08-Jun-2010 -- Making a first visit to a confluence point is exciting as anyone who has done it would tell you. But doing it in a country that is still practically, albeit not officially, a war zone is the most thrilling of all challenges. My first attempt a few days earlier on June 5 targeting 33N 44E had to be aborted just 20 km from the confluence point after I and my fellow passengers (colleague Susannah, driver Sāmiy and guide `Aliy) found ourselves in the middle of al-Qā`ida-controlled territory in al-Anbār province in Western Iraq. We did a U-turn and drove the same 110 km back to Baghdād. A bit more research and more detailed planning as well as better advice from locals, I set off this morning targeting 32N 44E in the southern al-Najaf province and this time: SUCCESS.
I came to know the Degree Confluence Project when I was offroading in the UAE desert with friends when I was living in Dubayy. After I moved to Iraq last year, I forgot about it until a couple of months ago. As a reporter specialized in oil, I spend a lot of time in oil fields across the country and I thought it would be a fantastic opportunity if there were any confluence points to visit on my trips to the fields. A quick check on confluence.org and I was thrilled to discover that only 5 out of 40 points covering Iraq have been visited since 2003. After all, this is a country that has been off limits to visitors for at least 3 decades. So, time to pick up my Garmin GPS on my next break home and start exploring this awfully unexplored country.
After the first failed attempt on June 5, I set off this morning at 6:30 a.m. from Baghdād with colleague Susannah and driver Sāmiy heading towards al-Najaf. It was the second day of a sandstorm and visibility as we were leaving was less than 1 km. Half way down to al-Najaf, visibility was no more than 500 meters. We passed through al-Maḥmūdiyya, al-Laṭīfiyya, and then al-Maḥāwīl, where one of the biggest mass graves of thousands of people killed in the 1991 uprising against Ṣaddām Ḥusayn was unearthed after his overthrow in 2003. If it wasn't for the draught, this area would be planted with the fragrant `Anbar rice. As we entered al-Ḥilla, Susannah and I covered up in black `Abāya and head cover, hid cameras and GPS, and passed through the check point unnoticed. Then came the major checkpoint at the entrance to al-Najaf. Since we were both reporters, what best than to use the services of local stringers to get us the necessary permits to get us through. Our local guide in al-Najaf, Qāsim, works closely with the local council and is well connected. A 10-minute wait while names and passport numbers were scribbled down and radioed down, OKs radioed back, and then off to meet Qāsim at a local hotel, used mainly by pilgrims to the Najaf holy shrines.
Charting our way on Mapsource the previous night, I found three villages (`Aytha, al-Ruḥayma and Ṭaqṭaqāna) in proximity to the confluence point which could serve as point of reference to our guide, who knew nothing about the purpose of our trip except that we needed to visit the area and take pictures and possibly talk to locals if any. Google Earth showed a faint track around `Aytha but nothing that passes through the confluence point, which was 19.5 km from the nearest paved road. With this in mind, our first task was to hire a 4x4 with a driver and prepare to do some serious off-road driving if necessary. Our 1998 Mercedes will definitely not be up to the task in such terrain. Our guide Qāsim delivered again and hired Ḥasan – also a part time stringer for an international news agency – as our driver for the day. By 10:30 a.m. we were off skirting around al-Najaf in Ḥasan's Hyundai 4-wheel drive heading towards the western exit of the town to the area known as Baḥr al-Najaf in Arabic, meaning Najaf Sea or Najaf Lake. According to history books, it was indeed full of water until it dried out in the late 19th or beginning of the 20th century as a result of dams built on the Euphrates.
