Travel Through Yemen on a Harley-Davidson

By Peter & Kay Forwood

Yemen on a Harley (10/12/99 - 25/12/99)
Distance 2820 km (168510 km to 171330 km)

This is part of the Sixth section of our around the world trip.
Complete Trip Overview & Map

Coming from  Oman

10/12/99 From the border to Al Ghayda on the Yemen coast, 260 km of new blacktop road built courtesy of the Oman government. The road not yet finished with very short patches of gravel. Petrol was readily available but we had to wait an hour in Hat (90 km into Yemen) until early afternoon prayers had finished. An immediate difference apparent between the two countries, the people darker and slighter built, the streets full of rubbish to the extent 20% of the main street was under dead shoes, plastic and cardboard, (no vegetable matter as the cows were cleaning up their share) the people poorer and thus unable to afford tidy or well washed clothes. Yet the atmosphere was friendly and helpful. After much discussion with truck drivers, Bedouin, travellers and locals through an english speaking ex policeman (having just finished two years compulsory service between school and work or university) we deduced that the coast road to Sayhut, our intended route, had about 50 km of sand and only 4x4 vehicles travelled that way. The much longer section of dirt (450 km as opposed to 250 km along the coast) was to head to Tamrin in Wadi Hadramaut, a busier though bumpy gravel road without a lot of sand. The problem on this road though are the many unsignposted intersections and a guide was suggested.

11/12/99 Al Ghayda is really just an overgrown fishing village in the middle of nowhere. Sardines the main catch, along with shark and reef fish are netted from narrow 12Fishing village, drying sardines for stock feed metre long boats. The sardines are then dried under hectares of nets to keep away thousands of seagulls. Unfortunately its location means that the sardines are only useful for stock feed as a protein supplement. On our return to the hotel we discovered someone had been in our room and rummaged through our bags. Nothing that we could identify was missing. Whether it was inquisitive hotel staff or the local police we will never know. We reported the matter to the management to his surprise and disbelief.

  12/12/99 We opted for the inland route without a guide and within six km of town had taken a wrong turn. On the right track it was only another 15 km before the motorcycle started playing up, missing and backfiring. We suspected water in the fuel and cleaned the carburettor. It was still occurring so another 15 km we stopped again and disconnected the tachometer and checked some wiring from previous problems. Another 10 km and still a problem, the third stop and located an electrical problem. The rough road had bounced the engine andDropped the bike but Kay's armchair held her still in the seat! pulled on some wires leading to the timing case, these were strapped tighter for later repair and the problem was solved, 40 km out and four hours later. The unmade track across wadi (river) beds would branch off into about six different directions when the corrugations became bad or the sand became too chopped up returning again to one or two tracks across gullies. Kay's job was to watch all the diverging tracks to make sure they rejoined and we didn't miss a turn off. We were unable to get up enough speed to skim across the corrugations as the tracks were too rough and were then limited to 30-40 km/hr dodging and weaving ruts and to a crawl across rocky sections.  We ran off the track once and became hopelessly bogged in sand, needing to roll the motorcycle on its side and drag the front wheel around back onto the track. With Kay pushing and the belt slipping from the sand lodged in the grooves we managed to drive the rear wheel out of the sand. About every 80 km there is a settlement, petrol and small shop (shop closed during daylight for Ramadan) where we could check weRoads in all directions to get through the powdery bull dust were still heading in the right direction. Eleven hours sunrise to sunset, 240 km we camped roadside absolutely stuffed.

13/12/99 The morning desert is so quiet all you can hear is your own tinnitus. While relieving myself I pondered being the first western person to urinate on this spot, at least the first having arrived by Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Our first stop just 30 km at Dhabaat and the wadi ended and the long sandy plain began with everyone seemingly making their own tracks around the more sandy boggy sections broadening the track to hundreds of meters wide. We came off a few times and Kay pushed and walked, then we rode some, then Kay pushed and walked. The "bull dust" (soft powdery fluffy talc like dirt) deep and settled over rocky ground meaning we couldn't see the rocks bottoming a couple of times. This finally ended at Guful where the road descended over a distance of 25 km off the plateau and into the far end of Wadi Hadramaut.  The whole 25 km was down a gorge, the track made of large rocks with barely a path for the two wheels of the motorcycleSection of difficult rocky road, especially on the low H-D without bottoming which we did many times, once smashing the bash plate which we removed and smashed back into shape with rocks and once denting the tubular frame of the motorcycle but luckily missing damaging any vital parts. Once in the wadi the dirt more manageable and even black top the last 35 km's to Say'un for the night. 420 km dirt, 14 hours riding time, hot and dusty, by far the worst road we have ridden. An off road bike with no pillion would certainly have made easier going and would probably manage it in one long day.

