09 Jan Sana’a To Hodeida By Vespa And DC3?
On a day off from flying I decided to ride my Vespa from Sana’a to Hodeida on the Red Sea. I asked Katia, my Italian girlfriend, if she would like to accompany me. She was an adventurous type and readily agreed. I told her we had to cross two mountain ranges and I estimated it would take about six hours. Sana’a is 7,216 feet above sea level and the performance of the Vespa at this altitude was abysmal to say the least, and would be even worse at 9,000+ feet on top of the first ridge.
We set off at 6.00 am on a cool sunny morning and headed west towards the first of the mountains we would have to cross. On reaching the foothills it was a long tedious grind in first and second gears to the top of the range. We passed through several small villages where curious local tribesmen and their women folk just stared at us. The men wore thick belts to which were attached curved daggers, while the women all wore black burqas.
After a few kilometres of straight and level riding, we had a spectacular view of the next valley and a formidable looking escarpment that we would have to cross before descending to the grasslands leading to the Red Sea.
Riding down to the floor of the valley was an exhilarating experience except for the concern over hot brakes. At times the gradient was very steep and I descended in a zig zag pattern to reduce the speed and the use of the hand brakes. There was absolutely no vehicular traffic. Eventually we were in the valley which was a dustbowl with very little vegetation and quite similar to the countryside around Sana’a. The road was sealed but with many potholes some of which were as deep as the diameter of the Vespa’s wheels. There were no towns or signs to give us any indication as to whether we were going the right way. Occasionally, we would pull up alongside a Yemeni farmer’s donkey driven cart. I made several futile attempts to get directions. They would simply point towards the mountains in a vague westerly direction.
It was getting very hot and it seemed to take forever to get to the foothills of second mountain range. Finally we began what was a torturous lengthy ascent. At times the Vespa could not handle the two of us and one of us had to get off and walk alongside. The estimated speed varied between 2 and 10 mph. After more than an hour and a half of this we finally reached the top and we had our first glimpse of the Red Sea in the distance. The descent was similar to the previous one with the same concern over possible brake failure. On the way down we passed through a couple of villages but saw almost no one – just a few dogs too idle to attack us in the heat of the day.
The ride across the grasslands was uplifting. The Vespa performed quite well at sea level and we were able to average better than 30 mph until entering the outskirts of Hodeida just under six hours since leaving Sana’a. I rode straight to the beach, stripped off, and dived into the warm salty waters of the Red Sea which gave little relief. It was now midday and the air temperature was approaching 40 degrees celsius. Katia had no interest in entering the water and was complaining about the heat and humidity. Riding around the town I couldn’t find any water fountains to wash off the salt.
At around 2.00 pm we rode to the airport where I had made an arrangement with Nicholas, the incoming DC3 captain, to load the Vespa onto the aircraft and ride back with him to Sana’a. The pilots were shutting down the DC3s engines when we got there. It was an oil company charter flight.
I had always wanted to fly DC3s, and I felt left out of barroom conversation in places like Lucy’s Tiger Den in Bangkok which were frequented by Air America pilots and other veterans of the piston engine classic. It seemed like just about everybody in the bar had flown DC3s except me. Five years later I got my chance in Australia and, following ground school and endorsement flight training, I flew DC3 night freighters across Bass Strait to Tasmania.
Nicholas stepped down and greeted us warmly on the tarmac. He said that I would be riding up the front with him and his Yemeni co-pilot, and that Katia could take any spare seat. I emptied the fuel tank and some Yemenis helped me get the Vespa on board.
We we just getting ourselves on board when the British manager of the oil company that had chartered the aircraft, appeared from nowhere and started yelling “Get that thing off my aircraft, this is a company charter!” I protested that I was scheduled for a flight on the airline’s 727 to Addis Ababa at 6.30 the next morning. He replied “I don’t care if you’re flying the president of the country to Timbuktu – get it off my aircraft right now and get yourselves off too!” He showed no compassion whatsoever as he condemned us to a six hour ride to Sana’a over two mountain ranges, half of which would be in the dark and very cold, with the ever present fear of being shot or kidnapped by local tribesmen.
Fifteen minutes later we saw the DC3 in a left climbing turn setting course for Sana’a. So much for the firm arrangement I had made with the captain for a lift back to Sana’a! Riding back into Hodeida to fill up the Vespa’s tank, I resolved to discuss the incident with my chief pilot for possible retaliatory action next time the oil company manager wanted a free ride on the 727 to Cairo, for instance. He was not popular among the small group of expatriate pilots based in Sana’a.
The second half of the ride back to Sana’a was extremely cold and fraught with anxiety wondering when a kalashnikov bullet might put an end to our misery. It was difficult to stay on the road and maneuver around the many deep potholes in the dim light of the Vespa’s head lamp. After nearly six hours of hard riding we topped the last mountain range, and down there in the valley was the best sight I had ever seen – the lights of Sana’a!