Still dreaming, the sounds of the call to prayer entwine with my own morning thoughts, my sleep broken by the metallic Imam. His words sound out through our little desert camp. “Allah al akhbar” “Allah al akhbar” “God is great” “God is great”.
The day has begun, it is 4am. I rise, attempt to stretch, and collapse back into bed, all thoughts of morning yoga are dashed. Its 4am, I think to myself. Ten minutes later I have gathered myself, I pull on my shorts and step outside. The sand is cool under my feet. The Shamal, the west wind, blows softly over me. This wind begins its life out in the Persian gulf making its way east across the great Rub al-khali, the empty quarter. I walk a distance into the desert, find a place, breathe deeply, and begin to stretch. As I move, I notice the subtle light changes as dawn peeps her head over the mountains. To the east the world is hushed orange, west the desert is purple pink and the breeze continues its whisper.
Allah al Akhbar Allah al Akhbar; truly he his…
In your atlas go to The Yemen, find the ancient walled city of Shibam and travel east through Wadi Hadramawt. This is the same Wadi mentioned in the Bible and Quran, famed for its fertile lands, incense, and delicious honey. Travel a further 100km east and you will find the village of Qasam. Here all roads end. Travel is now by four-wheeled drive or camel. Head north for several miles and you will find yourself amidst a vast series of Wadi systems and Jebels (mountains) rising from 700 meters above sea level to a thousand. In the base of one of these systems is a small camp numbering around thirty westerners and some two hundred locals, though a number of these men have come from as far as Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, and all over the Yemen. We are all part of a seismic crew carrying out geological surveys, finding fault lines and hidden wells deep in the earth where that old devil ‘the black gold” resides. In short, we are searching for oil. For my part, I make up one member of a team of three British mountaineers whose job is to climb, abseil, dangle, lower, raise, and at times levitate, our way around these mountains laying out fibre optic cables which, once connected to a series of other gadgets and computers, will give the underground picture of the terrain we are travelling over.
But now it is around 4.45am, I have finished stretching and it is still cool. Breakfast follows, a mixture of plain yoghurt and Yemeni honey, chapattis, and a kind of bean stew called “fool”. Followed by several cups of sweet scented chai. I return to my bed and I as I lace my boots I listen to the crew collectively cough its self into life. Vehicles turning over, excited jabbering in several languages, and one of the three helicopters we use going through its pre-flight warm up. I gather my belongings: climbing hardware, maps, first aid kit, rope, sun cream, camera, helmet, floppy hat, several litres of ice cold water which won’t stay like that for long, and my umbrella,’the best three pounds I ever spent” which also enables me to stand out as “crazzzee englissss man”. Though I do feel my singing in the rain in 45C has yet to be bettered.
6am and the sun is up, it’s getting warmer as we head over to the Heli pad. In total we have three helicopters piloted by some extremely talented cowboys. These machines are a great tool for getting us in and out of where we need to be, in short order, as oppose to the hours or even days of trekking which it would otherwise take. As the rotors whap whap through the dry heat we rise above the desert, 1500ft and the size of the area is at once grasped. It is vast, enormous, and endless. Like some freak-carved chess board, the separation lines between the squares are hundreds-of-feet deep water-scoured lime and sandstone passages. Within the squares themselves, hundreds-of-feet high piles of loose, steep-sided, Jebels fashioned entirely out of razor sharp marbles. Ready to trick you into thinking you might be walking on something remotely stable.
We land, exit the helicopter, and huddle down over our gear. As the last breeze dies away from the rotors and the sand settles I am stood atop a nameless jebel in absolute silence; it’s beautiful. Up here as far as the eye can see, rock and sand with occasional splashes of palm tree green under the bluest of summer skies. We prepare to start work.
