30-Mar-2006 -- Šabwa is one of the biggest governorates in Yemen, and is made up of large areas of rolling desert punctuated by dramatic mountain landscapes. Improbable rock structures pierce the sky, and give one a stark sense of perspective and isolation. Added to this is the legendary fierceness of the Šabwa tribes, exemplified by a spate of kidnappings in recent years in which foreign tourists have been abducted in order to extract demands from the Government of Yemen. Thankfully, all tourists have (to date) been released unharmed, and usually within a few hours, but the area remains one of grave concern for the authorities and travelling expatriates alike.
15N 46E lies just off the old 'Incense Road', which connected the ancient port of Qana`, the former capital of Ḥaḍramawt, with the route that took frankincense and myrrh all the way north to the major commercial centres of Petra and Gaza before being dispatched to the temples of imperial Rome. Although Christianity, then Islam, killed off the trade, both goods are still readily available in the incense sūq of the Old City of Ṣan`ā', and are frequently found smouldering away at a better class of qāt chew. The area of the confluence point is typically Šabwan: dune desert, with dark, brooding hills dominating the horizon.
I had first attempted to visit this point with Sarah Marchant on our way to Ḥaḍramawt in November 2005. In fact, it was our first ever confluence attempt, and a combination of inexperience and incompetence with map and GPS led to our going in completely the wrong direction, getting stuck in the sand, and having to make a hasty retreat before nightfall. Another confluence hunter, Naella Masud, also tried to visit 15N 46E but was denied permission by the police to go off road. But, feeling confident after visiting 14N 47E in Abyan, I thought I'd have another try on the way back to Ṣan`ā'.
In the town of `Aram near the border between Abyan and Šabwa, I'd picked up a fairly heavy-duty military escort of eight armed men equipped with a machine gun mounted on a flat-bed truck. After a long day's drive it was getting late, so the plan was to camp in the desert as close to the point as possible, visit it quickly the next day, then head back to Ṣan`ā'. The asphalt took us to 15 km from the target, and we drove cautiously into the desert. It was already dark by then, so I settled for camping at 13 km from 15N 46E. I sent half the soldiers to the nearest town, Nuqūb, with some money to buy food for us all, and the other half remained with me whilst I set up the camp.
It was then that the problems began. The Šabwa desert at night swarms with large, evil-looking insects, which gather round any source of light. My last food supplies were attacked as soon as they were opened. More troubling was the thunder and lightning that started to appear over the nearby hills: rain looked certain, and the joys of camping in the desert were beginning to disappear one by one. The soldiers began to look miserable, so I packed up the camp and we drove to the nearest police checkpoint, twenty minutes away. The soldiers I'd dispatched to get supplies returned foodless, and I settled for an early and rather hungry night in the back of the Land Rover at one of the remotest checkpoints in Yemen.
I'd gone to sleep feeling somewhat dejected, but woke refreshed and optimistic about making it to the point. After some persuasion, the police agreed to let me go back into the desert, and from nowhere they produced `Aliy Ṣāliḥ, a local Bedu policeman to help guide us. We had around 14 km of sand to cover, and the first ten or so were fairly easy, as we were able to follow the ruts of previous vehicles. The police truck, weighed down with its compliment of soldiers and weapons, got stuck twice, but the Landy experienced no problems. The ruts disappeared, and I handed over the driving to `Aliy, the desert expert, to avoid any risk of getting bogged down. We told the police truck to stay where it was and we carried on alone, making slow but steady progress over the very soft dunes.
But, it was not to be. At 4.64 km from 15N 46E, we could see that the rest of the way was entirely dune-ridden and would be extremely slow and difficult. `Aliy Ṣāliḥ wanted to go no further. In truth, I think he was more concerned about the time aspect than the dunes - I've seen Bedu drive over much more difficult terrain in the past - not to mention the fact that the bulk of our security had been left behind. He was against going any further, and I reluctantly agreed. It was a disappointing, but probably very sensible decision.
We made our way back to the checkpoint. On the way I asked about making the trip by camel. Camels would be perfect for the task, `Aliy replied, but it would take 8-10 hours under the baking sun! So, unless future confluence hunters have something of the Wilfred Thesiger in them, 15N 46E remains as elusive as ever. We made do with a breakfast of fūl and eggs in Nuqūb, before leaving, empty handed, for Ṣan`ā'.
Note: For more information about confluence-hunting in Yemen, or the involvement of the British Embassy Ṣan`ā' in the DCP, please see the visit to 15N 49E.