Walking along or next to a well defined road isn´t really an Expedition. Even though it might be demanding in many ways. The heat is the same! As the ever present attention and surprise amongst people who see you. But in reality, it is no more than an advanced tourist outing. And I was beginning to think, that´s what Ahmed Ali Hassan, the camel handler had expected it to be. He was used to, years back when tourists came regularly to Yemen, to walk along the beach off the Red Sea, with Italians who gave him a continuous supply of extra money to feed his need for futtah with honey, meat and khat. And where the supply of good food for his camel Antar where to be found all over the place. I was sure by now, he had never even travelled about Wadi Zabid. And he had never been to Sanaa. He didn´t know what was waiting us ahead in the shape of less food, no roads and hard going. That is probably why this third morning was the first one, he said he´d like to return to Zabid. Well, according to Amin, that is what he said.
“He still thinks we are going on the main road to Ibb” , Amin said; “He is an un educated man, and you see, he never washes himself. But he is a good man.“
Amin was tired. So was I. He was also slightly upset with himself, because he had forgotten to pack qishr and the spices needed for a good coffee in the morning. He blamed his wife. We both knew that the first few days would be really demanding, since Amin, he hadn´t moved hardly anything since the war broke out and I had been sitting around too much in Sanaa, putting on a bit too much weight. I am of the firm belief, however, that one needs plenty of extra fat ahead of every heavy Expedition. But trained fat. And I didn´t really have that. And since I had been out of Expeditions for six years and I was closing in on 50 years of age, I was worried if I still had what was needed.
“Remember Amin, today we have to ask clearly where the route is. And when we should start climbing” , I said before we left, headed down into the valley, Wadi Zabid, with the aim of walking until its end and there, start climbing all the way up to Sanaa at 2300 metres. (We were on sea level altitude now.)
Amin nodded. His feet were hurting, but he just carried on. He said it was khat that made him strong. I was of the opposite opinion. I was drastically changing my opinion of khat for every day that passed. Worst, I thought, was that you dealt with the greatest people on earth before midday, and once they started to chew, you lost them in their own world. And Amin became slightly sarcastic, which is never good on Expedition. So from this day, we would argue about the use of khat.
Wadi Zabid was beautiful. Even though the map shows it is void of settlements, in reality it was a village or settlement in rocks every 3-4 kilometres. Most of them perched high up both mountainsides. Getting off the main road is entering another world. We ended up straight into people’s daily life. Of which one was picking up water from the river and transporting it either with camel or donkey up the steep mountain walls. Extremely hard work. And almost every one who saw us, came either walking, riding or running to ask us who we were, where we came from and why on earth we didn´t travel by car! They were stunned and didn´t believe us when we said we were walking all the way to Sanaa.
The going was flat, but demanding and I was getting far ahead of Amin and Antar and his handler. I kept the speed up so we would cover some ground, just in case the going would be extremely tough later and I needed to get to Sanaa, before my flight left the 28th of December. Only 14 days left. We had to go back and forth through the river, which eventually would make the skin of our feet loose and give us nasty blisters, but initially it was a dream. Because there was no wind in the valley and the heat was tremendous, so every time we had to cross, which was pretty much all the time, it was a relief.
Once in the valley, we had to do our own lunch, which I wanted all along. More and better food, than eating at restaurants along the main road, which many times were extremely dirty. But it meant Ali Ahmed had to unload Antar and find him shade. It would be a growl every time this happened. Amin and myself did all the cooking. Initially Ali Ahmed didn´t help at all. He wasn´t paid to do this. He was used to being served food by his wife. He had ten children. Which meant we cooked during two hours and than set off at the hottest hour of the day.
All people along the river belong to different tribes and it was amazing to see how the attitude changed in between villages. Some honestly thought we were there either spying for the government. Or that we were immigrants from Somalia hiding from the government. Or, oddest of all, that we were Jews looking for the treasures we had hidden before we were kicked out by the government to Israel 1948. Therefore some people were quite aggressive. Most people we met, however, where really friendly and welcoming. And many complained about the lack of schools, health posts, medicine, running water and electricity. And, most of all, transport. For this reason we met many who were plainly just walking long distances from one place to another. But, most were shocked to learn that we were walking to Sanaa!
The further in the valley, the more narrow and steep it got and I was wondering how in earth we were going to climb out of it. The further in we got, the more suspicious people got. Or amazed to see a foreigner and showed uttermost respect by kissing my hand many a time. Ahmed Ali was worried about Antar´s feet, since he wasn´t used to this kind of a rocky trail. Amin translated every word, every complaint from our friend from Zabid. We were also finding it harder to find food for Antar, the further in to the valley we got, heading north.
Suddenly, after 2 days hard walking, we reached the end of the valley, but we hadn´t seen a trail leading off north. So we back tracked for awhile, checking a few trails leading north, but they were all impassable with a camel. We searched until we met a guy, who said he would lead us to the trail and this one would take us north to Rub Al Utma. Even though everyone protested, I wanted to fill up with water and as much food for Antar as possible. I had a feeling this could be a very difficult climb. And I was right.
Ahmed Ali said he wanted to beat me badly three hours later.