March 2002 : Oman, Yemen, Eritrea



As-salaam alaykum from Perdika in the Red Sea. This has been an action-packed month bursting with new impressions and adventures. Another 1,000 miles on our way and three quite contrasting countries – each requiring a crash course in local history both ancient and modern.

We started the month in Salalah – second city of Oman – the largest of the Gulf States, situated on the south east corner of the Arabian peninsular. Rich, though certainly not the richest of these states, what we saw of Oman accorded very much with our image of an Arab desert state. A range of barren desert hills backs the sandy coastal strip on which the town of Salalah is situated. Stereotypical Arabic architecture – white walls, flat roofs, arches, filigree detail are spaciously laid out among date palms. Fast wide roads for the fast flash cars – all quite affluent. Most of the men wear white kaftans with turbans or Moslem caps. The women, outnumbered on the streets by about 50 men to one woman, are covered in strict black purdah – eyes only! We drove along the beachfront promenade one late afternoon to find boys playing football and groups of men sitting on the sand playing cards – but no girls or women to be seen. Salalah was a very good place to stock up – the best western style supermarket we had seen for some time, and included a booth entirely devoted to dates of huge variety. The more traditional souk was excellent, not just for its fantastic selection of high quality fruit and vegetables, but also for its myriad of stalls selling frankincence and all its accoutrements, many surrounded by a little cluster of local purchasers in intense debate over the merits of this or that variety. We hired a car to make a couple of forays inland and along the coast where life seemed more traditional, finding plenty of roadside camels and spectacular desolate mountain scenery. An interesting place – western affluence weirdly combining with a very traditional Arab/Moslem culture.

Following 11th September, we had been anxious that the situation in the Middle East might become so volatile as to make our progress through to the Mediterrannean difficult or impossible. Thankfully this appears not to be the case – not at the moment anyway. There is however a heavy international naval presence in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea. We could hear American warships on the radio over 300 miles away. Salalah is in use as a base by both the British Army and Navy. The yacht anchorage was directly on the route of a British Army exercise which took place over several days, loading and off-loading vehicles from a landing craft which plied noisily back and forth all day long, manned by several very pink-faced squaddies in the burning sunshine. The real excitement for us was the presence of several British warships in the harbour including the aircraft carrier HMS Ocean. We got talking to a trio of helicopter engineers one evening in the Port Club and invited them for drinks on Perdika. As we had hoped, this invitation was reciprocated by them with a tour around ‘their’ boat! Most impressive - the hangars and vehicle decks were even more cavernous than we had imagined, but best was a stroll around the flight deck at sunset and inspection of several of the helicopters. The ‘ops. room’ was impressively full of surveillance and defensive instruments – and much gleeful talk of ‘taking out’ anyone/thing straying too close!

The Gulf of Aden – which we were now about to enter – has a reputation for piratical activity directed mainly against commercial shipping, but including a significant number of attacks over the past few years on yachts. We had met an Italian ‘twin’ of Perdika back in Thailand which had actually been fired on by pirates – and fired back. The cruising guide for the area has meticulously logged and described the most recent incidents in order to defray undue anxiety about transiting the area. Advice is given on how best to avoid being attacked, commenting baldly that if attacked, very little in the way of help can be expected. Consequently the majority of yachts heading towards the Red Sea formed little convoys of 4-6 boats, some running without lights at night, maintaining VHF silence and giving information as to position on short wave radio, only under cover of codes – usually by reference to pre-arranged positions. Unfortunately all this information and advice seems to have had the opposite effect to what was intended, reinforcing rather than calming anxieties, and many yachts rushed nervously through the area without stopping anywhere at all. Having assessed the situation on all the information available, we made the possibly controversial decision to travel on our own. We were very keen to call in at the Yemeni port of Al Mukalla, which others seemed to be bypassing. We felt that the heavy naval presence in the area this year would prove a deterrent to would-be pirates, making their capture and our rescue more likely than in previous years. We should add that we were in twice daily radio contact with a group of yachts travelling further off-shore at about the same time as us. A major problem is the difficulty of distinguishing real pirates – armed Somalis or Yemenis who occasionally attack vessels of any kind, from either aggressive and non-uniformed officials, or curious and hungry fisherman – any of whom might approach us and could well be armed in this gun culture society. Having heard of other yachts handing out biscuits to placate approaching boats, we included a stock of ‘pirate’ biscuits in our provisioning – even discussing the in supermarket which biscuits we thought pirates might like – not too good, but not insultingly cheap either! In the event our only ‘attack’ was an approach by a very non-threatening boatload of fishermen waving and smiling and pointing to their mouths. We duly handed over a packet of digestives and off they went to show their mates in another boat. This was the only encounter on this part of the trip either from local boats or warships, though we were overflown once by a very spooky fast and low aircraft which made no radio contact – taking photographs presumably.

