22-May-2006 -- Until recently, crossing from Yemen's UNESCO World Heritage status capital city, Ṣan`ā', to the popular tourist destination of Wādiy Ḥaḍramawt (see 16N 49E) one had to drive across the sands of the fearsome Ramlat al-Sab`atayn, a finger of the aptly named 'Empty Quarter'. Running out of fuel or getting a flat tyre was a frightening scenario in 40 degree heat with no prospect of shade until nightfall. And there are good reasons why the first Westerner to cross the Quarter (Wilfred Thesiger) did not do so until the 1940s: this area is one where only the most hardened Bedu dare to tread.
Construction of a new asphalt road has changed all that, and oil tankers, tourist coaches and motorbikes jostle with each other on the monotonous five-hour journey from Ma'rib to Say'ūn. In fairness, as trips go, it is not all boredom: the landscape is occasionally punctuated with striking mountainous outcrops and ridges, and camels wander onto the tarmac often enough to stare at speeding vehicles and liven up the trip. But certainly, Thesiger would never have approved - he considered roads to be a conduit for the destruction of Arab culture.
Sarah and I were on our way to Ḥaḍramawt with Polly, an old friend from the UK that was visiting us in Yemen. We planned to go down the little-visited branch wādiys of Ḥaḍramawt as a means of seeing the interior of this striking governorate, and to reconnoitre three potential confluence points for future attempts (16N 48E down Wādiy Haynan, 15N 48E down Wādiy Du`an, and 16N 50E down Wādiy al-Masīla). On the way, we decided to attempt the two confluence points accessible from the Ma'rib – Say'ūn road.
16N 47E, previously visited by the Masuds and the Osaimis, lies in the desert of Šabwa governorate (see 15N 46E). We turned north off the asphalt at 10.1 km from the point, and were able to speed along firm sandy gravel interspersed with both softer sandy parts and jarring patches of black volcanic rock, until reaching the target. The views are mostly of a flat, barren desert landscape, although a rugged outcrop of three table-topped hills can be seen to the northeast and a few scrubby trees are located to the south. Vehicle tracks criss-cross the area, including next to the point.
Not, perhaps, the most fascinating confluence point to visit in Yemen. But the area has an ancient past. In the Sultan's Palace museum in Say'ūn, there is a cabinet of stone tools and arrowheads from the sixth century BC collected from this precise area. In the mural behind the display, there is a desert scene that includes the very outcrop that can be seen from the point.
The story continues at 16N 46E.
Notes: For more information about the involvement of the British Embassy Ṣan`ā' in the DCP, or confluence hunting in Yemen in general, please see our visit to 15N 49E.