Well, here I am in Yemen. Two years ago I resolved never to ride on the back of a truck again and within 48 hours of arrival, I was getting slammed against the bottom a Toyota pickup as we bounced through caked mud. My destination was Wadi Hadramout in the East of Yemen, on the other side of one of Arabia’s great deserts. It’s about 600km by asphalted road, or alternatively a quick blast straight through the sand dunes will shave the trip in half. Could I resist? This is the heart of the Bedouin country, and I was told that its best to pay one of them for the ride rather than attempting it with some outsider in a Landcruiser. With some asking around and a bit of luck I found 3 Europeans who had been studying Arabic who had arranged a ride on the back of a Bedouin truck the following day.
We set out in the pre-dawn cold and drove for hours until the low cloud cover turned a fiery orange. Too early for the sunrise, it turned out to be tongues of flames spit out by Yemen’s main oil field, the last landmark before the wastes of the desert. We left the eerie sight and the gushing sounds of the wells in the distance, and passed the final police checkpoint. Just as the sun broke through our driver pulled to the side and stopped to let air out of each of the tires. Without a trace of a single track in front of us we plunged off-road straight into the Rub-al-Khali, the great Empty Quarter of the Arabian Desert.
In a seemingly infinite plain of sand, the driver could apparently make out some sorts of landmarks. Or maybe he was just trying to drive straight. Within an hour or so we approached the first of the dunes, and a tantalizing thought must have entered his mind, the thought of four europeans in the back holding on for a roller coaster ride up the dunes. We clutched to the side of the truck as we took the side of the dune at absurd angles, on the verge of a long roll down, but his bravado would be punished in a different way: a half hour spent digging us out of a jackknifed position at the crest of the highest dune. One of the more dramatic spots I’ve ever broken down.
Our next unplanned spot was for a “cultural show” of sorts, a challenge from the driver at the Yemeni national sport: target practice with one of his arsenal of AK-47s. I missed a stone poised on a rock from about 30m away with two quick shots. The Bedouin driver laughed as he shot it to pieces with his first bullet.
I am guessing that we had shattered all speed records when we re-joined the asphalted road for the final stretch into Wadi Hadramout. I will return to Sanaa in a few days by air-conditioned bus, the long way round.