Our decision to ‘brave’ the Yemen coastline and go into Al Mukalla was magnificently rewarded. We found this ancient city of ‘mini-skyscrapers’ spectacularly situated at the foot of rugged cliffs, overlooked by four tiny forts high above on a rocky ridge. Having anchored we were wondering what to do about clearing into Yemen, when a small boat arrived alongside. Four somewhat dodgy looking characters clambered onboard, implausibly introducing themselves as Police and Immigration. We meekly handed over our passports in return for official if grubby-looking shore passes, and went through the quickest clearing-in formalities on record. They sped off, leaving us to relax in the cockpit, with the town spread out around the bay all around us. As the setting sun turned the whole city a golden colour, one muezzin started the call to prayer – a solemn and majestic incantation, taken up a few minutes later by a more dramatic call from another mosque. Several more took up the call, and with the sound blending and resonating around the hills, this was a magical and spine-tingling experience – nothing like the insistent and sometimes intimidating sound we have become used to hearing – but an ancient and timeless part of this city’s everyday life.

Next morning we went ashore. It was hard going at first – we were definitely the only Europeans there and no one seemed to speak any English at all. There being no such luxury as a tourist office we tried at the internet office and nearby hotel without much luck. As we wandered around the streets, the people seemed perfectly friendly to these ‘infidels’ and we began to get our bearings. We found the town a special and captivating place – untouched by westernisation – a complete contrast to clean and swanky Oman. Most men wore traditional dress – sarongs and red checked turbans, often with great curved ‘jambiyas’ tucked into their belts. Bustling and lively by day, the pace slowed in the evening to a mellow atmosphere of relaxed contentment, with countless men (not a woman in sight) sitting around – at tables, on the ground, on walls – chatting or playing cards and dominoes. We met some enormously charming, cultured and most welcoming people there – particularly amongst the officials, and even a retired ambassador, who showed us around the cultural centre he had established as if we were visiting royalty! We made a short excursion out of the city to a local desert water hole. When we met our driver for the afternoon he was accompanied by an armed soldier – "for our protection". When I asked the driver what we were being protected from he replied "Osama Bin Laden" – not entirely reassuring! In fact, since a hostage taking incident some years ago, the Yemeni authorities are going to extremes to protect the few visitors they have.

We discussed the pirate situation with the Al Mukalla harbourmaster, and he took our concerns very seriously. He advised us to make our departure under cover of darkness to avoid being observed as a potential target once out at sea. He suggested we check in regularly with the coastguard by radio. We took this advice – but unfortunately never managed to make any contact whatsoever with the coastguard! We ran the next 300 miles along the coast, without lights overnight past the riskiest areas, without incident and duly arrived in Aden.

