On a vacation day flying, I decided to board two Vespa vehicles from Sanaa to Al Hudaydah on the Red Sea. Katia, my Italian girlfriend, asked if she would like to accompany me. She was adventurous and easily agreed. I told her that we had to cross two mountain ranges and estimated that it would take about six hours. Sanaa rises 7,216 feet above sea level and Vespa’s performance on this hike was poor to say the least, and would be even worse at 9,000 feet above the top of the first series.
We set off at 6.00 am on a cold, sunny morning and headed west towards the first mountains to cross. Upon reaching the hills, it was a long uphill process on the first and second gears to top the range. We went through several small villages where the strange local tribesmen and their women looked at us. Men wore thick belts that were attached to curved daggers, while all women wore black burqa.
After a few kilometers of straight and flat rides, we had a stunning view of the next valley and a massive cliff that we had to cross before descending into the pastures leading to the Red Sea.
Getting to the valley floor was an enjoyable experience except for worrying about hot brakes. Sometimes the gradient was very sharp and I went in a zigzag pattern to reduce speed and use manual brakes. There was absolutely no vehicle traffic. Ultimately, we were in the valley which was a dust basin with little vegetation and quite similar to the countryside around Sanaa. The road was closed but with many potholes, some were as deep as the diameter of the Vespa wheels. There were no cities or signs to give us any indication about whether we were on the right track. From time to time, we would pull next to a Yemeni vehicle driven by a Yemeni farmer. I have made many futile attempts to get directions. They were simply referring to the mountains in a mysterious western direction.
It was very hot and it seemed like it takes forever to reach the foothills of the second mountain range. Finally we started what was a long tormented climb. Sometimes Vespa was unable to handle all of us, and one of us had to go down and walk side by side. Estimated speed ranges between 2 and 10 mph. After more than an hour and a half, we finally reached the summit and had the first glimpse of the Red Sea in the distance. The drop was similar to the previous proportions with the same concern about a possible brake failure. On the way down we ran through two villages but we haven’t seen almost anyone – just a few dogs are out of work to attack us in the heat of the day.
The journey through the pastures was flying. Vespa performed very well at sea level and we were able to achieve an average average better than 30 mph until entering the suburbs of Hodeidah less than six hours since leaving Sanaa. I rode straight to the beach, stripped, and plunged into the warm, salty Red Sea waters that didn’t offer much comfort. It was now midday and the air temperature was around 40 degrees Celsius. Katia was not interested in running in the water and she was complaining of heat and humidity. While touring the city, I did not find any water fountains to wash salt.
At around 2:00 p.m., we boarded the airport where I arranged with Nicholas, the incoming DC3 commander, to load Vespa on the plane and take him with him to Sanaa. The pilots were shutting down DC3s when we got there. It was a charter flight for an oil company.
I always wanted to travel with DC3s, and I felt left behind outside the chat room in places like Lucy Tiger Den in Bangkok that Air America pilots and other veterans had been frequenting in the classic piston engine. Everyone in the bar seems to have flown DC3s just like me. Five years later, I got my chance in Australia, and after ground school and flight support training, DC3 night trucks flew across the Bass Strait to Tasmania.
Nicholas stepped down and greeted us warmly on the runway. He said that I would go up with him and his Yemeni aide, and that Katya could take any spare seat. I emptied the fuel tank and some Yemenis helped me ride a vespa.
We are just catching ourselves when the British director of the oil company that chartered the plane came out of nowhere and started screaming “Get this thing off my plane, this is the charter of the company!” I protested that I was scheduled to take a flight aboard airline 727 to Addis Ababa at 6:30 the next morning. He replied: “I don’t care if you’re going to fly the head of state to Timbuktu – get it off my plane now and get off of you!” He showed no sympathy at all because he sentenced us to a six-hour trip through two mountain ranges, half of which would be in the dark and very cold, with the current fear of being shot or kidnapped by local tribesmen.
Fifteen minutes later, we saw DC3 in Sanaa’s left climb path cycle. Much on the fixed arrangement I did with the captain to lift to Sanaa! When I returned to Al Hudaydah to fill the Vespa tank, I decided to discuss the accident with the chief pilot of possible reprisals the next time the director of the oil company wanted a free flight at 727 to Cairo, for example. He was not popular with a small group of expatriate pilots residing in Sanaa.
The second half of the trip back to Sanaa was very cold and fraught with anxiety about the question of when the Kalashnikov bullet might put an end to our misery. It was difficult to stay on the road and maneuver around several deep holes in the dim light of the Vespa headlight. After nearly six hours of hard riding, the last mountain range topped us, and in the valley there was the best sight I had ever seen – Sanaa’s lights!