14/12/99 It is certainly frontier country in the east of Yemen, many men carry Kalashnikov rifles with them at all times, others carry hand guns strapped to waist belts and covered by long shirts over traditional wrap around pants (loin cloth, sarong) and a few still carry the Jambiya or dagger worn in front of the body on the belt. Our hotel has a sign in the lobby that all weapons must be left at reception. Jeans, infiltrated into most traditional societies, have yet to make any impact here. The people, that pleasant blend of interest without overbearing. We can happily workShibam, a city of highrise mud brick buildings on the motorcycle or sit quietly over a tea in the souk with a balance of interaction/privacy. Women are nowhere to be seen, representing less than a fraction of 1% of people visible. Rested in Say'un

15/12/99 This area of Yemen is famous for its mud brick tower houses. We visited old Shibam, a collection of about 500 mud brick sky scrapers five to eight stories high crammed into an area 500 meters square with narrow streets and mosques up to 1000 years old. Even today most buildings here are still made in this unique style of mud brick. The more wealthy plaster their houses with white limestone and outline it with an even whiter egg shell plaster.

16/12/99 Out and back to Tarim, the city of 365 mosques and many palaces now in disrepair as the owners fled to Saudi Arabia when this area of Yemen came under communist rule. Hassled again by children, prying to look at the motorcycle and a couple of stones were thrown at us and rudeSurrounded by school children wanting to look at the motorcycle gestures made. It's amazing how such obnoxious children can grow up into friendly respectful adults.

17/12/99 After having ridden 1000 km in Yemen the bureaucracy finally caught up with us. We left Say'un early and rode out of Wadi Hadramaut to Al Mukulla, a fast growing coastal town with a picturesque old fishing town at its centre. 30 km's further towards Aden and 2 pm we were stopped at a security post and amazed guards wouldn't let us past. They led us back the 30 km's to Al Mukulla police compound and after a couple of hours of firm polite discussion we were allowed to proceed with an armed escort and permit papers. The 70 km's from Barum to Bir 'Ali was supposed to be a no go area after dark but with the end of the days fasting at sunset we stopped midway and joined our entourage of eight in sweet dates and pastries. It was well dark when we arrived in Bir 'Ali and we were officially handed over to the governorate of Shabwa. A small coastal town with no hotel we were allowed/encouraged to pitch the tent on the roof Pitched our tent on a fort roof, waiting for tomorrows escort of the police fort, a dilapidated building having seen no repair since unification or long before.

18/12/99 Now in the grip of escorts we left at 6.30 am this time following, a Toyota 4x4, with machine gun turret mounted on the tray, five of them and two of us. We had not eaten since the night before having slept while they ate during the night so headed into the bushes out of sight (it being Ramadan), to eat breakfast and toilet. After a couple of hundred kilometres, near Habban we were handed over to the next escort to Ataq. Here for two hours at the police compound, (phone calls, questioning) and another escort to Bayhan. It was now 2 pm and they wanting us to stay the night here and we were wanting to leave for Mahrib. Again two and a half hours of discussions and phone calls (at one stage they wanted to send us back to Ataq) before they produced a permit to proceed to Harib, a small town just over the border in the governorate of Mahrib, more modern being from the north before unification (capitalist rather than communist in the south).Armed escort through the ruins of Mahrib A warm welcome and again we ate the end of fast meal and a late meal before retiring to a room on the fort roof.

19/12/99 6 am and we were away again with another escort to Mahrib. A quick look at old Mahrib, blown up during the 1960's war, the old dam originally built in 800 BC and lasted for over 1000 years reportedly during the Queen of Sheba's reign and the new dam built only a few years ago. Accompanied again by another escort this time also carrying an anti tank bazooka along with its other weaponry. After almost 1000 km of being escorted we were finally released on the Sana'a road about 80 km from the town. The cost of this protection to us, and hospitality, officially nothing, unofficially, small money for cigarettes and qat (the mild stimulant almost every man in Yemen chews, similar to chewing the coca leaf, consuming a large part of his income and the countries agricultural production). Some escorts refused any money at all, others demanded it almost, but most were just happy forOur escort ran us off the road, Kay is not happy! a boost to their meagre police wages. We arrived in Sana'a exhausted after this rush, rush across the country.

