x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Welcome to the wadi

Into the wild John Henzell dodges hurled stones to see a fertile valley in Yemen's restless highlands.

Many of the villages around the valley's khat plantations are fortified with lookout towers.
Many of the villages around the valley's khat plantations are fortified with lookout towers.

Ahead of me was the empty expanse of the plateau and somewhere out there was the wadi I had to descend. But which one? The full extent of the route description for this hike in the Yemeni highlands was a hand-drawn map which in turn was copied by my host Fahia from another hand-drawn map of indeterminate origin and to which he added the names of the villages in Arabic script. Fortunately for me, I was setting off from the fortified village of Kawkaban at what proved to be the Yemeni equivalent of the commuter rush hour. "See him?" Fahia said excitedly, pointing to one of several men walking across the dusty plateau. "He's a teacher and his school is in your wadi."

So we caught up, introductions were made and I joined the commuter route from Kawkaban as the four men walked from their homes to the various schools where they were teaching. The teacher I was following worked at the furthest school, in a village called Bedouga, which he said took him between two and two-and-a-half hours to walk to each day. At the end of the school day in the early afternoon he'd walk back to Kawkaban. I vowed to never complain about my daily commute ever again.

It didn't take long for us to exhaust our respective abilities in each other's language and we settled into a companionable silence as we ventured across the plateau, with me occasionally struggling to keep up with his gait that displayed an efficiency that is clearly gained by walking long and often. This part of Yemen, a couple of hours drive north-west of the capital, Sana'a, is characterised by uplifted sedimentary rock, a hard layer of which was responsible for this dry and desolate plateau that was about 20km long and probably 5km across at its widest.

Countless millennia of wind and water had eaten away at the softer strata below, creating sheer cliffs ringing the plateau and only occasionally breached by navigable routes like the wadi I was seeking. Those characteristics made for challenging hiking but in Yemen's not-too-distant lawlessness, outcrops of the plateau like this one were the perfect place to build fortified and defensible villages. Kawkaban, the village we'd both left that morning, was ringed by cliffs and access was via one narrow isthmus of rock, providing a natural defence system. Bedouga, lying at the head of a wadi and unexpectedly greener than the surrounding plateau, was where the food was grown and in more turbulent times, the excess would be taken to be stored for safety in places like Kawkaban.

One by one, the other three teachers veered off from our route until just the Bedouga teacher and I were left, following a barely visible route which was clearly formed by use and which I'd have had little chance of spotting if I'd been on my own. After two hours, we reached the lip of the wadi and could see the mud-coloured houses and lush fields of Bedouga arranged in a crescent. We picked our way down through a series of easy clifflines to the edge of the intricately terraced fields on the outskirts of the village, at which point my teacher and I parted ways with handshakes and with his clear but unspoken apprehension about my ability to survive the rest of the hike.

Within a couple of minutes, some of the village children spotted me and came rushing over, selflessly suggesting words to aid in my Arabic vocabulary. But the words themselves ? "galam" (pen), "suura" (photo) and "filoos" (money) ? suggested they had already been influenced by the world of tourism, which was explained soon after when I encountered a very newly-built four-wheel-drive road leading to the village and a little further.

The dent in my expectations left by the children of Bedouga was compounded when I looked at what was being grown in the terraced fields. My imagined vision of crops ripening under the Arabian sun proved equally askew and the vast majority of the terraced fields were dedicated to growing khat, the mildly narcotic shrub, which was habitually chewed by almost every Yemeni adult I'd seen. Even in Sana'a I'd been told that the khat from this wadi was prized for its quality.

Despite my teacher's misgivings, once off the plateau and into the wadi, the route became much clearer and, past the end of the road, it was obvious the locals used this as the walking equivalent of a motorway. A narrow-gorged section past Bedouga led to another village sited at a junction with another stream. With the exception of some power lines linking this village to the outside world, it looked like it hadn't changed in a thousand years. The houses were built from rock and mud in the archetypal blocky Yemeni style as if they'd grown organically from the wadi floor and with doors and windows seemingly hewn from local trees. The architectural style ensured the privacy of those within. There were more children but unlike the mercantilely-minded Bedouga children, these boys initially stood slack-jawed and wide eyed at my presence. Their sisters were quickly ushered away out of my sight.

Down here the creek was flowing and every possible productive square metre had been turned over to agriculture through impressive drystone terracing, although khat continued its dominance over the occasional field of pulses or some other beneficial food crop. Dotted throughout the khat plantations were tiny towers used for keeping surveillance against, presumably, khat poachers. None of the houses in the valley had such fortifications.

The next few hours were spent following the meandering foot track that formed the main road down the wadi, crossing from one side of the creek to the other and occasionally finding myself stuck in a dead end of paddocks and having to either go cross country to pick up the main track or backtrack to the last junction. This was a very human route and the path would always go through the middle of each small village along the way before heading back out to the fields.

In time, the valley flattened out and became rocky and barren once more as another layer of hard sedimentary rock had been bared by erosion, creating a hanging valley ending with an outcrop of rock on which was sited another fortified village. The local kids were happily playing in the pools of water just upstream of where the village women were using the water to clean clothes and pots and within 50m or so, the stream plunged over a waterfall into the broad valley below where the roadside village of Ah Jour was sited.

I needn't have seen the road to know how close it was because its influence was clear when I began hearing the familiar chorus of "galam", "suura" and "filoos". These children proved to be more persistent than their Bedouga brethren and less thrilled when I left them empty-handed. As I made my way along a series of rocky switchbacks to the main valley, I heard and then saw a few fist-sized rocks come flying through the air as two boys demonstrated their displeasure. Fortunately the path veered off soon after and put me outside their range.

The clear trail disappeared too and I had to weave my way between endless fields of khat, emerging at the road to where Fahia was waiting, as arranged, to take me back to Kawkaban. One cheek was distended with a wad of khat and beside him on the seat were a couple of large plastic bags of the plant, suggesting the trip to collect me had not been an onerous or selfless duty. jhenzell@thenational.ae