Bulletin 17 - July 1982: Abu Dhabi to North Yemen Overland -- April 1982

Abu Dhabi to North Yemen Overland -- April 1982

by Ian and June Harner

The choice was eventually made, and two weeks by road to North Yemen triumphed over a three week package tour to Japan. Next followed the necessary procurement of visas, firstly to visit Yemen as tourists, and secondly to travel in transit across Saudi Arabia and back. Eventually, with a briefcase full of essential documents and a vehicle full of equipment to withstand the rigours of at least five nights of desert camping en route, we left Abu Dhabi in a rather weary Nissan Patrol at the beginning of what promised to be an adventure rather than a holiday.

The tedious journey to Tarif and beyond across the subkha flats was enlivened only by vast tracts of water remaining from earlier rains. Apprehensive of possible delays at border posts, we were pleasantly surprised to pass though our sector of Qatar so painlessly, though found the Saudis very much more thorough.

The following day's travel was dominated by strong winds and rising sand which provided a strange atmosphere to rolling plains beside the road to Hofuf. A reasonable cover of vegetation bore witness to the spring rains and the sand was wet and hard beneath the top few inches. In an effort to prevent sand drifting across the road in the more susceptible areas, three continuous lines of barasti thatching have been erected on either side, and some sandy areas have been sprayed with bitumen. The short-term effect seems to be a success but the longer term possibility of fully halting the relentless progression of the desert is doubtful. A tree planting policy, as on the Medina Zayed to Liwa road in the UAE may be more successful.

Hofuf is one of the largest oases in the world. It seems to have developed, however, into a sprawling mass of characterless concrete edifices. Disappointed, we pressed on to keep up time, but the endlessly tedious gravel plains on the route to Riyadh did nothing to raise our spirits. Constant roadworks and heavy goods traffic from the east coast accompanied us until we reached the country's administrative capital, a city of contrasts where, however, we only spent a short time.

Leaving Riyadh behind we started the 800 km sector to Taif. The rocky scenery just outside Riyadh, with cereal plantations, melted into rolling sand dunes with carpets of small plants, some in flower, followed by more gravel plains and traditional Arab dwellings resembling miniature fortresses. After another night under canvass, the journey continued to Taif, with gravel plains giving way gradually to rocky hills for a while until the inevitable return of a gravel landscape again. Pushing on through localised thunder and hailstorms, Taif was eventually reached by mid afternoon.

Taif is the summer retreat of Saudi notables and because of its elevation has a tolerable climate all year round. The town itself is provincial and apart from the usual developments and roadworks appears reasonably pleasant in a characterless sort of way. It was on leaving Taif, however, that a taste of the scenic beauty which was to follow now became evident. Rugged outcrops merged into grass covered hills with trees clinging to the steep slopes, and an endless procession of wadis passed beneath our wheels, some with flowing water. Our eyes feasted on the change of scene, on the increased plant cover; bee-eaters, hoopoes, magpies and bulbuls were seen in number; a scorpion was disturbed beneath a stone at our mountain campsite; the air was refreshingly cool and crisp. Could this really be Saudi Arabia?

The landscape became less lush as Abha was reached but nonetheless interesting. After protracted discussions with an incredulous official (not many Europeans from Abu Dhabi apparently drive to North Yemen), we were permitted to continue our journey and descend to the coastal plain and the town of Jizan. The descent was via narrow hairpins more befitting a sure-footed donkey than some of the larger lorries which were traveling the route. The road followed a major wadi and catastrophic evidence of the recent flooding was to be seen in washed away bridges and sections of subsided road surface hanging over near vertical hill faces. The route in fact followed the wadi bed itself, splashing through the not insignificant pools of running water. A troupe of about twenty baboons was seen at one section of the wadi bed.

We arrived at last on the coastal plain, or 'Tihama', and this heralded the beginning of sandy plains, thatched huts, hot humid conditions, and plantations of sorghum and dates. The people appeared more African than Arab and memories of a previous sojourn in East Africa came flooding back.

A wrong turn, prolonged Saudi security checks and rather odd opening times of Yemeni customs enforced an unplanned stopover in the lorry park of the Yemen border post. The park was jammed to capacity with Land Cruiser taxis laden with innumerable articles including bicycles and bedding on roofracks piled up to six feet high. Groups of resigned drivers and passengers passed the night on string beds and wooden benches.

Next morning the late arrival of the senior official facilitated the gathering of bees and wasps from a flowering acacia, and the oddity of a British passport seemed to gain some privilege over the scores of migrant workers; we were at last in the Yemen. Pushing southwards along the 'Tihama' through rising sand, past the now familiar thatched huts, large areas of cacti-like succulents, straw-hatted negroes and hard-worked donkeys, the Red Sea port of Hodeidah was reached. This relatively new and somewhat scruffy town was unappealing and our journey continued through plantations of banana and paw paw trees to Mocca. Scenery alternated between sand and gravel plains with foothills of the central plateau reaching out to meet the sea as we turned off the main road for the last 40 kms to the town. This area reminded us very much of the Oman Mountains with rocky outcrops, stony plains and deeply scored wadis. The Red Sea was a welcome relief from dust plains, and a brief swim in the surprisingly cool water revived us.

