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Crew: Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon

Tokomaru2 in Oman and Yemen

Having crossed the Indian Ocean, we now find ourselves in the deserts of Arabia.  After the green and colourful tropics suddenly everything is beige.  Barren mountains form the backdrop to Salalah, our port of entry into Oman.  Salalah lies on a coastal plain where the sand extends for miles with not a scrap of green, just the odd scraggy palm tree. Occasionally there are stretches of undulating, wind-blown sand (as one imagines the ‘desert’) but mostly it’s dusty, stony terrain.  Outside the town camels roam freely, -on the beach, on the roadside, on the slopes of the dried-out ‘wadis’, almost invisible against their surroundings. The modern town of Salalah is spacious and clean.  Stately mosques, a grand palace and elegant Arab-style buildings are varying shades of beige or white with tasteful marble finish and wide paved areas in between. The streets are empty as people move around inside their air-con vehicles (white). The few people about (men) wear a spotless white dishdasha; the (even fewer) women are concealed inside the black abeyya.  All very classy and minimalist!
                                           Mohammed  the Yacht Agent in full kit

But our very first impression of Oman was of warm and welcoming people who appeared on the quay to take our lines as we arrived (finally, on 26 March) in the big container port in the dark. Guys from a nearby rusting trawler brought us tea and we sat chatting to them as we waited for customs.  More people came to join in the chat and before long they produced from somewhere a full dinner of chicken and pitta bread; so we experienced straight away the famed Arab hospitality. We certainly felt pampered after our long days at sea.  Earlier, as we entered the harbour, fellow yachties had come alongside in their dinghies and, under cover of the night, lobbed cans of cold beer into our cockpit. Oman is strictly no alcohol.

                                    MS Doulos
                                       1910 Motor vessel Doulos
One of the first things Omani people tell you about is the ‘khareef’. This region of Dhofar, on the south east corner of the Arabian Peninsular catches the monsoon rains between June and August. At this time, they say, the dried out wadis fill with water, the desert blooms and Dhofar is transformed into a green and flowering paradise.  They proudly boast that hundreds of tourists will come, especially from the Gulf states where it becomes impossibly hot.  Apparently men with their four wives and many children can’t afford holidays in Europe anymore!  So they fill the posh hotels of Salalah, and enjoy the beautiful beaches, flocks of flamingos in the estuaries and the refreshing green of the mountain slopes.  Photos in the tourist brochures certainly bear this out.

In March though, we had to be content with dry, dusty desert.  But Oman has excellent roads (and very cheap petrol, 15 cents a litre) so we explored the coast in a hire car, visiting Mirbat, a fishing village; small, square, sand-coloured houses with lattice wooden windows, and  an old fort above the bay.  The fort was open and a group of men lounging in the guardroom waved us in, so we climbed the stairs in the courtyard and peeked into dark, windowless rooms with bright cushions on the floor. From the roof we had a view of the glittering turquoise sea –a brilliant colour in a desert land.  We then went off to find a much older settlement, the remains of  2000-year-old Kour Rouri, an ancient trading port.  After a lot of off-road driving along  tracks of sand and stone we finally came upon our ruins, perched above a valley, an unexpected oasis of green.  This is where, in ancient times, precious frankincense was traded with spices from India.  Another trip took us 1000 metres up along the mountain road towards the Yemen border.  The drive is a spectacular climb as the road zigzags steeply, cut through sedimentary rock revealing layer upon layer of sandstone forming decorative horizontal patterns.   There were stunning views over the valleys of Dhofar, camels everywhere, and in one of the wadis we think we identified the odd frankincense tree.

After a week in  Salalah we faced the 6 day sail along the coast of Yemen through the Gulf of Aden.  

This stretch of sea is notorious for pirate attacks, and while the majority of attacks are on the Somali side and against large ships, enough yachts have been boarded in the last few years to make one wary.  Yachts tend to go in a gang of 4 or 5 for safety.  We can’t maintain the 5 knots of speed which is normal for most yachts so we set off independently.  Our lonely trip was uneventful, except we caught a fine tuna, the first success for months.  We were approached only by friendly, well-behaved Yemeni fishermen who pointed to their mouths.  We gave them biscuits and they went off, waving cheerfully.  The problem turned out to be all the ships which, like us, were staying close to the Yemen side of the Gulf. We had to keep a constant watch, especially at night when they passed too close for comfort.


                                               Port of Aden looking towards the tourist jetty

The port of Aden sprawls across an extinct volcano, very impressive as you approach from the sea, but close to, Aden is a mess.  Buildings are crammed together on the craggy slopes of dirt-coloured volcanic rubble, some half-built, others left to collapse; new on top of old with no apparent design, - an architectural disaster!  But the quayside is nicely laid out with seats and shelters and here people gather in the evenings to relax in the cool air. Women covered from head to toe sit gossiping, young girls lark about (and you can glimpse the trendy clothes beneath the black), husband and wife sit together, she completely hidden from another man’s eyes.  Lots of children with their dads or elder brothers hang over the railings watching the tug boats and the old-fashioned dhows at anchor and us yachties, coming ashore in our dinghies.  All these people want to chat to you, practise their English, and if you’re British they’re delighted and immediately tell you that the British were in Aden for 140 years as if this were some golden age!  Ships bound for India and the Far East used to stop here for bunkering in the ‘old days’ and sepia photographs in the port entrance show hundreds of passengers milling about.  The headland is nostalgically named ‘Steamer Point’ and there’s a clock tower on the hill called ‘Big Ben’ which used to chime.  Air travel has changed all that, and in recent years, civil war in Yemen and terrorist bombs in the harbour have greatly reduced commercial shipping.

