Slow boat to Yemen

“Two Belgian Tourists and Two Yemeni Guides killed by Al-Qaeda”.

The news told the story of a convoy of five Land Cruisers in a remote but well-known tourist valley. The gunmen were hidden behind a parked Land Cruiser on the side of the road and as the convoy approached, they jumped out, spraying the first vehicle with automatic gunfire.

Story by Rene Cormier. Editing by Rob Harris. Photos by Rene, Robbo and Michael


The bad news lead to a reassessment of the route.

The other four tourist vehicles fled the scene, as did the gunmen.

This story was shocking, but not without precedent. The USS Cole was attacked in 2000 and the French supertanker Limberg was bombed two years later. The last tourist killings occurred in July, when a suicide car bomber killed a group of eight Spanish tourists and two Yemenis.

There was no doubt about it, Yemen could be a dangerous place for the traveller – my first scheduled country as I leave Africa and head into the Middle East



Rene and Robbo taking lunch at  Lake Assal.

What a crazy couple of days since Ethiopia. I’m now travelling with Rob, an Aussie who I met in Addis Ababa a week before. He started in London last year, and went down the west coast of Africa and then up the east coast on the long way back to Australia.

Since we’re now going in the same direction – east  through Yemen and Oman – we decided that it might be wise to do this difficult part together.

The exit from Ethiopia was almost delayed a few days as Rob had a bout of malaria. Treatment is a three-day course of pills and on the third day he was well enough to make a run for the border. We have both spent well over a year in Africa, and were both itching to get into the Middle East.


Then there were three.

Between Ethiopia and Yemen is the Gulf of Aden – and the tiny coastal country of Djibouti, known mostly for its port that services landlocked Ethiopia and its collection of French and American military bases. Located on the shores of the Gulf of Aden, Djibouti is the last stop in Africa and the launching-off point to the Middle East.

While waiting to get visas at the Yemen embassy we came across another fellow traveller, Michael – a German also riding an Africa Twin and also heading in the same direction.

Now we were three.




The boat to Yemen was a little less boat-like than expected.

It’s now Sunday afternoon, our shipping agent Abdul arrived to get us through the port’s security gates and to the boat that was to take us on the slow 18-hour trip across the Gulf of Aden.

I must admit, I was expecting our boat to be somewhat less, well … wooden … and small. But she looked somewhat sturdy and certainly worn enough to have survived this crossing plenty of times.

Chaos broke out as soon as the planks to get the bikes on were laid against the hull of the boat. The lingering dockworkers knew that as long as they laid a hand on the bikes coming onto the boat, they could get paid for ‘helping’.

Fights broke out between the guys as we tried to get the bikes on
without anybody ending up in the water and as few hands as possible on
the bikes.


How many dockers does it take to load an F650?

Once the three bikes and our luggage were on the boat the head of the dockers came up to me demanding payment for his guys. I told him that the price we’d paid included getting the bikes onto the boat and so he should take his complaint to our shipping agent, Abdul Karim.

This was not what they wanted to hear and as the argument started to heat up I directed them to follow me to Abdul’s office. With all voices going at once I told him that we paid in full and any extra charges were his responsibility.

The dockworkers started at me again, and I simply kept saying “Abdul Karim … Abdul Karim” and backed out of the office and back to the boat, leaving a beehive of squawking men behind.

By 7 p.m., with the sun setting, we were underway; 24  people, three motorcycles,  and two goats.



The goat gets the best seat …

The ‘boat’ had a covered area over the back quarter of the deck where most of the passengers lay and chatted, with the lower decks structured for cargo, – which on this trip  consisted of a goat and the thumping diesel engine. The other goat ( the one that obviously won the coin toss ) was located at the best post on the boat – up front on the main deck by the anchor.

The captain sat on the roof at the very back, steering the boat with his feet on the steering wheel located below him.

The toilet deserves a special mention – a small wooden box hanging off the side of the boat. It requires a half squat to get into, then the user must turn around while inside while keeping their feet squarely on the two narrow planks that make up the floor of the unit,


Making use of the hammock.

One hand can be used to keep the door from coming open when the boat pitches to the right, and the other hand can be used to keep yourself upright when the boat pitches to the left. A few feet below you, the ocean slips by along with whatever happens to fall out of the bottom of the box! Very surreal.

Rob and Michael tried to get some sleep by the motorcycles and I looked for an ideal place to put up my little hammock. This turned out to be over the cargo hole into the boat’s bowels, leaving me no room for error getting in or getting out of the tiny hammock.

