What was the worst thing…. A very common question people seem to ask, whether a customer on tour, or an acquaintance who finds out the work you do is what’s the worst thing that happened to you ?
Maybe we all have a slightly macabre streak, maybe it’s that our media is full of things going wrong, “if it bleeds, it leads” used to be a saying in the newspaper business, knowing the public interest in a lurid murder will sell tomorrow’s edition.
Pretty much everyone will ask “what’s the best place you’ve been to ?” which is actually a much harder question to answer, because it depends so much on yourself and the context. Bad things are a lot easier to define.
The real answer to the query of the worst thing that had ever happened, is in fact, nothing. How this came about may jog some memories amongst travellers and newsreaders. To anyone who might have been involved in this event, I hope my version does not offend or bring back unwelcome memories.
Yemen, which had become a home from home for me and was a genuinely welcoming country, did have its really frightening moments. Once on the top of the remains of the Marib dam, reputedly the domain of the Queen of Sheba, several shots rang out and were heard whizzing over our heads. And we scattered instantly, making our way back to the vehicles as fast as we could, ducking behind sand dunes and brushwood.
I remembered reading that it was a traditional welcome in some tribal groups to honour visitors, but this did not feel comfortable at the time. It turned out not to be a mark of honourable welcome, but just some kids who would otherwise spend their days herding goats or latching on to any passing visitors in the hope of extracting some money for fictitious permissions or to be offered some treat in appeasement.
One of the most disturbing aspects of working in Yemen was on my last trip there. I remember meeting them at Gatwick, and one guy turned up wearing camouflage pants. I told him straight away that he should leave them behind as they would not be good to wear in our destination. “Why on earth not ?”, piped up one of the women I had just greeted, her tone suggesting I was at best being a spoilsport, at worst rather officious.
I went on to explain that in many countries only the military or insurgents would have access to cammo clothes, and it would be all too easy to make the wrong assumption and attract unwelcome attention. Yemen was one such country. I didn’t say, ‘so, I’m not just being awkward, but it will be me who has to get you out of any shit you bring on yourself ‘. This seemed explanation enough and he grudgingly changed his pants in the gents. The women, however had made an assessment that lasted throughout the trip, and they would continually question my judgement on even trivial things. Very tedious.
Things went fairly well, I’d been there quite a lot of times before, so I knew a lot of treats and pitfalls of travel in the country, but I have to say I was continually being asked to make detours to places they had read about in usually very dated guidebooks or early 20thCentury travel accounts. Rather a lot of British tourists seem to be prone to this; they buy a set meal / tour or whatever, then they will want to personalise it to their tastes, instead of the xxx, could I just have the yyy and zzz instead ? Oh and my friend is allergic to anything beginning with P. For gawd’s sake !
Things were not helped by the recently discovered inaccessibility of some of the good bits I had planned during the desert crossing of the Empty Quarter to the Hadramhaut, a long steep sided fertile valley parallel to the coast of southern Yemen.
A place I knew in Tarim, where we might get a dip in a natural spring turned out to be out of bounds for some reason, we ended up having picnic lunches in places that were not that great, and a couple of the places I had been expecting to stay were already full – not tourists but business travellers. And so we came eventually to Mukalla on the coast, where we had one or two more minor disaffections over the time this little clique wanted for shopping.
Moving on from Mukalla we headed down he coast toward Aden, to stay overnight camping at the foot of a huge black outcrop called Husn al Gharb, the Ravens Rock, the reputed site of a port which marked the southern end of a spice and incense trade route. We enjoyed exploring the rock and saw some local fishermen landing small shark, and bought some fish for a barbecue from them.
I think someone found a small scorpion under the tarp we were using for a general groundsheet, although everyone had tents if they wanted. But the scorpion was another indication of my failings (Duuh, Arabian peninsula, endemic wildlife ?)
Our next day’s travel would take us to quite a remote area northeast of Aden. The entire drive was snaking tarmac across astonishingly rocky plateaux with steep, usually dry wadis and small distant encampments. From time to time tracks led off inland to what was clearly nearer to the middle of nowhere than we already were.
Infrequently, we passed scruffy, grim truckstops, with powerful trucks abandoned by the roadside for small grubby boys to swarm over, dusting and polishing all they could, changing oil, the street scattered with oil spills, vehicle parts, ripped up tyres and an open fronted café which had the menu bleating out the back.
At some point during the day we stopped for some lunch and to purchase supplies for our night’s camp. It was at this small village that the land cruisers of a group from a leading adventure travel company passed us, waving as they sped by. There are some countries where it is inevitable that you have to follow the only passable routes. I had previously worked for this company in Yemen and enjoyed the friendly rivalry they displayed as they sped on, en route to their night’s hotel in Aden.
We carried on to a turnoff which took us to a remote spot overlooking a wide river valley, and heard what sounded like distant firearms, and we were feeling a bit nervous. One of the drivers assured us that it was just some army exercise, but in rretrospect, I always wondered – did they know something ? Was it just guesswork or an off the cuff answer, or was news already spread by some means we were not aware of ?
The other group never reached the hotel in Aden. About 20 km further down the road from where they gaily waved at us, they were abducted and taken to a remote area and held hostage, ultimately being rescued by the Yemeni army after a bloody shootout in which two of the tourists were killed and several injured. But for the fact that we had to stop to get our food supplies, we would have reached the ambush first and would have been the victims. It worries me even today.