadh Region,” writes that “the Saudi authorities have recognized the intrinsic value of this desert wetland and accorded it reserve status, thereby protecting species which in many other areas of the world are threatened.”
And for amateur botanists, Wadi Hanifah offers an enormous variety of trees, shrubs, reeds, cacti and flowers. Of course, there are many kinds of acacia and palm trees, but there are also desert rose, tamarisk, fluffy ‘needle bush’ and boxthorn, among countless other species.
The ecological consultants behind the transformation of Wadi Hanifah wanted to preserve and regenerate the native plants of the Najd region, instead of importing fauna from abroad. And they were amazed at how fast the wadi’s ancient ecosystem came back to life.
But in terms of activities in Wadi Hanifah, the best is probably yet to come. As part of the Green Riyadh project, a Sports Boulevard will soon connect Wadi Hanifah in the west of the city with Wadi Al-Sulai in the east. The 30-kilometer route will include pedestrian pathways, children’s playgrounds, cycling routes up to 135 kilometers long and horse-riding routes up to 123 kilometers long.
Various cultural venues are also planned in the form of outdoor movie theaters, museums, art galleries and children’s playgrounds — all contributing to one of the key goals of Vision 2030: to place Riyadh among the world’s top 100 most-livable cities.
A place of fun and adventure alongside pristine nature and diverse wildlife, Wadi Hanifah in many ways represents the intended future of Saudi Arabia as a whole.