Mysterious, timeless, achingly beautiful. These are just a few of the words used to describe Yemen, most inaccessible of all the Arabian nations. For the adventurous, Yemen offers stunning medieval cities, many still as they were during the time of ancient Sheba, and a warm, welcoming culture which still embodies the best traditions of Arabian hospitality. The sheer mystique of a country still largely untouched by progress draws thousands of visitors every year, and despite the security risks often cited in guidebooks and newspapers, Yemen continues to be one of the most intriguing travel destinations for those willing to explore a world far off the beaten tourist track.
Eco-Tourism in Yemen
The Republic of Yemen is located on the South of the Arabian peninsular, far removed from the politics and conflicts of the middle east. The Republic of Yemen was created when North and South Yemen merged in May 1990. Yemen, a country of extreme physical contrasts, has a lot to offer nature enthusiasts. High, rain-filled mountains (up to 3900 m) near to the Red Sea coast drop to the hot, flat Tihama plain. Scrub and gravel desert, interspersed with mountains and gorges of exposed rock, stretch to the north and east of the mountain range, abutting onto the rolling sand dunes of the Rub al-Khali.
Yemen is known for its striking scenery, magnificent pre-Islamic and Islamic architecture and ancient archeological sites. The southern coast of Yemen, along the Gulf of Aden, is predominantly lava fields, interspersed with scrub areas, sand dunes and volcanic mountains. From the eco-tourism point of view, Yemen’s main attraction is its birdlife, which is particularly abundant during the spring and autumn migrations. At these times thousands of raptors cross the Bab-al-Mandeb straits between Yemen and Africa, but there are also many species that use the junction of land and sea along the Red Sea coast as a flight path between Africa and Europe.
Yemen is a very attractive place for the committed eco-tourist to visit, not only because of its interesting geographical features, flora and fauna, but because the traditional lifestyle of its people has remained relatively untouched by the 20th century.
Tourist attractions in Yemen include the fascinating 2nd century city of San’a, famous for its well-preserved medina citadel and Islamic architecture, the stunning mountain town of Shihara, the 13th century city of Ta’izz, famous for its scenic location and beautiful mosques, and the port town of Aden, known for its ancient structures. Other tourist attractions include the archaeological site of Arsh Bilqis and the magnificent 18th century Dar al-Hajar Castle. The scenic Hadda Mountain, Haraz Mountains and the garden city of Rawdha, are also worth visiting.
The people of Yemen are extremely friendly and always anxious to meet foreigners and to show hospitality. While you are in Yemen, you will have the services of an experienced guide, familiar with all of the locations and cultures of the different regions of the land. When most people think of Yemen and the Arabian peninsular, sand dunes and hot desert lands come to mind. While Yemen does have this type of climate in the extreme East, a large part of the country is sub-tropical and full of lush vegetation. In fact, Yemen has some of the highest mountains in the region with beautiful vistas and hundreds of small friendly villages devoted to farming and agriculture.
Best Area for Eco-Tourism
Wadi Hafash – Wadi known locally as Hafash, which is listed under several names on maps -including Wadi Mallan and Wadi Sara. Extending from Khamis Bani Saad on the Hodeida-Manakha road, it crosses the Wadi Surdud (sometimes very deep water!) meanders through a tropical wadi for many miles and then climbs steeply out and up to Mahwit. Heavily cultivated in its lower regions, Wadi Hafash is teeming with birdlife. I have seen two metre long dark brown snakes, lots of weaver birds, Hamerkops and Grey-headed Kingfishers as well as troops of hamadryas baboons on the lower slopes as the track climbs out towards Mahwit. This wadi is regularly used as a main vehicle route, but you must always be prepared for a flash flood. Plenty of birdlife is visible along the road from Mahwit to Tawilla and on to Schibam/Kawkaban, including eagles, ravens, vultures and Tristrams Grackle. The road is currently being widened and asphalted, so one could get back to Sana’a in a very long day; but Wadi Hafash itself is a hard drive.
Taiz – Taiz is a tremendously energetic city. It has been inhabited since pre-Islamic times and has been a capital for various periods during its history. Today it is a centre of modern industry and commerce and buzzes with life. It sits on a plateau about 80 km north-east of Mukha at an altitude of 1,400 m. The citadel, perched on its own volcanic cone, is tucked under the cliffs of the 3,200m high Jebel Sabr, a granite mountain. Taiz lies in the heart of a rich agricultural region where intensive cultivation on terraces takes advantage of torrential summer rains so an abundance of locally grown foodstuff is always available. Being warmer than Sana’a in the winter and cooler than Aden in the summer, Taiz has long been a place of seasonal refuge. Taiz has diverse relief of mountains, plains and Wadis, with a long stretch of coast line along the Red Sea and Bab Al Mandab strait. Elevations reach 3070m at Al Arous summit of Jabel Saber. Many wadis and plains produce fruits such as mango, lemon, pomegranate, banana, papaya as well as cereals and coffee.
