It can be quite a surprise to discover how quickly someone who has high level responsibilities can abandon their sense of self preservation, observes Bob Cranwell. It’s just one example of how day dreamy some people can get when they are relieved of day to day responsibilities at work and someone else takes on the work of organising everything.
It’s almost as if they feel they’re in a sort of cocoon where someone else is doing all the thinking for them. It can be quite surprising to discover just who is going to do the dumb thing, as I found out on a tour in Yemen. The country lies at the Southern end of the Arabian Peninsula and had only recently been united into one country, as North and South Yemen, formerly separate countries, had finally found common ground after decades of war. The North was a dry highland plateau deeply dissected by 5,000 foot gorges and the south was a land of mainly desert which had been under the sway of the Soviet Union then China for many years.
My group had arrived in a period of tensions between the two sides and our first destination, when leaving the capital Sana’a was Marib, in the western approaches to the Empty Quarter had been experiencing some tribal insurrection. There had been some irritating incursions from Bedouin living in far flung areas, not really dangerous as their main aim was to get the new government to provide wells, or schooling, or medical facilities to scattered populations, but the money simply wasn’t there to do this.
Yemen produces almost nothing except hard to reach oil – because the reserves were in very deep, geologically complex structures. For decades the biggest income in the country had been remittances from ex-pat Yemenis working in the Gulf, but Yemen’s support for Saddam Hussein had soured relations with their richer Northern neighbours. The protesters often kidnapped westerners and their vehicles but they were kept in quite good conditions, even sending a Land Cruiser down to get western foods in the nearest town.
As road to Marib was closed, I elected to run the tour in the reverse direction, which meant driving to the Red Sea coast, stopping here and there, down to Aden and a long day’s drive running up the coast of the Arabian Sea to Mukalla and then inland to the Hadramhaut valley. There was an interesting museum in Mukalla, in the former palace of a ruler, which we generally visited on the tour. However, at the entrance in common with many other locations, a sign prominently said No Photography.
I was chatting to the curator when from inside the building I saw a sudden illumination and several shouts. Out came one of the group followed closely by sundry attendants who explained that the person involved had been taking photos. The curator immediately exploded with rage and demanded the camera and its contents.
My response was conciliatory and apologetic which soon became quite a lengthy period of rising irritation (from me as well as the curator), with the tourist who stood by protesting his innocence. Eventually the curator backed down and very grudgingly allowed us to leave. In a stage whisper, as we walked across to our jeeps, I heard our tourist say “these stupid bloody Arabs !” to his travelling companion.
It was all I could do to get this man back into a vehicle and away before someone drew a gun. The offending party you might like to know was a senior civil servant for a European country and currently worked as that country’s ambassador to Hong Kong. Some diplomacy !.
After our group had driven up the long wadi to the Hadramhaut and spent a few days visiting the local area, we now found that the 420km route over the Empty Quarter to Marib was now open, although under strict security at each end of the route. I had told everyone about this and we were to make the journey in a single days drive. On leaving the tiny villages at the end of the Hadramhaut valley, we wound along very stony and rutted tracks and I warned everyone to be on their best behaviour at expected roadblocks.
Within minutes of this we crested a rise and found oil drums and barbed wire, with soldiers everywhere looking amazed at our sudden appearance, for our diplomat, travelling in the lead vehicle had his camera pointed straight at the roadblock. The very first thing I had to do was to tell him in no uncertain terms to keep utterly quiet and leave the explanation to me. Fortunately I immediately spoke to a senior officer and apologised profusely for this errant tourist, and amazingly the officer told me there was no harm done, and welcome to Yemen !
We travelled along discernible tracks as long as the valley sides were nearby, but they gradually widened until the whole landscape was lost in a haze. It was an exciting 200km drive across untouched ground now, sometimes cresting a small rise to drop a couple of metres, landing, thankfully like a cat, all four paws on the ground.
We had to find a camping place with good visibility around to see the dust clouds of potential visitors, but also with the odd dune for the group to use as a toilet area – using entrenching tools, a lighter for the paper and a flag to denote occupation ! Once, travelling over this terrain, at high speed, we had arrived at camp and I was busy setting up the camp kitchen when a plaintive cry rent the desert peace. It came from a woman who was a New York literary agent, with an accent that could cut glass; “Bob ! My bag is covered with dust !” Doh !
The next day we travelled on a further 200km to reach some distant mountains, at the foot of which lay Marib, reputedly the capital of the legendary Queen of Sheba, Bilqis. The area historically had been a large and well watered settlement, fed by collecting the water from rainfall in the surrounding mountains over wide drainage basin, and channelling it to dams which were built into the hillsides.
These stone walled dams had variously failed or been destroyed over the centuries and so the fertile oasis fed by mud walled channels failed with their passing, and the town reclaimed by the desert. A surprisingly comfortable hotel, with dreadful food was our stopping place, allowing us to explore the area better the next day, but also allowing us to find a small restaurant nearby to eat in that evening.
It became apparent during the second evening that our plans were about to be disrupted by events further West, on our route back to Sana’a. After the reunification of south and north Yemen, several detachments of troops formerly loyal to each side had been repositioned in the other’s territory to help signify acquiescence to the recent treaty to a wider population.
There had, as often, been some machinations in the government, to restore the former influence and power of individuals left adrift by the treaty, and as a consequence a attack had occurred on southern troops stationed in the town of Amran, directly on our route to the capital. We were required to take a couple of lads in each vehicle, each heavily armed, to see us safely through the many roadblocks set up to contain the problem, and though rather a squash, it felt a bit like riding on the Deadwood Stage.
We more or less bypassed the outskirts of Amran, which felt very tense to us, and we could see the nervousness on the faces of our guards. The drive down to Sana’a was uneventful except for fortified roadblocks, and it was with some relief that we swung round a long bend to see a familiar sight in the near distance.
Our road into Sana’a led past the airport we had arrived at, and we were amazed to see vehicles strewn over the runway, gleaming new Landcruisers with darkened windows, abandoned, even with the doors left open as it transpired the U.S. Embassy staff had decamped in a great hurry as the tensions rose. We found this hilarious, as here we were, a mainly British group of tourists, carrying on with adventure travel when the most powerful nation’s representatives had done a bunk at the first sign of trouble. We on the other hand, had a great night out in Sana’a, and flew home without fuss the following day.
My impressions at the time were based on the information available, and of course the first casualty of war is the truth. So my views changed as the situation became clearer under the scrutiny of the international media. The insurrection had been much more widespread than our own difficulties had suggested. It was also the start of much greater problems which continue to this day.
Catch yer later !
Bob Cranwell, Amateur Emigrant