21-Oct-2008 -- My name is Rod Maher. I was working in Kurdistan, Northern Iraq, with fellow doodlebugger Ray Derrick (of doodlebuggers reunited fame). We worked near a town called Arbīl scouting the area for seismic exploration purposes.
I had heard of the Degree Confluence Project before and have even looked to see if there were any confluence points near where I live in Thailand. There were, but of course, they had all been visited. Thailand is a lovely place to visit at any confluence point.
I always use UTM WGS84 in my GPS as it is widely used in seismic exploration; I rarely have any use for degrees and minutes. Consequently I could have missed the opportunity of visiting this site. But then one evening I was in my room in our trailer camp planning a trip for the next day when I noticed the UTM coordinates near where I wanted to go were 38S 4000000N 400000E. Not a degree confluence point I know, but the numbers reminded me of the Project and I switched my map planner to WGS84 degrees just out of curiosity. And there it was – 36N 44E – only around 20 km south of Arbīl. The confluence point was just outside of our area of interest regarding seismic exploration but it was too good an opportunity to miss.
I then spent a bit of time on Google Earth looking at the point and how to get there. It looked to be in a field about 6 km off the main road to Baġdād. The resolution was poor and tracks were difficult to pick out but I did find one that looked hopeful; I put a waypoint on my map planner. I wasn’t sure that the track would be there because even the hi-res satellite image of Arbīl is long out of date. Many roads and buildings that exist are simply not on the image. But it was the best I could do. In fairness to Google Earth I must say that the Kurds don’t hang about when it comes to new roads and buildings.
With the war in Iraq still a fresh memory and terrorism a very real possibility, security was our main concern. We would be travelling on the road to Baġdād and while Kurdistan is relatively safe, we were definitely heading in the wrong direction. However, the people in the area are very friendly, both Christian and Muslim. In fact the two religions live side by side in the area and don’t just tolerate each other, they actually get on very well together. If only their open-mindedness could be shared around the planet.
The other concern was whether the point would be in a cultivated field. As I have said the people are very friendly, but the farmers would not take kindly to having their livelihoods jeopardised for the sake of me arriving at some invisible intangible point in the middle of their tomato crop. And an AK47 automatic rifle is standard farm equipment.
Fortunately we had a local driver that chauffeured us around. Sorchie Mahmood is very knowledgeable about the area and speaks reasonably good English. At the time he knew nothing about the confluence point and was a little intrigued as to why we would want to go to the middle of nowhere. I left the explanation as a surprise for him.
Mahmood was able to talk to any farmers we should come across; in fact he seemed to know everyone we met. He assured us that there would be no problems crossing farmland in a Toyota provided nothing was growing there. This was hopeful news because in October there is not much growing anywhere as the rainy season is still a month or so away. He also assured us that the area we wanted to go to is as safe as anywhere. But for this concern I still checked with the security guards that keep a watchful eye out for trouble around where we work. Again, no problem. So we just waited for the opportunity to go and visit.
The opportunity came on 21 October 2008 when we had to make a trip to town for administration purposes. We also took the opportunity to have a look around Arbīl. It’s a fascinating town with much history. There are many good markets in Arbīl where most things cost a fraction of what they would in the West. And again here you can see Christians and Muslims living together as if it were the most natural thing in the world; as it should be.
It had gone mid day by the time we finished our duties and I contemplated postponing the trip. But Ray was keen to go, so we fuelled up at a rather good Kurdish restaurant and then set off South on the road to Baġdād. The trip down the blacktop road was fairly uneventful. Even the police at the checkpoint simply waved us through. The queue of traffic coming into town had a much tougher time and Mahmood told us that you could wait for hours to get through the checkpoint when going into Arbīl on the Baġdād road.
Before long we arrived at the waypoint where I thought there might be a track. There was not. Instead there was a blacktop road. Things looked hopeful so we turned off here and continued on until my GPS indicated that we needed to go off-road. We were about 2 or 3 km from the confluence point at this stage and as I called out directions, Mahmood negotiated the rutted farm tracks so that we snaked our way ever closer to the point.
For the last km or so we had to enter fields that had been raked to keep their surface loosely broken up during the dry season. However, there was much evidence of vehicles driving through these field. Mahmood did not see the need to drive to the farm houses to ask permission and had no worries about entering the barren unfenced fields. I took a few pics as we got closer to the point but there really wasn’t much of interest from a photographic viewpoint. The land is almost perfectly flat with a few farms scattered around. The main picture shows the general area near the point which was approx. 50 m ahead to the right of the picture. One of the local farms can also be seen.
Arriving at the confluence point we drove almost exactly to the spot and as I got out of the car, Mahmood gave me a questioning look. We really were in the middle of nowhere. I then paced around trying to get all zeroes. I walked this way then that, eager to get the magic numbers on the display. “You’re walking too fast”, Ray called out. And of course he was correct, the GPS can’t update that fast. But I was impatient as the numbers flickered from 59.999 to 00.001. Then I hit it; right on the nose; all zeroes. I gently placed the GPS on the ground and both Ray and I started taking as many pictures as we could. We both did some cardinal point rotations and I took several shots of the NE, SE, etc. directions. I also took a movie panning 360 degrees.
The Kurds are a very proud people and love their country. When I explained to Mahmood the significance of this small patch of dried earth, he was extremely pleased that he was standing on a point in his country that is considered to be rather special by people from all around the world. Incidentally and coincidentally, there was a plastic bag precisely on the confluence point when we arrived and we left it there.
Leaving the confluence point, Mahmood took us on a different route back to where we were living. We headed West from the confluence point to pick up the SW road from Arbīl, thus avoiding the Baġdād road checkpoint. We called in at the farm but only the farmer’s children were there. Mahmood left a message with them saying what we’d been up to and off we went. With hindsight this would have been a better route to the confluence point in the first place. Although it was a further distance, there was a well used farm track (seen in use in the general area pic), that was only half a kilometre or so across the field from the confluence point.
After arriving back at our camp I looked at the pictures. You can see that it is a fairly uninteresting spot. However, the challenge and satisfaction of getting there was just as great as if it had been on a picturesque mountain top.
I travel the world in my work and will be on the look out for more “interesting” confluence point challenges.