We were not at all sure what to expect of this outpost of British history and were unprepared for the magnificent entrance into a vast natural harbour flanked by dramatic volcanic headlands. The town of Aden is spectacularly run down. One yachtie described it as looking ‘as though there had been an earthquake there – yesterday’ – and that is about right. You cannot imagine anywhere more crumbling and dilapidated – and dilapidated modern buildings sadly lack the charm of more ancient ruins. However, despite the squalor of their surroundings – not only crumbling, but swamped in litter – the people are incredibly dynamic and welcoming. As we walked around the streets bustling with activity, people were constantly coming up to shake our hands to welcome us. When they discovered we were British they were ecstatic. The Customs official proudly showed us his smallpox vaccination scar – proving he was ‘British’ born! Another character rushed to show us his carefully folded and rather aging photograph of the Queen, declaring "she is our Queen"! They have a huge nostalgia for the time of the British Protectorate, which evidently compares extremely favourably with the subsequent communist regime. We were astonished to learn that our taxi driver had spent five years of his life as a refridgeration engineer in Russia. He was a fund of knowledge giving us all sorts of insights into recent Yemeni history culminating in the uneasy unification of north and south Yemen.

Highlights of our visit to Aden were a trip to the ‘Tanks’ – 18 huge water cisterns capable of holding up to 45 million litres of water, built into a natural gorge at the time of the Queen of Sheba (whenever that was!), and a day long drive to and from the town of Ta’izz in what used to be North Yemen. This trip, which required a special permit (giving us the opportunity to observe numerous administrative institutions!) took us over a rugged mountain terrain with an extraordinarily numerous population living in tiny villages perched precariously up in the hills on ridges and spurs. Built from the local stone, they were often hard to spot, blending so well into their surroundings. The sight of women dressed in bright reds and oranges – a great contrast to the black purdah of Aden and Al Mukalla – carrying water up from wells at road level was extremely picturesque – but they were unfortunately paranoically camera-shy! The city of Ta’izz itself was magnificent – having been the capital of the country at various times in the past. Ancient and bustling, we had a fascinating time meandering around the market in the oldest part of town, and then up to an ancient fortress in the throes of a major restoration project.

A slightly more westernised population here and in Aden, but women still in purdah. One consequence of this of course is that women can’t eat out in public – no mouths! I was without exception the only woman on the premises when we ate out. Being also invariably the only Europeans, I felt more a different species than a different gender.

Eating out in this wild and rugged country is a pretty rugged experience. No such niceties as a menu – not that we would have understood it if there had been. A sheet of newspaper is used as a table cloth – eating is a messy business without knife and fork! We would either point to what someone else was eating, or get taken into the cooking area to point to our choice. The cooking is done typically on a single gas flame burning with the intensity and noise of a space rocket. The food is not bad – if not exactly haute cuisine.

We were very taken with Yemen – a vibrant culture unadulterated by westernisation and for that reason, extremely fascinating to us. We were though less enthusiastic about the litter – more plastic bags than we have seen anywhere else – and we have seen a few in our travels. Also the ‘qat’ habit – the chewing of a privet-like leaf with mildly narcotic properties. The leaves are not swallowed but chewed into a paste which is pushed into the cheek – eventually forming a huge bulge. Every afternoon the country grinds to a halt while the entire male population sit around in groups chewing qat becoming dozier and dopier. Strangely, there seems to be no restriction on qat chewing while at work and we found it slightly disconcerting to be stopped at checkpoints by armed soldiers chewing qat, slightly stupefied by our papers. Worse was the procedure whereby on leaving the port to go ashore, we had to deposit our passports at the harbour office. On our return we would invariably find a dozy group of officials lounging around on the floor chewing qat with the precious passports of several yacht crews in a disorganised heap in the middle!

From Aden we faced the Red Sea – with some trepidation. The weather pattern for the Red Sea is extremely discouraging to yachts, with prevailing winds coming from the north at all times of the year – except for a break at around this time, when there is some chance of southerlies – but only in the southern half. These southerlies are frequently at gale force at the entrance to the Red Sea – the dread Bab el Mandeb – a useful direction but slightly scary prospect. In the event, our winds were southerly but quite gentle. We actually found ourselves increasing sail right in the strait – while engaged on fending off ‘pirates’in the form of a boatload of about 8 fishermen, who seemed surprisingly pleased with their token bounty of one can of beer between them! We kept the good wind for the whole of the first day, before being virtually becalmed, having to motor much of the rest of the way to our destination of Massawa in Eritrea.

