31-Jan-2007 -- This was a confluence point I never thought I'd have the chance to attempt. Šabwa is a wild, desert governorate, full of ominous black hills and recalcitrant tribes. I'd driven through its capital, `Atāq, a few times, and was struck by how the entire population appeared ready to wage a civil war at the drop of a hat. While other tribesmen wear bullet belts, in `Atāq they wear grenade belts...
The Yemeni Government doesn't want curious diplomats like me driving around in such places, and getting permission to visit is difficult. So a plan was hatched to coincide with a visit of my girlfriend, Claire, to Yemen. We celebrated her birthday in Yemen's nicest (and safest) region, Wādiy Ḥaḍramawt, before setting off to see the ancient ruins of Old Šabwa, some 150 km to the southwest. This in itself was something I hadn't managed in 18 months of travelling in Yemen, so we weren't too hopeful. We met for breakfast with three Šabwan tribesmen at a checkpoint in the entrance to Wādiy Ḥaḍramawt. Ṣāliḥ Salīm `Aliy al-Nukūr was a friend of a friend, who'd been involved with some work the Embassy had done with local councils in Šabwa. Along for the ride were his son, Ma'tib, and a Bedu driver, Naṣr Aḥmad al-Handiy. All know the area very well (and Naṣr was from the wādiy in which the CP lies) and their presence would give us a much greater level of protection than a police escort ever could.
After a delayed start due to a broken fuel line on their Toyota pickup, and general faffing about (including letting Ṣāliḥ Salīm have a play with the Landy), we set off. To my amazement, we passed through the two checkpoints on the main road with no problems at all - entirely due to my escort (and their notoriety?), I'm sure. Slightly unnerving was the fact that the police were concerned about whether we had weapons or not (if we hadn't had them, we wouldn't have been let through the checkpoint..!) But Ṣāliḥ reassured them that our arsenal, including grenades, was sufficient for the trip.
Shortly afterwards we turned off the road, and started our 100-km drive across the Šabwan sands. To the left were the stunning hills that rise to form the Ḥaḍramawt plateau; to the right were yellow sand dunes. During a break to deflate our tyres slightly, Ṣāliḥ Salīm
posed with his AK-47 and we patched up the Toyota's (still) broken fuel line with gaffer tape. Claire impressed the tribesmen with her Egypt-learned sand-driving techniques (women rarely drive in Yemen, and certainly not off-road in 4x4s...) and at the western end of the plateau, we turned south towards Old Šabwa, taking care to keep clear of the Bedu camps along the way.
Old Šabwa was our first objective. This former ancient capital of Ḥaḍramawt is now resident to only a few goat herders, but the site is expansive and much still remains to be unearthed. It compares favourably with the more regularly visited BCE sites in Ma'rib and al-Jawf. Ma'tib followed us closely around the site with his AK - and my cricket hat, which he'd purloined - before we returned to the cars and sat with the others who'd already started chewing their qāt. We'd originally planned to camp at the site for the night, but thought we'd have enough time to carry on to the point and get there before dark.
So, after a quick lunch of oranges and nuts, we pressed on south, now on a rudimentary asphalt road that took us to a petrol station by the entrance to Wādiy Jirdhān, famous for its honey production. The village of al-Šiqq is about 16 km down this wādiy, and it was a straightforward enough drive for about 20 minutes on a rough, rocky piste to get there. However, we only had about an hour of daylight left to get to the point: once again, I'd be racing the clock. Google Earth (c) showed that the point lay on top of a hill, about a kilometre from an unnamed village that overlooks the area. But in Yemen, if there's a village, there must be a track to get there...
Unfortunately, no one in al-Šiqq seemed to know what we were going on about. A few friendly (and armed to the teeth) locals sent us off down a track round a mountain that seemed to go in the direction of the point. On the way, we saw a couple of buildings on the hill in question. Ṣāliḥ Salīm thought that perhaps we might mean the village of `Aqaba. But, after a while - and at 3.5 km from the point - the track ended at a locked gate barring the way. Private property seemed to lie ahead. There was no choice but to go back.
The light was fading, and the previously glorious golden hills of the wādiy were turning brown. Halfway back was a pool of 'good water' (according to Ṣāliḥ Salīm), and a pair of Bedu. After a conflab, Naṣr looked confident that he knew how to get us up to `Aqaba. Sure enough, after a short drive down another track, we could see the route up what, according to Naṣr, was Jabal Thamriy. Naṣr and Ma'tib stayed in the wādiy with the Toyota, and Ṣāliḥ Salīm joined us in the buttock-clenching drive up the hill. The views were superb as we inched above the wādiy on the single-lane track carved out of the rock, although we tried not to look too often down the vertical drop to our immediate left. We were expecting to take stunning pictures at the point itself.
On the plateau, and with only a few minutes of light left, we hurtled off on a rough track towards `Aqaba. This ran out 2 km from the point and I decided just to drive a direct course. The surface was very strange - like driving on broken pottery - and rocks clanged against the Landy's chassis the whole way. Claire (a first-time confluence hunter who'd previously been utterly patient with this whole escapade) began to fear for my sanity. Ṣāliḥ Salīm chewed his qāt philosophically. At 200 m to go, we stopped at a small gully and Claire and I ran to the point.
Ṣāliḥ Salīm must have wondered what on Earth could have been of interest in this flat, rocky wasteland. But Claire was clearly delighted to have spent the best part of a day looking for this special spot. Apart from a few hills in the distance to the South, there was nothing particular to see in any direction. We had just enough light to take the pictures (the moon is clearly visible to the East), but unfortunately no time to explore the area further, visit `Aqaba, or drive to the edge of Jabal Thamriy to see what must be awesome views during sunset. We had to get back down before the sun set. The only other snap we have that came out was of Wādiy Jirdhān on the way down the mountain, just before dark.
Despite being pleased by getting to the point, I still consider it a terrible shame that such a beautiful area is represented almost solely by our dark pictures of Jabal Thamriy's plateau wasteland!
We considered camping in the wādiy, but the tribal chaps seemed keen to get back to their homes in `Atāq, which was fair enough considering the bizarre adventure we'd just put them through. We had to drive much more slowly back out of the wādiy because it was night, but rejoined the asphalt after about 45 minutes. We paused for a quick stop at Naṣr's Bedu camp to meet his young son (and Britain-loving, elderly father), where we drank fresh camel milk before continuing on to `Atāq, where we would stay the night. The next day would be one of further (non-DCP) adventuring in Šabwa and we sorely needed our sleep.
Notes: Phil Boyle and Claire Halperin work at the British embassies in Ṣan`ā' and Cairo, respectively. For more information on confluence hunting in Yemen, please see the report for 15N 49E. Those wishing to visit Yemen should consult the travel advice of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, or the advice of their own Ministry of Foreign Affairs.