Tour 4: Western Yemen

This round trip explores three strips of land running north-south, in the west of the country: in the interior, the fertile hills south of Sana'a to Taiz, with temperate climate; the neighbouring 50km-wide hot and humid Tihama region (the "Africa of Yemen"); and the Red Sea coast, with its lovely solitary beaches, ideal for swimming and diving.

This route also offers visits to important sites of cultural history –  such as the mountain towns in the north (Shibam/Kaukaban, Thula, Mahwit and Al-Tawilah), in the Tihama (Zabid) and in the cities of Sana'a and Taiz, but the focus of the 12 days is on experiencing the natural landscape, on walking tours, bathing, swimming and, for those who wish, also diving.

1. Day | Arrival Sana'a

Walk around the old town and the souq. Overnight stay in a hotel in the old quarter.

2. Day | Sana’a – Kaukaban – Shibam – Thula – Kaukaban

We drive north-west from Sana'a into the mountains and visit three Himyarite 7th/8th-century towns – Shibam/Kaukaban und Thula. Kaukaban lies on a rocky ridge high above Shibam, and offers a wide view over the fertile land. Thula, which flourished in the 15th century, is a fortified town high in the mountains built against a rock formation (remains of a Himyarite fort). Rocks jut out from the alleys in the old town and between the 25 mosques, two of which are amongst the oldest in the whole country.

On our way through the steep alleyways to the artisans' souq in the main square, we pass well-preserved town gates, a recently restored water reservoir and impressive stone façades. Many of the houses were originally Jewish, and bear the Star of David as well as round windows above the doors, giving the houses individual "faces". We continue on our way to Kaukaban, where we spend the night in a former palace, now a funduq (lodging-house).

3. Day | Kaukaban - At Tawilah – Mahwit – Wadi Surdud

We begin the day by descending a steep but walkable path to Shibam, which has one of the oldest mosques and a town gate with fragments of Sabaean sculpture. The mountain road leading south of the Wadi Surdud through the Haraz mountains passes through fertile terraces at an altitude of over 2,000 metres. We arrive in the small town of Al-Tawilah (2,600 m), built on and against a strange brown rock mass and crowned by a fort dating back to Ottoman times.

The town is built of the brown stone, and has a small arcaded souq. In the cliff are traces of caves, indicating early settlement. From here it is only a short drive to Mahwit, where prehistoric mummies were discovered in nearby caves. Similarly to that of Al-Tawilah, the old town is built against a cliff – ideal for a stroll through steep lanes, staircases and arcades.

We set off into the Wadi Surdud, a fairly densely populated, fertile valley – one of the longest in Yemen – leading from the Manakha region to the Red Sea, with pink-blossoming paw-paw trees on its slopes. We meet farmers at the wells, and pass through small villages with fruit and grain plantations, donkeys and many children. Overnight camp in the Wadi Surdud.

4. Day | Mahwit - Al-Hudaydah – Al-Salif – isle Kameran

A morning start. We drive west from Mahwit over a long mountain road down to the Tihama, a plain with an incomparable landscape between mountains and coast. The climate here is hot and humid all year, with temperatures sometimes over 40°C during the summer months – reminiscent of Africa also in the building style with round huts. The border between the two continents runs here, through the Red Sea. We turn north before Hudaydah, drive along the coast, with its bays and dunes overgrown with holly. Our destination is Al-Salif, where we leave the car and continue with our baggage by boat (45 minutes) to the island of Kameran.

(For the two days in Kameran, including crossing, an excursion by boat into the mangrove forests, and full board with excellent cuisine, there is an additional charge of 150 euros per person.)

5. Day | Isle of Kameran

Kameran has charming and also strange aspects, which we will explore on an excursion by boat and a drive round the island. The two-hour boat trip takes us into bays where exotic birds nest in the tops of the densely-growing mangroves. There is time to bathe at leisure in the calm, clear water.

We drive in the pick-up over deserted tracks, through impoverished villages and past fine mosques to the capital town of Kameran, where we visit the remains of an Ottoman fort with a secret passage to the town. There are charming fishing villages and souqs where exotic Red Sea fish are sold.

6. Day | Isle of Kameran - Al-Hudaydah

After a last morning swim, we cross by boat to Al-Salif and drive through the sparse holly vegetation south along the coast to Al-Hudaydah on the Red Sea, the second-largest town in Yemen. As in many other towns, recent years have seen a building boom, due to the rapid growth in population and migration into the towns. There is a splendid old palace to visit. Whizzing around in the busy traffic are moped-taxis, with the passenger riding pillion. We drive to the harbour, where the colourful Red Sea dhows lie at anchor and the fishermen sell their catch in the fish souq. This includes many kinds of shark, mostly without fins, since these are immediately cut off, deep-frozen and dispatched to the Far East.

We spend the night in the busy, noisy town – the most multi-ethnic and multicultural in the whole of Yemen.

7. Day | Al-Hudaydah – Al-Mokha – Taiz

We set off south wards in the morning along the road some 10 km from the coast, and drive via Beit Al-Faqih and Zabid (where we visit ancient mosques and the site of one of the oldest and most important universities in Arabia) to Al-Mokha, the former coffee harbour from which mocha takes its name. The town is now a sad place, for the former splendour of the trading-houses can only be guessed at from ruins. The town has sunk almost completely into the sand, and only a few fishermen still work here. The well-preserved mosque stands apart in the sand.

We drive a short way back and turn east towards the mountains to Taiz, where we spend the night.

8. Day | Taiz

In Taiz, the third-largest town in Yemen, we visit the Al-Ashrafiah mosque, which stands on ancient, recently discovered foundations and has a sophisticated ablution fountain for ritual washing.

We look around the curious museum, which has an incredible collection taken from a wealthy colonial house of the 1930s. Excursion half-way up the Jabel Saber, with a view over the town. We visit the souq and spend the night in a hotel in the centre of town.

9. Day | Taiz – Aden

We leave in the morning for a three-hour drive to Aden and round the ancient quarters of Krater (with its historic water reservoir), Mualla and Al-Tawilah. Brief stop at Steamers Point, where the passengers from the big steamships used to check in during the British colonial period. Overnight stay in Aden.

10. Day | Aden – Dhamar – Sana’a

We take the east route for some six hours through the "green Yemen" and via Dhamar back to Sana'a. Dhamar was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1982, but we can walk through the well-preserved old part of the town.  From this central junction, roads and tracks lead out into various regions of the country. Overnight stay in a hotel in the old quarter of Sana'a.

11. Tag | Sana’a – Manakha - Al-Hajjarah - Al-Hotaib – Sana’a

Day trip to the mountain region of Haraz, to the south of the Wadi Surdud. After 30 km, we pass the Jabal Nabi Shuayb, at 3,660 metres the highest mountain in Yemen. A well-surfaced road winds to the town of Manakha, which lies in a cultivated terraced landscape at an altitude of 2,250 metres in a particularly impressive region of the Haraz mountains.

An hour's walk takes us from Manakha to the fortified village of Hajjarah, accessible only by a single gate and spectacularly framed by the mountains. Below Hajjarah lies Al-Hotaib, a place of pilgrimage for the Ishmaelite Bohra sect, which has its largest following in India. On the 16th day of the first month of the Islamic year, many pilgrims gather here. Return to Sana'a in the evening; overnight stay in the hotel.

12. Day | Sana’a – Old Town – departure

A last walk through the old quarter. In the oldest souq in Arabia, you can buy presents typical of the region – frankincense and myrrh, a wonderful selection of spices and beauty products, all kinds of raisins, old silver and coral jewellery, or a djambia (traditional curved knife).

Transfer to the airport.