197 countries in the world, it’s taken me 10 years to reach 195. Aside from a year teaching English in Chiang Mai, Thailand and a year in Sydney, Australia during my only ‘real’ job, I’ve been on the road, averaging over 2 weeks per country. But I’ve been stuck on 195/197 for 6 months now, and it’s breaking my heart.
So what are my last 2 countries? Yemen and Norway. Admittedly, people are often surprised why Norway is still left, but that’s strategic. Ever since I reached 150 countries, I’ve planned to ‘save’ Norway for my last country. It’ll be a huge party, a big celebration and it’s close to the UK and Ireland so my mum, sister, friends etc can come and celebrate with me. I can’t exactly invite them all to Yemen to pop Champagne, now can I?! So that leaves me with Yemen. Good old Yemen. I’ve been trying to visit Yemen for more than 6 months now, and it’s been quite the adventure.
First of all, a little context. Yemen is in the midst of civil war, and that civil war is being played out behind the scenes as a kind of proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which then again breaks down into a war between two factions of Islam, Sunnis and Shi’ites. So the Houthis (the Iranian backed Shias) are fighting the Government (Saudi backed Sunnis). Anyway, it’s a mess. And it’s awful to see, furthermore the media are ignoring it partly because the West is so chummy with Saudi (cough*, oil, *cough) and partly because white people aren’t involved therefore ‘we’ (that ‘we’ represents Western mass media, not me) don’t care.
With that all playing out, I knew it was neither wise or easy to visit Yemen at this time. But after 10 years, and over a quarter of a million dollars spent, I had to try. Plus I had a secret weapon, Socotra.
‘The Galapagos of the Middle East’, Socotra is a Yemeni island off the coast of Somalia and Yemen. And while the waters are full of Somali pirates, Al Qaeda suicide boats and Saudi warships, the island of Socotra is 99.9% safe, believe it or not. The Socotrian people are amongst the warmest, friendliest people in the world and the island itself is arguably THE coolest place to visit on the whole planet, honestly. The landscape looks straight out of avatar, the food is delicious, camping, hiking, swimming, this place is epic, and it’s going to be THE place to visit in the future, mark my words. Right now though, it’s almost impossible to access. Saudi have imposed a no-fly zone through Yemeni airspace, there are no commercial flights due to the war, visas are hard to come by and taking a local fishing boat is treacherous due to the pirates, terrorists, war and immigration from both the Omani coast, and then again on the Yemeni side. This still remains both the safest spot in Yemen and also the coolest place to visit, so this was my initial target. Eurrrgh this is gonna be tough, but I’ve been through worse. Let’s do it.
ATTEMPT 1. Going to Yemen. Bribery at the land border.
JUNE 2016: All flights to Socotra were now officially closed. No international flights, no charter flights, no tickets for foreigners even if they opened any routes. Sh*t. So my option now was to enter by land. Due to the war with Saudi Arabia to the north, the only viable land border was the border with Oman. I had planned to take my mum to Muscat and around Oman a little in June, so I figured this would be a good way to spend a few days.
We flew from Muscat to Salalah, a city 200km from Yemen, in the South of Oman. From there I rented a car and drove to the Yemeni border, the drive was beautiful actually, through the most breathtaking mountains. I had stashed $2,000USD in my wallet, pockets, shorts etc as I had no Yemeni visa, and only a single entry Omani visa, so I had no way to enter Yemeni, or get back to Oman, I figured the money would be my gateway.
Finally, after 4 or 5 hours we (I had brought my mum along, mad I know!), and after 5 or 6 security check-points, we approached the border. Incidentally, explaining to those check-points why I was trying to enter Yemen by land was something else, I think the poor Omani soldiers just gave up in the midst of my life story! So I got to the border, left my mum in the rental car, took my 3 passports (1 Irish and 2 British), and went to explain the escapade to the Omani border guard. After rejection, and rejection, I found 1 guy who could speak enough English to understand, I loaded my blog on his phone and he agreed to help. We left my British passport, with my omani stamp, at the border and crossed into the Yemeni border. There we spoke, at length, with the Yemeni border official. I spent over an hour in Yemen here, at the border post, ‘negotiating’ with the border guard, but he insisted he wouldn’t stamp my passport and he wouldn’t let me any deeper into Yemen. Grrrr. Gift, after gift, were rejected by him. I had a cup of tea, bite to eat, and finally he escorted me out of Yemen and back into Oman. Now I know recently that girl who travelled 200 countries in 500 days did the same thing, the blonde chick who claimed to be the first women to visit every country in the world (she wasn’t) and ‘counted’ Yemen as now visited. For me, it didn’t count. I’ve spent 10 years on this journey, a one hour sit down on the border town doesn’t qualify, I want to legally enter, to explore, to have an adventure. So I got back to my rental car and drove all the way back to Salalah. Attempt 1, failed.
ATTEMPT 2. Charter flight to Socotra, Yemen. Permit headaches.
November 2016. I had heard a rumour a group of expats in Dubai were chartering their own plane to fly from Oman to Socotra island directly! Perfect! $2,000 or so for the tour, and another $1k or so for flights later and I’m signed up. I fly from Dublin to Istanbul, Istanbul to Dubai, Dubai to Salalah, Oman and then ideally Salalah to Socotra. After my 3rd flight, I land in Salalah, Oman with the rest of the guys from Dubai. I chat to the immigration official in the airport who asks why I’ve come to Oman. “To go to Socotra buddy”. “NO! No Socotra. Flight cancelled”. Hmmmm?