As I slowly drifted off to sleep, I watched large supertankers pass us in the moonlight at three times our ponderous speed, leaving barely a ripple.



The ship’s kitchen.

By morning the rising sun came up over long beaches and mud-brick houses. We were still a kilometer offshore, but finally getting our first glimpses of the Middle East. At midday the port appeared and we pulled up to the concrete dock after being on the water for 18 hours.

Already moored were a huge red oil tanker and a smaller livestock ship. It was first-come, first-served at these docks and they had the best spots, leaving us to wedge ourselves under the ropes holding the other ships still.

We got as close as we could, but our mooring still left us a good meter from the dock. Disembarking was going to be tricky, but it was much more pleasant than it was for the camels being off-loaded next to us.

The crane lifted them high in the air and lowered the bleating whiners down to the dock.  Once safely on the dock the majority of them refused to move after the sling was removed, unsure what might possibly come to them next.

Kicks, whips and shouting eventually got them up and they trotted over
to the rest of the camels, which had arranged themselves in a tight,
nervous circle.


Indignant camels getting offloaded.

Although Abdul Karim had assured us that off-loading the bikes was also covered in our $130 fee, none of us believed him. Sure enough, another $50 was demanded so we opted to do it ourselves. After all, how hard could it be?

We found two wide planks and made a ramp from the edge of the boat, across the meter of water and onto the dock. Robbo and Michael lifted the front wheel a meter up onto the ramp while I steadied it from the back. Once stable in that position, Robbo jumped onto the ramp and held the front wheel for Michael and me to lift the rear of the bike onto the rampit.

The bike’s weight was now completely supported on the two-foot-wide ramp over the sea. Robbo steered with one hand, held the front brake with the other, and walked slowly backwards down to the dock while Michael and I held our collective breath.

If a bike slipped off the ramp there would be no way to recover it!



The only working woman in Yemen? Rene gets interviewed for a local newspaper.

During our first two hours on the road we looked suspiciously at every parked car and behind every dodgy building. In my head I planned how to stop and escape if we were attacked. With every change of terrain I re-formulated my plans and wondered if we had really made the smartest decision in coming to Yemen.

Near sunset we got close to the city of Taizz, marveling at how a city of 330,000 people was so quiet. Robbo filled in the gap for me: “There’s no women!” I had never thought about it, but it was true.

In effect we were only seeing half the population of the city. And when you did see a woman, you never really SAW her – head to toe in black and nothing but eyes showing.


Nagil Thirah Pass, complete with police escort.

Africa was only 20 kilometers directly across the Gulf, but it could
have been a million miles away. Everywhere you looked there were only men. Yemeni men with the traditional daggers in their belts, and Indian men filling in the roles traditionally held by women – cooks, laundry, clothing alterations and also manual labour.

The road from the capital city of San’a to the coast could have been interesting if we were left to our own devices. As it was, we had no choice but to mindlessly follow the Hyundai containing our own personal escort from official check point to check point – very frustrating.

Well, that was until we crested the Nagil Thirah Pass which had us laughing with amazement. The road snaked down the mountainside in a countless number of hairpins and across crests of buttresses to more hairpins.


Missing a hairpin can be fatal.

In first gear our little caravan snaked down the mountainside but came
to a halt where a collection of cars had come to a stop at an accident.
A small pickup truck had obviously missed one of the upper hairpins and
tumbled down onto the road below.

As our escort radioed in the accident we snuck by, driving over broken engine valves 20 feet from the truck itself. We stopped to look at the driver, but there wasn’t much to look at.

Two purple hands stuck out between the top of the window and the pavement, the rest was a guess. Fluids from the truck and the driver splashed halfway up the truck and left a widening pool that crept down the road.


A Yemeni Imam shows the key to the local mosque.

My first week of the Middle East was a shot of antique culture that plays by its own rules – rules that I can’t claim to understand yet.

Efforts to independently sink my tires into Yemen ‘s back woods to learn more were overshadowed by the police reactions to the threat of violence. It’s difficult to be angry with our police escorts for making sure we were safe, but they effectively sterilized the trip. Good for tourism, bad for tourists.

Of course I can say all of this because we were never sprayed with automatic weapon fire!

But there was an up-side. Our new fast track through Yemen would allow us to catch a Swedish bicycle traveller that was an old friend of both Robbo and I. We were also hopeful that once we got to the main coastal road that would take us to Oman, we would be able to travel escort-free.

Escort-free all the way to  Oman? Sounds too good to be true, but that can wait for the next instalment.

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