The only other incident of note was our encounter with the US navy. Having been overflown by a couple of helicopters one morning, we spied a line of large vessels appearing over the horizon, approaching us from ahead. As they drew close it was apparent that they were warships, the first of which pealed off, heading straight for us. This corvette (?) turned behind us and passed back alongside us at a distance of about a hundred yards. We have never before been approached so closely and so deliberately without some form of greeting – on the VHF radio or a wave. However, the dour faced crew simply stared at us without expression, someone taking photos. They seemed hard put to return our waves and certainly not our smiles. I decided I’d like some pictures of them, but after the first photo my camera jammed. As they zoomed off Chris called them up on the radio to tell them this, to be informed that "their operations might have caused a temporary fault to our equipment which would recover as they left the area!" In fact my camera did not recover, and the fault turned out to be nothing to do with the incident. However, their unfriendly arrogance was quite staggering – and they are supposed to like us!

Eritrea was an amazing revelation to us – though admitedly we had very little in the way of expectations before we arrived. First, it was very obviously African – a distinct change from Arabia. It is an incredibly poor country – in material terms – after 30 years of war with Ethiopia – but rich in spirit. It was telling to be greeted over and over again by people stressing particularly the peacefulness of their country – peace is obviously not something yet taken for granted. The sight of UN vehicles and workers from various agencies was a constant reminder of recent history – as was the port of Massawa itself. This once grand Turkish/Italianate city, boasting many beautiful buildings, is now a rather shattered and bombed remnant. However, morale is high and the atmosphere is open and lively. We found it refreshing to see females out and about dressed ‘normally’ and behaving as full members of the human race. However, the real revelation of Eritrea was the capital Asmara, which we visited from Massawa, across spectacularly high and rugged mountains, on a local and very ethnic bus. This city is one of astonishing contrasts. On the one hand, fabulously picturesque traditional markets with women from the countryside selling tiny piles of produce. The population of Eritrea is exceptionally fine looking. If you can recall TV news items 10 years ago of the Ethiopian famine, you can picture these Tigrinya women with their fabulous hairstyles – tight braiding down the head bursting out into an exuberant bush at neck level. The other side of Asmara was entirely unexpected. The city was, we discovered, during its time as an Italian colony, deliberately developed and expanded between the 1920s-40s in a bid to demonstrate Italian might and influence. It is packed with fascinating and avante garde examples of the architecture of this era – Art Deco, Futurist, Italian Modernist, Functionalist, etc. – including no less than three cathedrals. With the long period of war, the city has subsequently remained free of development beyond the 1850s and is effectively a living architectural museum. As if this wasn’t fascinating enough, there is a large sophisticated middle class population. The city centre has an astonishingly Mediterranean feel to it, with the well-dressed population strolling around in the evening, kissing each other in greeting (or shoulder bumping, which is the greeting between veterans of the war of independence), eating and drinking at the countless chic little bars and cafes. All this set amid bright blue jacaranda trees and multi-pinks of bourganvillia all over town. A wonderful place which we could well imagine living in.

From Asmara we ventured even further inland, to the traditional town of Keren. We met there a couple of Canadian aid workers who gave us interesting insights into the birth of Eritrea and current politics. The town was full of ethnic sights and interest – not least the weekly livestock market which luckily co-incided with our visit there.

We are, as I write this, anchored off a reef between two islands 25 miles north of Massawa, sheltering from a strong north-westerly wind. Our Sailing Association friends back in the UK who are relaying internet weather forecasts for us suggest it will be another two days before a change, enabling us to continue our progress northwards. This is likely to be the pattern for the rest of the Red Sea – pushing on as far as possible whenever we have a suitable ‘weather window’ and waiting it out wherever we can when the adverse wind is too strong.

Dehan kun