Camping in the desert with the Bedouin
Trip Start Oct 13, 2005
22Trip End Dec 22, 2006
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Having gotten an early start from Sana'a, we arrived in Ma'rib at around noon where we picked up our Bedouin guide, Mubarak. He, Hema and I then went off in search of food to take out to the desert. After picking up the standard groceries, we headed off to buy a goat to slaughter for dinner. I had been most excited by the prospect of camping in the desert with the Bedouin and considered the slaughtering of an animal to be an integral part of making it an authentic experience
Shopping complete, we picked up the rest of the group for a whistle-stop tour of Ma'rib then headed out with collective excitement on our jaunt to the desert. As sand replaced tarmac we stopped to let the air out of our tyres, and so began our desert experience. Soon, we were skidding, weaving and bounding our way over the rolling dunes; the dark insipid asphalt now consigned to memory as a sandy ocean of yellow and white enveloped us and enticed us deep into its heart. This was my first, and long-awaited, encounter with the real open desert and I was instantly seduced by its vast, unending beauty. The bleak monotony it represents to some belied an intricate, almost alien landscape that no hand could paint; its subtle colours and contours absorbing all my worries and stresses into insignificance, and leaving me without a care in the world for perhaps the first time
After an exhilarating while the sun began to sink in to the endless sea of dunes; the burdened yellows and whites of the day now resting as the desert wore in their place the pinkish red hue of sunset. With light fading fast, we picked a spot in which to set up camp and then prepared a light snack for 'iftar'. Having travelled through the heat of the day (part of it through open desert), I was able to appreciate more the sacrifice of fasting, and 'iftar' tasted all the better for it. As the desert finally fell in to darkness, Mubarak made a fire and prepared and cooked the chickens (not live). As we watched him struggle to dissect the chickens with the inadequate knife we had bought for that purpose, we suddenly felt mightily relieved that we did not have a live goat to slaughter after all!
After a few hours sat around the campfire, we grabbed the mattresses from the truck and lay out beneath the stars. The scene above us was totally awe-inspiring and I pretty much just lay there encapsulated until sunrise. There were so many stars the night-sky almost seemed light, with no dark space left unfilled. Clearly visible too was the Milky Way, twisting its way like a ribbon across the hectic sky. All night long we saw shooting star after shooting star dancing their way balletically among the constellations
In the morning we all got up early and climbed the nearest sand dune to watch the sunrise. Together on the dune's peak but alone with our thoughts, we sat there in quiet contemplation as the desert transformed itself once again in preparation for another day at the mercy of an unrelenting sun. After a while we cleared up all our stuff and headed off in the trucks in search of a suitable firing-range. A suitable spot found, Mubarak set up some targets and loaded the Kalashnikov with the bullets I'd purchased the day before. As the veteran marksman of the group (having shot a rifle just once before on my first trip to Ma'rib), I was first up. Having regretted only having three bullets each last time, I'd made sure I bought plenty of rounds this time, and once everybody had had a turn, I had a little blast with the automatic burst - almost impossible to aim, but most exhilarating!
We drove through the unceasing desert for perhaps another five or six hours all the way to Hadhramaut, a few stray camels the only sign of life along the way. En-route we stopped off in Old Shabwa, a charming old city in the middle of the desert whose focal point was an impressive, spherical, mud-built temple. Even here we saw no people, but it was still Ramadan so they were probably all still sleeping
We arrived at our hotel near Seiyoun, Hadhramaut in the mid-afternoon, showered and slept until 'iftar'. Over the next three days we took in all the major attractions. (For more in-depth descriptions see my previous Hadhramaut blogs from last November). There was Tarim, noted for having some 360 mosques, which is quite ridiculous given one can walk the length of town in about ten minutes. There's Shibam, the always impressive mud-skyscraper city known as 'the Manhattan of the desert'. Here, we walked around inside for a bit then climbed the hill opposite to view it from above at sunset. There was Wadi Dowan, the valley through which we drove where colourfully painted towns are built precariously into the side of the arid, brown-rock cliffs. Here we stopped off for a wander around one of these towns, then spent the night in the only hotel of the wadi (valley) where we ate 'iftar' for the final time.
A couple of hours before sunrise the following morning we embarked on our long drive back to Sana'a. As arduous as the journey was, it was made infinitely more comfortable by the fact that we could eat and drink during daylight for the first time in a month. As I sat there in the car taking in the landscape, nostalgia took hold of me and I thought back to the night in the desert and then forward to similar such nights on a future trip across North Africa and Sudan. Insha'allah, I say, insha'allah...