National Geographic

Trail Notes: The Prince

El Reis, Saudi Arabia, 23°32'21" N, 38°33'06" E

“You want to give the prince canned corn?”

It is my walking guide, Mohamad Banounah.

He is incredulous. He is sick of explaining. He is taking matters into his own hands. This is doubtless a good thing for His Royal Highness Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, president of the Saudi Commission on Tourism and Antiquities and the eldest son of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. Prince Sultan is a cultured man, a seasoned pilot, a champion of Saudi history, and an extraordinary traveler in his own right: He is the first Arab in the world—the first Muslim, the first royal—to visit outer space. He is paying us a visit at our beach camp. I have just suggested to Banounah that he share our lunch from the sweat-crusted camel bags.

“That’s what he’s coming for,” I say, “an authentic experience.”

Banounah shakes his head sadly. At my ignorance. At my lack of sophistication. At my folly. He waves me off to “go write.” He gets busy.

A word about the corn:

It was Banounah’s idea. We needed a high-calorie staple to satisfy the multinational palates of our micro-caravan: Saudi tastes, Sudanese tastes (Awad Omran, our cameleer, hails from near the sixth cataract of the Nile), and American tastes. Banounah’s solution: cans of whole-kernel sweet corn. Such corn may be consumed at any temperature. It is a walking fuel conveniently spooned straight from the can. Except Awad won’t touch the stuff. Even Banounah dislikes it. And I am tired of it, too, though my stomach is no more discriminating than a goat’s. We carry many pounds of canned corn north through the Hejaz desert. Our camel bags sag with this wonder food. Perhaps we can trade it in Jordan—as a novelty item—for something more edible.

“You have a very nice camp,” Prince Sultan says eight hours later, after landing on the beach in a Sikorsky helicopter. He is a no-nonsense, friendly man, curious about the world he circled every 90 minutes as a payload specialist aboard the space shuttle in 1985.

From the landing zone, where Banounah has staked a makeshift windsock, we walk to a large open-sided tent that Banounah has pegged next to the surf. It is floored with fine red carpets that Banounah has unrolled onto the sand. Banounah has positioned plush elbow cushions at various spots in the shade. He has brewed dozens of cups of tea and coffee for the Prince’s entourage, produced platters of dates, and installed washbasins complete with a small bottle of perfume for the hands. I am seeing most of these accessories for the first time. All of it—minus two roast sheep Banounah bought from a nearby village—emerged from the back of Banounah’s dusty Yukon support vehicle, which apparently holds 98 percent of the material culture of the early 21st century.

Prince Sultan shares a story with his entourage. El Reis, Saudi Arabia. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Prince Sultan shares a story with his entourage. Photograph by Paul Salopek

I agree heartily with Prince Sultan. We have a very nice camp.

There are 24 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. HikerBob
    September 10, 2013

    Wonderful !

  2. Robert Durkin
    September 10, 2013

    You have spent much of your life in war zones, won a Pulitzer, and now as you walk with your camels across the desert, the former astronaut, Prince Sultan, drops in to have lunch with you in his Sikorsky. This story keeps getting more incredible!

  3. Annie Williams
    September 10, 2013

    Banounah is a very skilled and truly prepared for all encounters.
    You experienced a royal visitor in your journey that wanted to share his stories and be a part of your story. That is awesome. What will happen next?

  4. Eva Maria Huschka
    September 11, 2013

    I am looking at the map that shows your future route. You wll avoid Syria and will travel through Lebanon, always along the coast. Is this the rout you think our forefathers took when they walked out of Eden?

  5. Michael Reid
    September 11, 2013

    What a fantastic encounter to add to the others. Good luck in trading in the tinned sweetcorn.

    Are you at all daunted by the magnitude of what you are doing now that the first few months have given you a calibration of how much there is to go or is it exciting to think how many more wonderful encounters are to come?

    • Paul Salopek
      September 13, 2013

      As someone once said, Michael, one world at a time. There’s no other way to do this—in 32-inch intervals, the length of my step.