Coffee is not grown in the Mocca area. The worldwide renown of the name Mocca derives from the port itself (now silted and unusable) from which coffee was once exported on a grand scale. Old Mocca does possess a certain fascination with its decaying historical buildings, but modern influences are rapidly eroding the older traditions. Fishermen still utilise the most makeshift of rafts from which to cast their nets, but much of the town seems to be given over to youths who roar round the streets on poorly-silenced motorcycles.

Having struck our beach camp we followed the road into the mountains of the central plateau towards Taiz and Ibb. This is where the real Yemen began as far as we were concerned. As we increased height so we became enveloped in the confines of the mountains, with their lush vegetation, trees sporting weavers' nests from every branch, wadis with flowing water and fish, hoopoes, bulbuls and herons, butterflies and dragonflies in profusion. After Taiz the climb continued around twisting roads clinging to precipitous mountainsides, past sisal, maize and banana trees in steeply terraced plantations and the traditional Yemeni villages nestling high on the shoulders of hills and outcrops. The variety of plant life, including dock, thistle, cowslip and wild rose made hunting for insects a most pleasurable exercise.

As dusk closed in we approached Ibb too late to explore the ancient citadel town so we cast around for a suitable spot to park. Camping sites are at a premium in the heavily populated areas around and the local people were clearly a bit wary of our motives. A reasonable spot was found and after a brief visit from the local police we were allowed to stay for the night.

Next morning we drove on upwards to the high plateau, with breathtaking scenery now commonplace, until we eventually reached Sanaa itself. South of the city a hare was observed on stony terrain.

Luxurious hotel accommodation offered by the Taj Sheba, the Ramada and the Sheraton was forsaken in favour of the quainter delights of the old Imam's Palace Hotel (with its even quainter plumbing); an unforgettable experience for those with a strong disposition. After more formalities were completed, and exit, transit visas and registrations were obtained, we embarked on the usual tourist circuit of Sanaa. To the west is the large stone village of Hadda, noted for its extensive plantations, particularly of almonds. Watered by fresh springs, the place attract many Yemenis out for an afternoon or Friday picnic. Just before the nearby village of Wadi Dhar is an outstanding view of the wadi floor. The village is famous for its rock palace and vine groves. Almost 180 kms east of Sanaa is Marib, on the edge of the Empty Quarter. This ruin was once a legendary city under the rule of the kings and queens of Sheba. The drive from the capital descends from the high plateau to sand plains interspersed with volcanic and old lava flows. The road eventually ends at a wide flat wadi with fast flowing muddy water. Evidence of the ancient dam and palace at Marib can still be seen and H.H. Sheikh Zayed of Abu Dhabi has donated a large sum of money for restoration of the ancient monuments. Insect, bird and plant life was extremely prolific for a desert area.

Old Sanaa is in traditional Yemeni style with narrow streets, stone houses and whitewashed mosques, and a souk straight from the pages of "Arabian Nights". The more modern parts of the city are unfortunately less attractive with crowded traffic and an inadequate and inefficient refuse collection system.

Throughout the country we found the Yemeni people to be extremely friendly and at Wadi Dhar we spent an enjoyable evening with a local family. We did not partake of the ubiquitous 'hubble-hubble' or 'Qat', but we sampled 'Qish', the unusual local coffee made from the husk, not the bean.

The long trek home soon became reality and we left Sanaa with a quota of five days to reach Abu Dhabi. The journey commenced with an impressive mountain drive through Manakhah, past terraced hillsides, plantations, green slopes and wadis and the final twisting descent to the 'Tihama' and Hodeidah. Our inland route brought us to the border at Harad where sprawling, hookah-smoking, qat-chewing officials processed our papers. Misled by the prominent signs past Ad Darib the coastal road took us through sand plains and date palms with the Red Sea on one side and volcanic hills on the other. When the tarmac abruptly ended, the prospect of 100 km of sand driving forced us to retrace our route and take the more easterly coastal road at Shuqaiq. Sand merged into gravel plains and then the road became a twisting ribbon as we arrived at the foothills of the Asir mountains and the now familiar sight of wadis and lush plantations. The route swung in towards the holy town of Mecca as a carpet of small plants and grassess transformed the dunes into rolling meadows across the road in front of the vehicle. Taking the obligatory route around Mecca we snaked our way once more up the mountainside and into Taif. A long but uneventful journey retracing our earlier route through Riyadh, Hufuf and Qatar completed a totally fascinating and rewarding 7500 km round trip in just sixteen crowded days.

Logistics and General Information

  1. 4-wheel drive is an advantage but not essential.
  2. Garages are readily available at convenient points. All roads are well-used and people friendly. Two vehicles travelling together is recommended.
  3. Petrol, water and provisions are readily obtainable. Emergency supplies only need be taken, along with the usual vehicle spares.
  4. Petrol is approx. Dh 1.50 per gallon in Saudi Arabia and Dh 12.00 in N. Yemen.
  5. Copies of vehicle registration, passport, photographs etc. should be taken. Registration at Immigration is obligatory within 5 days of entering N. Yemen. An exit permit will be issued at the same time. Registration must be effected before Marib and some other areas can be visited.
  6. Border opening times to North Yemen are 0800 -1300 and 1600 -1900 hours.
  7. Do not be tempted to take prohibited goods into Saudi Arabia.
  8. Camping is a problem in N. Yemen due to difficult terrain and population density. Good hotels exist in major towns.
  9. All innoculations should be up to date, including malaria and polio.


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