Continuing on from yesterday...
Overlanding from Yemen to Oman, I had it all figured out. Sana'a to Ma'rib would be the easiest leg, a mere 150 kilometres by shared taxi along a paved road. From Ma'rib I would have to cross the Ramlat as-Sab'atayn desert to reach Wadi Hadramaout - for this, I would have to arrange for a Bedouin guide to take me since there are no roads or public transport across the desert. The eastern-most town in the wadi is Tarim where I would hitch a ride to the coastal town of Al-Ghaida. This is about as far east as the guide books go since no-one gets even this far but apparently the Yemeni are trying to build a road of sorts along the coast to the Omani border. Since there is currently no road, there is no traffic for me to hitch a ride with but I was told that smugglers often make runs across the border and might be willing to take a passenger for the right price. Then all I had to do was bullshit my way across the border, somehow get to Salalah, the nearest Omani town, where I could then get an overnight bus to Muscat, the Omani capital. No problems.
Ma'rib to Say'un
I had arranged for a driver to take me across the desert to Wadi Hadramaout and Ahmed turned up depressingly punctually - 4am is an un-godly hour no matter where in the world you are and I blearily crawled out of bed and loaded my gear into the Land Cruiser. We left town and made our way down the highway towards the twinkling lights of Safir, a service town for the oil wells and the end of the road before the desert. I was hoping to be well into the desert by sunrise but instead had to be satisfied with the far less romantic image of the sun coming up over the truck parked by the side of the road, bonnet up, driver poking around under the hood. I hadn't realized it earlier but we were actually already in the desert and I amused myself by making footprints in the sand dunes until Ahmed popped out from under the hood and cheerily informed me that we would have to go back to Mahata, wherever that was.
Mahata turned out to be a garage by the side of the road where Ahmed pulled over, grabbed his rifle and went in search of the owner and some spare parts, leaving me to hang around with a young hitchhiker that we had picked up along the way who kept trying to reassure me with "No problem! No problem!" I eventually found out that we had a broken fan belt and given that there were no spares around, we had to do a quick fix on the old one and set off into the desert like that, hoping that it would hold...
Several hours and a few more breakdowns later, our hitchhiker had changed his tune, pointing vigorously at Ahmed's head, saying "Problem! Problem!" By now, we were being forced to improvise temporary fan belts from old rope, bits of coat-hanger, whatever was at hand and it wasn't until early afternoon when we finally limped into Al-Abr. About halfway between Ma'rib and Say'un, this was one of the largest settlements in the desert but nevertheless it still wasn't much more than a collection of tin shacks clustered around a petrol pump. Lunch was a few boxes of those wonderfully cheap and nasty Abu Waleh Sandwich Biscuits (15 cents for a packet of 8 and kind of cute in that they have "Yemen" stamped all over them) washed down with a bottle of water. We also picked up a few spare fanbelts although none of them were the right size, and so we left Al-Abr still hacking together repairs every twenty klicks or so - at one point, Ahmed even tried cutting one of them open, trimming it down to the correct length and then nailing the two ends together!
But despite all the problems, travelling through the desert was a wonderful experience, not exactly Paris-to-Dakar-bouncing-over-the-sand-dunes but pretty good nevertheless. The defining characteristic of desert travel, I found, would probably be this: you get a lot of sand in your shoes. The stuff was incredibly fine, easy enough to walk over when firmly packed until it gave way beneath your feet and then it was like trying to walk on water. Another thing was the silence, a huge blanket of it covering the desert expanse - it was perfectly quiet save for the sound of Ahmed banging away with a stone, trying to nail another fanbelt together and the only thing that gave away the crows circling overhead were their shadows criss-crossing over the sand dunes.
The battery finally gave out just before sunset. It was certainly picturesque, the sun setting behind the desert mountains as the camels gently pad-padded across the sand on their way home but as the first stars began to come out, it was starting to look kind of bad. Fortunately, the car had expired near some kind of a settlement where we could see house lights but Ahmed found himself in something of a quandary: he couldn't leave me alone while he went to get help in case something happened to me yet he couldn't take me with him and leave the car un-attended. And so we waited. A few trucks passed by but no-one was willing to drive to the next town to get parts for us and so, after a few hours of this, he locked up the car, said a quick prayer and off we set, across the sand and towards the lights.
The farmer there was initially reluctant to help us out but after some serious bargaining (begging, actually) on the part of Ahmed and the right price negotiated, he eventually relented and agreed to go pick up what we needed. He also brought out some food for us - dates and dry bread never tasted so good! - before we headed back to the car and waited for him to return. I tried to catch a few z's on the back seat but that proved to be impossible as Ahmed had got stuck into the qat again. Having tried some myself earlier in the afternoon, I knew that it was good stuff (I was obviously paying him too much) and it made him go quite silly, humming along with himself and occasionally breaking out into song. By the time Farmer Mohammed and his son returned three hours later, I was ready to strangle the lot of them but had to satisfy myself with watching Ahmed put in the new battery and fanbelt and get us back on the road again.
We didn't roll into Say'un until 2am, 22 hours after leaving Ma'rib and a mere 13 hours late. Luckily, being Ramadan, everyone was still up and so it wasn't too hard finding a hotel. Besides, Ahmed had to get his paperwork signed off by the manager of whichever hotel I checked into and so I made sure that we drove around to look at every place in town before deciding where I was going to stay. I collapsed into bed and wondered how much more difficult this trip was going to get.
Find out how it all ended here...