25-Oct-2006 -- After visiting 17N 52E and 18N 52E on 24 October, I was keen to try to get to 18N 51E on the same day. This would allow me to bed down at the relative safety of the police checkpoint near the tiny habitation of Sanāw, or even to carry on to Thamūd. The latter option would set me up nicely for confluence hunting the next day. But time was against me and by the time I got to Sanāw (16:45), the light was already beginning to go.
Common sense demanded that I stop at Sanāw and wait until the next day. But a few quick calculations made me think that there would be just enough time to get to the point, take the pictures in the remaining light, and drive back very carefully in the dark to the main road. Needless to say, common sense didn't prevail, and I turned off the asphalt at 19.5 km from the Confluence and zoomed off across the gravel/sand surface, winding around hills and outcrops and racing the rapidly setting sun.
I actually almost made it. But at just 2.85 km from the point, and with the light failing, I rushed down a small hill towards what I thought was a small and easily traversable sand dune. There should have been plenty of momentum to roll over it, but the Landy stalled and ended up in sand up to its axles. I got out of the car and watched helplessly as the sun said goodbye for the day, and the full realisation of what it is to be completely alone in the Mahran desert hit me. There were no signs of human habitation at all, and the checkpoint was 20 km away.
I toyed with the idea of going to sleep and sorting the car out the next day, but knew that I wouldn't be able to sleep without knowing if I could get moving again or not. And if - God forbid - I had to walk the 20 km to the checkpoint, then it would only be possible to do so in the relative cool of night. Undertaking such a hike in the daytime heat invites death from exposure.
The first two attempts at digging the Landy out (and it's no mean feat moving that much sand on your own...) went nowhere. Each time I tried to move on, the wheels were simply reburied. Plan B involved more hard work: completely unloading the vehicle, getting out the sand ladders (which were underneath everything else in the car, of course) and digging the vehicle out for a third time. I then forced the ladders under the two front tyres at an angle of about 30 degrees into the air (Plan C would be to jack the Landy up properly and place each wheel on a ladder, but I was praying not to have to do this) and engaged the diff lock. The first try failed and the ladders just fell back down. But, with everything crossed, I got it moving on the second attempt. Ever so slowly, I inched the Landy down the dune and parked it on some hard gravel, before reloading all the kit.
Tired after all of these shenanigans, I sat down to think about the second problem: I was on my own in the desert for the night. There was no way I was going to risk driving in the dark and getting stuck again. I had plenty of food and water, but was worried about potential passers by. al-Mahra is extremely scarcely populated, and any Mahran about their normal business would be using the asphalt roads. Anyone coming this way at night would be bound to be up to no good - most likely smugglers on their way to the Empty Quarter and the Saudi border. It goes without saying that anyone stumbling on a British diplomat in the desert would probably be less than delighted with their find. I moved the Landy to a dip between some hills, enforced blackout conditions, and kept noise to an absolute minimum. A quick dinner of bread, cheese and olives was followed by my curling up on the back seat and going to sleep.
The next day I woke early and had to wait for the sun to join me before moving. After a quick check of the site to ensure I'd left nothing behind, I started off after the first few rays emerged. Being so close to the point, there was no question of giving up, and I drove the remaining 3 km in a few minutes. I then had to wait until the sun rose properly before taking the pictures. Some are dark nonetheless - apologies - but I was in no particular mood to hang around too long!
No great vistas awaited me as compensation for my unusual night's accommodation: just flat, dark gravel in each direction. On the return drive to the main road there are a few scenic hills and even some plant-life, but nothing too much to grab the eye.
Back on the asphalt, I popped 'Survivor, Eye of the Tiger' on the iPod (tongue in cheek, of course), and hurtled off towards Thamūd and 17N 50E.
Notes: For more information about confluence hunting in Yemen please see my visit to 15N 49E. Be aware that spending nights alone in the Yemeni wilderness is not a great idea. A flat battery or hostile tribesman could have been my undoing. I would recommend taking a support vehicle and a local (preferably police) escort before visiting this or similar confluence points in Yemen.