20/12/99 With the borders still closed between Sudan and Ethiopia and Eritrea the only access being by boat in and out we opted to miss Sudan and Eritrea, travelling through Africa from Djibouti to Ethiopia and Kenya. The Djibouti visa issued in three hours, Ethiopia 24 hours, collect tomorrow and the Kenyan one issued at the British embassy in three hours tomorrow. This took the majority of the day to achieve, being ferried about by local taxi's. I think I will have to change my rating for the worlds worst drivers to Yemen. Every vehicle has multiple scrapes and dents, taxi's are identifiable because there isn't a panel on the car that isn't dented and the bumper bars are usually half ripped off, the indicators and brake lights don't work nor is there much plastic covering them. Our escort yesterday needed petrol so he overtook us then swerved in front braking hard running us onto the shoulder. To avoid hitting himA normal building, for Yemen, and unusual site we braked hard swerved onto gravel and went down. Our first down on asphalt since India two years ago, in about the same circumstances, someone swerving in front.

21/12/99 Sana'a, despite the rubbish and noise, has to be one of the most appealing and attractive capital cities. The old city still mostly authentic tower houses of stone with white highlights and coloured glass windows, narrow streets and souqs can occupy hours of walking, sitting and watching. An old wadi runs down it's middle, a road when dry and a river when it rains.

22/12/99 Into the surroundings with their stone housed villages and stone terraced fields agriculture, to Kawkaban, an escape town perched on a peninsula 300 meters above the main town and its agriculture. When warring parties would try and conquer the main town the people would escape to the fortress town for protection. Never conquered until the advent of aeroplane bombing in the 1960's. We stayed the night in a traditional stone tower house in the stone village of Thilla. Originally built with animals on the ground floor, stock feed on the second, living quarters on the next two and a mafraj (living or guest room) on the top floor. High ceilings with low doors and walls up to a meter thick.

23/12/99 Sana'a to Manakha and over the mountains. Although fertile these treeless mountains in winter without crops in the terraced fields look barren. Lucked into a more traditional lunch provided for about 40 elderly German passengers from a cruise ship on a days outing to the mountains. With hot bread, cooked local vegetable and meat, stuffed with food we headed for Al Hudayda, on the west coast for the night, we had made it from east to west on theBeautiful painted stone buildings, Sana Arabian Peninsula.

24/12/99 Coming out of the mountains to the west coast and we could have been in Africa such was its influence on the appearance of the people, their clothing and the round mud and grass roofed huts in the more fertile coastal belt. This was even more strongly felt at the Friday markets in Bait al Fakih, famous in Yemen, and the most active we have seen. Arriving as it was getting under way and watching it grow, 4x4's and pickups arrived by the hundreds along with camels, donkeys and goats, sorghum grass from the sandy flat lands and anything else that could be sold including prostitutes, fully robed, manoeuvring to drop the veil to a prospective client without being seen by more respectable/prudish members of the society. Qat was of course here, as everywhere, despite its only being grown in the mountains and used fresh daily. The wind increased to gale force on entering Al Makha a desolate place far from its former glory as the coffee hub of theBait al Fakih markets, mostly animal sales world (Mocha coffee still carrying the name), the sand blowing across the road through town. We were here only for a boat to Djibouti and spread the word at the port and in town. The strong winds had prevented a sambuq (30 meter long wooden boat) from leaving harbour for Djibouti for the last two days and after four hours of negotiations between the captain (on the boat) and the agent (chewing qat with his mates in town) and many rip off motorcycle taxi rides between the two (as the monopoly prevented any private vehicles on the wharf) the original $US 800.00 price was reduced to $US 200.00. Still expensive but as the boat had to be brought back alongside the wharf and the motorcycle specially craned aboard the all inclusive price with meals was acceptable. At 11 pm we went to the port to begin paperwork.

25/12/99 Midnight passed and Christmas day began as we waited with the immigration official who had five people to process all night and was determined it would take all night. He had watched too many American moviesCrossing the Red Sea, motorcycle under its cover and Kay and I slept on deck where obviously why would we be at his port unless there was something wrong. Customs was as bad and between the three officials in three separate buildings none wanting to be the first to sign our forms. It wasn't until presumably the mafia arrived (flash 4x4 with two heavily armed body guards plus entourage) that our paperwork was completed four hours after starting. (Al Makha is now supposed to be the major whisky smuggling port for Yemen). The motorcycle was craned aboard and we settled down to a tarp covered wooden plank on top of the cargo of cardboard boxed goods at 3 am. I would not recommend this port for departure but suggest trying Aden first if possible. At 6.30 am the 30 meter boat, cargo, bike, 20 crew and five passengers headed out of the harbour into strong head winds hugging the Yemen coast to the south west corner where at 8.30 pm we anchored for the night having travelled just 80 km.

Move with us to Djibouti




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