Once we were on the “Strategic Road” as the locals call it, in reference to the parallel South-North strategic oil pipeline running from al-Baṣra in the south to Kirkūk in the north, I tried to spot the best and closest entry point into what is today the desert area of Baḥr al-Najaf. The first couple of possible entries seemed a bit too far and no tracks in view. We continued north on that road until a sign at the beginning of a track mentioned a project underway to build a 12-km al-Ruḥayma – Azziya road. I have no idea where Azziya is, but if we get to al-Ruḥayma, then we're half way or 11 km towards our confluence point, I thought. We turned left and soon were on an asphalted narrow road. Further ahead bulldozers were hard at work paving the road ahead. We drove at less than 20 km/h until we reached al-Ruḥayma, a small village made up of a dozen mud-block houses, driving the last few kilometres on a track. From there, it looked like the same track can take us in a straight line in the direction of Ṭaqṭaqāna, possibly, if we are lucky, via our confluence point.
We followed the track keeping the navigation compass of my GPS in view. We drove 6 km without meeting a soul and with no cell phone signal. Visibility was better than on the road from Baghdād to al-Najaf though still impaired by the dust storm. Finally, two camels in the distance. At 5 km from the confluence point, excitement started building up as the track we were following was still visible ahead. Another check and we were at 4 km and looked like we were heading straight towards the confluence point. Still, we did not cross a soul en route, not one car on that semi-trodden track. Then Sāmiy started cracking jokes, first suggesting we stop by at a (imaginary) coffee shop for coffee. Then: “Any one would like to get off and take a taxi back home while we continue?” The desert was having its toll on people's nerves, I thought. Whatever happens in this no-man's land, no one would know about it until it's too late. Then I thought about Susannah. This 25-year old kid has guts! After all, I'm an Arab (admittedly with a British passport) and can deal with a situation that arises but she's the only American I know who dared venture that far in Iraq without the multi security measures and precautions all foreign reporters surround themselves with, and it's not even a work assignment. She's confluence hunting!
Still driving north-west, the track suddenly disappeared as we were just 1 km away from our target point. On my GPS it looked so close and straight ahead. The ground started to become more sandy with scattered small rocks. At 546 meters, we came to a small hill. Our confluence point was right behind it. I climbed up on foot to have a look. “We are walking half a km” I told everyone. With bottles of water in hand in 42 degrees heat, we started walking. It was 12:30 p.m. And there we were, 32°00.098'N 42°00.059'E. We are spot on. A few more steps and it zeroed on. Hurray!
I placed the GPS on the floor and took a bunch of pictures with the mid-day sun blurring my screen. I had to make sure at least one is clear enough. Then I turned around and took pictures of the North, South, East, and West in that order to make sure I get it right when downloading them. It looked the same in any direction. The whole area was desolate, a spread-out desert, probably all the way to the Saudi border to the West. That would be a fantastic off-road trip to the border one day, probably in a few years when it's safe enough.
So what's there exactly in this spot, our Najafiyy friends Qāsim and Ḥasan asked as Susannah and I felt triumphant. Nothing, I said, just a point on a map. They were not convinced. “Not even oil?”, one asked. Not that I know of, but if they ever do find oil, I promise to buy you a barrel each, I joked.
I picked a few pebbles and stones from the area which my geologist friend identified as quartz pebbles, sandstones, and rocks of volcanic/igneous origin.
Back to the car, all of us drenched in sweat, a quick cold water drink and soon we were tracking back to the village of al-Ruḥayma where we stopped for a quick interview of 80-year old Ḥasan and son Laurence or “Orance” as he pronounced it (named after Laurence of Arabia but pronounced Orance in the local dialect). By 2 p.m. we were back on the “Strategic Road” and heading back to al-Najaf and another 200 km to home, in Baghdād.
That's one more Iraq confluence point visited, still plenty left. Sāmiy my driver said he's up to it any time, as long as I don't throw him into al-Qā`ida land again. “You know, we could have never come back from that first trip”, he said to me as we were driving back to Baghdād. He's right. I have a few more points charted on Mapsource, but thrills don't have to be at any risk. Living in Baghdād and surviving car bombs is enough challenge by itself.