We were due to spend one night in an airport hotel in Oman and then leave at 5am the next day. At midnight, we hear of a delay with the paperwork. Meet at 10am. Meet then, we discover the tour group nor the airline had permission from the Saudi Coalition to take-off from Salalah airport (they’re in charge of air space during the war), so the flight is cancelled. SHIT. Day 1 comes and goes. Day 2 we plan to get the paperwork processed and have another crack. Still no permission. Drink lots of whiskey. Day 3, Day 4. More whiskey, no sign of any paperwork. Still no permission. F*ck this, I’m off back to Bangkok, where I was running our biggest charity trip for the GiveBackGiveAway, so at least I was back in time for that, still hearbroken though. The trip never left.
ATTEMPT 3. Kenyan Charter flight to Socotra. Gotta love the Saudi Government… Pure heartbreak
January 2017. 3rd time lucky, right? Wrong. The same group of Dubai people, having learned from their mistakes first time around, were going to put their wrongs right. I fly from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to Kuwait, then to Dubai, then Dubai to Muscat, then Muscat to Salalah where I arrive, 26 hours later, at 4am for our 6am flight to Socotra. This time though, it even says Socotra on the departure board in the airport. OH MY GOD, this is actually going to happen!
6am became 10am, became 2pm but still there was hope. Finally we process our (hand-written) boarding cards, get through security, and board the little propellar plane. At this stage I should explain that this plane wasn’t your normal airplane. It was a tiny little number from Kenya. No other airlines were willing to fly into Yemen, understandly so considering the war and everything, so in desperation, a flight from Nairoibi was organised. It flew to Oman, picked us up there and then on to Socotra, Yemen we went. 50 minutes into the 60 minute flight. People had been cheering, we were actually gonna make it. 10 years, $250k, and finally I’m gonna do it. U-TURN. WTF? The Saudi coalition called the pilot of our plane to tell us to turn around and fly back to Oman or be escorted by Saudi planes. Turns out, we never had permission to land. Oh my God. So, so close, but back to Salalah we went. Unreal.
ATTEMPT 4. Fishing Boats, Cargo Boats and Immigration
January 2017. After the raw emotions of that so-close-but-oh-so-f*cking-far adventure on the Kenyan charter flight, I couldn’t face defeat. I was willing to do ANYTHING to get to Yemen. I researched flights directly into the war torn areas of Yemen – Sanaa, Sayouun, Aden, ANYWHERE. I had my visa granted so I had to get in. I searched everywhere, flights from Qatar, Sudan, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Oman, nothing. There was only one option left, a boat to Socotra!
I had heard rumours of a couple of hard-core travelers over the last 2 years, since the war broke out, taking a cargo ship across to the island so I had to try. I scoured the internet and through a chain of strange events found a guy from Socotra who now lives in Salalah called Yahha (who is now a friend of mine, every cloud and all that). Yahya was a hero and was convinced he could get me onto either a Somalian fishing boat which was leaving imminently, or a Yemeni cement cargo ship which would leave in the next couple of days. Thankfully, I had a crazy companion, Amani, from the failed Kenyan charter ship, so we were in this together!
Days came and went, the Captain of the ship accepted and then rejected us, Socotra was ready for us, then wouldn’t accept us via boat. I went to the police station, to the port directly, to the shipping office. Meeting everyone I could, finally they accepted. We went to buy life jackets, booze, food for the journey, they would pick us up at 8am. Wow. Finally!
The next morning came, and 8am arrived – no one there to collect us. 9am. 10am. Someone finally arrived and told us that the Captain had been informed to not let me on any boat leaving Salalah port. ‘Too dangerous’ apparently. Another crushing defeat. Back to Bangkok I went, with the tail between my legs.
ATTEMPT 5. Yemen charter flight, Yemeni war
FEBRUARY 2017. After attempt 3 and 4 I was really struggling. My life is in limbo while I wait to finish the trip of a lifetime. 10 years was now 10 years and 6 months. Out of nowhere another charter flight, with a different set of expats in Dubai, just 15 days after my latest failed attempt. $2000 more dollars, another $500 or so for flights. I made sure this trip would actually happen. “Are you SURE you have all the permissions, I’ve been through this before, I can’t face another failed attempt!”. “Sure, this is different, everything is in place”. And so here I was, Bangkok to Dubai, Dubai to Salalah (my 10 visit to this airport in 6 months, a place I had never even heard of this time last year), sleep in another airport hotel, meet some awesome people, wake up for a 8am flight to Socotra. Nope.
This time we had organised a private charter with a Yemeni airline, one that had permission to fly to Socotra. However, war had broken out once more in West Yemen and our plane was stuck in Aden, where the airport had been attacked and shutdown, there was no way to get our plane to Oman for our trip to Socotra. Unbelievable. A late scramble for another charter flight, failed attempts at additional permission, private jet conversations for $115,000USD, and alas, failure strikes again. Back to Dubai, then on to Bangkok.
So here I amn. I’m 5 and 0, but I’m still 195 not out. 2 to go, and Yemen hasn’t escaped me just yet. I’m battered, bruised and in all honestly, a little disconsolate, but not yet defeated. Time to make a new plan, so I’ll see you guys on the road, hopefully in Yemen, and hopefully sooner rather than later!