  6. Sultan bin salman
    September 11, 2013

    I would have been v happy with the canned corn, loved the experience, look forward to our next airdrop

    • Paul Salopek
      September 13, 2013

      Dear Prince Sultan: We will never run out of canned corn. You are welcome back to our campsite anytime.

  7. Bob Durkin
    September 11, 2013

    Thank you, Prince Sultan, for posting here today, it is a happy moment for those of us who wish Paul the best. Do you miss outer space?

  8. Adam Jasmick Jr.
    September 12, 2013

    You have a very competent companion with Mohamad Banounah and his resourcefulness! With years of travel ahead of you, I am confident there will be an incredible book written by you once the journey ends. Your photos add to the reader’s experience.
    Thank you! Stay safe!

    • Paul Salopek
      September 13, 2013

      Yes, I’ve been lucky to have Banounah along. On top of everything else, he’s a terrific storyteller.

  9. Pam
    September 12, 2013

    Amazing journey

  10. Daniel Watkins
    September 14, 2013

    I’m following your Saudi let of the journey with great interest. I have wandered the desert here west of Riyadh for many years and found, just once, a Neolithic (homo habilis or homo erectus) hand axe – now a prized possession. I tend to think of the diaspora from Africa as having come through the once fertile inland regions but surely there would have been coastal routes too. I regret not meeting you a few months ago at Prince Khalid al Faisal’s residence. I would liked to have shown you the axe.

    Best wishes,

    Daniel Watkins

  11. Win Grace
    September 14, 2013

    Your story of the corn reminds me of our time as newlyweds (more than 50 years ago now) living with an elderly French couple in the Loire River Valley. We invited them to dinner with us one evening after having spent many wonderful dinners with them. As a brand new American bride, I fixed corn on the cob and hotdogs for them! They ate it politely, but informed me in France corn was only fed to the animals! They had to admit though that corn salted and slathered in butter really does taste pretty good! 🙂 Safe travels!

    • Paul Salopek
      September 22, 2013

      Good thing California wines hadn’t been invented yet, Win. You were already flirting with deportation.

  12. Gary Boivin
    September 15, 2013

    I am an afficionado of MexiCorn, from Green Giant, though I must admit, these days, canned food of any kind doesn’t set well with me. Oh, the joys of aging. Loks like you’re gettting close to Yanbu. A visit from a prince never hurts, does it?

  13. Sue Piper
    September 16, 2013

    I’m trying to catch up on your photo journey and all the dispatches, as I just read about this amazing journey in my son’s Harvard Ed magazine. I’ve sent the links on to he and his family in Nairobi, Kenya. His wife’s family roots are in Ethiopia so I think my grandchildren will find it interesting to follow your journey that started there. I feel immersed into so many places; with your writing gift I can I see and hear and smell and taste and touch all the many, diverse places you have visited so far. Journeying the 1100 miles you have already covered is more than an evening’s trip in an armchair tho! God speed through your many miles. Thanks for the words and the photos that have already taken me to so many cultures and places that are fair outside of my Ohio landscape!

  14. Shirley Goode
    September 19, 2013

    Your travels & stories are addictive! THANK YOU….. I feel as though we are all in your pocket with a unique view of the lands you travel through!

  15. Linda Hoernke
    September 22, 2013

    Another wonderful story….safe travels Paul~~

  16. Linda Laursen B.
    September 25, 2013

    You continue to craft the ordinary into the extraordinary for us spectators, with every step you take. Your posts inspire us teachers to craft amazing lesson plans around your journey!

    • Paul Salopek
      September 27, 2013

      Glad to hear you are shepherding these dusty little tales through your classroom, Linda

  17. Claudette Krauter
    February 20, 2014

    I started to follow your journey many months after you but I don’t want to rush so I read just one post every couple of days so that I can savor every mouthful. This dispatch was wonderful. Thank you so much

  18. Brian Twomey
    April 24, 2014

    “Greetings from Ireland.I will follow your journey with joy and excitment

  19. Corinne
    August 24, 2014

    I am wondering what you do with your garbage such empty corn tins. Does your support vehicle take them to the nearest settlement for garbage? Is there any recycling centres available? Can you re-use them for other purposes?

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