02-Mar-2007 -- This confluence point has caused me (and several others) more bother than any other in Yemen. It is the closest point to Yemen's World Heritage capital city, Ṣan`ā', but, despite this proximity, it lies in a remote area consisting of high hills, a beautiful wādiy, and (apparently) stroppy tribesmen.
I first tried to visit 15N 44E with Sarah Marchant in November 2005. After a full day's driving, we worked out the route (detailed below), but didn't have time for the 1-km walk. A second attempt in December 2005, with Sarah and embassy colleagues, led to a successful visit but, alas, not for me. On both occasions, we faced some problems from the local tribesmen: the first time they tried to flag our vehicle down, the second time they succeeded and demanded money with menaces from the vehicle in front of ours. Tellingly, Rainer Mautz had similar problems during his visit.
But, despite it already having been visited, and despite common sense dictating otherwise, 15N 44E has been calling me ever since. So, my confidence buoyed by some recent successes in difficult regions (viz. 15N 47E and 14N 46E), I co-opted two new(ish) members of the embassy into coming with me for 'a day trip and a bit of a hike'. I would navigate us to the nearest driveable point; Matt would lead us on the trek; and Gemma would provide the moral support and humour. Failure this time was most definitely not an option.
The drive takes about two-and-a-half hours. Going south on the Ṣan`ā' to `Adan (Aden) road for about 30 km brings you to a junction at which you turn right towards the CP. We paused briefly after a few kilometres to admire the bewildering sight of the landscape falling away into the valley below the plateau on which Ṣan`ā' sits. It is down into this valley you should then (carefully) drive. The asphalt runs out at a tiny village called Ḥammām (lit. 'Bathroom') which is host to an unremarkable hot spring trapped in concrete housing. Bearing to the left on a decent track will bring you to the entrance of the real ḥammām: an amazing gorge complete with a stream used by locals for washing, which is passable with a 4x4. The gorge is full of wildlife, including chameleons, brightly coloured birds and butterflies, and surreal bright blue lizards with orange heads. It's worth getting out and taking a walk or having a picnic to get closer to the remarkable ecosystem that exists down here.
After a couple of kilometres, the gorge gives way to the wādiy proper, where both wild and domesticated camels can be seen. At 4.21 km from the CP, there is a sort of wādiy 'T-junction' at which we turned left. And at 3.65 km, we turned right down a branch wādiy that we hoped would take us close to the point. We passed a small house that looked remarkably like a cottage in the Yorkshire Dales, but the occupants took no interest in us. Eventually we could drive no further at 1.1 km from the target. Note that taking other branch wādiys is certainly possible, however, as we ended up 1 km from the point down an entirely different choice last time! During a pause to scope out the terrain, we were lucky to see a colony of 'Confluence baboons' high on a ridge, artfully snapped by Gemma. The adults looked extremely large, and I began to wonder whether our fear of the tribesmen should perhaps have been better directed towards the local wildlife...!
1.1 km does not sound like much of a walk, but the terrain (and heat) of the Yemeni northern highlands makes it quite an undertaking. Google Earth
(c) was no help due to poor resolution around the point, so we had to rely on Matt's trekking skills to help us ascend the necessary 200 m and survive the loose and slippery lava rocks, near vertical drops, and hostile acacia bushes. Our route is difficult to describe here (and is, we're sure, by no means the best), but it involved climbing rapidly up a ridge and then taking a fairly direct bearing NW towards the CP. There were no tracks (apart from a few goat tracks, almost too narrow for us), and the going was hot and slow.
But, as we'd agreed, failure was not an option, and somehow we all made it to within 100 m of 15N 44E. The last 80 metres or so involved a rather dangerous scramble down a very steep slope, but I had the 'all-zeros red mist' and wasn't in a mood to settle for anything less than perfection. My punishment for that was, of course, the dangerous scramble back up the slope to reunite with a very cheerful Matt and Gemma. The confluence point itself is entirely typical of the area: in the middle of hilly terrain, with lava rock formations and spiky trees and bushes. There are good views across a wādiy to the North and West. Views to the East and South are obscured by the hillside that I was precariously balancing on at the time.
The walk back was almost as arduous, with our needing to take great care when sliding down the slopes back to our vehicles. All the time, the truculent tribesmen were praying on my mind: would they be waiting for us? Would we be ambushed on the way out of the branch wādiy? Would we have time to make a dash for it? But the cars were conspicuously unaccompanied by AK-wielding Sanḥāniyys, and we cautiously drove off. Eventually we did find a tribesman - he was about sixty and asked us in for lunch (an offer we declined). He could not have been more charming. He told us that the area was called Minikha, which might refer to the wādiy, the nearest village, or to the tribe. This might be a corruption of Manākha (the neighbouring governorate), but due to its distance from where he lived, this seems unlikely.
After a bite to eat in the gorge, lying next to the idyllic babbling stream, we carried on back to Ṣan`ā': shattered, but happy, and with dreams of baboons, hot springs, and thorny bushes.
Notes: Our experience suggests that perhaps this confluence point's reputation as 'The Blackmailer Confluence' should now be tempered a little...! But I would still recommend taking along (or being) an Arabic speaker, introducing yourself to locals on the way into the wādiy, and of course being as courteous as possible. Local villagers would probably be happy to act as guides in return for fair payment.
On returning home after visiting this point, we found out that five colleagues at the British Embassy in Addis Ababa had been kidnapped in the Āfar, Ethiopia. Our thoughts are with them and their families.