On a Pirate Ship Bound for Somalia

Levison Wood on 'An Arabian Journey'

Levison Wood is a modern-day explorer whose stories are frequently featured here.

In this story, he takes us to the southern coast of Arabia along the Gulf of Aden. At this point, he finds himself crossing illegally into the war-torn country of Yemen.

The year is 2017, around November. For months, Lev has traversed some of the most dangerous places on earth. Places such as Syria and Iraq were a part of his expedition through the most ancient region in the world. The Middle East.

He had just crossed Oman’s Empty Quarter on camelback. It is one of the hottest, most relentless deserts on Earth.

After scaling up and down the Dhofar mountain range in southwestern Oman, Lev and his crew of local Bedouins had reached Yemen. It is here where they said goodbye to him.

He was passed onto the next ‘fixer’ who got him into Yemen quietly and in the darkness of night.

Once in Yemen, he scurried down the coast to the port town of Al Ghaydah where word quickly spread of a foreigner in town. Even with a big beard and skin tanned from the desert, a white man cannot camouflage in Yemen.

He must receive the Sultan’s blessing to carry on with his journey westward. He steps inside an auditorium where rebel soldiers are bearing AK-47’s. . .

. . .

“No foreigners ever come to Yemen. What is your business here? Are you a spy?”

“Certainly not,” Lev said, “I’m a photographer.” He was surrounded by soldiers bearing AK-47’s and there were grenades rested on the table in front of him.

The Sultan smiled as if to joke. “Please, don’t be alarmed. Tell your government in England they must stop providing aid to our enemy.”

“I’m not quite sure I have the leverage to do so, but I’ll put in a word with my military contacts,” Lev said. “I just want to reach Aden to continue my expedition of Arabia.” He didn’t dare tell the Sultan of his desire to enter Saudi Arabia from there. Yemen and the Saudis have been engaging in violent conflict for years.

“You may continue to Sayhut. After that, I cannot guarantee your safety. You’ll be traveling into enemy territory.”

Lev disregarded the Sultan’s warning. He has been in the ring of fire before, this hardly bothered him. The next day, he and his fixer made it to Qishn before the Sultan called them back to Al Ghaydah with urgent news.

Upon entering the auditorium, the Sultan held a newspaper to Lev’s face. It was a Saudi newspaper.

“It says, ‘English Spy is Working with Yemen to Spy on The Kingdom’,” the Sultan read.

“Does it say the Englishman’s name?” Lev asked. “I might know some people who can put you in touch with him if that’s what you’re looking for.”

“They don't have a name, but Levison-,” the Sultan said, “It’s referring to you.”

“Uh, oh. That’s no good. I swear I’m on an expedition. I crossed Oman on camelback, I have the photographs to prove it.”

“Relax, Levison. I trust you. But the Saudis don’t and they’ll surely be after you. If they were to find out you’re in Al Ghaydah, they’ll send missiles our way. That’s no good for either of us nor the safety of my people. You are going to have to leave Yemen, back to Oman.”

Lev was devastated but he had no say in the matter.

With his refusal to take planes and the Saudi's persistent denial of entry, it seemed his only option was to continue by sea. He contacted his Omani fixer who met up with him the next morning.

“Levison, you can’t travel by sea here. The Gulf of Aden is the most pirate-infested water in the world. You’ll be a sitting duck. You’ll never make it to Aden. You’ll end up a hostage – or even worse – dead. Plus, they’d never let you back into Yemen, even at Aden.”

“I have to make it to the consulate in Aden where they’ll more likely accept my appeal to get into Saudi Arabia,” he said.

“You're not supposed to be in Yemen, Lev. If you show up at a consulate, you're more likely to be arrested than accepted for a visa. If you want to continue this suicide mission, there’s only one way. But you’re not going to like it,” the fixer said.

“What’s that?” Lev asked.

“Bosaso.”

“Bosaso, are you mad!” Levison exclaimed. “That’s not even the right continent!”

“It’s the only way, Lev.”

“You want me to travel to Africa – to Somalia – to the most dangerous part of Somalia – to apply for my Saudi visa? How do you suppose I get there – you know I’m not flying.”

“From Bosaso, you can catch a ride to Djibouti. Djibouti is safe and has good relations with the Saudis. You can get a visa into the country from there,” the fixer explained.

“That still doesn’t explain how you intend I get to the Horn of Africa from here,” Lev said.

“Look, it’ll be a much shorter distance to cross the gulf to Bosaso than to sail all the way to Aden. It’s your only option. Plus, you’re much less likely to attract the attention of pirates if you’re on a pirate ship yourself.”

“You want me to cross via pirate ship? You’ve surely gone mad, mate,” Lev said. The fixer did nothing but shrug his shoulders.

Lev took a breath and tried to imagine it any other way. He couldn’t. And, with reluctance, finally accepted the fixer’s last-ditch plan. The next morning, they met at the port and the fixer handed him a sheet of paper. This being his ticket aboard a cargo ship headed toward Africa.

The Indian captain welcomed him aboard as the crew stared at the first white man to ever step foot on the ship. Nobody spoke a lick of English, so Lev mostly stayed to himself for the 5-day, 4-night voyage. He was in the care of pirates and didn’t want much attention anyway.

In the daytime, he helped around the boat with whatever they asked. He mimicked the crew whenever he could. They shaved their beards daily, so, he did too. They shit in a hole on the boat’s deck and he followed.

At night, the boat sailed in total darkness. Not a single light got used. From a distance, enemy pirates couldn't even see the faint ember coming from the crews’ cigarettes. It was better this way.

On the morning of the fifth day, land finally appeared over the horizon. It was Africa. An orange dinghy motored up to the ship. On the dinghy, a skinny Somalian with black skin and shining teeth toting an AK-47 called for Lev to get in. Lev had seen this sort of scene in movies like Captain Phillips.

“Who is this?” Lev asked the captain. Of course, the captain couldn’t understand him. Whether the Somalian on the dinghy was kidnapping him or not, Lev had no choice but to board the dinghy. After, it headed for the shore.

On the dinghy, he decoded a message sent to his phone in secrecy. It was from a military commander whom Lev befriended during his years of service: “Lev – In two hours, I’ll alert the Navy of a kidnapping if I do not hear from you.”. . . That was four hours ago.

Lev was smart enough to bring a tracking device that he buried in his rucksack. Yet, he hoped the Navy did not interfere. At least until he determined whether the dinghy pirate was friend or foe. Somehow, he thought the pirate was helping him.

Once they reached the shore, the pirate covered Lev’s ass until they got to the immigration office. It was all a part of his Omani fixer’s plan after all. Now, he hoped the Navy didn’t interrupt. Not that they would – they were thousands of miles away at sea.

The port smelled like shit because there was shit – everywhere. Dog shit, camel shit, human shit; it was not a welcoming arrival. Lev was surely the first foreigner at the office in decades.

Still, they put him in a verified taxi and he zoomed across Somalia for the next six hours. He arrived safely in Djibouti after sunset, finally, where he was able to apply for a visa the next day. Upon approval, he extended his expedition in the Middle East; to Saudi Arabia.

This is based on an excerpt from his book An Arabian Journey: One Man’s Quest Through the Heart of the Middle East. It's told in my own words, but he can tell the story much better than me, obviously. I encourage all who have a desire to travel more authentically to check it out.


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