The team is made up of two mountaineers and two ‘Shebabs’, Arabic for young men, a.k.a ‘guys”. We have Fahad (meaning leopard in Arabic), a Yemeni of 19 years from the Aden. His age belies his strength and ability in the mountains. Yemenis by nature are a fiercely proud people and, of these, the men from Aden are some of the proudest. Fahad has a fine nature and a ready smile. He loves football, Manchester United and Barcelona, changing his shorts every other day from one team to the next. Today was Man Utd’s turn on the Jebel. He speaks “Shewayya”, (little) englissss and that is fine too. The second is Talal, a cheeky streak from Eastern Kenya. His English is excellent and he speaks five other languages, Swahili being his mother tongue in which he sings songs of home as we wander the hills. He is funny and ready to laugh, as strong and wiry as a mountain goat. Has three wives and four sons and on his nights off chews enough Qat to drop a large Elephant.
Qat, Stimulant Qat! Whose leaves come from the shrub Catha Edulis, cultivated in the Yemeni highlands. From all I have seen of this leaf so far, around 80%, perhaps more, of Yemeni males chew Qat. Females I’m told too, though I am unlikely to ever see this. They have their own Qat chewing sessions called “Tafrita”. My first impressions of this leaf were founded early on arrival at Riyan airport. A customs officer with eyes on stalks and a puffed out cheek that looked like some giant carbuncle about to erupt at any given moment, took my passport and, at the same time as he placed the chu-chunk stamp, smiled and spat some green juice over my entry visa. Which, in retrospect, I am fairly pleased with. He handed back my passport with an extremely hearty and bouncy handshake amidst several Salaams and Humduallahs! That was odd, I thought.
Next Qat entry: the following afternoon during the drive to my base camp, when the AK-47 wielding and armed-to-the-teeth soldier travelling with us stopped at a roadside market and insisted on my joining him inside. As we waded through the off-cut leaves and stalks into the darkened market place, around sixty puff-cheeked pandas lolled around the floors, jabbering animatedly. A bushel of this plant was waved under my nose, I politely declined the offer and stuck to my guard like the shaking leaf I was. We returned to the truck and set off, our soldier pushing leaves in his mouth like there was no tomorrow. Again, the bushel was wafted … hmmm I thought to myself, ‘in for a penny..!” I took a handful and pushed a few in, sour to begin, then almost drying out my mouth, then producing a lot of saliva, and not much else. I probably need more I thought! As I gazed out at the desert passing us by, the Arabic music playing bedu beats lulled me through the countryside. Before long, a not unpleasant and quite subtle caffeine buzz began to ning-a-nang its way through my body. I caught a look of myself in the rear mirror and almost collapsed with laughter. My left cheek bulging, I smiled at myself, green teeth smiled back. Brilliant. Amidst many “Zen’s” and “Tamams”, “goods” and “ok’s”, from my soldier guard, and with Bedouin Beats 2000 getting turned up louder and louder, we buzzed our way north.
But we return to the mountains. The time is now around 9am and the temperature is up in the early 40s. It’s going to get hotter, mid day averages around 50C here and regularly climbs higher. We’re sweating freely and I can’t seem to drink enough water. It’s hot, I’m having to move and, worse than that, think. And so the morning passes, the lines get laid, we have made a couple of abseils and clamboured about a bit. We descend the jebel and walk a few kilometers down a water washed river course with boulders the size of houses, all smoothed and shapely. Down and on to the waiting trucks for our second breakfast and a cup of sweet shay.
The rest of our team, two Yemeni drivers Fayez and Abdullah, see us from a distance. They light a small fire to prepare the shay, we arrive and are greeted with Salaams and smiles. The bedu beats are back on, the crew are dancing around the vehicles whooping and laughing, the shay is sweeter than ever, the dates taste great, and in stolen moments you can lose yourself in an ancient land filled with exotic culture and colourful history. Tales of Bedouin desert folk and stories from the courts of the Queen of Sheba. A country of contrasts, incredible vistas, beautiful and friendly people where the women are secretive colourful and whose menfolk still strap large knifes around their waists, and carry pistols and automatic rifles as everyday wear.
A place too where you can wake up, walk into the desert, and at the same time as the rest of this land, proclaim in one voice
Allah al Akhbar.