                                 Qat carriers

                                      Women carrying bundles of Qat

On our first day in Yemen, we were introduced to the all-important cultural activity of chewing qat.  After lunch almost the entire male population heads for the market to select their leaves.  Ray, our taxi driver, was on such a mission and took us with him. The stalls were piled with fresh qat and choosing was clearly a serious business and all part of the ritual.  Satisfied with his bunch, Ray then chose some, seemingly inferior leaves (more twig than leaf), for his wife. As he drove us back to the port he happily began stuffing leaves into his mouth and passing some back to us to try.  Qat production is big business in Yemen and, according to Ray, more profitable than oil. ‘Think about it,’ says he, ‘every man, woman and child chews qat every afternoon every day of the year. That’s one big market.’  Well, maybe.  Later that afternoon we went to see immigration to get our visas. The office was empty and through a side door we glimpsed a room full of men lying in dreamy contentment amidst a wreckage of discarded leaves and twigs all over the floor.  But one guy jumped up and dealt very efficiently with our business, his left cheek a great bulge of masticated qat.  He was certainly in a good mood!

                                women carrying car batteries

                                           women carrying truck batteries on their heads

In fact, Yemeni people seem to be in a good mood most of the time.  We enjoyed walking around in Aden where, day or night, the streets were alive with folk, sometimes quite volatile, -Yemeni men like to shout a lot;  very different from quiet, wealthy Salalah.  We found everyone very welcoming and eager to show us the way without any hassle.  There were plenty of women about, all covered in black.  Sadly, there are many destitute Somali women begging in the streets or encouraging their children to beg.  More cheerful Somali women work in the bar near the port.  Here, we could get a beer, (along with plenty of local men), and we were also able to replenish our gin supply. The barman decants the gin into a mineral water bottle, whereupon you can carry it away with impunity! 


We visited the town of Ta’izz, 180 kilometres up in the mountainous interior. Omar drove us in his dilapidated Toyota through bleak, naked mountains the colour of dirty rust.  Here and there, tiny, box-like houses, the same colour as the hillside, make up a small village, looking more like an army defence post.  Omar says they are indeed built for defence as Yemeni families have age-old quarrels to settle.  It’s normal for men to carry the traditional Jambiya (a ceremonial knife stuck in an ornate belt). Ta’izz is a big busy town in what was North Yemen; we passed several army checkpoints on the way. There’s very little left of the old walled town;  as Omar says, people prefer new so they knock down old buildings (except in the capital, San’a, where the old town is a World Heritage site). But we found the remaining gate, Bab Al-Kabir, still intact and a few original buildings.  Most impressive are the 12th century mosques, white against the blue sky with slender minarets and rows of arches casting shadows in the strong light.  We were even allowed inside the beautiful Al-Ashrafiya mosque where a picturesquely-dressed young man  insisted on showing us round, enthusing over the calligraphy and decorative stone-work.  We strolled through the souk (where we saw a rifle exchange hands) and then Omar took us to experience the full-on traditional lunch, along with about 100 men.  (Women eat separately, often upstairs, but they seem to tolerate a ‘western’ woman in with the men).  The Yemeni national dish is a sizzling hot stew served in a cast iron pot, with hunks of meat on the side.  Fresh newspaper is spread for each table and you all eat from the same dish, dipping in your bread – no forks. Cooks stand over their roaring gas jets, boys fly between the tables balancing boiling liquids, chapattis are produced continuously, the dough pummelled and slapped around and flung on to the sides of an oven. Men greet each other loudly and eat with gusto A wonderful, hectic scene, and the food was really good.

                                   Ak 47

                                               AK 47 visible on the streets of Tai'iz

On the long, dusty drive back to Aden we stopped, inevitably, for qat.  Omar went off on his mission; we found a couple of young boys alert enough to serve us some (intensely sweet) tea.  Everyone else was lying around on grubby mattresses and cushions, chewing contentedly while a few goats picked around in the dirt.  Omar was increasingly cheerful for the rest of the journey but as it became correspondingly difficult to understand anything he said, the fun was rather one-sided!

                                 Lunch in a Tai'iz restaurant

                                            Tai'iz lunch                            

In the old Arab town near Aden, Sheik Ottman, we bought fruit and veg for the next part of our voyage.  Also some frankincense (possibly!) and a Yemeni lungi in the traditional colours of brown, cream, green and black, more attractive, if less smart, than the Omani dishdasha.  With our limited Arabic, the only way to bargain was to write the prices on a bit of paper and pass it back and forth. We’d done our homework on Arabic numerals so were able to understand his squiggles and write ours. It worked very well. Our bargaining skills have greatly improved!  On Sunday, 16th April we left Aden and headed for the Red Sea. As we left the harbour we heard a ‘mayday’ call from a yacht being approached by armed men.  They were 100 miles from Aden in the ‘pirate zone’ we had come through a week earlier.  We’ve since met the yacht and heard the full story.  It seems they were not ‘real’ pirates but armed, aggressive fishermen.  But when someone points a gun at you, it doesn’t really matter whether he’s a pirate or not.  Fortunately they backed off as there was an immediate response to the mayday from several ships and from Yemen coastguard.  Still, it’s a drama one can do without. 

It’s now 1st May and we’re anchored amongst the reefs off the coast of Sudan having spent a week in Eritrea.  We’re waiting for a favourable wind to continue up the Red Sea.  We won’t be able to send this till we reach Egypt, so it will be old news by the time you get it.

But we’ll wish you a Happy May Day (the other kind) anyway!  Liz and Nick

Website © Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon 2008