The best of the accessible areas near to accommodation are the Taiz sewage lagoons, where you can see many of the birds that you would expect to see on the coast. The southern side of the Sumara Pass, all the way down to Taiz is famous for its birdlife and large euphorbia trees; the areas around Ibb and Djibla being particularly good.
Shahara Mountain – Another difficult drive is the route to Shahara Mountain and its famous dry stone bridge. The Wadi Wa’aar below Shahara is hot, humid, scrub country populated by hornbills and Rock Partridge, whilst the route up to Shahara (not for the faint hearted!) should bring sightings of Tristrams Grackle, ravens and vultures. One should travel with a guide in this area. The famous bridge is only sunlit around 11.00 a.m.-12. 00 noon each day. You can observe vultures nesting from here.
Djebel Bura / Wadi Rima – A trip to Djebel Bura/Wadi Rima requires four-wheel-drive vehicles, with an experienced driver and be prepared with the lack of any accommodations nearby. These are the beaches between Al Mokha and Al Hokha, and the Djebel Bura/Rima area; both are hot and humid all year round. Djebel Bura is directly east of Hodeida, and is normally reached by a dirt track from Suknah via Mansuriya. Above Souk Al-Sabt Al-Mahrab, is a small remnant of woodland containing rare plants, some 50 species of birds, hamadryas baboons, rock hyrax, striped hyaenas, honey badgers, mongooses and genet. At any time of year, a drive along the beach between Mokha and Hokha will give you sightings of many dozens of species from waders, terns and gulls, to flamingos, ospreys, pelicans, the ubiquitous Black Kite and, with luck, a green turtle! Wadi Rima, descending from Djebel Rima, is southeast of Bait Al Faqih, and is best reached from Madinat Ash Shirq, which is on the new road from Ma’abar near Dhamar, on the Sana’a-Taiz and Izzan on the Hodeida-Sana’a road. This area is more cultivated than Djebel Bura, but from 15 to 25 km south of Madinat Ash Shirq, in the areas between Souk Al Khamis and Baboon Hill, there have been sightings of all the species listed at Djebel Bura, as well as gazelles.
Marib Dam – The site of the great Dam of Marib (Sudd Marib) is upstream (south-west) of the ancient city of Marib, once the capital of the Kingdom of Saba’a believed to be the kingdom of the legendery Queen of Sheeba. The Kingdom of Saba’a was a prosperous trading nation, with control of the frankincense and spice routes in Arabia and Abyssinia. The Sabaens built the dam to capture the periodical monsoon rains which falls on the nearby mountains and so irrigate the land around the city.The new dam at Marib has a large lake that is attracting more and more bird life. There is even a recent claim that cormorants have been sighted. If you venture down the Wadi Dhana when it is flowing during the rainy season, there are lots of birds. Make sure you have a Yemeni with you as the Bedouin people can be tetchy in this area.
Wadi Dhar – Abput 15km north of Sana’a is a green and fertile valley known as Wadi Dhar ( a wadi is a seasonal river typically found in a deep narrow valley and dotted with oases.) Near to Sana’a, Wadi Dhar has most local species of inland birds, except vultures, but particularly interesting is the mule track from Schibam up to Kawkaban. This 45 minute walk rises nearly 923 m, with Tristrams Grackle, larks, wheatears and doves in abundance at the bottom, eagles, ravens and vultures at the top. From various small, friendly villages scattered along its length and some spectacular rock formation, the main reason for visiting Wadi Dhar is for the Dar Al Hajar, Imam Yahya’s rock place. It is also well worth spending some time through just walking along the Wadi. It is really a very beautiful area with some attractive villages like Qaryat Al-Qabil. There is also a good variety of flowering plants where water trickles through cracks in the rock. The high plateau from Kawkaban, west to Wadi Hajjar, has some hyenas. The road from Amran to Hajjar is a spectacular series of twisting bends dropping steeply through dark, somber mountains, down from high altitude to tropical wadi and up again. With such a variety of terrain there is life of all types.
Haraz Mountains – Haraz is an area named after the mountains which run through it and is home to some of the best qat and coffee in Yemen. The Haraz Mountains are the ideal retreat for rest and recreation away from the pressures of city life. Aside from the refreshing mountain air, the spectacular views, and opportunities for invigorating walks, something else is going on, regularly and with great fervor and enthusiasm. The Haraz Mountains around Manakha are spectacular terraced mountains, with fortress villages on all high points. These are the mountains that descend to Djebel Bura and Djebel Rima, en-route to the Tihama.
The main road from Manakha to Khamis Bani Saad drops steeply, twisting through several, narrow rock gorges, containing the Wadi Surdud. If you pass through these in the late afternoon, troops of hamadryas baboons will be jumping around over on the high cliffs. The lower part of the Wadi Surdud, either side of Khamis Bani Saad, has water all year round, supporting banana and papaya plantations. These are ideal places for bird-watching.